It’s the most wonderful time of the year…except when, you know, everything is bad and you’re not OK. And even though feeling sad/anxious/lonely/broken/stressed in December is really common, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to deal with, or even talk about. Looking at picture-perfect families in matching Christmas jammies can feel terrible if you can’t or won’t be seeing any loved ones this year, or if you’ve just experienced a major loss. Meanwhile all of those “best of” reflections on the past year can really sting when you look back at your year and it…kind of sucked. In fact, so many things about the holidays seem designed to make you feel inadequate that frankly, we’re in awe of anyone who manages to stay merry and bright through the new year.
Because here’s the thing — we don’t live in Hallmark movies; we live in the real world, where shitty families, breakups, divorces, miscarriages, death, unemployment, depression, anxiety, addiction, violence, and good ol’-fashioned bad times exist. It’s OK to not be OK around the holidays, and it’s a good idea to make a plan for how you’ll take care of yourself. So if you’re going through it right now, we have some ideas that might help, if only a little.
Of course, because crappy holidays come in so many shades, not all of these tips will be right for you. Do a gut check about whether or not something will actually help you; if your instincts say something will only make you feel worse, don’t force it. Ultimately, be kind and gentle to yourself, and know that we see you.
1. Take a little time to think about your relationship to holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Day/Eve, and ask yourself how you will feel best celebrating them. Maybe celebrating would actually cheer you up; maybe you’d prefer to pretend they aren’t happening. Maybe you don’t really want to be around acquaintances, but you wouldn’t mind being in the presence of strangers. Maybe you hate NYE, but think NYD is really inspiring. Knowing how you actually feel about the different holidays and traditions will help you make a plan that is meaningful to you.
2. Make an actual plan for the holidays themselves; whether you want to work, volunteer, connect with friends, stay in a fancy hotel all alone, or order takeout and binge podcasts, it’s good to decide in advance so you can book/reserve/shop/download accordingly.
3. Decide how much you want to tell other people about what’s going on with you, your holiday plans, etc. and who you want to tell. It’s OK to keep things private; it’s also OK to share more openly.
4. And plan ahead of time how you’ll communicate that, so you’re not caught off guard when the inevitable “What are your holiday plans?” small talk starts rolling in. Rachel’s a fan of saying something effect of, “Oh, nothing exciting — just staying around here, keeping things chill. How about you?” (Or “No, not this year!” when asked if she’ll be seeing family.) A more forthcoming version: “I’m taking some me time! I’ll probably make some food, see a movie, do a face mask, start a puzzle — you know, fun solo stuff! I’ve been dying for a quiet night to myself for ages.” Keep your tone neutral, be vague and boring, and change the subject/turn things back to the other person’s plans; most people won’t push it.
5. Don’t be ashamed or afraid to admit that things are shitty! You don’t have to get into specifics if you don’t want to, but dropping the “everything’s fine!!!” act — even just for a moment, or just to one person — can be a huge relief.
6. Log off social media on the holidays themselves. (Or just…now through January 2.) No need to hurt your own feelings with curated images of other people’s seemingly picture perfect Christmases.
7. If the holidays are hard for you for reasons related to loss, see if there are ways to use them to feel closer to the people you miss. Cook their favorite recipes, watch old home videos, write them a letter. Carry on a legacy or just celebrate good memories.
8. On that note, feel your feelings if you need to. Maybe this year, you just need to be sad or angry or just bad, and that’s OK. Don’t try to suppress that.
9. Don’t feel bad for not attending your work holiday party if you don’t want to go. It’s literally fine.
10. Ditto for New Year’s Eve celebrations.
11. And if you must go, be OK with not being the life of the party this year. Be a little boring. It’s fine!
12. If you have to spend the holidays in a place that feels unsafe or uncomfortable for you, let your friends know that you might need to text them to help keep yourself sane. Not everyone will be available during the holidays, but they might be happy to keep their ringer on if you give them a heads up that you could use their support.
13. And if you have to be around people that annoy, anger, or upset you, pretend you’re an anthropologist. It might be easier to take family drama in stride if you’re pretending to study how this group of people spends the holidays. AKA observing closely, but keeping emotional distance so things don’t get under your skin.
14. Ask around to see who else is around for the holidays — and potentially feeling down about it, too. Having people to commiserate with, or maybe even spend time with, could make a big difference.
15. Set boundaries — and then actually honor them. If you don’t want to talk about your love life with your nosy aunt, be prepared to say, “Oh, I’m not really thinking about that right now” and to change the subject. Firmly. If you don’t want to be super social, RSVP no to holiday parties and don’t think twice.
16. Ask for help. “I need space.” “I need attention.” “Could you actually come along to the grocery store with me and keep me company while I make dinner?” “Please don’t make me feel guilty for not coming to your cookie party this year.”
17. And if people offer to help, take them up on it.
18. Bookmark this list of things to do when you feel like shit.
19. Try not to self-medicate with alcohol. The distraction might be nice in the moment, but booze really does worsen feelings of depression, loneliness, anxiety, grief, or whatever shit you’re dealing with.
20. Get yourself some cozy day pajamas (or just dedicated soft clothes). On days you’ll be home alone, plan to get up, wash your face, brush your teeth, take a shower (or at least put on clean underwear), and then put on those fresh clean jammies.
21. Go for a stroll or a ride whenever you can. Getting some fresh air and winter sky may make you feel better (and it will likely not make you feel worse). So if you can easily and safely get out for a walk or a stroll or a ride, do it! If you can’t, consider whether there’s another way you can move your body and/or be outside for a bit.
22. If you have the bandwidth, clean/tidy your home so it feels as cozy and bright and homey as possible.
23. Lean into string lights. Truly, a little light goes a long way when it starts getting dark at 4 p.m., and can make a sad night at home feel a tiny bit more magical. Leave ‘em up all winter if you want to!
24. Get rid of old things that you can’t use right now or that make your heart hurt. Give your closet a major clean-out, delete photos from your camera roll with abandon, etc. You don’t need that shit bringing you down.
25. If you have pets, concentrate on throwing them the best holiday ever.
26. Come up with a little comforting ritual you can do every day. Try a different tea every day, cook dinner for yourself, knock out a crossword puzzle before bed. It can have nothing to do with the holidays.
27. Honestly, just spend as much time as possible in a bubble bath.
28. Read a book you’ve been meaning to read forever. Or a ton of books. No shame in a little escapism if this world just isn’t doing it for you right now.
29. Stock up on some puzzles. Puzzles are a great way to pass time and forget about the outside world, and give you a feeling of accomplishment when you feel like everything is falling apart.
31. Watch the holiday episodes of your favorite TV shows of all time. Here are some to get you started.
32. Find a way to connect with nature. Sure, it’s harder in the colder months, but even just observing pretty birds in the branches of the tree outside your window can be really soothing.
34. If gratitude practices tend to cheer you up, try making a list of all of your wins — big and small — from the past year.
35. Or, on the other hand, make a list of everything you want to leave behind in 2018 and (safely) burn it.
36. Know that it’s OK to let certain holiday traditions and “must-haves” go. If this is the year that you don’t give any gifts (or don’t give particularly inspired gifts) or don’t get around to mailing out Christmas cards, it’s really fine. Your people will understand!
37. And remember there’s no shame in calling or texting a lifeline like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741 if you need someone to talk to. This stuff is hard.