The show must go on. But at what cost?


Last year was the first time in a decade that I didn’t send Christmas cards. I probably received twenty emails from friends that started with, “Are you okay?” or “Did I piss you off?” The truth? I was exhausted and it was a tough holiday. As much as I love sending and receiving cards, I just couldn’t pull it off.  I was thinking about it this morning as I was working on my ten-page holiday to-do list and I remembered a post I wrote in 2009. I laughed as I read it . . . “Researcher, heal thyself.” I thought it might be fun to share it again this year. I clearly need the reminder.

Repost from November 2009

I have a terrible memory from last Christmas that I’m planning to use as a touchstone to help us create a merrier holiday this year.

I was sitting at my kitchen table addressing 225 Christmas cards, Charlie was crying in his room because I told him that I couldn’t read “the reindeer book” to him until I finished the cards, and Ellen was upset and sitting alone in the dark living room because it was once again too late to start a “Polar Express” family movie night. I don’t remember the detail of Steve’s whereabouts, but I think he was out doing last-minute teacher gift shopping.

At some point the sulking and crying was too much so I stood up and yelled, “I’m sorry. I HAVE to finish these cards! They’re not going to address themselves! Everyone wants to send them but I’m the one who has to make it happen!”

The house got very quiet.

I wish I could tell you that wisdom washed over me and I put the cards away. I’d love to end the story by writing, “I gathered my children in my arms, we drank hot cocoa, and I read from one of our lovely Christmas books.”

Nope. I was like, “Thank God. It’s quiet.”

I remember telling myself, “Oh, well. The show must go on.”

And it did. The cards went out. The presents were wrapped. The cookies baked. We were at everyone’s houses as scheduled.

It was exhausting and I was just waiting for it to be over.

Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t the victim of this holiday circus, I was the ringmaster.

We live in a world where life can easily become pageantry, and the best performers make it look balletic and effortless. Of course, there’s no such thing as an effortless holiday show. If you sneak a peek behind most people’s red velvet curtains at holiday time, you’ll often see houses brimming with anxiety, maxed-out credit cards, crying children, and marriages that make the cold war look warm and fuzzy.

I’m convinced that the only way out of this is by cancelling the show. Not canceling the holiday, but giving up the show.

For us, that means making some changes. We do love our holiday cards, but this year we’ll make a party out of addressing envelopes and I won’t insist on doing it myself so it’s “right.” PS – If you’re on our list, your cards will arrive sometime between mid-December and Valentine’s Day.

After 20 years of drawing names at our big family holidays, we’ve decided to only buy for the kids and to keep the gifts small and meaningful. We’re also going strictly homemade (us or Etsy) for teacher and neighbor gifts. And, most importantly, we will make a list of all of the holiday family things that we want to do together and those will take priority.

Rathering than always insisting that, “The show must go on!” I’m going to ask these two questions: “Is this a part of us or part of the show?” and “Does it really need to go on?”  I think our holiday will be better for it.

When our lives become pageants, we become actors. When we become actors, we sacrifice authenticity. Without authenticity, we can’t cultivate love and connection. Without love and connection, we have nothing.

The phrase, “The Show Must Go On” originated in the 19th century with circuses. If an animal got loose or a performer was injured, the ringmaster and the band tried to keep things going so that the crowd would not panic.

This year there will be no band. No ringmaster. We’re going to say “yes” to small and quiet and “no” to the three-ring circus. That’s not to say that there won’t be panic and loose animals. That’s a given around here.


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  3. I love your honesty and you hit the nail on the head. It’s so ironic how so many anxieties are about the show. My friend and my mother-in-law both lost their mothers, so they understandably will be having a traumatic holiday. Me, I just bring the stress on myself. It made me take a step back and see what I am teaching my two young daughters. My father survived cancer (so far) and I am fortunate he was around this holiday. That was my Christmas wish, everything else just had wrapping paper on it or lots of hugs. The joy of my children’s expressions were enough for me too. That was this Christmas memory. There was a lot less stress and a new perspective. 🙂

  4. Noël

    Hey there- I just stumbled upon your blog and I’m in love. Thank you for this post specifically because this year was the first year in 20 years that I didn’t send out my 150+ xmas cards and I was feeling so guilty. It’s still haunting me, but I chose a stress free holiday this year and although I still plan on sending something to everyone who sent to us, I don’t feel the need to make it a showy event! Thank you, peace on your journey!

