By: Anna Borges
If you’re spending the holidays alone for the first time this year, you’re…well, not alone, at least in that way. On top of those who typically spend the holidays solo, there are also plenty of people choosing to do their important part in slowing the spread of COVID-19 by avoiding travel and going it alone for the first time. There’s nothing wrong with spending the holidays alone—and some will tell you it can be quite enjoyable when it’s your choice—but when you want to be surrounded by loved ones, it can feel really rotten. So if you’re really dreading the next few weeks, it might help to take some extra steps to look after your mental health.
To help, I asked people who have spent the holidays alone in the past to share any advice they might have for others going through it this year. As with any mental health advice, what works for someone else might not work for you, so consider these starting points only. There’s no need to pile added pressure to do certain things onto a time that’s already rough, so take what you like and leave the rest.
1. Remind yourself it’s okay if all you do for the holidays is get through them.
Let’s start here, since it’s the most important thing. If the thought of practicing a bunch of self-care is utterly exhausting, that’s valid as heck. A little expectation setting can go a long way, even if it’s just saying, “Okay, yeah, holidays this year are going to suck. I’m going to feel like crap and white-knuckle my way through it the best I can.” That is loads better than forcing yourself to “make the best of things” or focus on what you “should” be doing or feeling. Give yourself permission to hate every minute of this if that’s what you need.
2. Set new holiday expectations or goals.
Speaking of expectation-setting, it’s important even when you do want to make an effort to feel festive. After all, all the cultural expectations around the holiday season, from an emphasis on togetherness to ~merry and bright~ messaging, can be hard to shake. And telling yourself that you know you won’t have a “typical” holiday this year won’t magically erase your feelings. Still, trying to redefine what the holidays mean, even temporarily, can help lift a little weight off your shoulders.
Beyond tossing preconceived holiday expectations out the window, you can intentionally shift the focus of your holiday season to something new. Maybe this year, it’s a time to reset and reflect, with lots of self-care. Maybe it’s a chance to try a bunch of new recipes or tap into specific types of childlike joy through games and crafts. Hell, maybe it’s even a time to do some cleaning and reorganization. The holiday season is a social construct! It can mean whatever you want!
“This may be your only chance to celebrate alone and do only the things you want to do,” Jessica W., 44, tells SELF. On that note…
3. Don’t force yourself to keep up old traditions.
If keeping up on old traditions that you’d usually do with your loved ones will make you feel better, that’s awesome. But for a lot of people, it might just be a bummer, given that it’s a direct reminder of what you’re missing out on.
“For us Jews, it’s been a long year with many lonely holidays,” Mijal T., 26, tells SELF. “While setting up Zooms with the family was super important and fun, I also made sure to cook some of my favorite meals and still make those days special. Trying to find and celebrate the spirit of the day and give it a new meaning when most traditions can’t be kept really helped me get through.”
If you don’t know where to start, I also wrote this list of small ways to celebrate alone. You might find some ideas you want to try there.
4. Consider making a gameplan ahead of time.
This goes for the season as a whole, too, but it’s especially important for days you think might be weighted for you. That way, you won’t, for example, wake up on Christmas Day in your feelings and have to ask, “Shit, what now?”
“Try to be spontaneous if you want but I recommend planning your activities,” Neli U.E., 33, tells SELF. “That way if you feel blue or without energy, it’ll be easier for you to just keep following a plan rather than having to thank about what to do.”
Your plan doesn’t have to be super intense or anything—even deciding what movie you want to watch after breakfast will save you from some endless, melancholy scrolling through Netflix when you’re already down.
5. Give celebrating a shot even if you’re skeptical.
The thing about self-care and mental health advice is that it’s easy to decide something won’t work without actually trying it. I don’t blame you—sometimes it won’t work and why risk it if you’re already feeling like crap? The same can go for trying to enjoy yourself. Why force yourself to have fun when it might just be a bummer? But if you’re up for it, mental health experts will tell you that it’s worth testing the hypothesis. Some of the time, you’ll surprise yourself and find out it does help you feel better. And if it doesn’t, now you know. Win-win.
6. Try to appreciate the little things.
Alright, now I do kind of sound like a greeting card. But hear me out. We’re losing a lot of the big, flashier aspects of the holidays, like large gatherings and traditions, so some of the more delightful details of the holidays can become that much more important. I for one have made a whole event out of enjoying holiday candles for precisely this reason.
“If you start feeling low, try to focus on the soft lighting of the holiday decorations or the sparkle of ornaments and allow yourself to appreciate them,” Arielle W., 34, tells SELF. “Especially right now, things aren’t easy or stable. We can give ourselves those little moments, though, where we can find a degree of peace and stability, even if tomorrow it’s back to the usual routine.”
7. Stay up on basic self-care the best you can.
I wouldn’t be doing my job as a mental health writer if I didn’t remind you—gently, I promise—that nutrition, hydration, sleep, and movement have a huge impact on your mental health. When those things go off the rails, all the negative emotions we’re already dealing with can feel even worse. Then, of course, staying up on self-care feels even more impossible. It’s a hard cycle to be trapped in, for sure.
To the best of your ability, try to tend to your basic needs so your crappy holiday can at least exist on top of a sturdy foundation. It won’t fix everything, but it will help. And of course, practice a ton of self-compassion if and when these practices don’t come easily to you or you can’t manage them on certain days.
8. Remember the downsides of your usual holiday season.
In a good way. I don’t know about you, but even though I romanticize the holiday season (especially now when I feel like I’m missing out), it’s not all sunshine and roses. In fact, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t have to deal with, thanks to my solo holiday. Not to be all “look on the bright side,” but when I think of the family fights, awkward run-ins with old acquaintances, gifting stress, and more that I’m skipping this year, I do feel a little better. Maybe try doing a similar reality check next time you’re gazing longingly into the distance and imagining the perfect holiday you wish you were having.
9. Give yourself plenty of space to feel your feelings.
Even when we’re putting in our best effort to keep our holiday sadness and loneliness at bay, these feelings will come up and we shouldn’t try to shove them away. Alone or not, the holidays never mean feeling merry and bright all the time, and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t hold space for the whole wide spectrum of our emotions.
“It’s okay to be sad during the holidays,” Alex F., 36, tells SELF. “Sometimes when I’m sad I like to just wallow in it, watch sad movies, let myself cry, and not beat myself up. All feelings are okay, so let yourself feel them.”