Psychotherapy & Counselling Tips for Tackling Holiday Expectations

Tips for Tackling Holiday Expectations

2020 has been one heck of a year.  It is of no wonder that as I sat down to reflect on these past 11 months what stood out most were the new ‘norms’ which have become to so many of us an integral part of day-to-day living.  Last year, many of us had plans to travel, to marry, to celebrate and to grow.  While some of these may have come to fruition, it is no doubt they looked different.  Instead, cancelling yearned for trips and gatherings were traded for masks, hand sanitizing & vigorous hand washing, social distancing and social ‘bubbles’. Change seems to be the only reliable part of 2020.  Now, as we navigate stores that resemble the floors of elementary school classrooms guiding us where to stand and walk, and the word ‘unprecedented’ becoming part of our daily vocabulary, I couldn’t help but consider what else has become part of our everyday repertoire.  I reflected on many of my sessions this past year, as well as many of my own personal conversations, and realized how important communication, effective communication that is, has become.  Now more than ever folks have had to navigate incredibly difficult conversations with children, parents, in-laws, friends and even employers around how the pandemic guidelines are interpreted and followed, how a bubble is defined, and how each person navigates their safety both physically and emotionally within this climate.  As the holidays draw near, and as we approach a season that no doubt looks vastly different than those before it, I couldn’t help but think how many more of these conversations we will need to navigate, specifically with those who mean the most to us.  I wondered: what skills could offer a helpful hand this season?

“How do I say no to attending holiday events when I am just not comfortable?” 

“How do I share with my family that I am limiting my celebrating to only members of my household?”

“How do I navigate conversations with those that don’t interpret the guidelines the same as I do?”

These are valid, yet challenging, questions that no doubt they have complex answers.  I wondered if I might offer a few helpful suggestions to see if it makes navigating any of these just a little easier.

Say ‘No’

Saying ‘no’ is uncomfortable.  There, I said it.  However, saying ‘no’ is also a complete sentence.  Often, ‘no’ it is received more warmly when followed by a ‘Thank-You’ or another validating remark, however I often find myself sharing with my clients that saying ‘no’ is enough; you are under no obligation to provide any further rationale.  This can often be met with surprise, or uncertainty, but hear me out.  By saying ‘no’ you are making your stance clear.  There is no gray area, room for discussion or movement.  It limits any opportunity for open ended discussion and/or questions and can often lead to more effective communication as you were nothing but clear on where you stand. Also, it prevents the over-sharing of information that you may not intend, or wish to, share!


Broken Record technique

For those who wish to offer more context or rationale, I encourage you to still use the word ‘no’ but follow this with a sentence or two.  For instance “No.  But thank you for asking/your invitation, we are limiting our interactions with those only in our household this year.  We will miss seeing you”.  Whatever feels comfortable for you.  

As is often the case, this isn’t always well received the first time.  We’ve seen it followed with the age old “yes, but. . .”.   Try this: say the same sentence you just said one more time. Don’t change anything, just repeat yourself.  And if the conversation is continuing, another time again.  This is called the ‘broken record’ technique.  When folks may not be ‘hearing’ us, or, not accepting out firm ‘no’ continuing to repeat ourself sends the implicit, and explicit, message that we are unwilling to be flexible on the matter (as per the firm ‘no’) and leaves very little room for the conversation to go (as you are repeating the same sentence). This technique is an example of setting a firm boundary though in a gentle and assertive way. 


This is an acronym borrowed from a therapy practice known as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy.  The ‘DEAR’ stands for ‘what’ we are going to say, where the ‘GIVE’ is reflective of our tone or ‘how’ we are going to say our message.  This can be used during a conversation that we wish to shift the subject matter on.  

D- describe what you want/do not want.  Keep this factual. 

I.e:” I would like to see you, but I will not be able to.”  

      “I’m not wanting to talk about COVID during the holidays/this evening”

E-  Let the other person know how you’re feeling.  Keep this from an “I” perspective and make sure it’s emotion, not a thought.

I.e.:  “I’m feeling disappointed (emotion) I won’t be able to see you or celebrate      with you”

“I’m feeling overwhelmed (emotion) or fatigued by all the pandemic talk”

A- State what you wish to happen.

I.e. “I will let you know when I am comfortable expanding my bubble or seeing others outside my household”

“Let’s change the topic, did you perhaps learn to bake bread this year?”

R- This is where we may come back to that ‘broken record’ technique by restating our ‘A’ or ‘D’ statements. 

‘how’ we give the above message:

G- Gently!  Approach softly, settled tone of voice and be courteous.  Remember, the folks you are often sharing this message with you love!

I- Show interest in the person you’re speaking to, even if you’re not interested in the subject matter. This skill is to support you in doing that by shifting the conversation in a gentle way to one where you are more comfortable.

V- Validate, validate, validate! Whether it be why they’re asking, how they may be feeling, or what they want to talk about.  Validation can go a long way in helping someone feel comfortable and helping to respect your decision to change the subject or say no.

E- With an ‘easy manner’ or using some light humour.  Remember, the folks we are navigating these challenging conversations with are ones we likely love the most! If you’re someone who often uses humour, this is a great time to use some.

Although these skills can be helpful, they require practice.  These skills can help us stay in the driver seat, or, to feel more in control around the conversations we are having, information we are sharing, or our decisions around the holidays.  There is no perfect way to use these, as the goal is to communicate effectively, not perfectly.  Remember, keep it simple, plan ahead and practice, practice practice! Try one, or all, of these out.  Let me know how it goes, I look forward to hearing! 

Lindsay Wetmore holds a Masters degree in Social Work and is a Registered Social Worker with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW).  Lindsay’s primary area of focus is trauma, specifically, supporting those who have experienced and are healing from traumatic events like a loss (death or relationship), abuse (physical, mental) and illness or those who have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).