It seems laughable now, but 756 years ago in March 2020, I thought there was no way the pandemic would still be raging by summertime. Even at the end of August, as COVID-19 continued to ravage the nation and world, I still reserved hope that by the holidays, health conditions would be stable—or at least less precarious. But, here we are: Cases are surging, cities are re-entering lockdown, and I’m mentally preparing for a holiday season alone in my apartment because I have no other choice, as far as I’m concerned. But, as far as my family is concerned, I do have other choices. I’ve been fending off questions about my holiday plans for several months, and I’ve been struggling to figure out how to kindly—but firmly—convey that I’m not going home for the holidays this year.
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all script to follow for explaining to your family that you’re not going home for the holidays this year, because so much depends on your specific family dynamics. That said, there are certain communication strategies clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, suggest you might try. For instance, sending a mass email or text can save you from needing to have the same conversation over and over again.
“Let them know you’ll miss them and miss being there, but you’re not comfortable with the risk,” says Dr. Daramus. “If anyone wants to disagree, let them know that you’re not changing your mind, but you’d like to talk about other ways to connect.” (For some ideas, you could cook together on Zoom; watch the same movie, even if you’re apart; or, if you normally enjoy any store-bought item at family get-togethers, see if you can have it delivered, and then enjoy it together on video.)
It’s okay to want to be safe, and not getting drawn into arguing or defending yourself is in your best interest.
From there, you might want to turn off your push notifications, or even just turn off your phone completely if you’re not interested in receiving further feedback. But since you can’t avoid communication forever, you can work to control the situation so your interactions are not needlessly intense. “If you want to avoid a confrontation, you can have the conversation when you don’t have a lot of time to talk, so you have a valid excuse [to hang up],” says Dr. Daramus. “If you want to be more direct, you can actually say, ‘I’m not comfortable with people traveling from hot spots and then not wearing masks,’ or whatever your family is doing that worries you. Keep it focused on specific behaviors, and don’t let it descend into personal remarks.”
Or, just keep it simple—because, ultimately, the issue is simple—by saying something like “I’m not ready to take that chance yet.” Remember, it’s okay to want to be safe, and not getting drawn into arguing or defending yourself is in your best interest.
After all, any resistance you meet in letting your loved ones know you’re not going home for the holidays is likely out of love—that’s the case for me, at least. I text my mom, “I’m on the verge of a mental breakdown [eight concerning emojis]” at least once a week, so I can’t really blame her for her concern about the effect spending the holidays alone might have on my mental health. And to be sure, it is going to be hard—both the being alone part and contending with the reality of not seeing family in so, so long.
To cope with this challenge, professor of psychology Ethan Kross, PhD, author of the forthcoming book Chatter, suggests practicing temporal distancing. “What it means is imagining how you’re going to feel next year or the year after, when this is all over,” he says. “It helps you realize that what we’re going through now is temporary, and that, at some point, you’ll get together…that gives people hope, which we know is so incredibly powerful for helping people manage anxiety,” he says.
Another tip Dr. Kross suggests is considering what advice you would give your friends navigating this situation, because many of us are better at providing objective advice to others than to ourselves. So, give yourself that advice out loud, and actually use your name. “As wacky as that sounds, research shows that language can be a useful tool for helping to change the internal narrative for helping people coach themselves through a problem,” he says. Dr. Daramus also recommends connecting with friends who are going through the same thing, and venting and supporting each other. And because so many of us are navigating the issue of not going home for the holidays this year, that should be an easy and helpful tip to enact.
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