How to handle the pressure to appear successful at Christmas

By Becky Storey

15.12.19

It's hard constantly justifying what you've been doing in your "lost year".

The nightmare before Christmas. We’ve all had it. As the holiday season approaches, you can’t help but feel the impending doom as your life is about to (once again) be put under the microscope. I know that Kevin McCallister from Home Alone and I are not the only ones who panic when relatives and old friends gather. Whoever your company may be for the holiday season and the day itself, they’ll want to know how you’ve been this year and, more importantly, they'll ask the dreaded question: “what are you up to right now?”.

Answering questions about my life is more embarrassing than impressive right now.

While this question is always kind-natured, it can also be panic-inducing. We know our relatives and friends love us, so it’s no surprise that they want all the updates on our lives. But sometimes we don’t have the glory stories they’re hoping for. When it comes to family get-togethers at Christmas I can’t help feeling like David Brent in that painful Christmas special episode of The Office insisting, in the absence of anything concrete to talk about, that he has “loads of stuff in the pipeline”. 

You’ll know the same anxiety if you still live in your hometown too. I can usually spend 11 months of the year avoiding childhood friends and old flames, but come Christmas everyone is home. A trip into town becomes a trip down memory lane - a reliving of “my story”, and, like in the case of many of us in the midst of, or immediate aftermath of, our “lost year”, my own story doesn’t exactly tell smoothly, and it certainly isn’t dripping with success. 

For the last few years, I’ve rarely had a single bit of good news to share over the Eggnog.

I started to suffer panic attacks and dropped out of college before I turned 18, leaving behind any chance I ever had to have “simple”, ready-to-go responses to relatives’ questions about my life, at least for a few Christmases. My “lost year” came early, and it has never really ended. I used to long for the chance to tell someone “I’m at university right now”, because no matter how well you’re doing at uni, or even what you’re studying, that always sounds impressive. 

I was ashamed of my situation and ashamed that I’d rather tell white lies to those I loved than explain that my quest for “success” was on hold.

I grew more and more afraid of the disappointed and uncomfortable reactions of aunties and grandparents and old school friends, so I started teaching myself how to answer questions the way they expected me to, with cleverly-designed euphemisms. I used phrases like “gap year” and “retaking exams” when asked what I’d been up to. Then, I’d go on to say something entirely made up like, “I’m just waiting until next September to get back to college”. I had to give some impression that I was on the path to success to avoid the embarrassing disappointment. 

I was convinced that telling anyone the truth would be a terrible idea. I had to seem successful. 

Explaining that I'd suffered a nervous breakdown and spent my days alone watching reruns of Gavin & Stacey and Gilmore Girls didn’t exactly feel impressive, particularly when the majority of my cousins have been through medical school at Oxford or Cambridge. I can still remember trying to hide my anxiety during the days my grandparents were with us. I didn’t want to reveal that I really had nothing at all to show for myself. I would escape the room to cry as often as possible, and didn’t eat anything for days on end. The pressure to seem successful meant I clung to my lies, regardless of the effect this had on my wellbeing. I spent the whole holiday spinning all sorts of nonsense about going back to school soon and having definitely recovered from my breakdown. I was exhausted and ashamed, and everything was being held inside. 

So what happened? Time started to pass and, with time, my self-confidence began to grow just a little. I started to feel less shame for being “behind”.

I opened up more often. Just enough to feel like I wasn’t outright lying, but not enough to show that I wasn’t successful at all. For many Christmases in a row, I would say things like “I’ve been ill for a while so I’m just getting back on my feet this year”. Eventually, I opened up to the idea of therapy. After some sessions and a lot of hard work, I’ve grown my confidence and inner strength enough to relieve myself of the inner-burden to try to appear successful when relatives and old friends congregate for the holidays. Instead, I’m just learning to be content with where I'm at. 

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually excited to tell long lost relatives and forgotten friends how successfully unsuccessful I’ve been this year. 

I’ve climbed mountains and fought lions, figuratively speaking. My outer circumstances might not have changed much, but my inner sense of wellbeing and self-confidence couldn’t look or feel more different to last Christmas. To people like me, once homebound by my anxiety, I’m actually incredibly successful. It’s just that my success doesn’t look like traditional success - it isn’t tangible. My success this year can’t be signalled through a flashy new wardrobe or haircut, through a ripped set of abs or an album filled with pics from my expensive recent holiday, or a sexy new flat or a high-flying grad job. 

My success might not be financial gain, social respect or a high-powered job in the city, but this doesn’t make it any less significant or impressive.

I live with my parents. I don’t have a fancy job. Some of my friends have already worked at world-renowned companies, moved out, and are even planning weddings. But, that doesn’t make me any less worthy. Success isn’t one colour, shape or size. Your success cannot be compared to anyone else’s, despite the answers you think your old friends or relatives might expect from you in answer to those standard small-talk questions at Christmas. 

Success is all relative...no pun intended.

And let’s be honest, we put all this pressure on ourselves to have impressive things to say about what we’re up to, but those “how are you doing?” and “what are you up to now?” questions are just lame conversation-starters to fill the silence before anyone is pissed enough to start letting loose. These questions are tedious for everyone involved, because no one is interested in the answers anyway, no matter how 'impressive' they are. The only thing relatives and friends care about is whether we are happy, and besides, none of this is what anyone actually loves or looks forward to about Christmas. We’re all far more interested in the turkey, the trashy Christmas tele, and the stupid cracker jokes. So, tuck into the mince pies and be kind to yourself this Christmas.

Image by Jess Hannah, used with love & appreciation.

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