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11 Holiday Permissions to Give Yourself

For many folks, the closer the holidays draw, the higher the stress and worry. Challenges easily pile up: family interactions, finances, social expectations, feelings of loneliness. As you navigate holiday plans and sticky dynamics, make effort to give yourself these 11 permissions.

#1 - Permission to disappoint

We set ourselves up for an impossible task when we aim to avoid disappointing other people. We can do everything “right” and it still doesn’t guarantee that a person will have an ideal mood and ideal thoughts and that all the stars will align to keep them from feelings of disappointment.

Freedom comes in the form of accepting that others might be let down by our choices sometimes, and also that they are capable of managing those feelings of disappointment. It’s not your job to keep someone from feeling upset. It’s your job to be kind and also to take good care of your own self.

How it can look:

“Dad, I imagine you’re feeling disappointed that _____ and I hope you can understand why I need to _____.”

#2 - Permission to leave

When we know that something is temporary or short in duration, we have an easier time tolerating it. It’s empowering to remind yourself that you can make the decision to leave at any time and that you’re in control of this option.

You can make it easier to leave when desired by having your own mode of transportation or set aside funds for calling a ride share. You can also decide in advance to stay for a short window of time rather than committing to stay the whole time requested.

How it can look:

"I'm excited for your party, Jamie! We'll definitely be able to stay until 10."

#3 - Permission to not go

Obligations are powerful and fuel many of the holiday plans & visits I hear about from clients. Know this: you do not have to go. For example, if dynamics with family are psychologically or physically unhealthy for you, it’s your #1 job to take good care of yourself.

There are other ways to show care and respect for people without subjecting yourself to unhealthy situations. You are under no obligation to go.

How it can look:

“Auntie, thank you so much for the invitation to come this year and every year. I’m so grateful for your thoughtfulness. I’m going to stay local and do the holiday with my friends this time. Can we schedule a time for me to call and say hello to everyone?”

#4 - Permission to not eat the thing

This might seem minor for some readers, but for others, the pressure to eat certain things at holiday gatherings can be pretty stress-inducing. The individual relationship we each have with food & eating & body image is usually rooted in our upbringings.

So, family gatherings can trigger a lot of old patterns. If you have worked (or are working) to untwist from some unhealthy eating patterns or self-talk about body & weight, it’s ideal to reinforce yourself ahead of time. Practice some statements so you are more easily able to say “thank you, it looks delicious, but I’m all set.” It might even be useful to lay some groundwork before the visit.

How it can look:

“I’ve started eating more mindfully lately and I’m really loving how I feel. I’ll probably skip the stuffing and pies this year, but I’m looking forward to your famous mashed potatoes.”

#5 - Permission to stay somewhere else

When it comes to family gatherings, having space away from the family helps some folks experience the time spent together as more pleasurable (tolerable?).

Whether it’s the ability to avoid worrying about how tidy you keep the bathroom, or which pajamas are family-appropriate, or simply having the option to head off to bed when you want without commentary…staying somewhere besides the family home offers some necessary breathing room & mental space.

If it’s financially feasible and you choose to stay elsewhere, reduce heartache by letting your family know with as much advanced notice as possible.

How it can look:

“We decided to book a room at a hotel this year. I know it’s different than we’ve done in the past, but I hope you will understand. It will help us to be well-rested and energized for all the fun family time during the day.”

#6 - Permission to decide your schedule

It’s common to feel beholden to someone else’s schedule if you are a guest in their home/town. But most hosts are quite willing to accommodate plans, especially if you communicate them in advance.

When I visit family, most of them are used to me going outside in the morning and getting in a walk or a jog. They also know that I’m perfectly fine if they start breakfast without me, because we have talked about morning plans at some point. Communicate your preferences ahead of time to help avoid hurt feelings or unfulfilled expectations.

How it can look:

“What are your thoughts & plans for the mornings? I generally prefer to start my day with some coffee and then usually eat something around 10am or so…please don’t build your breakfast plans around me.”

#7 - Permission to not be the host

Hosting is an area where those feelings of obligation and fear of disappointing others can creep up. Pressure from the outside can get pretty strong, increasing that sense of burden.

You might feel coerced just because you have a bigger space (“you've got the room to set up extra tables!”) or are more centrally located (“if you host, it’s just a 2-hour drive for everyone,”) or can cook a turkey (“it was so juicy when you did it!”) or hosted the last time (“but it’s tradition!”).

Consider your mental well-being and options to modify plans (order pre-done meals, go out to a restaurant, make it pot-luck, etc.).

How it can look:

“I’m so glad you’ve had a good time when I’ve hosted in the past! I’m just not feeling up to it this year, let’s come up with some other options together.”

#8 - Permission to break tradition

Speaking of traditions, all current traditions were initiated somewhere and had to happen for the very first time at some point. You have permission to establish new ones.

When you decide to make a change, it softens the message if you validate the benefit of the past traditions before informing about the new one. It’s possible for old things to matter and also create space for new things.

How it can look:

“Mom, I love how you established traditions for us when we were growing up and we want to create some new ones for our family too.”

#9 - Permission not to not engage

This one covers a lot of ground. Whether it’s tense conversation, watching sports, discussing the news, or playing games & joint activities, you have permission to not participate.

Think ahead about what you want your limits to be and how you can best assert those.

How it can look:

"I brought a great book to read while you all enjoy the game."

“Would anyone else like to get some air and take a walk with me?”

“How about we talk about something else?”

“Things are getting a little heated and we’re all here because we care about each other. Let’s see who can come up with the funniest memory instead.”

#10 - Permission to say no

This option also covers a lot of territory. You can say “no” to spending money on travel or food, “no” to allowing someone to bring their dog, “no” to uncle Bob trying to force a hug out of your little one, “no” to having the TV on, “no” to attending a religious service, etc.

But it can be challenging to say “no.” Think back on interactions and dynamics that have been hard in the past. Plan ahead about how you can say no or establish a new boundary this year. Practice it with someone else first to increase your confidence.

No is a complete sentence on its own and does not need explanation or rationale. Read further about how to establish and maintain boundaries.

#11 - Permission to take care of yourself

Consider the things that help you to manage stressful situations well.

Is that getting some alone time during the middle of the day?

Is that asking for the TV to be turned off?

Is that bringing particular things to eat/drink with you?

Is that running a quick errand to get out of the house?

Your job is to navigate the holiday stressors with self-compassion and support, so consider what you need to accomplish that. Set yourself up for success by communicating it beforehand.

How it can look:

“I feel better/calmer/happier when I do ______, so I just want to give you a heads up that I will do ______ during our visit.”

Start where you can

It can be overwhelming to consider giving yourself permission to make changes and potentially deal with pushback from others. If you are able to give yourself even 1 new permission that you've not done in the past, it's a great step towards prioritizing your well-being. Which of these 11 permissions would be easiest for you to start with?

Read further for specific strategies to manage challenging family visits.


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