  5. Dawn

    The holidays are over and just like having a baby, I forgot how painfully uncomfortable the holiday with my family was the year before, and my vow to NEVER again subject myself to the Christmas “show” and yet OOPS, I DID IT AGAIN, SHAME on me! I know better.

    I crave authenticity, I say, and yet I’m terrified, truthfully, of being completely alone, an outcast, and ironically, when I go against my better instinct that says “Hmm, I think you better sit this one out,”, I come away with what I feared the most.

    Thank you Brene for your awesome research, your transparency, and this repost; it is spot on.

    My hope is that I will be able to find a point that I can be OK being ME, in spite of what others EXPECT or their LABELS are for me.

    Here is to connecting without spackle?

    Continued Blessings Brene!

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  7. Robyn

    Hi Brene! This is an awesome post and one that I have lived myself…too many times! I just read “The Gift of Imperfection” and loved it. I found it so enlightening, so inspiring, and a true gift for what I need at this moment in my life. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for the gift of your work and for inspiring so many to live differently and believe differently about themselves…me included! I have recommended the book to family and friends and can’t wait to hear their thoughts.
    Happy New Year to you.

  8. In fact, because sole and even primarily decisive motivator of
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  9. Laura

    Hi, read this even later, after the “show”.

    I guess we all can put up just as much show as we want or feel that is necessary. In our family the only show element that we are not really done with is the gift part for the adults. Every year we hope that we’d have the energy to make those cute Xmas decorations to give as gifts for the in-laws and my partner’s brother and his girlfriend (which we never do of course, so in the last 2 days we end up buying something awful instead).

    For the rest I am quite satisfied with the Xmas traditions and the preparations, just as much “show” as I want to have. For some friends and acquaintances we just give nice little boxes of homemade gingerbread cookies and a handmade card. And I really enjoy the process of making the Advent wreath, the cards, the letters, the cookies, the tree. Well, I feel obliged to note that we don’t have kids and are not planning to have any, which gives more time and energy for all these things.

  10. Deborah Qele

    There are still mine fields to negotiate during the holidays even though I stopped going ‘home’ to celebrate decades ago. It was not a conscious choice – it was self preservation, sheltering a fragile freedom away from the anxiety of family expectations. Now in my 62nd year guilt still pays a visit and sits on my chest while regret whispers in my ear; I could have been a better daughter, a better sibling, a better person. Ah yes, SHAME thunders through me. Brene, your work gave me a name for the dreadful feeling that pervaded and haunted me-body, mind and heart. This work of owning our lives, finding authenticity and leaning to connect demands courage and compassion just as you said. I keep rereading your books and taking the online course – remembering that a wholehearted life is worth every effort. On Christmas day I started painting the dining room and it is almost done. It was how I took care of myself. How I did what was on my list.
    Thank you barely covers it Brene. I wish you the rest and rejuvenation you need to continue your precious, important work.
    Blessings upon you, Deborah

  11. Tisha

    Wise words….I still get caught up in the “I have to do it this way, only this way and perfectly this way” mindset with my nose grimly to the grindstone, ignoring any and all “distractions” from my “goal”. But, when I saw my Christmases becoming like my childhood ones, full of yelling, tension, fake smiles and thank you’s, rushed, always ending with vomit and headaches…I loved my son and my husband enough to ut the energy into changing.

  12. Jen Reilly

    I loved this post and every word resonated with me. I think this “putting on a show” also happens in daily life, not just around the holidays. I’m learning to catch myself, take a deep breath, and remember what’s important to me and not the “show”. I really appreciated the analogy of the circus. I found you while searching TED and have been reading your book and thinking about taking your class. I’m apprehensive about finding the time to immerse myself in your course. Thank you for your “story telling”, it’s entertaining and inspiring!

