Hey, you, yeah you, the one who feels like they must put on a mask of joy and excitement because, after all, it’s the holidays and everyone should be happy. I see you. I can imagine the anxiety-filled prayers you continue to whisper as the holidays draw near. I see the smile that is barely holding back the tears. I see your clenched fists, hidden beneath the table, as you try to maintain control while others beat you with an onslaught of unsolicited advice and opinions about your life. I see you, breaking away, to hide in the bathroom until you can regain your composure. I see you. You’re not alone. I can’t tell you the countless holiday bathroom trips I’ve made, the double bites of food, to ensure I wouldn’t spit venom that has been fermenting for weeks, months, even years or the silent tears that have drenched my pillow over the season. You.are.not.alone. I love the holidays, I do, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be coupled with feelings of unbelonging, unworthiness, fear, pain, anger, resentment, bitterness, and any other valid emotions you might feel. You can simultaneously experience joy and ache deeply for something more, something better, something different, or something that used to be. Joy and heartache can co-exist with any other juxtaposition you may be feeling. There is no emotional box we need to force ourselves into; it’s okay to just be as we are. There is nothing wrong with you, you are not broken, you are you. Coping, healing, moving forward, they all happen at a different pace for everyone. Our timelines and methods cannot be compared because our circumstances are never the same.
However, we can share things that have worked for us. While you can never fully prepare for what you do not know, you can have a game plan in place to help ease the anxiety of navigating situations that may lead to uncomfortable conversations and dreaded questions.
There are a few things I have successfully mastered to help me navigate holiday gatherings with confidence, including what I call the 4D game plan:
Below, I effectively break down how you can direct your conversations, deflect uncomfortable questions, divert attention away from yourself, and flawlessly depart from any setting. Your goal this season doesn't have to be “to get through the holidays." Instead, your goal can be “to successfully navigate the holidays with confidence.”
Let me begin by saying, "Staying home is always an option." Your feelings and your reasons are valid, despite other’s opinions of them. Having boundaries for yourself is healthy and surrounding yourself with people who respect your boundaries is helpful. Those who really know you and care for you will respect your choice, and the ones who don’t are likely the reason for your boundaries; therefore, you should feel validated in your choice to stay home. More than once, I made the decision to stay home and the relief that I felt was amazing. Contrary to my own belief, there was little to no guilt that followed my decision.
The 4D Game Plan-
Prepare yourself, uncomfortable conversations are likely, so it’s better to be prepared with a few canned responses ahead of time. People usually want to know three things:
Where are you living these days
What is your current job
Who are you seeing or spending time with?
I build my canned responses around these common questions.
One more thing before we jump into the 4D Game Plan, and I’m speaking from experience here, be prepared to be caught off guard by something that triggers you deeply. Triggers don’t always come with a warning. In fact, triggers are often revealed through basic conversations. If you sense, and you will, that the direction of a conversation may trigger something within you, divert attention or redirect the conversation. If you are fine with the conversation continuing, be prepared for the feelings and emotions that an unknown trigger may cause and have an exit plan in place if you need one, be that to the restroom or elsewhere.
Direct the conversation
While I am an introvert, and I don’t typically initiate small talk, I find that directing the conversation allows me to determine what we talk about. I usually make it a point to “connect” with the person I typically try and avoid. This person is usually the one who is most likely to ask me things they already know the answers to, but want to hear it from me, make rude comments, or ask inappropriate questions. With that in mind, if there is an elephant in the room you are both aware of and you are sure they will address it (for example: a recent divorce, loss of a loved one, mental health, dating status, weight, having children, and get married) then address it first and be direct. Some examples might look like:
"As you know, John and I broke up, so...”
“As you can see, we’re still waiting for God to open the door for...”
“As you can imagine, this year is really difficult because...”
If the “elephant in the room” is something you are okay discussing to a degree, then mention it, say what you want about it, and immediately ask a question of them, leaving them no room to ask one of you. Most of the time, after you have shown that you are done talking about something, people rarely go back to it, especially if they are distracted by talking about themselves.
However, should one be so bold as to circle back or if you absolutely don’t want to talk about it, be direct in saying any of the following:
"I honestly said all I want to say about it. "
"I don’t want to talk about x,y,z tonight."
"Thank you for your concern, but I have shared all I am willing to share at this time.'
