Years ago, when I was single, I generally dreaded the holiday season. I was tired of feeling alone at a time of the year when we are “supposed” to feel surrounded by happy feelings and loved ones. And seeing family or friends that I hadn’t seen in a while who would ask about my marital status made it a bit harder to withstand (despite their good intentions in inquiring).

Several Christmases later, I was married. This time, we couldn’t get pregnant, and some infertility treatments we had gone through were unsuccessful. Same feeling, different reason. Seeing children was painful; even thinking about going out shopping was difficult in that I might run into families. One of the hardest things I remember was receiving and opening Christmas cards: seeing family pictures enclosed in the cards left me feeling angry and confused about why others could have children, but we couldn’t. I reached the point where I could not open the mail around the holidays and told my husband he would have to do it instead. I’ve always loved children, and I did not expect that reaction, which intensified my grief.

Even my career has been a source of difficulty over the holidays: I am in a profession that I love, but it has been a long and windy path to get where I am now. Around the holidays, and as each year drew to a close, it was painful to ponder how things did or didn’t go according to my “plan.”

“This is not where I expected to be” is a difficult feeling to manage at any time, for any reason. But how do we handle life when it’s not going as we planned, especially during what’s supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year?” And how do we adjust (and re-adjust) our expectations of how we want our life to be?

Practicing flexibility

The first answer that comes to mind is to be flexible. Definitely not what this planner likes to hear!

Being flexible, I’ve found, means accepting the mystery of the unknown—a difficult prospect, but something I’ve come to be more okay with as time goes on. Sometimes flexibility simply means loosening our grip on our unmet expectations for the present and our plans for the future, which in turn helps us to experience the joys we do have.

It can also mean changing our plans. This year, as we continue to navigate the pandemic, being flexible might mean that you won’t be able to see family and friends or that you can only see a few at a time. You might have to postpone visits, events, or traveling. Readjust, readjust, readjust—that’s really going to be the key to getting through this time of constant change.

Honoring our emotions

It’s okay and healthy to grieve that things are different and feel weird right now. It’s okay to be in denial, feel angry, depressed, feel like you want to bargain your way out, and maybe find some acceptance along the way (these are the five stages of grief). This messy, complicated bunch of feelings is quite normal when you are let down or faced with uncertainty. For me, being familiar with these five stages of grief has been immensely helpful during difficult circumstances.

Knowing that feeling angry is normal when things don’t go as planned has helped me give myself permission to feel angry and to find ways to work that feeling out appropriately. Same with the other stages of grief—these feelings may come and stay for a bit, they may come and go, or you may feel many of them at once. That’s okay. Being aware of how you feel, accepting it without labeling yourself as good or bad, and looking for ways to keep moving forward are helpful steps to take when life doesn’t look like you envisioned.

Finding a safe space to share

Being willing to share these feelings with someone you trust can also be very healing. Someone else doesn’t need to have experienced the circumstances you find yourself in for them to understand your feelings. Affirming our feelings is helpful because sometimes we want validation that it’s okay to feel certain things, and to have those feelings doesn’t mean we are somehow bad or abnormal. Acknowledging and accepting feelings, especially uncomfortable ones, is an important part of becoming an emotionally healthy person who can face adversity with resilience.

You might feel discouraged that you won’t be able to see loved ones this year, you may not have the financial means that you normally do, or you may not be at a specific phase of your life that you’d like to be—these situations are disappointing, frustrating, and maybe anger-provoking. Knowing how to identify and manage your changing feelings is the next step to experiencing emotional rest—not only during the holidays, but in any phase of life.

Reach out to your friends and loved ones a little more often this holiday season. So many people are struggling extra this year on top of how challenging this time might be under normal circumstances. Even if you can’t get together, initiate conversations and check on your loved ones so they know they are not alone.

Thinking about your expectations of the holiday season and being aware of pressure you might start to put on yourself are good steps to experiencing a peaceful season. Talk with those around you that you love and trust and share what you’re going through. It’s likely that they are experiencing similar things. It’s good and right to say: “You know what? This sucks. But let’s still try to find joy in the midst of this mess.”