How to Say No to Anything That Makes You Uncomfortable This Holiday Season

updated Nov 19, 2020
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Believe it or not, the holidays are upon us. In any other year, that would mean an onslaught of parties, gift exchanges, dinners, and more. But like most other things right now, this season is going to look pretty different. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have laid out guidelines for holiday festivities that recommend against traveling for Thanksgiving and getting together with people outside of your household. “Gatherings with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu,” reads the CDC’s website.

If you’re heading into the season knowing you and some (or all) of your loved ones have different perspectives on the pandemic, uncomfortable situations may arise. For help tackling these tough conversations, look no further than this insight provided by Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based civility expert Steven Petrow and Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist Maisha Gainer

Set Clear Boundaries Ahead of Time

Before the holiday season really kicks into high gear, Petrow suggests giving a good think to which activities and behaviors feel right to you. “Have a conversation with yourself or with your partner or spouse as you’re heading into the holidays. What are you comfortable with?” Petrow says. “Set rules ahead of time that establish your comfort level.” 

Knowing your household’s agreed-upon boundaries will help when it comes time to express them to someone else. Petrow, for instance, says he recently received an invite to an event in a movie theater—a situation he knows he’s not at ease with right now. “I said, ‘Thank you very much for inviting me, but right now I’m not comfortable participating in that type of thing. I hope you understand,’” he explains.

Don’t Put off Discussions About Holiday Plans 

Whether it’s telling your family that you won’t be traveling home for the season or communicating that you’re not okay with people traveling to you, it’s better to have the chat(s) sooner rather than later. According to Petrow, this helps loved ones set expectations about what this year’s celebrations will look like. 

“You start to come up with alternative plans also,” he says. “I think there’ll be a lot of people who will not be traveling to see family and who then might otherwise wind up at home or alone, and nobody wants that for anybody these holidays.” 

Petrow, who has out-of-state family himself, recognizes that these are going to be “really painful conversations.” In his case, he plans to “allow for the feelings that are going to come up, because everybody is going to be challenged by how different these holidays look.” 

Credit: Ruth Black/Stocksy

Find That Compromise

If you feel weary about what your crew has planned, Gainer recommends trying to ID an alternative that everyone feels good about. 

Can everyone still gather together on Zoom for cooking, dinner, games, and a movie? Or, if you’re all in the same area, can every household make a different recipe and do contactless delivery to get it to everyone else, then gather on Zoom?  

While a virtual celebration is of course not the same, “nothing has been the same this year,” Gainer says. “I would just ensure that the conversation is from a place of safety for all parties.” 

When You Turn Down an Invite, Be Clear About Why

Saying no to someone’s event can be a potentially awkward situation, and you don’t want to hurt your relationship with the host. When you tell someone you won’t be attending their holiday soiree, Petrow says it’s important to be clear that the COVID-19 crisis is the reason. Let the host know your ‘no’ RSVP is about safety, not because you don’t want to go.

To reinforce the idea that your absence is about health and safety, make sure you take the time to give a call or send a text to those loved ones you won’t see in person throughout the season. “Now more than ever we need to reach out, we need to be connected, we need to tell people that we care for them. And so make those efforts,” Petrow says. “Be really clear about your feelings and why family or friends matter to you, because we’re all a little bit lost and those kinds of connections matter, and they matter especially during the holidays.” 

Release Your Guilt Around the Situation 

It’s natural to not want to let down the people in your life, but Gainer reminds us that it’s okay to turn down an invitation. “We take on this guilt of not wanting to say no, not wanting to disappoint someone, but you also have to think about yourself,” she says. “This year has been a lot of, ‘Well, does this work for me? Looking internally, how do I feel?’” Remember: You’re doing the best you can right now. 

The Home for the Holidays vertical was written and edited independently by the Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn editorial teams and generously underwritten by Cointreau.