Stay Sane Over the Holidays (With or Without Family)

“Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote the great novelist Leo Tolstoy, perhaps as he put off writing his yearly holiday letter. Most of us have had the holiday blues at one time or another: We dream of something from a storybook, and wind up with the National Lampoon version instead. As many delights as a holiday may hold, there may be as many chances for disappointment.

As this holiday season approaches, take a breath. No matter how many times these old holiday patterns may have repeated, there’s always the chance of forming new and better ones. Take a moment to look at the holiday pitfalls that may be coming your way, and make new plans if the old traditions aren’t working for you anymore.

Here are four great tips to start with:

Find Your People

Around the holidays—amid the sights, sounds, and smells of the season—loneliness can feel amplified. If the holidays have you feeling more alone, make plans that bring you together with people—any people. Join a book club or a choir. Show up at a trivia night or a chili supper. Volunteer at a school, community center, or retirement village. Give yourself permission to just be around people, whether you know them or not—and who knows? You soon may.

Make Time (and Space) to Get Away

Some people love nothing more than togetherness. For others, it’s a kind of torment. This can be true even within families. If you’re something of an introvert, and you’re making a holiday visit, plan to find time and space to yourself. This may mean taking your own transportation, or getting your own lodging. Or it could be as simple as taking a book to read, or going out for a walk. If your group is one that objects to taking alone time, get creative: You can offer to take the dog for a walk, go to the store for groceries, or fix that leaky faucet in the guest bathroom. Or just sneak off for a nap.

Make Your Own Choices

Choose which holiday obligations you’ll keep, and which you’ll decline. Holidays have many so many traditions around them; families even more so. People sometimes make plans without asking. If there’s something you dislike about the way things usually go, propose another option (preferably giving plenty of notice) or bow out altogether. If you find it difficult to say no (or if you have someone in your life who has trouble taking no for an answer), make your own plans before someone else makes them for you. And get those on the calendar now. It’s easier to say, “Sorry, I’m busy,” if you truly have your plans down in advance.

Change Your Focus

With long lists of preparations to make, decorations to plan, and presents to buy, holidays can start to feel like more of a chore than a joy. While you should feel free to enjoy all the distractions the holiday can offer—don’t be afraid to shift gears if it feels like it’s getting to be too much. And again, don’t let traditions put you in bind if they’re no longer working for you.

Let this be the year you skip the holiday cards. Or give to a cause you know your loved one cares about, rather than buy them a gift they may not even want. You may just make a stranger’s holiday happier, too.

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