'Tis the season to... stay the hell at home? What should be a warm and fuzzy time of year, in which old friends reunite and relatives travel great distances to celebrate the holidays with their families, often turns into a seemingly endless month of awkward office functions and emotionally draining visits to your hometown. If the very thought of a calendar full of holiday commitments sparks feelings of anxiety in the pit of your stomach, you're not alone — and, according to Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York, you're probably expecting way too much of yourself. Believe it or not, you aren't required to participate in the holiday season.
If your concerns are mainly around holiday parties, your first step is to decide if you really want to go. It's totally possible that you might not feel psyched before going, but you end up having fun once you're there and mingling with your friends or coworkers. That said, even if you feel socially obligated to attend, you probably don't need to go — and if you really don't think you'll have fun, it's well within your rights to stay home, Lundquist says.
If you weigh your options and decide to attend, Lundquist recommends doing a little pre-party mental prep: Think about the topics you'll actually enjoy discussing and come up with a few exit strategies in the off-chance you end up in a conversation that makes you uncomfortable. These might be clever subject changes or, as Lundquist puts it, "a few polite ways of saying, effectively, 'back off.'"
On the other hand, your source of anxiety may be going home for the holidays — and that's totally fine, too. "Not everyone's holidays were pleasant as kids, and those memories can run deep," Lundquist says. "As much as people talk about pleasant memories, associations, rituals, and smells, those same experiences for many people are unpleasant."
When it comes to dealing with difficult memories (or difficult family members, for that matter), Lundquist says that limit-setting is the name of the game. Get a hotel room instead of staying at your parents' house. Make plans with friends or run errands out of the house to break up the time you spend around your relatives. Even something as small as a nightly phone call to your partner or friend can prove to be a helpful break.
"There are instances where it's best not to spend time with family (or to really minimize it)," Lundquist explains. "We tend to organize holiday priorities out of obligation rather than preference. That's backwards."
So, if the very thought of office parties and extended family get-togethers have you dreading the holiday season altogether, your solution may lie in reprioritizing the engagements on your calendar. Only RSVP "yes" to the events you're really looking forward to and feel empowered to say "no" to the things that will only add to your stress — and do nothing for your holiday cheer.