Surviving the Holidays When the Going Gets Tough

Despite its dubious origins, Thanksgiving is a time for coming together and giving thanks for the good in our lives. Each year, thousands of people look forward to sitting around a large table with family and friends and enjoying a bountiful feast. Thanksgiving only marks the beginning of the holiday season; other major holidays throughout November and December tend to involve the same cast of characters, good food, and good cheer.

Although holiday traditions are steeped with sweet memories and happiness for many people, what is often left unaddressed is the dread that countless others feel around this time of year. For some, the dread arises at the thought of spending time with unpleasant family members or people with whom they’ve had strained relationships for a number of years. For others, the dread is in anticipation of the loneliness that they might feel if they find themselves alone and with nowhere to go for the holiday season.

Because of the hullabaloo that inevitably surrounds the festivities this month and next, people who do not get swept up into the holiday season often resign themselves to grinning-and-bearing-it until they can scrabble their way to January.

But fear not, you are not forgotten. I’ve put together the top three reasons that people cite in conversations about holiday anxiety. If you fit into any of these categories, I hope that you’ll find some of the suggestions helpful!

“I’m worried about having awkward or tense conversations around the dinner table.”

This is a completely understandable concern, especially if your family is prone to talking about politics, religion, or other difficult topics. If this is the case for you, prepare yourself for the meal by keeping these strategies in mind:

  • Set ground rules for dinner table talk. If things have gotten messy in the past because conversations totally devolved (or if you’re being proactive), make sure that everyone agrees not to yell, interrupt others, or attack anyone else’s character.
  • Be ready to listen more than talk. People are much more receptive to hearing what others have to say if they first believe that they have been heard.
  • State your stance or opinion without blaming. Do this by using I-statements instead of you-statements (e.g., “I feel discouraged by the uncertainty in our political system right now” instead of “You liberals are ruining everything for everybody!”). Try to focus on your feelings instead of casting blanket generalizations.
  • Gently reroute the conversation if it seems like it is getting too heated or is clearly derailing.
  • After the meal has ended, take some time to recharge. This might mean going for a walk, drinking some hot tea or hot chocolate with a favorite cousin, or playing your favorite board game.

“This holiday season will be really difficult for me because ____ is not with us this year.”

For many people, the holiday season is the time of year when absences are most strongly felt. If a close family member or friend has passed away or is absent for some other reason, it can stir up difficult and complex feelings. These emotions should not be tamped down; in fact, they ought to be welcomed into the open and directly addressed. Here are a few ways to do so:

  • Address the emptiness directly and invite conversation about how this year feels different than years past.
  • Ask for a moment of silence in honor of the absent friend or family member.
  • Ask everyone to share their favorite memory of the friend or family member.

“I’m alone this holiday season.”

 For one reason or another, many people find themselves alone for the holidays. Although this can be very challenging, not having plans does not doom one to a season of solitude and misery. There are, in fact, several options available for making the most of the holiday season.

  • If you are unable or unwilling to spend time with your family-of-origin, enjoy the holidays with your closest friends, instead. Make it a potluck-style gathering with a mix of traditional holiday food and more creative options.
  • If you are new to an area, newly single, or in the process of making friends, reach out to colleagues and/or friends and ask if you can join them for the holidays. Many people are thrilled to have guests and enjoy introducing them to their families and traditions.
  • Use the downtime to invest in yourself. Slow down and reconnect with nature, hobbies, or your couch! Ideas for solo activities include going to the spa or the movies, finally reading that book that’s been on your to-read list for months (or years), volunteering, taking a road trip, or tackling a new home project. This is also a great time to catch up on sleep!

Above all else, remember that the holidays often fly by in a blur. It will be January 2018 before any of us knows it, which will signal a new year and a fresh start. No matter what situation you find yourself in between now and then, make sure to take care of yourself.

I wish you all a safe, warm, and happy holiday season!