Updated: Dec 18, 2020
Christmas can be a difficult holiday for some of us in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. What are we to do when our ideas about what feels safe or appropriate are different than those of our family members? Today I give my tips on how you can cope with this tricky situation.
Clarify your position.
Clarifying your position involves being honest with yourself about what your boundaries are in any given situation. Take a minute to be completely truthful with yourself about what you are and are not okay with when it comes to COVID-19. Are you okay with outdoor gatherings only? In-person gatherings so long as everyone is wearing a mask? Get clear on this first before talking to your family members if possible so that you know where you can stand and can remain firm about your boundary during the conversation.
2. Have empathy.
If telling your family that you won't be joining them for Christmas is met with defensiveness or guilt-tripping, know that this is coming from a well-intentioned place. As difficult as it is to be on the receiving end of these emotions, the reason that your family is upset is that they love you and want to see you. At its core, that's a really beautiful thing—and something you can validate in the moment. Connect with the love and pain that is lingering beneath their frustration. Validating statements come in handy here, such as:
"I can totally understand why you're frustrated about not being able to see each other; I wish we were living in different circumstances."
"It makes sense why you're feeling that way; I'm disappointed, too."
"I know this is difficult; it's hard to have to change our plans this year when Christmas is normally such a special time for us."
3. Collaborate on other options.
If your family is upset that you won't be joining them for Christmas, demonstrate that you are willing to do other things that create a sense of connection while keeping everyone safe. Some ideas include:
Offering to postpone the Christmas festivities until the lockdown ends or offering to host a family gathering to "make up for lost time" in the new year.
Sending a video message to your family for them to watch on Christmas Day so they know you're thinking of them.
Doing a Zoom call with them on Christmas Day
Offering to do an activity together on Christmas Day that aligns with guidelines (i.e. going for a hike together and opening your Christmas gifts for each other outside)
4. Make COVID the problem, not your boundaries.
If someone comes at you with anger or guilt-tripping tactics, redirect their anger towards the virus itself rather than taking it personally. You might try saying things like:
"I know, it's getting so tiring following all of these precautions, isn't it?"
"COVID-19 is The Grinch Who Stole Christmas this year!"
"I hate that we aren't able to be together because of this virus; I wish the world was different right now."
5. Be transparent.
People engage in guilt-tripping tactics when they don't know how to communicate assertively or clearly. Thus, they rely on instilling guilt in others in the hopes that this feeling will become so uncomfortable that the other person will give in to their demands. Be prepared for this feeling to show up for you but try your best to not see it as a sign that you've done something wrong.
Remind yourself over and over again that it is your right to set boundaries that protect your physical, emotional, and mental health. You do not have to apologize for this or feel guilty about it; you have every right to do this. Be sure to keep this mantra top of mind during difficult conversations.
Also, know that when we appease other people's remands to merely avoid feeling guilty, we'll likely experience resentment. It can be helpful to gently name this. Try saying something along the lines of, "The last thing I want to do is come to a holiday gathering and ruin the whole day because I'm so uncomfortable. I would hate to feel resentful about a situation that could have been avoided and am doing this because I care about you. I know myself well enough to know that even though this is hard, it's the best option for me."
7. Take care of yourself after difficult conversations.
Emotionally charged conversations can be taxing on the body and mind. As such, creating a plan about when you will bring up this topic and a plan for how you will take care of yourself afterwards can be useful. Follow the old adage of "know thyself" and predict how you might feel after the call. Identify what will help you feel better versus what will negatively intensify your emotions. For example, calling your sister to vent about your father's guilt-tripping might only make things worse while having the newest episode of The Bachelor on stand-by will help take your mind off of things. Or, create a list of coping statements beforehand to read to yourself afterwards, like, "I'm allowed to set boundaries for myself" or "They're coming from a place of love."
Try to be as compassionate as you can with yourself and your family members during this difficult time. Remind yourself that their frustration is not about you, but about the virus. And remember that you aren't really choosing to not see your family; this is a reality that has been completely imposed upon you.
Further, if you're feeling misunderstood by your family members, it's okay to feel frustrated. Try your best to not go to a place of judging your own emotional response. Engage in self-validation however you can by saying things to yourself like, "Wow, it's so hard to feel like the bad guy right now" or "it's so hard not feeling understood." When you aren't feeling understood by others, your best bet is to be as understanding as you can be towards yourself.
8. Recognize that you might have to choose "the best of the worst" option.
Sometimes we unfortunately find ourselves in lose-lose situations. For many people, the options for family gatherings this year are to either (a) go to the family function and feel uncomfortable the whole time or (b) stay home and deal with emotional repercussions/reactions from your family members. It can be helpful in these moments to sit down and literally make a pros and cons list about both choices while also seeing which "cons" you have the most influence over. For example, if feeling uncomfortable at a family gathering is on your "con" list, is wearing a mask a way that you could influence that? Or, could you go but leave early?
I know how much it sucks to be in these situations, I really do. The only thing you can decide is which bad option is the most tolerable for you at this time so that you can go to sleep knowing that you did what was right for you, personally.
9. Remember that this, too, shall pass.
In the heat of an emotional moment, it's easy to feel like we're never going to feel better. The more emotional we feel, the more perspective we lose. Zoom out and remember that as tough as this situation is, people will get over it eventually. There will be other Christmases and celebrations and one day you'll be able to say, "Remember that time we weren't able to spend Christmas together because of COVID?"
If your family members don't get over it, know that this is more of a reflection of their inability to respect other peoples' boundaries, not of you being a "bad daughter/son/child/sibling." That's a "them" problem, not a "you" problem.
The Bottom Line
This is a super bizarre, surreal, disappointing, confusing holiday season for all of us. Know that it is totally normal and natural to feel all types of ways about what's happening right now. At the same time, remember that people's frustrations are likely coming from a place of love and that one untraditional Christmas doesn't define how much love your family members have for you. Validate the concerns that people have while respecting your own boundaries. Rather than taking any defensiveness or frustration that comes your way personally, join with the other person's frustrations by making COVID the problem, not your boundary.
Finally, have compassion for people who have different boundaries than you. There's no "right" or "wrong" way to feel right now and the more we engage in blaming or shaming behaviours, the worse we're going to make an already not-so-great holiday season. There will be more Christmases. There will be more opportunities to get together. All we can do is focus on what we can control in the present.
Finally, if you just need to feel less alone about how weird everything is right now, check out Buzzfeed's post on peoples' families' responses to their Christmas plans.
If you or someone you know could use some extra support right now, contact email@example.com for in-person or virtual psychotherapy.