What getting up at 4am taught me about enjoying Christmas

Several years ago, a good friend suggested I make a list of experiences I would like to have life & places to visit. Touching a whale in Baja was no 1 (which I accomplished in Feb 2020) & sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia was second. So, it was no surprise that a tour of Cambodia & Laos was the first big trip we took once the world opened up.

I set my expectations too high

Our trip was 20 days & Angkor Wat sunrise was scheduled for day 17, our last day of temple exploration. I thought we were saving the best for last, especially after our guide told us that it was his favourite place.

It was a disappointment.

It wasn’t the most colourful sunrise ever, but it was more than that. It was crowded, noisy & to be blunt, it’s just the sun coming up behind some towers. On reflection I set my expectations too high & thought somehow it would be life changing.

It wasn’t even the best sunrise.

And this time I set them too low

On our final day in Laos, we visited our first Angkor temple, Wat Phu at dawn & I really didn’t want to go as the guidebook gave the impression it wouldn’t be worth the effort of getting up at 4am. But this time it was magical. Every moment brought more gifts, taking a small boat across the Mekong in the dark, the silence of the temple as we climbed to the top, seeing sunrise over the river & surrounding countryside. Experiencing our first Angkorian temple as the only visitors at dawn far exceeded my expectations.

Experiences are rarely what you expect them to be

Both times I had fixed expectations, I ‘knew’ sunrise at Angkor Wat would be amazing & that Wat Phou wouldn’t be worth the climb & being tired later. And in both cases I was completely wrong.

Which reminded me that:

  • When I set my expectations too high, they usually won’t be met,

  • And the opposite is also true when I set them low, they can be a highlight,

Which can be summed up as experiences, events & places are rarely what I expect them to be (both positive & negative).

I’m sure you can think of many examples when this has been the case for you especially a time you really enjoyed something you didn’t want to do.

So, I’m wondering, could Christmas be your Wat Phu?

  • Do you have fixed expectation of how Christmas will be?

  • Do you ‘know’ how hard it will be’ what challenges will be thrown at you & how ‘bad’ you ‘will’ feel?

Remembering the brain’s negativity bias

I’d like to remind you that human brains have a negativity bias & tend to focus more on the negative rather than the positive in our lives, on what may go wrong rather than what may go right. So, your focus determines which pathways in the brain connect and therefore strengthen. This in turn determines what your brain pays attention to in the future, so if you focus on pain, worry, stress, regret, etc., you’ll have more of these in your life. Of course, the opposite is also the case. When you focus on positive things you become more resilient, optimistic, grateful, and happy.

If so, I’m wondering whether having read so far, you may now be open to the possibility of loosening your grip on your expectations?

And the stories we tell ourselves

You know that expectations are just beliefs and stories you’re telling yourself. And you’ve changed these before. Is it possible that the expectations you have about Christmas are more examples of something you used to believe?

When I approach life with an open mind, rather than fixed expectations, not only are there more surprises but it brings me so much more joy. So that’s my plan.

Is there a possibility that you could turn your head a little bit, be slightly more open minded & prepare to be surprised at what may happen?

I’d love to know.

More resources for you

And if the worst does come to pass, you can find strategies & tips to support you over Christmas here .

And a huge thank you from my heart to yours. It’s been another challenging year & I really appreciate you making space for me in your inbox.

The Christmas felt ornaments (Mr & Mrs Santa, Scrooge, Marley & the Ghost of Christmas Past) were made by me from patterns by MMMCrafts

You can read book reviews and interviews I’ve done here.
And you can order your copy of Finding Joy Beyond Childlessness on  Amazon UK  and Amazon USA

8 thoughts on “What getting up at 4am taught me about enjoying Christmas”

    • Thanks for your comment Lynn, & I understand, this will be our 4th Christmas with just the 2 of us.
      What works for us is to mix things up a bit & not necessarily do what we’ve always done. Eg this year if the weather is Ok instead of having our main meal at lunch time on Christmas day, we’ll have a long walk & eat in the evening. In this way we create new traditions for the 2 of. And trust me, with time you’ll find more joy. xx

  1. Love your post Lesley. It’s so true how we focus so much on the negative rather than the positive. One negative comment can wipe out the 10 positive comments that we can have received. Retraining out though pattern is hard though. As for Christmas I am at the stage in life that I don’t really mind if it’s just my husband and myself. Our family is quite dysfunctional, so as you can imagine there is a lot of negativity around them. It’s nice to be away from that and have a different expectation.

    • Thanks Debbie, it is so true how much more we take those negative comments to heart than the positive ones.
      I’m glad you’ve found a good solution to Christmas, & well done from keeping away from your family. Avoiding those who hurt us is a big step forward & it can be hard to do at especially at this time of year.
      Lesley x

  2. I find it much easier to have a non-traditional Christmas since we’ve both lost our parents and, with them, the pressure to “be a happy family” that always felt so forced. This Christmas it will be just the two of us and that’s absolutely great. We’ll find a way to “do it differently” and enjoy it. Personally, I’m happy to be away from all the family “stuff” that is never as cheerful or loving as those depicted on the TV! (There’s always someone moaning because it’s not quite right; someone bring up THAT family feud that has never been resolved after 20+ years; someone will drink too much and end up in tears; the children get overexcited and full of sugar, and the fighting starts, together with my headache, and so on). Maybe we could swop some ideas and tips about how to have an enjoyable and non-traditional Christmas just right for a couple?

  3. “Your insight about setting expectations resonates. The analogy of Wat Phu is powerful—sometimes, the unexpected brings the greatest joy. I appreciate the reminder to approach Christmas with an open mind, embracing the potential for surprise and joy. Wishing you a wonderful and pleasantly surprising holiday season!”

  4. I’ve read and re-read this blog Lesley and for me it has been liberating. I’m trapped in a cycle of anxiety and fear about my elderly parents and what is to come……. It makes me uptight and comes out as anger, which then sabotages my time with them, I then feel guilty and the cycle begins again. I need to reframe my thoughts and live for the today with my parents, making memories and showing how much I love them. It’s going to be easier said than done but your blog has somehow been a “lightbulb” moment for me, and I thank you.

    • Thanks so much Charlotte, I’m so glad my blog is helping you.
      Another phrase which is currently resonating with me ‘thoughts are real but not true’ & I believe this goes along with expectations in that the mond can make up all sorts of stories, much of which don’t come true.
      I wish you luck, Lesley xx


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