Even in years without a surging pandemic, the holiday season can leave us feeling exhausted. And here we are again, with anxiety and uncertainty swirling all around us.
As a psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health, I have seen my patients scramble over the past week, reconsidering their holiday plans in light of the Omicron variant and dealing with the mental load of trying to make wise yet sensitive decisions. More than ever, balancing holiday decisions and expectations can be tough. If you do end up being social this year, here are some of my favorite coping tools.
Be deliberate about what you say yes to
The ever-shifting Covid risk levels add a new factor to deciding what holiday events you will attend. The surge caused by the Omicron variant raises questions about whether to gather as a family and what precautions should be taken if you do. (Covid testing and keeping the group small is a good idea.)
Inside these pandemic-related decisions is a specific boundary framework that I am constantly reminding my patients about: You can always say yes, or say no, or negotiate. You might be bracing for the backlash that comes when you set these boundaries, but you are no longer a teenager who can be grounded or sent to your room without dessert (although it may very well feel like it when standing up to your family). You are an adult with discernment, needs and priorities. This framework applies inside and outside a pandemic that is constantly shifting its scope.
The reason it’s so important to be deliberate with your choices is that when you are not, the emotional aftermath — in the form of exhaustion, fatigue and even burnout — can be quite intense. A deliberate choice feels very different from one made out of fear or guilt.
On one hand, you might conclude that this could be the last holiday you will have to see Grandpa, and thus it makes sense to keep your travel plans in place, knowing you have received your booster shot and will remain masked. On the other hand, you might decide that the risk to an immune-compromised family member is too high, and that it makes sense to bear the guilt trip and sit this holiday out. When you are explicit about the meaning behind the decisions you make, even if said choices are emotionally costly for you, the burden is diminished.
Let go of unrealistic expectations
If you’ve weighed the risks and decided to move forward with a holiday gathering, be careful not to idealize or fantasize about how things will play out. Your ever-watchful in-law will probably point out that there’s not enough salt in your cooking, and there’s a good chance someone will say something awkward. Instead, stay focused on why you’re there — for example, so your children can spend time with their cousins, or that you can chat with your great-aunt whom you love but rarely get to see.
If your visit will be long, make sure to plan breaks or build in some alone time — even if it’s just running out to pick up supplies. Have a friend who is ready to receive SOS text messages, just in case things fall off the rails.
Make scripts for difficult conversations
There might be a particular topic that you do not want to get into (“So how’s the job hunt going?”). For these spicy conversations, think of a script and practice it. You’re not obligated to answer questions you don’t want to, and having a short response prepared ahead of time will help you navigate unpleasant topics. When I’m trying to change the subject, I like taking a direct approach while also quickly bringing attention back to the questioner. For example: “I’m taking a break from thinking about that during the holidays! How’s the planning coming along for your retirement party?” Especially when it comes to hot-button issues, you’ll want to keep the peace. Preparing ahead of time for thorny topics will go a long way.
Contemplate the slump
Despite these preparation measures you may still feel exhausted because you’ve exerted yourself mentally and emotionally. Hopefully a little less so with some of the above structures in place, but, remember, when you are surrounded by competing egos and personalities, it is bound to be messy. Throw in some sibling drama and psychological regression, and, yes, you are going to feel it.
One strategy for countering the exhaustion is spending some time reflecting on the feelings underneath the fatigue: It might be grief that your family doesn’t view you in the way you’d like, or maybe it’s anger. It’s common to feel the effects of strong negative emotions in our energy levels and to hold that tension in our bodies. Naming the emotions helps you metabolize them and move through them more quickly.
Consider that people’s behavior has more to do with them than with you
If you find yourself stewing after a tough holiday conversation and replaying interactions in your mind, consider that there might be more going on with that difficult family member than you are privy to. While we do not want to ignore our feelings of hurt or resentment, it can be easy to fall into the trap of personalizing a hurtful exchange. Working on your capacity for empathy toward your family can help you feel a sense of closure when old wounds are reopened.
Switch “but” for “and”
After a tough holiday visit, it can be easy to get down on ourselves and feel some regret for making “wrong” choices, with thoughts like, “Why do I put in all of this time and effort every year? I got to see Grandma, but everyone else was terrible.” This is an example of black-and-white thinking. When you construct this narrative, you discount the positive, which can lead to an overly negative view of your choices.
Instead, substitute “and” for the “but” in your narrative: “I got to spend time with my grandmother in a way that was low risk and everyone else was terrible.” Both can be true. This strategy helps us hang on to meaning, and understanding the meaning behind the hard decisions we make in life buffers us against burnout and emotional distress.
Reflect on what you would change
No, not about your family — sorry, they’re yours. But what can you change for next year about your decision-making in terms of “yes, no or negotiate”?
Every holiday decision is one of risks and benefits — especially now. Covid decision-making aside, as a psychiatrist, I can confidently say there is no family out there that does not come with its emotional risks. This is normal. And, in cases where the psychological costs are far too high, I do have patients who decide to forgo family time all together. That is a valid choice. Once you’ve moved through the work of identifying the negative feelings and understanding the meaning behind your choices, you can look at what you’d like to do differently next year. Maybe it’s spending less energy on gifts or cooking; maybe it’s doing a friends-only holiday. The great news is that it’s up to you.
Ultimately, all of these strategies are tied to one important concept: agency. You have choices about how you spend your time and energy. Even during the holidays, and even when it involves your family. This year, when we’re all trying to figure out which risks are worth taking, leaning into your agency might help you feel a little less fatigued — and maybe even a little more festive.
Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D. is a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health and a clinical assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine. She is the founder of Gemma, a digital education platform dedicated to women’s mental health, and the author of a forthcoming book on the tyranny of self-care.