"I don’t care to discuss that right now, but tell me about... "
Directing the conversation puts you in the driver's seat. I find it more comfortable to be on the offense rather than the defense when conversing with boundaryless people.
Deflect uncomfortable questions
Another sneaky trick I use to navigate the dreaded “catch-up” conversations is deflection. Politics is not something I want to discuss at a family event. I am the black sheep in terms of my beliefs regarding race, religion, and politics. Therefore, I avoid them when possible. While deflection can be unhealthy, there are healthy and sometimes necessary ways to use it.
A healthy way to deflect a question or statement that causes your blood pressure to rise or your chest to tighten is to say/do any of the following:
Answer a question with a question, one that the person will be eager to answer and that has nothing to do with where conversation was heading. “Oh, it’s funny you ask that, I was just wondering _____ “ or “That reminds me, how is _____?"
Another suggestion is to say, “I promised myself I would keep it cool today, why don’t you send me some articles or news stories you were talking about and I’ll send you some too, but I’m choosing not to discuss it tonight."
“I promised (insert name) I wouldn’t discuss that today. I want to honor that commitment.”
If deflection is done in a way that does not antagonize or intensely misdirect attention by attacking someone, then it’s acceptable to use. Stay away from unhealthy forms of deflection, like gaslighting and aggression.
Divert attention Besides deflection, another tool I like to use is diverting attention. It’s also the easiest to do. This is as simple as saying any of the following:
“Hey, did you see (insert name) is here. I’m going to say hi. Can I get you anything while I’m up?”
Accidentally drop something, tell them how clumsy you are, and as you pick up whatever it is you dropped (popcorn, chips, phone) then say something like, “Well, it was great talking to you I’m going to go throw this away.”
Be willing to appear flighty and say something "random".
Diverting attention is probably my favorite trick to use. This is especially easy to do when the house is bustling. However, given that COVID welcomed itself into the holiday season, gatherings may be more sparse, but diversion can still be easily employed, especially because the people who are prying are usually the same people who love to talk about themselves. When all else fails, dote on the person you are conversing with - bring up their work, their family, or something they have recently done; that will shift attention from you to them. The downfall, however, is that you may be in for a longer conversation than desired, but that won’t be a problem because we discuss exit strategies next!
Depart the conversation or gathering
Everyone needs a great escape plan, be that from a conversation or from the gathering all together. I have several successful and rarely questioned escape plans. My favorite, however, is using an app called Fake Call. You can use it on iPhone and Android devices. This app allows you to receive a phone call, which gives you a reason to excuse yourself from a conversation. It is simple to use - you just get out your phone like you’re looking at the time, you click the app, and click the timer. It will send you a call in the specified time frame.
If that doesn’t work, I’d like to suggest having a partner-in-crime that you can share code words or gestures. My husband and I always have two code words or gestures for social events, one indicates you need them to interrupt the conversation and politely pull you aside, while the other specifies you are ready to leave the event. Having code words/gestures alleviates anxiety by ensuring that someone has your back when you need it.
Finally, you can always excuse yourself to the restroom, to get some fresh air, or to catch someone before they leave. Whatever you do, make it seem as natural as possible to keep the peace. After all, we are called to live in peace with everyone, as much as it depends on us (Romans 12:18).
At the end of the day, it’s best to have a plan in place and do what is best for you. Sometimes, that means staying home, but it always means protecting yourself from unhealthy choices, whatever that might look like for you. Be sure to choose your company wisely. Do not be around people who make you want to engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms; do not surround yourself with people who encourage unhealthy coping either.
Whatever the reason for your pain this season, I want you to know you are not alone. Whether your marriage is crumbling, you’re missing your children due to custody rights, a piece of you is missing after a devastating loss, you’re facing infertility, you can’t lose weight, you’re overcoming an addiction, your mental health is shaky, you have to sit at a table with your abuser, your child is hurting, you never received the apology, you’re fighting “coming out”, you got fired from your job, you can’t find a job - whatever the reason for your pain, I want you to know you’re not alone; many of us are here or have been here before.
It is my hope that this 4D Game Plan will help you avoid unwanted holiday anxiety, conversations, and interactions. One thing I have mastered, while navigating life with baggage, is the art of friendly conversation that shifts focus from me to others. If you have any tips or suggestions that have helped you navigate uncomfortable holiday conversations and situations, please share them in the comment section. We want to share tools that make us better, not make us bitter. May this be a season of growth and gain.