For some people, the holiday season can be a tangle of complicated emotions. It’s often especially so for those spending the holidays with family because families can be tricky, not to mention that we’re still in a global pandemic — and those are pretty tricky, too.
What makes it all worse? Not taking care of yourself and your mental health as you navigate some of the thorny issues that can arise — like Covid-19 vaccinations — and the delicate relationships you might have.
But there are strategies you can use to get through the next couple of months and into 2022 in one happier, healthier piece. Here’s how.
Growing up, I knew there were always a few topics that were decidedly off-limits during family gatherings: religion, money and politics. These days, you might have to add Covid-19 vaccines to the list. Yet for some, it’s a topic you can’t avoid. If you’re in that camp and feel you need to broach the topic to have a safe holiday dinner, for example, I’ve got a few tips to keep in mind.
Most importantly, you’ve got to really understand why you feel you need to have a conversation about vaccines. This will be the foundation for how you handle all the interactions that follow. Is it to plan the family dinner? To protect vulnerable guests? To set boundaries for the visit? You’ve got to get clear on the why, and then you’ve got to decide if it’s really worth the potential tensions it might create to address the subject in the first place.
Second, it’s critical to enter the conversation with the right mindset. That means you’re engaging someone in a discussion of a sensitive subject because it’s important to you and you want to use the dialogue to build your relationship.
Preparing to talk things through
If you decide to go ahead and bring up the charged topic, it’s important to be prepared. I recommend you answer each of the following questions before reaching out to anyone.
- Who am I talking to and what’s my current rapport with them? Answering this question will guide your approach. In general, relationships that have stood the test of time may tolerate more than distant or contentious ones.
- What is the most appropriate form of communication to reach my goal? Don’t text or email simply because it’s convenient. Consider whether an old-fashioned phone call might nurture the relationship more.
- Can I have this conversation without taking it personally? If you’re likely to get angry, hurt, frustrated or to feel dismissed, then this might not be the best conversation for you to have. Try to remember that this is not about you being “right” or getting into a power struggle. It’s not even really about you or them. It’s about the relationship.
- What is my goal? Is it to change people’s opinions about vaccines? Is it to figure out who is coming to a party? Is it to decide whether you want to attend a family function? Your hope might be to change someone’s behavior, but your goal could just be to clearly express your concern without blame or judgment.
- What is my expectation, and how will I deal with disappointment? If you tend to react with anger or resentment when disappointed, take a minute (or two) to consider whether you can respond differently if the conversation doesn’t go as you hope. Key here is trying to accept that others feel they have equally valid reasons for believing what they believe and behaving as they do. Just because you don’t agree with their logic does not mean you can’t accept that, to them, there is a logic.
Getting out of an uncomfortable conversation
As new strains of the coronavirus emerge, such as the Omicron variant, there are even more opportunities to get into heated discussions. Information seems to flow as quickly as misinformation, so be careful what you hear and what you pass along to others as factual. Beware that even innocent inquiries to solicit more information can be misunderstood as opportunities to debate or perpetuate gossip. If you find yourself in such a situation, here are some conversation exit strategies:
- Focus on people and not the virus. If you need virus-related conversation, perhaps focus on how you and others are coping. This may branch into conversations about "the new normal,” the use of Zoom or streaming services.
- Steer the conversation toward the "silver linings": realizing how important family and relationships are, learning new technology, learning to slow down.
- Be ready with interesting factoids, such as the fact that there has been an increase in bike riding since the pandemic.
- Share a humorous story, such as ones that involve animals or fathers entertaining kids during lockdown.
Success isn’t about changing minds
During the conversation, it’s important to keep your objectives top of mind. You can have a successful discussion even without the outcome you might have wanted. You might have said exactly what you wanted, in a clear, approachable way, free of insults and accusations, but the others still disagree with you. That’s OK. Success shouldn’t always be measured by agreement.
And, no matter what, always try to end on a positive note. Be warm and appreciative of the effort you both took to tackle something difficult in the first place. Here’s a script you could try: “Thank you, this means a lot to me. I’m sorry we couldn’t find a win-win solution and it’s painful not to see eye to eye with you, but I really appreciate that you listened to my concerns.”
Skipping the gatherings and FOMO
Unfortunately, differing opinions about Covid-19 are not the only challenging part of the holiday season. People are all still coping with the pandemic in different ways. Some may not feel comfortable getting together for large gatherings, while others are eagerly counting down the days. FOMO is real and, for those opting out, it can be a difficult emotion to handle.
If you’re trying to decide what to do, trust your gut, and do what makes you most comfortable. If you end up being the one who’s skipping the festivities, consider what options you have to participate. These days using Zoom or FaceTime to join in virtually is common and could be a good compromise.
That doesn’t mean you won’t feel lonely seeing others get together in person while you’ve opted out. That’s normal and to be expected — let yourself feel lonely. But don’t confuse your loneliness with hurt feelings. Just because others have made different decisions than you about how to spend the holidays, doesn’t mean they don’t care about you or have forgotten about you. Try not to resent them for having a good time. Instead, plan ahead with some fun activities for yourself during your alone time as well. This will give you things to look forward to and can help soften the FOMO you might otherwise feel.
Getting through the holidays with your mental health intact is not always simple given the many potentially challenging dynamics. Throw the ongoing Covid pandemic into the mix and it really can be complicated. Hopefully, the strategies outlined here will make navigating it all a little smoother and will allow you to relax and enjoy the season safely.