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How To Say 'No' To Holiday Functions Without The Guilt

Sometimes we'd rather drink eggnog and watch Hallmark Christmas movies by ourselves.

It happens every year: December is here before you know it and suddenly your social calendar starts to fill up with so many holiday parties, cookie swaps, and family gatherings that you can barely keep track.

While some may welcome the non-stop festivities, others may feel an overwhelming amount of stress just from looking at their calendars. That’s why it’s so important for people to create boundaries and practice saying a powerful two-letter word: No.

“If you do too much, things that are supposed to be fun become stressful obligations,” Toronto psychologist Dr. Meg Aston-Lebold told HuffPost Canada. “Balance is always important, so it’s healthy to plan some down time during the holidays.”

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The holidays are already stressful enough without having every weekend overloaded with activities. A 2018 study found that one in three people in the U.S. experience holiday burnout before Dec. 25.

“The risk [of overscheduling yourself] is feeling overly fatigued and stressed, [which] can impact overall well-being,” Daniel Nadon, a psychotherapist at Ottawa’s East End Psychotherapy Services, explained to HuffPost Canada. “We could then see people be irritable, frustrated, and probably have less patience with themselves and immediate family members, i.e. their children and partner.”

Saying “yes” to too many holiday functions can also “exacerbate whatever difficulty [you’re] already experiencing” in regards to mental health, Nadon added.

And those are just the psychological repercussions. Stress is also known to have an effect on your body. While everyone reacts differently, common physical symptoms include headaches, muscle tension, stomach problems, moodiness, difficulty thinking or concentrating, and irritability, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Why is it so hard to say no?

Fear of missing out is one reason some people find it hard to turn down an invitation, but more often than not, it’s because people don’t want to leave their loved ones feeling disappointed or neglected.

“People may think they have to live up to unrealistic ideals about energy levels and available time,” Nadon explained.

Needing a break from social engagements due to mental health issues could also make it hard for some people to say no. This is because “the stigma around mental health issues definitely still exists,” said Aston-Lebold.

“Society tells us we’re supposed to want to go to parties and I think it’s still hard for many people to understand why you can’t just ‘push through’ the anxiety or depressed feelings that these events can elicit,” she explained.

How to say no without being rude

It is possible to decline an invitation without causing conflict with loved ones, although it’s easier said than done. The first rule to remember is to keep it simple and don’t lie, Nadon advised.

“A simple, ‘Thanks for the invitation, but we won’t be able to make it this time,’ may be all you need,” the psychotherapist explained. “Adding something like ‘I hope we can connect early in the new year’ [can also be helpful]. If it’s true, [it] opens the door to future engagements and shows an interest in maintaining the relationship.”

Oftentimes, people think they need to make up an excuse as to why they can’t make an event. However, this could complicate things down the road. Instead, Aston-Lebold says it’s OK to leave out your reason for declining.

If you’re being gracious about the invitation and politely say no, it’s harder for the other person to get upset. Additionally, “you can follow it up by expressing your hope to hear about how great of a time it was” to show that you care, Aston-Lebold said.

If turning down an invite is still difficult for you, scheduling rest and relaxation into your calendar way in advance (read: now) can help.

“This way we already have a commitment on many days and aren’t available to say yes to all the invitations,” Nadon said. “This helps with the ‘don’t lie’ piece.”

What to do when you feel guilty

It’s normal to feel guilty about saying “no” to friends and family, but the important thing to remember is that you’re not purposely trying to hurt anyone’s feelings.

“Saying ‘no,’ especially to people who you care about, can be hard,” said Aston-Lebold. “It can be especially hard when the receiver gives you a bit of a guilt trip for saying ‘no,’ which I imagine many families do. That doesn’t mean it was the wrong choice.”

“Ultimately, you can’t control how others will react to you saying ‘no,'" she continued. “Some people just have a really hard time hearing ‘no’ and all you can do is calmly reassert yourself.”

Don't feel guilty about saying "no" to a holiday party. You can have plenty of fun by yourself.
tommaso79 via Getty Images
Don't feel guilty about saying "no" to a holiday party. You can have plenty of fun by yourself.

Saying “no” is a powerful tool. Not only can it help you avoid burnout, but it can also give you a sense of control over your life.

“Saying ‘no’ can lead to feeling proud of having maintained boundary and/or achieve the goal of self-care,” Nadon said. “In the case of the holidays, it’s also freed-up time to do something else we really wanted to do — and it doesn’t have to be a grandiose accomplishment. Going to bed early, movie night, [and] exercising are all fine reasons to say ‘no.’”

Although saying “no” has many benefits, some people may still struggle with guilt, and that’s OK. Just “remind yourself of the commitments around self-care you made to yourself … and use the guilt as a motivating factor to actually plan something after the holidays,” Nadon said.

If all else fails, just remember that, “this probably won’t matter much in March” anyway.

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