How to Say “No” This Holiday Season

November 30, 2018 by Emily Lockamy

‘Tis the season for invitations – to holiday parties, performances, Secret Santas, tree lightings, cookie swaps, and other fun-filled, festive gatherings.

But for people who are wrestling with mental health concerns or painful life transitions, like a divorce, a recent loss, or serious depression, such activities can seem overwhelming and unappealing.

But the pressure to appease well-meaning friends and family members who request your presence at such events can feel immense. You may feel as though you can’t say no for fear of disappointing them, even if you know that accepting their request will only bring more stress and distress at a time when you feel like you’re hanging on by a thread.

Declining invitations can feel difficult, but setting boundaries and doing what works best for you as you try to cope and recover is important. And there are several ways in which to make the act of saying “no” feel more doable:

  1. Use Mindful Self-Compassion to justify your choice.

Self-compassion involves being kind to yourself during difficult moments – instead of berating yourself for not being “strong enough” to want to celebrate this holiday season, speak to yourself like you’d speak to a close friend. Say, “This is a period of pain… Pain is a part of life… May I be patient with myself and give myself the compassion I need.”

Instead of blaming or shaming yourself for “letting others down,” acknowledge your shared sense of humanity: “Everyone struggles at some point. I’m not alone.”

  1. Recognize your rights as a human being.

As leading expert on self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff, points out: none of us signed a written contract before birth promising that we’d be perfect, that we’d never fail, and that our lives would go exactly the way we want them to. So why should we hold ourselves to unrealistic standards?

Experts in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), explain that we all have legitimate rights that reflect our value as humans. A few rights in particular are key to remember when it comes to navigating relationships and having hard conversations:

“You have a right to need things from others.

You have a right to put yourself first sometimes.

You have a right to say no; saying no doesn’t make you bad or selfish.

You have a right not to justify yourself to others.

You have a right, sometimes, to inconvenience or disappoint others.”

It’s perfectly okay to exercise those rights when needed.

  1. Use assertiveness skills to respond.

The ability to say no is an essential part of healthy communication.

“Saying no is simple and hard at the same time,” write authors of the DBT Skills Workbook, McKay, Wood, and Brantley. “The words are simple, but often it takes courage to say them.”

Effectively passing up an offer entails just two steps:

  1. Validating the other person’s needs or desires.

Example: “I appreciate you including me. You always throw great dinner parties.”

  1. Stating a clear preference not do it.

Example: “But I’m really not up for it this year. I need to take some time to rest.”

While it may feel uncomfortable at first, the more you practice being assertive – confidently expressing what you want, need, or believe, while respecting others’ feelings – the easier it will be.

  1. Remember that boundaries make for better relationships.

We can’t please all the people all the time, and we can’t be everything for everyone. And even if we could, it would come at a high price. Maintaining good boundaries is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves and our relationships. Protecting our own boundaries helps us avoid feelings of hurt and resentment, and enables us to take better care of ourselves and experience a clearer, more positive self-concept. Respecting others’ boundaries helps us cultivate more balanced, supportive, and caring connections. And sometimes, having firm boundaries means saying no. 

  1. Recognize that all feelings are valid, but no feeling is final.

It’s hard to be in a dark place during the “most wonderful time of the year,” but these feelings won’t last forever. Give yourself permission to hibernate a bit, or change up your traditions (knowing that you can always revert back to being busier and more social next year). But also be mindful of the tendency to isolate and withdraw, which can worsen depression. Try to seek and accept support in ways that feel helpful.

Lastly, while you may assume that all the bright lights, merry music, and cheery people will surely only fuel your low mood, try to stay open to the possibility that being around others and getting out of your comfort zone may help lift your spirits.

If you do decide to go out, you can give yourself an out.

Example: “Gotta get home to take my dog out!” or “I think I’d better leave at intermission.”

You can also say “yes” to something and reserve the right to change your mind, at any time.

If you do opt to don your “ugly sweater” and attend the annual bash, it can help to plan ahead and anticipate difficult feelings that may surface and how you’ll handle this (if you’re at a loss for coping skills, therapy can help). At the same time, try to practice positive thinking by interrupting anxious ‘what if’ thoughts with a different kind of question: “What if I have a great time?”

Most importantly, be gentle with yourself this season. It’s not an easy time of year, but pain does not have to equal suffering, and suffering does not have to be done in silence. If you’re finding that you need to talk to someone, call 910-790-9500 to set up a therapy appointment at Chrysalis Center for Counseling and Eating Disorder Treatment.

And remember, ‘no’ can be a full sentence.

Emily Lockamy is a licensed professional counselor associate and freelance writer passionate about helping people find their way through grief, anxiety, and other struggles. Emily also facilitates Healing Words: A Therapeutic Writing Group, helping people process emotional pain through the art of writing.


(Image source: BBC)

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