Amelia Cullen looks at the pressure to have the time of our lives in summer
“Have you booked any holidays?” The question posed by hairdressers, beauticians, colleagues and just about anyone else making small talk from May to September. Even with travel plans halted – the answer more likely to be two weeks in Kerry than the beaches of Spain or Portugal – summer plans remain a collective obsession.
But it’s not just about having plans, it’s excelling at them. For all the advertising campaigns selling summer as a series of relaxing days at the beach, laughter-filled BBQs with friends, and adventures to new places, the reality feels a little more stressful. Instead of simply enjoying the longer days there is a pressure to fill them with picture perfect moments. A pressure to say yes to every BBQ, after-work drink or trip that comes your way.
Summer has become the season to ‘live your best life’, especially when the sun makes an appearance. In the past few weeks, as the temperatures climbed, our social media feeds filled with images of people ‘making the most of it’. It’s something Karly*, a 28-year-old professional, found draining, “The pressure when the sun is out to be out doing things; you feel guilty if you’re just lying on the couch or sleeping in. It’s exhausting”.
Summer is synonymous with memories: of happy childhoods, awkward teen years at the Gaeltacht or those first summers of adulthood escaping across Europe or America, free from the rules of our parents. While for some these milestone summer trips (inter-railing, American J-1s , Greek island hopping, or backpacking around Thailand) are the best times of their lives, for others they are a source of stress and anxiety.
Jessica*, 28 spoke to me about the social and financial pressure to go “on these big expensive holidays” during your college years. She recalled the fear of “the risk that if you didn’t go, you would feel that you were no longer part of that group” because you had missed out on “key bonding” that happens when you travel as part of a group. She pointed to the fact that many students need to work and save over the summer, or, as she was, are required to complete a work placement as part of their studies. Jessica detailed her own fear and stress as her friends planned a two month trip knowing the bonds they would form and the feeling she experienced when they returned, that she had missed out on something.
Mary*, 27 described Inter-railing as a “kind of ritual, or rite of passage for Irish college students”, and admitted that even though it wasn’t exactly her cup of tea, there was “never a question in my mind about not going”. In the end, she found the trip to be a brilliant learning experience, one she hugely enjoyed. But the pressure to go was “so intense that it nearly became subconscious – an ‘of course you’re going inter-railing’” attitude.
For parents, the pressure is not around forming their own memories, but those they are creating for their children. Sara Campin, a mum of two and founder of the Nourish App feels guilty. “I can’t offer my children similar memories as my own childhood experience.” Both her parents were teachers who were very present during the holidays, taking her camping for three weeks each summer. By comparison, Sara feels guilty about the short amount of holidays she has to spend with the children, which only ‘puts extra pressure on them to have an amazing, memorable time’. Though this should also be time for her to relax, it never is, she says.
Sara’s colleague Dot Zacharias points to the “huge expectation” she feels as the holidays approach. “Friends ask what you’re doing all the time, so you want to be able to share some exciting plans with them.” Dot describes how she is already exhausted from juggling work and the kids at home during school holidays, but then as the children ask questions about summer plans, she starts over promising, while also wondering how she is going to do it all.
Lenore, a social media manager and mum of two puts it simply; “I’m so tired of hearing ‘you only have 18 summers with your children’, which puts me under so much pressure to deliver an amazing experience and to have wonderful moments every day. It’s just not possible!”.
Despite the vastly different settings, the common thread of the pressure these women feel is comparison. Their decisions on how to spend their summers filtered through the lens of friends, family or the ever tyrannical live-your-best-life-ism of social media.
Helen Vaughan, Director of Maynooth Counselling and Psychotherapy, spoke with me about how this pressure manifests in our behaviours and how she works with clients to overcome it. She highlighted how people feel pressured by others social media to optimise their own lives which reflects Karly’s experience of feeling she has to perform a certain summer when the weather dictates. Vaughan mentioned the recent trend of Instagram reels stating “stop it.. I don’t need an ad of your day in Roundstone!”.
Vaughan, a CBT counsellor and psychotherapist believes most people get caught up in comparison, pointing out that it’s human nature, and goes beyond summer. “Families do it all the time between cousins, siblings or whatever; ‘oh she’s doing this now…look at you’.” She wonders whether it is innate within us, or whether we learn it from other people? Comparison, Vaughan points out, is not inherently negative; it can be a motivator. The key is being able to spot whether it is something you use to improve your life or to guilt and shame yourself.
The media and advertising contribute to the pressure around summer with an onslaught of campaigns around ‘the perfect holiday’, your ‘beach body’ and so on, from January onwards. Vaughan sees this as partially responsible for this collective ‘quest for the perfect summer’. Like all big communal moments on the calendar, there is a commercialisation of the summer experience: the pressure to pay for these holidays, purchase these memories.
It is the money aspect that Vaughan says we ‘take on emotionally’. It is important she says to question yourself ‘what are you doing with that information in your head when you compare yourself to someone else?’. It is something Vaughan sees with therapy clients ‘someone else does well, that means I’m doing badly’ what she calls reactive thinking it is important to remember someone else’s success if not your failure.
To overcome this Vaughan suggests reflective thinking. Be aware of when you are punishing yourself. “Noticing whether it impacts you in a negative way, whether it stays with you and you then shame yourself over what you feel you should be doing’.
“There is an inbuilt pressure,” she adds, “to do and be the best all the time, which just isn’t sustainable.” It’s important to build an awareness of what’s going on in your head. “What is your self-talk, what are you saying to yourself?’” When you become more aware of what’s going on in your head, you change your relationship to that inner voice and don’t just blindly believe it.
Identifying thinking patterns is part of Vaughan’s work with clients, using cognitive behavioural therapy. Notice if your thinking is veering into catastrophising, expecting the worst; “my kids will have terrible summer memories”. Ask yourself, are you mind reading? “They think I’m a terrible mum because we aren’t going abroad”. In these instances, Vaughan says to question yourself. How are you measuring this? Often, it is our own stuff we are projecting on someone else, believing we know what they are thinking with no evidence to back it up.
Often, the pressure to live our best lives comes from the demands we put on certain events, and, by default, ourselves. “I have to have a good holiday” “I have to go on this trip” “ I have to do something with the kids”. Again Vaughan says we need to build awareness around what is helpful in our thinking, and try to soften some of these demands internally.
Lastly, Vaughan points out that it is crucial to find ‘your own comfort in your own way’. Just because a perceived everyone is doing something doesn’t mean you have to, and there isn’t just one way to do anything, whether it be spend a summer, travel, make memories for your kids.
At the crux of the pressure to create the perfect summer is comparison, the idea of perception versus reality, how you perceive other people’s experience and the pressure you subsequently enact on yourself to match them. While this pressure comes from a multitude of sources: social media, advertising, human nature, it has no doubt been intensified by the feeling many of us are experiencing to various degrees of wanting to make up for lost time as we slowly emerge from a global pandemic. Recognise your own cognitive dissonance; travelling with children is stressful, group holidays are a logistical nightmare, the list goes on.
The expectations we place on the summer have been intensified this year as we move out of lockdown, but it’s important to manage our own expectations and let this summer be the best it can be, not the best it has to be. If ever there was a year to give yourself a break from making memories, this has been it.