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By Nicole Spector
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Colorful lights line rooftops and windows. Bristly wreaths hang on front doors, and you may spot a glow up Santa and his fleet of perfectly arched reindeer on your neighbors’ lawn.
You might be thinking, “Now? Already? It’s not even December!”
There’s ample debate about how soon is too soon to put up this seasonal décor. A poll by Home Depot found that the best date to begin sprucing your home with the holiday spirit is November 24. One study suggests that people who deck the halls earlier are doing a type of community service by communicating “friendliness and cohesiveness with neighbors.”
Regardless of timing though, holiday decorations don’t always have such a happy-making effect on us. As so many cynical memes (like this one) reflect, these neighborly gestures displaying festivity and joy can trigger judgmental reactions from those of us in a more bah-humbug frame of mind.
I’m one of those Grinch-types who will easily scoff at my neighbors’ extravagant holiday decorations. When I was a child, my mother was the same way, only more heated. You’d think our ambitious neighbors were setting their trees on fire rather than dressing them in tinsel and angels.
“Tacky”, “wasteful”, “show off”; these were the words my mom would yell out in the car as we drove by these very merry houses. Fortunately the windows were rolled up.
The holidays pile on pressure to show (and spend on) joy — and it’s stressful
My mother’s judgments may have been extreme, but mental health experts don’t find negative reactions to something so trivial and well meaning as yuletide lawn décor to be all that uncommon.
“I think the holidays for many people bring up so much stress about how we show our joy, our celebration, our levels of happiness,” says Dr. Neil Puri, a psychiatrist at The Menninger Clinic. “That may be through our outward displays of these emotions and how invested we are in this time. We get caught up in what gifts we have to give, in how to show our appreciation for others in the right way, and then we have so much to get done. It’s stressful.”
Seeing that our neighbors who have gone all out for the holidays not only reminds us of societal expectations to be dishing out cash and effort on this most wonderful time of the year, it also signals to us just how little time left we have to get everything done.
“I haven’t done anything yet and I just noticed myself looking at my neighbors’ [decorated] homes and thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, tells NBC News BETTER. “I became anxious. My first thought was ‘I am so behind.’”
Let your first thought be what it is, then change the narrative
Kitley could have let herself spiral into a thought storm of anxiety and/or competitiveness, but she took a piece of her own clinical advice. She changed the narrative of her thinking.
“I tell my clients many [of whom] are feeling the stress of the holidays) that it’s not about restricting that initial thought, it’s about the second thought, which should be ‘stop’. From there you can take a non-judgmental approach.”
In Kitley’s case, building a non-judgmental narrative meant resisting the urge to criticize herself for not doing more decorating sooner, nor indulging a sense of failure to keep up with the Joneses’. She said ‘stop’ to the thought, hung a wreath on the door and resolved to get the rest done next weekend.
Choose your words with gentleness and self-care
Kitley also refrained from using negative, punishing words in her thoughts, a tip she heartedly recommends, especially if you’re going through a tough time.
Here’s a word you can use instead of “bad”, “ugly”, “behind” or whatever other negative adjective you’re using against yourself or silently against your neighbors: “different.” This choice of a neutral but truthful word is helpful if you’re feeling like for whatever reason, you just can’t get in the spirit this year when in the past you’ve met holiday goals with relish, including decking your house out.
Be gentle and just say ‘this year was different,’ and be okay with that rather than judging it.
“Be gentle and just say ‘this year was different,’ and be okay with that rather than judging it,” says Kitley. “So much comes down to the words we use. I [specialize in] cognitive behavioral therapy and work with my clients on changing way we speak to ourselves, eliminating black and white thinking and making more room to have some forgiving language.”
We may be feeling sad and unmotivated to celebrate. Honor that.
We may also be judging our neighbors’ for their showy displays of holiday glee because we aren’t feeling up to the festivity of it all. Jolly spectacles, so literally close to home, though meant to show a welcome gesture, can make us feel more alone.
“We have to keep in mind is that the holiday season doesn’t just come up with positive memories and positive emotions for everyone,” says Dr. Puri. “Perhaps we are dealing with grief or another loss, or perhaps we’re struggling to make ends meet. If we find we’re having a negative reaction, that’s a clue that perhaps we need to process something further. Are you upset by your neighbors’ decorations because you’re struggling? Because you feel envy? Because you’re grieving? Acknowledge what it is, and note that this time of year can come with difficulty, but maybe you don’t have to get mad at the neighbor.”
As for my own tendency to get mad at the neighbor, I think it has to do with the sadness I was feeling during those car rides with my mom, when she (likely also feeling really awful) was angrily judging the neighbors for their displays. Those drives happened within a few years of my twin brother dying (he died a few days before Christmas), and not long after my parents separated. We went from living in a big house where we all celebrated the holidays (garishly, in fact), to just the two of us in a two-bedroom apartment. Our family had been split in half and there was no enthusiasm or money to put on a show.
Probably, when I see all these decorated homes, I’m reliving the sadness I felt back then too. And rather than honoring that sadness, I roll my eyes at neighbors’ display.
Resentment is deceptively easier to carry than pain, but it doesn’t work well if we actually want to feel okay. Now, I know better, and can work on the sadness, rather than the reaction stemming from it. And I wonder: Is this the case for everyone who is repelled by their neighbors’ gaudy decorations? Are we all just acting out on deeper emotions and childhood trauma?
Both Kitley and Purin note that sometimes, we just don’t like our neighbors’ aesthetic taste.
If that’s the case, then you can still use this advice: acknowledge the thought, see the emotion and then let it go. In a few weeks, everything will go back to normal and you’ll have a whole 11 months (if you’re lucky) with not a bedazzled Blitzen or Dasher in sight.