For some people, the period of time from Thanksgiving to the New Year is “the most wonderful time of the year.” For others, it’s the worst. Difficult relationships, long-standing conflicts, loss, and estrangement can complicate a time of year focused on connection and family. Issues with alcohol or food can make the otherwise simple pleasures of holiday meals a minefield to navigate. Even people who enjoy shopping can become overwhelmed as receipts pile up and can feel lonely if financial limitations make them feel excluded from gift-giving.
The good news is that there are ways to cope with holiday loneliness and stress. The first step toward making it better is knowing that you’re not alone if you’re lonely on the holidays. Many people around the world will spend Christmas, Hanukkah, or another important winter holiday alone, and even more will feel lonely in the midst of feuding family members or difficult circumstances. If you find yourself in any of these lonely situations over the holidays, here are a few tips for what you can do to give yourself a boost.
1. You’re Alone on the Holidays
Even if you’re normally content on your own, a sense of dread might settle in as you anticipate spending the winter holidays alone. Maybe you can’t get time off or afford to travel home. Maybe your friends are out of town, or maybe you’ve recently moved to a new city where you don’t know anyone. Whatever reason you’re solo for the holidays, it’s easy to feel a pinch of sadness every time you see a commercial where a happy couple is huddled together on the couch, surrounded by tinsel and glittering lights.
Sometimes the worst part of spending the holidays alone is the sense of shame it can make you feel, and sometimes all it takes to feel better is to ditch that shame. Being alone this time of year doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you or that you’re less worthy than others. Next time you’re sitting on your couch, take a moment to close your eyes and visualize all the other people who are home alone like you right now. We are all connected, even when we don’t feel like we are.
And if you’ve got a pet, give them a squeeze. Human-animal connections do a lot of the same things for our hearts that connections with other people do. If you love animals but don’t have a pet, consider volunteering at a shelter or spending some time out in nature. If you’re not an animal person, consider ways you might be able to be among other people this month. Most faiths host important rites, rituals, and services on religious holidays, and connecting with your spirit is a great way to uplift yourself emotionally, too. If you’re not religious, consider whether you’d like to go to a non-religious community event or just enjoy some cozy solo time at home.
Staying in? Here are some ideas for how to make it feel more like a celebration than a letdown. Get some Christmas fudge and a strand of lights. Cuddle under a blanket with your favorite movie, buy some nice bath products, or cook a recipe that brings back happy memories. You might just recall your self-curated holiday fondly on more crowded holidays in your future.
2. You’re Fighting with Family
Many people say the worst loneliness they’ve felt wasn’t when they were alone, but when they were in a room full of other people who made them feel alone. Simply sharing space with family on a holiday doesn’t mean you feel connected to them. Whether you’re dealing with a long-standing feud, a recent estrangement, or a sudden fight that soured an important relationship, you may feel dread knowing you don’t have the option to spend your holidays alone.
Keep in mind that you probably do have that option if it comes down to it. If spending time around certain people is going to ruin your holidays, you have every right to choose not to be around them. Of course, it may not be that simple for you. Maybe you can’t or don’t want to prevent your kids from seeing the person or people you’re at odds with. Or maybe it’s just easier to show up somewhere for a few hours than to deal with blowback over not going.
One of the best ways to recover from the strain of spending time around people who make you feel hurt or angry is to spend time around people who make you feel good. Maybe that means taking some special time to do something fun with your kids after your family holiday celebration or enjoying a holiday date with a partner. If conflict-ridden family relationships are all you have right now, consider some of the tips above for finding ways to enjoy peaceful and rejuvenating time on your own during the holidays.
3. Toxic People Are Polluting Your Space
It’s not always close relationships that spark holiday pain. It might be an ornery uncle, passive-aggressive aunt, or rude cousin who dampens your holiday spirit. Maybe you even have to host one of these people and endure as they make huge messes, help themselves to your food, and dominate spaces where you usually relax. The worst is when someone is actively toxic, delighting in sparking arguments or draining the joy out of the room. It can be even more of a drag if other family expect you to deal with this person and don’t seem to appreciate your emotional labor.
