Here's How To Deal With Seasonal Obligations If The Holidays Trigger You

Upset woman sitting at table celebrating holiday alone and using phone at Christmas night

The end of year is a time for reflection and celebration, yet the holiday season can be brutal emotionally speaking. How to say no to the holidays if they are too triggering for you is not usually the main topic of conversation as people string outdoor lights and bake festive treats. There are a lot of expectations to spend time with family and friends this time of year, and for those of us with complicated familial ties or bad associations with the holidays, that can be taxing at best, and traumatizing at worst. So remember, allowing yourself to say "Not today, Santa," to holiday or seasonal events that feel emotionally unsafe or overwhelming is certainly an option.

Life coach Karen C.L. Anderson, author of Difficult Mothers, Adult Daughters: A Guide For Separation, Liberation & Inspiration, tells Bustle that there are some good ways to go about declining an invite to a party or a dinner.

"Don't ignore the invitation," Anderson says. "Let [the host] know as quickly as you can that you won't be attending. Thank them for inviting you. Be honest, but there's no need to go into a lot of detail or explanation. The more you explain, the more the other person will see it as an opportunity to negotiate. Not wanting to attend is reason enough."

You can say something like, "that sounds wonderful, but I'm going to pass this time around," Anderson says. When you decline an invitation with a definite no, you are more likely to feel empowered by the choice. That can be harder when you lie or ignore the invitation, and might lead to negotiations with the person you are declining.

"This is especially true if we don’t believe that we deserve to even have a boundary in the first place, or aren’t sure how to articulate it, or have second thoughts about it being taken seriously," Anderson says. "If you are asked why, simply respond, 'It's my preference.'"

Another thing to remember, that can be difficult to digest, is that you don’t need their approval for your reason not to attend to be valid. It can hurt or induce some guilt when it seems like you are letting someone down.


"They do not have to agree with you," Anderson says. "You know what’s best for you."

These same general ideas can go for family, too, but not surprisingly, it can be a tad more difficult to approach this situation, let alone get them on board with understanding your choice. Families are often the relationship that is most triggering or emotionally charged. Psychologist Dr. Tamar Chansky tells Bustle that a lot of her patients are already asking questions about how to navigate opting out of the holiday celebrations.

"I have had many patients who spend so much time planning for every possible negative scenario with the holidays," Chansky says. "That's what they’ve experienced before, so they’ve come to the conclusion that logically speaking [they know] they will only feel much worse if they go and have to spend days trying to undo the emotional damage from being there."

It is the self-preserving move to decline in these scenarios, Chansky says. As is often true in life, there is no should when it comes to the holidays, Chansky says. Breathe through the guilt, my friends. Breathe through the expectations and the need to please.

"Try not to add another 'failure' to your list by blaming yourself for not being in the holiday spirit," Chansky says. "Accept where you are, and with that lighter load you may be surprised that this letting go might even allow you to feel lifted by a moment of beauty or kindness around you. And you can find a way of not celebrating, but you may also find a way of connecting."

There are definitely other people out there who feel serious difficulty with the holidays, and people who prefer not to observe or keep things extremely low-key, Chansky says. If you know other people who feel this way, talking it out and commiserating can be helpful. As can getting some professional guidance. And take time to consider for yourself what "meaningful celebrations" would actually look like for you.

Furthermore, the reasons for feeling more triggered than safe or happy during the holidays are vast, and only you really know your limits.

Psychotherapist Alisa Kamis-Brinda, LCSW, LCADC of Serenity Solutions, LLC, tells Bustle that it can be a tough decision whether to attend a holiday function that is triggering for you, but there are definitely situations where it can get truly unsafe for people.

For example, Kamis-Brinda says, for people in recovery from alcohol and/or other drugs, drinking at holidays parties can be a trigger to want to use their drug of choice again. For people who have experienced trauma in their lifetime, particularly those who experienced trauma at the hands of a family member, family get-togethers can trigger memories and unresolved feelings from those events. Family conflict or unmet needs by family members can lead to feeling triggered as well. You don't have to share these reasons, but you can if you feel comfortable doing so.

Sometimes in spite of these deeply valid reasons, Kamis-Brinda says many, if not most, people expecting you at the holiday dinner table will feel upset about your decision to opt-out. This is usually because they are focused on what they want and not on what you need.

"Taking the time to listen to the other person and letting them know that you understand how they are feeling can often help the conversation go smoothly," Kamis-Brinda says. "Calmly expressing how you made the decision and letting the other person know that you understand that they might not totally understand can also be helpful. Offering to spend time at a different time in a way that is not triggering can also be helpful."

Making a decision to take care of yourself, and not simply to grin and bear it, takes a lot of self-awareness and courage. Choose your well-being this holiday season, whatever that means for you!


Life coach Karen C.L. Anderson, author of Difficult Mothers, Adult Daughters: A Guide For Separation, Liberation & Inspiration.Psychologist Dr. Tamar Chansky.

Alisa Kamis-Brinda, LCSW, LCADC of Serenity Solutions, LLC,