“School’s Out for Summer” is a great rallying cry on social media in July. I notice my Facebook feed has a definite trend at this time of year. For the first week of the school holidays there are general celebrations that school is out and there’s no need to get up early or make packed lunches. Within a fortnight or so, the tone changes as parents begin to struggle with 24/7 unrelenting childcare.
It’s not just families who can struggle with the gap between the excitement of an anticipated event and the event itself. In reality, summer is not one long period of lazy days spent in harmony with the people we love. Sometimes we find the warm weather draining and our loved ones annoying. Or the longed-for day out is cancelled due to torrential rain. Planes are delayed and hotel rooms are too hot or too cold, or too noisy or too quiet. And let's not mention the sunbeds!
At this time of year how can we retain a sense of proportion and stop ourselves from falling out with everyone?
- Let Go of Unrealistic Expectations
When I had young children I found my enjoyment of school summer holidays were in inverse proportion to how much I was looking forward to them. If I felt a sense of eager anticipation, they never lived up to their billing. I found that I enjoyed them more when I had no particular expectations.
I learned that if I set high expectations, they could be disappointed.
Expectations seem to be on several levels.
- We can have expectations of ourselves – that we’ll be calm and measured all holiday, we won’t get stressed, we won’t lose our temper.
- We can have expectations of our children – that they’ll be grateful for our efforts, they will be co-operative, that they’ll play well with family and friends.
- We can have expectations of those who support us, such as our partners or our extended family – that they’ll anticipate our needs, they’ll share our concerns, that their timetable should revolve around ours
- We can have expectations about the holidays and how perfect they’re going to be.
When we set expectations such as these, we are setting up a tension between the way we would like things to be and the way they really are. It helps us if we can accept things as they are.
If we can accept that we’re human, we’ll forgive ourselves for the occasions when we behave like humans and make mistakes such as losing our temper when we’re feeling stressed. If we can accept our children as they are, we’ll recognise that they still have a lot of growing up to do. If we can accept our family and friends as they are we no longer feel disappointed when they are not what we want or need them to be. This means we can let go of any resentment towards them. We can accept that they are not here to meet our needs but are just trying to get by in life, just like us.
- Let Go of Comparing Yourself with Others
We cause ourselves pain when we compare ourselves to others. It is so easy to look at other people and make assumptions about their lives. If we are lacking in self-esteem, we tend to compare ourselves negatively to other people. We tend to be sensitive to the areas where we think we are lacking.
A typical example would be to find someone who has a strength where we perceive we have a weakness. So a parent who thinks they are “disorganised” might compare themselves to someone who is very “structured”. Little do they know that the other person is wishing they could be more “relaxed” and “laid back”.
- Challenge the Inner Critic
It’s all a question of perception. The perception that other people are better than us comes from listening to our inner critic – that mean voice in our head that tells us all the ways we fail or aren’t as good as other people.
It helps to notice when we’re listening to the mean voice in our head. Sometimes our feelings and our reactions to events can give us a clue that the inner critic is active. We might feel tense in our tummies or shoulders, we might feel sad or worried, or we might find ourselves snapping in response to other people.
If we can notice the inner critic we can begin to challenge it. There are several different ways to do this:
- If you can recognise the general theme of the inner critic, you can give it a name and this lessens its impact. For example, “here comes Mrs Not Good Enough again”, “oh hello, Mr Bully Boy”
- You can try giving your inner critic a different voice. How do the criticisms sound when they’re said by Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse?
- You can change the dialogue of the inner critic. You could try finding a different dialogue. What would the dialogue be if you tried to see the situation with humour or as a personal development opportunity?
- You can remind yourself of all the exceptions to what the inner critic is saying. Usually the inner critic speaks in absolutes “you always fail … you always mess things up … you never …” Is this true? Can you think of occasions that challenge these absolutes?
- Try Gratitude
Gratitude is a great antidote to disappointed expectations and the inner critic. It is about changing our perception of a situation. We tend to have a theory about something or someone, and that is what we see. When we look for the negative, that is what we will find. If we start to look for the positive features of our lives it is surprising what we notice. Looking for things to be grateful for enables us to relax into our lives as they are, not as we think they should be.
- Take Action
Feeling disappointed, comparing ourselves with others and listening to the inner critic are introspective activities. These thoughts and feelings often paralyse us into inaction. Sometimes what we need to do is to place our focus elsewhere.
It can help to consider other people’s needs, to think how we can contribute to their well-being, to make plans to do so, and to take action. This is not to earn brownie points or “thank you’s”. If we look to other people to give us a sense of worth we might be disappointed.
To take action in line with what matters to us gives us a sense of satisfaction. We gain a feeling of being connected to life. We feel empowered rather than at the mercy of circumstances. We feel energised. We remember that we have a contribution to make and that we are uniquely placed to do so within our circle of family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances.
So this summer try to be kind to yourself. Remember neither you, your family and friends, nor your circumstances, are perfect. See what you can do to help yourself to relax and be happy with who you are and what you have.