It might not be quite that intense. Maybe you just have to spend some time at work around toxic co-workers. Whatever it is, in addition to reaching out to people whose company you do enjoy and spending restorative time alone, try to find ways to minimize your exposure to emotional toxicity. If it’s bad enough, you may need to totally avoid a toxic person, or you may just be able to keep your interactions with them to a minimum.
One trick that often works is to respond to negative or offensive statements by changing the topic to something neutral or pleasant. Or you can work up the courage to be direct and say you’re not interested in continuing the conversation. You may prefer avoiding conflict, but if you’d feel better to confront somone over their words or behavior, you have every right to call them out. You might find it clears the air and that they back off and stop bothering you as much afterward.
4. Your Family Doesn’t Honor Your Needs
Even if you’re not actively fighting with family members or dealing with someone toxic, you might feel alienated by how your family responds to your differences from them. Maybe you’re LGBTQ and your family members don’t accept you and give you the cold shoulder, for example. Maybe they even confront you with their opinions that you shouldn’t be allowed to be who you are.
Maybe you’re in recovery but everyone else in your family is drinking or indulging in other things that trigger you and laugh it off when you ask for their help to minimize your risk of relapse. Or maybe you have dietary restrictions and find you’re the only one who brought a dish you can eat. There are so many ways people can make you feel like you don’t matter over the holidays.
You have every right not to go to an event that’s going to bring you down, or to just make a quick appearance and move on. But whether you go or not, the reminder that family or friends don’t respect you, or even reject an important part of who you are, can make you feel incredibly lonely. There are moments when you realize you care about yourself enough to stop spending time around people who make you feel that way, and it can be empowering to finally stand up for yourself. At other times, it just hurts.
In addition to some of the tips above, such as finding people who do support and accept you for you are and finding ways to recharge alone, also consider going to support groups, whether in person or online. Talking to other people who’ve gone through the same struggles can make you feel less alone and pave the way to positive new connections.
5. You’re Struggling and Self-Conscious
Sometimes the snub is subtler. It’s not that your family doesn’t respect your recovery or identity, but that they judge you about something more superficial or temporary. Maybe you’ve gained some weight this year and dread the looks and veiled comments you expect to get. Maybe you’re having financial troubles and can’t afford to buy gifts, or can only buy small ones, and have to endure being the only one at your gathering who doesn’t have a big pile of presents to distribute.
In these cases, you can often be your own worst enemy. The mocking or judgment might only be in your own head. Your loved ones might not even notice or think about the thing you’re so self-conscious about, or they might understand and have compassion because they’ve been there, too. But even if they’re actually jerks who are judging you silently or out loud over something petty, you don’t have to spend your holiday soaking in loneliness and shame.
The first step in healing this holiday pain is some self-compassion—you’ve probably spent your year doing your best and have overcome a lot that others don’t know about. Your holiday gift to yourself can be giving yourself permission to be imperfect and to enjoy the holidays as you are instead of punishing yourself and making yourself miserable over what you wish was different.
Sometimes, the winter holiday season is the most magical time of the year, but sometimes it isn’t. So many of our ideas of what our holidays are supposed to look like come from commercials that magnify our insecurities or movies based more in fantasy than in real life. Most people have at least one thing they dread during the holidays and at least one thing that makes them feel a bit lonely this time of year. Most of us are embarrassed or self-conscious about something right now, especially any goals we didn’t achieve or wishes that didn’t come true for us this year.
The exciting thing is that no matter what you believe or practice spiritually, this time of year holds powerful meaning for all of us. It’s a time we can turn toward the new year with renewed hope. Some years are harder than others, but most of us can say we moved forward in some way or maintained an important achievement over the past year. It’s likely at least one thing we couldn’t accomplish will be something we can do next year.
If this has been a lonely year for you, think about what you can change to make the next year less lonely. Maybe that means embracing and accepting your life as it is, or maybe that means putting effort toward personal goals. Just know that whatever you’re struggling with right now will change, and that it can get better if you take the right steps and get the right support. And know that we’re here to help if we can be part of that process of healing or change for you in 2020.