I’ve given a bunch of motivational speeches in the past few years, and one in particular stands out that got the biggest rise out of people. I shared that my mom is super anxious and that two years ago my husband and I traveled 1,300+ miles to make it “home for the holidays.” My mom was a nervous wreck when we arrived because she worries when loved ones travel. The first words out of her mouth were, “The best Christmas gift you could have given me was to stay home for the holidays.” When I shared this in January at Creative Mornings Minneapolis, the crowd of 300 people roared. It wasn’t because what I said is funny. It’s because it’s ridiculous and a lot of people in the audience could somehow identify with it. My family experience is not unique; it’s indicative of a society that chooses fear over joy and worrying over being present. While holidays can be about togetherness, parties and gift giving, they can also be accompanied by drama, disappointment and loneliness.
In December 2018, an NBC study reported that 45% of Americans would prefer to skip Christmas. (My mom absolutely falls into that number.) Similarly, the American Psychological Association has found that 25% of Americans feel extreme stress during the holidays, 69% feel like they don’t have enough time or money, and 51% feel overwhelmed by gift giving and receiving.
The holiday period that runs from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve can be decked with dread and trimmed with anxiety. Whether it’s family, finances or work pressures that wind you up, there are ways to enjoy yourself and bust through stressful situations. It involves self-care practices, boundary setting and becoming aware of triggers. Having a plan to manage stress clears a path for you to enjoy the holidays. Here are a few tips to consider.
Choose happiness over being right.
The thing I hear people dread the most about the holidays are situations that trigger anxiety, like the office holiday party or family gatherings. Time spent with extended family is often accompanied by big personalities, strong opinions about your life, and political agenda pushing while passing the potatoes. If you’re in a committed relationship, you also committed to someone else’s family holidays, and there’s no blueprint for navigating that; it’s something you have to figure out as you go.
I know a man who will not go to his wife’s family’s house for Thanksgiving because they have differing opinions on politics. He’s choosing not to go because he thinks they are wrong and he is right; he’s not willing to subject himself to that. I asked him, “Do you want to be right or happy?” He had no idea what I was talking about. I have learned that when we feel the need to defend our beliefs, we believe we are right and the other person is wrong. I’ve personally come to terms with the fact that people won’t and can’t change their minds over a dinner — and it’s not the best place for those conversations. Sure, they may happen, but you can choose to just sit there and listen. Just because others are speaking doesn’t mean you have to join in.
Before I speak up to give my point of view on something I’m convinced people need to hear, I ask myself: Does it need to be said, does it need to be said right now, and does it need to be said by me? If you ask yourself this the next time your blood is about to boil, it gives you pause. In that pause, you might choose differently. If your uncle is going on about something you don’t agree with, how important is it to challenge him? It will start some sort of drama. Decide what you can let go and what you can’t. Maybe this guy’s best bet is to not go, but that also deprives his wife and child of his presence at a family gathering.
My mom says the most ridiculous things, and sometimes it hurts my feelings. When I tell the stories later, my friends and I are rolling on the floor at how outlandish she is. If you’re in the middle of an uncomfortable situation, find the humor at the edges.
Cut off passive-aggressive questions.
When I first started freelancing, I would get questions like, “When are you getting a real job?” or “Don’t you want a stable paycheck?” There are times people have asked me if I’d gained weight or, conversely, if I was eating enough. Then there were people who can’t say gay or boyfriend, so they would ask, “Do you have a special friend?” I have found people dance around questions, not asking for what they really want, but seeking a response. When I get these gray-area questions that are laced with an insult, I simply say, “What are you asking me?” It shuts people up. Or they start backpedaling. It’s actually a really fun way to disarm them. My belief is that these harmless questions come from people who care about us, but it doesn’t come across that way.
When my dad used to ask if I was getting a real job, I would ask him if he felt the work I did for my clients was not real. He was like, “You know what I mean.” I’d say, “I don’t know what you mean.” In the end, he didn’t know what he was asking. When you ask someone to explain themselves, it often brings to their attention that they are asking questions that aren’t questions. It brings it to light, and often they back off. Today, my dad thinks my freelance projects are so cool, and he hasn’t asked me to get a real job in a decade.
Manage expectations on the length of stay.