  13. Sally Ray

    beautiful! After 40 years as Ringmaster, I let go. Not everyone will
    Appreciate it, but the gift is now they get me. Not who I thought I should be.
    The Power of Vulnerability changed me. You became my new BFF !
    What a gift you have, thank you for sharing !

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  15. Mammy

    I love lose animals the best!

  16. Specifically about cards – I’m just back from the store from buying individual Christmas cards (for Mom, Dad, sister, her family, etc.) as opposed to the ones that get mailed out to the list of 200 people – which I never did, because I always thought I’d start sending them when I grew up enough and my life was interesting enough to share, i.e., married with kids, but that never happened. (Which in the case of having to send out Christmas cards to everyone I suppose was a blessing in disguise! Because now I still don’t send those out and I don’t feel bad about it as no one expects them.)

    Anyway, I about choked today on the cost of just the individual cards! When did they get so expensive? (And, as an aside, why is it so hard to find brother-in-law cards???) One year, instead of store-bought cards, I made my own cards and wrote really heartfelt letters to each family member, and I am certain those were more appreciated (and perhaps even saved). But of course that takes so much effort, and on top of that, writing out those sorts of sincere messages of love always makes me sob. Ha! But my point, homemade is always so much more appreciated. We neither have to put on a show nor break the bank to let people know we love them.

    Happy Holidays, Brené and everyone!

  17. Carolynne Harris

    Hi – I read this late – it was still on my computer as I just got home from a funeral in New York – I crisscrossed the country in a zig zag way. My brother in law died of early onset Alzheimers. Most years I bake at least 8 gingerbread houses and decorate and always put up a tree. No tree this year and no gingerbread. We haven’t given adult gifts since our first child was born 46 years ago – my mother in law was a smart woman she suggested we give to children and the rest to a charity of our choice. Change is good, Good for you, no cards hooray!!!

  18. Pam Sprute

    I needed reminding as well. Thank you!

  19. Sage

    This reminds me a lot of the book The Velveteen Principles.

    By the way, after watching your video on vulnerability, I wonder what you might think of my musings in a piece called “Men Seeking Self-Esteem,” at

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  22. Sophie

    Actors strive for authenticity. They may be pretending, simulating, recreating, using another’s words, but they’re pretending etc in search of truth and connection. Without authenticity humans can’t cultivate connection – and it’s connection that all great storytellers are in hope of. With honesty and openness, we actors look for the human truth in the stories we share. Great storytellers don’t seek to please, they seek to connect. So, may I request ‘fakers’ in place of ‘actors’?

  23. TzuZen

    Unplugging. My decorations went up: a Christmas tree wall quilt I made years ago finally made it’s way to the wall. I hung my holiday wreath on the door. My holiday tree and lights are stored neatly in the attic.

    I’m staying home again this year. Just me, the dog and the cat. I’ll have a Christmas evening dinner with my dear boyfriend. He will spend Christmas eve with his daughter. Girls need their dads.

    I stopped going to visit family at Christmas last year. The land of expectations roosting was upended. It upset my elderly mother and brother’s family, My sister shared no reaction. I asserted myself politely in a manner I could cope with.

    Last year was a rough year – separation from my husband of 18 years and impending divorce. It was freeing to not have to “be” someone that had to behave or to keep the peace with my pleasant, nice, cool, disconnected family. Or just be polite as I was taught. I spent Christmas dinner with good friends who were in town. Last Christmas Eve, I got to reconnect, truly connect actually, with my step-daughter who I raised.

    So many mistakes I made with her. It’s hard to regret when I wasn’t awake or aware or even had the tools to really connect until I spent time connecting with and working on myself the last 3 years. Christmas Eve opened a way for her and I to really connect. She’s a wonderful young woman. It’s funny to hear her giving me dating advice.

    Exchanging gifts for the sake of exchanging gifts had become a chore as we kids got older. So the kids are the recipients now. It’s fun to see them light up. The gifts are wrapped and ready to ship out since family is far away.

    Waking up to what’s really important is not easy sometimes. Nor is staying awake. I will treat myself with kindness and chide myself for not remembering to do this. Getting off the band wagon of expectations can be hard to do. It can be worth it.