Remove yourself from the places where you're most likely to be tempted, says Shereen Jegtvig, D.C., a chiropractor and certified nutritionist in Bridgeport, Conn. If it's a self-serve party, she says, don't hover near the bar or buffet—choose reasonable portions of the foods you want, then walk to the other side of the room.
The pressure to find just the right gift for your loved ones can be tiring-and it may also conflict with a desire to cut back on waste and overconsumption. Here are ways to honor the spirit of generosity without compromise.
Reduce the competition
Faced with annual increases in present-exchange stress, Amanda Witman, a 34-year-old mother of four in Brattleboro, Vt., decided to take a whole new approach. "Our family started giving gifts anonymously," she says. "This eliminated the competition between givers to one-up each other's gifts."
Think outside the gift box
There are a lot of creative ways to give gifts that don't include products or even handmade items. You could donate to a charity in somebody's name or buy a gift certificate for a service or class. "Say you have a lawyer friend who always wanted to be an artist—you can treat her to a series of art classes," explains Bo Forbes, a yoga instructor and clinical psychologist with 17 years' experience in mind-body medicine. Often, she says, the most treasured gifts are ones that recognize a creative talent or a neglected interest. "To have such interests acknowledged can be very healing," Forbes adds.
Build a consensus
If you want to change the way your family gives gifts, talk about it as a group, and be prepared to strike a balance between your ideals and everyone else's. For instance, when Misty Betancourt, 31, of Katy, Texas, decided to shift the focus from "stuff and things" and drop gift-giving, she encountered resistance. "A few family members really had an issue with not buying anything for us," she says, "so now we exchange a bottle of wine."
More than anything else, the joy of the season comes from time spent with family and friends—time worth protecting from the demands of less meaningful holiday parties or shopping excursions. Family parties, on the other hand, also come with their own risks. It's easy to fall into hurtful, old family patters and find yourself exposed to tension, resentment, and drama. To manage family get-togethers or gatherings with friends with composure and compassion, consider the following tips:
- Prepare. Decide what kind of holiday you want and what's really important to you. Write down your priorities and values, then look at the holiday plans you've made: Do they reflect your values? If not, can you shift the focus? Maybe you'll take some of the money you could have spent on a new cocktail dress and give it to charity instead. Or you'll replace an afternoon of shopping with a few of hours of making crafts with the kids. Set an intention for something you can do to make your holiday more in line with your values-something that you have total control over, suggests Forbes.
- Make it your own. Just because your family has always, say, handed out gifts in a counterclockwise circle or gathered for Great-Aunt Edna's annual holiday party doesn't mean you're tied to the tradition forever-and you may find that changing things will mean a happier holiday for everyone. Jane Bryant (a pseudonym) of Grand Rapids, Mich., discovered this the year her in-laws couldn't come for Christmas as they always had before. "I realized I had been buying into my mother-in-law's idea of what Christmas should be," says Bryant. "The last couple of years, when they couldn't come, we decorated with fresh greenery and few ornaments. And we ate nontraditional foods like mini samosas and crispy tofu cubes with warm sesame-ginger sauce." When relatives aren't visiting, Bryant and her family go to a movie on Christmas. She hopes to hold on to these new traditions, even during the years her in-laws are able to visit.
- Limit expectations. One secret to a joyful holiday may be to keep your expectations in check. "People often don't approach holidays realistically," says Marc Sholes, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. Sholes believes people think they'll be able to make up for past hurts or finally have a perfect celebration if they just plan the right meal or find the right gift. "They seem to overlook the fact that it's still going to be the same family," he adds.
- Be part of the solution. Remember, you aren't the only person feeling stress during the holidays. "When we visit our family, we return to a little bit of ourselves that lived in that family," explains Judith Sills, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of The Comfort Trap (Penguin, 2004). "And that can be a stress on other people, too." Sills suggests making some new contribution to your family's peace and happiness by making up your mind ahead of time that you'll tolerate, accept, or even embrace something that may have once made you cranky or upset.
- Keep breathing. Before you go into a stressful situation, practice keeping your cool, says Hanley. "Determine which predictable situations trigger agitation, and then visualize yourself taking a deep breath each time one occurs." Forbes suggests something called "two-to-one breathing," where you exhale for twice the count of your inhale. This can slow your heart, calm your mind, and lower your blood pressure if things are getting heated. Try it whenever you feel your stress level rising.