Even before the coronavirus pandemic, holidays were emotionally fraught for many people. Heartwarming holiday movies may make it seem like everyone is rushing to be with loved ones, but if the season often leaves you burnt out and a little lonely, you’re in good company. If you’ve longed to say no to a holiday dinner but couldn’t find the words—trust me, a lot of other people feel the same way.
The coronavirus pandemic has made things even more complicated. We’re in the eighth month of the pandemic, and it seems like far too many people are shirking public health recommendations even though they’re pretty clear. Scrolling through Instagram or talking to friends can make you feel like you’re overreacting by sitting the season out.
To be clear: You’re not overreacting. The United States recently surpassed 11 million confirmed coronavirus cases. There have been over 250,000 coronavirus deaths, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that small indoor gatherings are a major factor in disease transmission. No matter what your family group chat says, the pandemic isn’t taking a break for holiday gatherings. So if you’re second-guessing social engagements, I’m here to remind you: It’s still okay to decline invitations.
“Honesty really is the best policy,” Siobhan D. Flowers, Ph.D., tells SELF. “The courage comes from recognizing that it is not going to be an easy conversation,” but Flowers says that having these talks is necessary for your mental and emotional well-being. Right now, opting out of holiday festivities is clearly good for everyone’s physical health as well.
If saying no to people you love is challenging under normal circumstances, it might feel even more difficult now. “We have collectively experienced much more separation for the majority of this year,” Flowers explains. “People are experiencing ‘COVID fatigue’ and may want to make exceptions to CDC guidelines during the holidays.” So the first step is to remind yourself that you are allowed to say no. Especially right now, when staying away from others might be the most loving thing you can do.
Beyond concern for public health, you’re allowed to opt out of situations that don’t feel right for you in general. In a column for SELF, Rachel Wilkerson Miller reminds us that time and energy are among our most important resources, and using them wisely is a key part of having the life we want. “If you don’t decide how you want to spend your [time, money, and energy]—and then protect those resources accordingly—other people will decide for you,” Miller explains. So, in the interest of making sure you’re in control of your time and energy—and keeping yourselves and your loved ones as safe as possible from COVID-19—we’ve compiled a few tips for declining invites this year.
1. Determine your objective, then use “I” statements to make it happen.
When you find out that someone you love is throwing a holiday rager, it’s tempting to try policing their actions. Before you decline, take a second to decide what your overall objective is. If you want to say no while also expressing concern and asking sincere questions about their choices—and if you have the energy—now might be a good time to voice your worries. But if you decide to bring it up, share your position with compassion and vulnerability. Instead of saying something like, “It’s ridiculous that you’re throwing a holiday dinner right now in the first place,” you might try, “I’m not coming because I’m really concerned about the pandemic, but I’m scared for you guys as well. I just saw the latest CDC guidance—it says everyone should stay home for Thanksgiving.” This allows you to raise concerns without judgment. Getting angry about this kind of thing is a natural response, but coming from a place of empathy and focus on your shared goal—everyone staying safe and healthy—is your best bet for making any headway.
But if you’ve tried to have this conversation before, or your main objective is to decline as painlessly as possible, then focus on what you can control. To be clear: The only thing you can control right now is yourself. So keep your RSVP self-involved. “Given the pandemic, I just don’t feel comfortable gathering like normal,” you might say. No matter what approach you take, berating people who want to see you isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind (except they might be a little less inclined to miss you).
2. Figure out the right tone before heading into the conversation.
Generally speaking, heading into a chat with an open heart and aiming to strike a polite and even tone increases the odds of having an amicable conversation. If you’re over-apologetic, folks might assume your decision is up for debate. If you’re defensive, a simple conversation might turn into a fight. With that said, the exact tone you want to strike depends on the situation, of course.
If you’re telling your parents that you’re not coming home during Hanukkah, then maybe a detached and even voice would make things worse. Maybe the best approach is to be vulnerable and openly share your fears about group gatherings right now. Ultimately, you want to think about how best to communicate with your loved ones, and head into the conversation with that in mind.
If you’re having trouble accessing a chill and compassionate tone (maybe you’re annoyed that you’re even having this conversation), remember that you’re doing yourself a kindness. Saying no “ultimately comes from a place of self-love and self-respect,” Flowers explains. You don’t need to be apologetic or combative—you’re doing what’s right for you.
3. Don’t over-explain (but repeat as much as you need to).
Have you heard the saying that “no” is a complete sentence? Even if you say a little bit more than “no,” an elaborate explanation is unnecessary. When you decline, keep it short and focused. If there are follow-up questions, you can answer them but remember, “I don’t feel comfortable because of the pandemic” is a reasonable explanation.
If you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t always respect your boundaries, you can repeat yourself until they actually hear you, or until you decide it’s time to disengage. “Employ the broken record technique,” Flowers says. “You say the exact same statement word-for-word after each attempt for someone to change your mind.”
4. Don’t expect people to be happy with your decision.
“Anticipate receiving a negative reaction from the other person,” Flowers says. “Especially if the other person has previously benefited from you not having boundaries.”
Even if the people in your life generally respect your boundaries, they’re allowed to be sad. Their feelings, however, don’t automatically change your decision. If someone refuses to take no for an answer or tries to pressure you, that person might be ignoring your boundaries in general, “which is helpful information to have,” Miller writes.
Whether they take your decision in stride or not, disappointing people kind of stinks. “It may be difficult to build up the courage, but you have to remind yourself how relieved you will feel afterward,” Flowers says.
5. Offer suggestions for other ways you can stay connected.
If you’re declining an invitation to family dinner or an intimate gathering, you might be able to offer solutions, Flowers explains. Maybe you hop on Zoom during the party, or maybe you meet up for a chilly autumn social distanced walk separately, so that you’re able to spend time together without compromising your boundaries.
This could also be an opportunity to create new holiday rituals. Send your favorite transportable dessert to someone you love through the mail. Or create a virtual hangout that becomes a new tradition (Christmas breakfast via Zoom, anyone?).
6. Come up with a plan for FOMO and other emotions.
Even if you feel confident about saying no, you might have mixed feelings. If you’re opting out of a holiday dinner or a party, you should plan for emotions like loneliness, sadness, grief, or FOMO. When discussing loneliness, SELF previously reported that you should prepare for the emotional fallout before you experience it. Maybe you can plan a holiday recipe swap or send presents to friends ahead of time. Whatever you decide, finding small things to control and little moments to anticipate can help soften the sting of skipping festivities this year.
Consider rewarding yourself for making this difficult choice. “Setting boundaries is a reflection of you being able to prioritize what is important in your life,” Flowers says. “Plan to do something nice for yourself after you have set a boundary to remind yourself that you are worthy and deserving of respect from others.”