They say houseguests are like fish: After three days, they start to stink. When I lived in New York City, I was famous for going home for the holidays but not saying how long I was staying. When I started feeling overwhelmed, I would announce, “I’m leaving tomorrow,” which was met with much disappointment. I never said how long I was staying because it would never be considered long enough. So I stopped giving my departure date, and it caused even more drama. As hard as it is to stick to a strict timeline, I now let everyone know ahead of time my arrival and departure. The guilt trip starts sooner, but the disappointment over an unexpected departure is mitigated. My dad hates when I have to go, so when he starts in on me, I clap back with, “Let’s focus on the time we have together now.” I bring it back to the present. When you ask people to focus on the time you have together, it puts things in perspective.
On the flip side, if you’re hosting, don’t feel obligated to put people up for weeks on end. A great way is to ask people their intentions before they book travel. If they want to stay eight days but five feels better for you, find a way to say that. I sometimes feel like family expects you to do things “because we’re family,” but if it sacrifices your sanity, figure out your drop-dead amount of time before you agree to anything and make yourself a priority. As Larry David says on Curb Your Enthusiasm, “A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied.” Find that sweet spot.
Say “No, thank you.”
In the age of food allergies, dietary restrictions and people opting not to drink booze, being a guest at a party or in someone’s home can be a minefield. I know a vegan who ate roast beef on Christmas because they were a guest at someone’s home and felt it was rude to not eat it. They ended up feeling sick for two days. When we people please because we don’t want to offend, we aren’t taking care of ourselves. I have a lot of food sensitivities, and I don’t eat pork or red meat. Many people think my eating restrictions are annoying, high-maintenance and self-serving. But if I ate something to not offend someone then got a stomachache or diarrhea during a holiday meal, that’s worse than saying “No, thank you.” Bring something you can eat or share, or call ahead to let a restaurant know your dietary needs so that you can enjoy your meal without stressing about it.
As far as drinking goes, I don’t drink alcohol. This is a really tough one around the holidays. Back when I was in my twenties and stopped drinking right before Christmas, the reactions ranged from shock to disappointment. As if the party was going to be less fun because I wasn’t having a glass of Champagne. Luckily, the younger generations aren’t as impressed with getting bombed and value being clear-headed. When The New York Times recently published an article about the sober-curious trend, I rejoiced.
If other people forcing drinks on you is such a trigger that you end up drinking, don’t go. If you are choosing not to drink because your drinking puts you or others at risk, it’s not worth it. Years ago, I was at a party and someone kept saying, “Come on, one glass won’t hurt.” I tried playing it off with humor: “You don’t have enough alcohol at this party if you want me to drink.” Humor kind of worked, but I followed up with, “If you care about me, you’ll stop asking if I want a drink.” I think they kind of got it.
If people don’t respect your limits, set a boundary. Brené Brown is great with this one in her book The Gifts of Imperfection. She says when you create a boundary with someone, let them know what the consequence is for breaking it — and stick to it. Otherwise, they will keep crossing it. If you say you’ll leave if they keep pressing, get up and go.
I kept showing up late repeatedly to meet a friend, and he told me the next time I was late, he would leave. The next time, I came late and he wasn’t there. We didn’t speak for six months because I crossed the boundary by not respecting his time. I tested it like a child and he left; that was one of the best adult learning lessons I’ve had. I had to change my behavior to be in his life. I now show up on time every single time I see him. When you set boundaries, they are helpful to you and to others. My friend’s boundary gave me an opportunity to change.
Make time for self-care.
If you have daily rituals that make you feel good like exercise, meditation, reading or applying a facemask, don’t let them slide during the holidays. Make them the highest priority. Have you ever arrived at January 1 feeling like your December was a blur and you didn’t take care of yourself? Plan ahead and do things differently this year.
Whether you have a packed schedule, are traveling a lot or are staying with other people, find ways to “do you” no matter where you are. The boundary setting or biting your tongue may feel hard, drastic or out of reach — but choosing differently not only serves you, it serves those around you. The holiday party would benefit from one less person trying to get their point across. Asking a relative for clarification about a vague question might be an opportunity for a great conversation. Explaining why you don’t eat dairy to someone who has prepared a cheese platter lets them know you don’t appreciate them any less. It’s not you, it’s the Gouda. When boundaries are set, it offers an opportunity to deepen relationships and enable new conversations. You taking care of yourself is the best gift you can give someone.