We humans

Feeling lonely this holiday season? You can still make it special — some practical advice

Dec 17, 2020 / +

To say that this year has been a long one is an understatement. 

As the pandemic continues, most of us have spent much more time apart rather than together — something that will continue for some of us this holiday season. And if that’s you, the thought of spending this typically festive time separated from friends and family is no doubt a heavy one.

But we don’t have to write off the holidays entirely and just hope for better in the future, says psychologist Adia Gooden PhD. “What’s important is to honor that these holidays are going to feel different,” she explains. “There’s probably going to be some disappointment, some sadness, some loneliness, and that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Or that you’re not grateful. It’s a very human reaction.”

Going through this holiday season will require managing your expectations and being mindful of the fact that you’re incredibly fatigued after months and months of trying to make the best of bad (and uncertain) circumstances. Taking these feelings seriously and treating them with care is a vital starting point, says Gooden.

Begin from a place of self-compassion

Remember you’re not alone in feeling this way. “When we’re lonely, we feel like we’re the only ones who are lonely — we look on social media, we see other people together, and we start to feel like there must be something wrong with us,” says Gooden. “[We think] we’re not worthy of connection or people don’t like us, when that’s really not true. Instead, we can acknowledge that there are other people who are struggling with loneliness right now.”

Be mindful — acknowledge how you feel and what’s going on in your body. “Are you getting teary-eyed? Do you feel a lump in your throat? Be with that feeling, even if you can’t name it,” says Gooden. Just notice it and breathe through it, instead of brushing it aside or judging yourself for not being filled with holiday cheer.

Show kindness to yourself. Say the sorts of encouraging things that you’d say to a close friend in this situation — “This is temporary”; “We will get out of this”; “It’s okay to feel sad and disappointed”.

For some of us, this may be our first or second holiday season alone; for others, we may be with other people but still feel lonely because we’re apart from our family (or chosen family). Perhaps the holidays are often a challenging time for you. Still, there are things you can do to care for yourself, says Gooden.

You should still plan for the holidays — just do it a little differently

First, it’s still a holiday so make sure you treat it like one. You might be tempted to distract yourself with work, but you still need to take a break. No work emails or Slack, so plan to have your auto responder on and your laptop put away. “This is really a vacation,” says Gooden.

Honor your existing traditions as best you can. If there’s a ritual that is really important to you and your family — perhaps opening gifts or cooking together — see if you can make this happen over a video call. Yes, it’s going to feel a little bit odd, but it’s also grounding to do something familiar and share it with the people you love. Recreate what you can, where you are. For example, try to have the music and food that you normally associate with the holidays, recommends Gooden.

Embrace the chance to make new traditions. Perhaps there are friends you’ve always dreamed of spending the holidays with, but they live far away. Why not schedule a call with them this year? We’re all having a very different experience of the holidays, and it’s OK to ask. You can also think about doing something you love that’s not usually possible during the holidays, suggests Gooden. Maybe you never get to sleep in, or your family hates the terrible Christmas movies that you love. “Do something that just feels joyful to you,” she urges.

Find new ways to connect. If you feel like you can’t face doing one more Zoom call, explore new options to spend time together online — like streaming a movie. Group gaming options like Among Us and Jackbox Games have also become popular. Plus, what’s more festive than trying to explain new technology to a family member?

Have strategies in place for the holiday itself

Make sure you’ve saved something to do that makes the day feel special. It can be as simple as a facial, your favorite food that’s usually a little too expensive to order, or a walk with a friend, says Gooden. Distinguishing this as a distinct and special day amidst the Groundhog Day blur of pandemic life is important.

Think about whether you want to use social media. It can serve as a wonderful point of connection and make you feel less alone, but it can also be hard to see other people sharing family time. You might want to consider avoiding it if you find that difficult, says Gooden.

Pick up the phone or FaceTime. Don’t just hide behind text messages and emojis. “Have a real conversation, and be honest,” says Gooden. “Take off the mask, and acknowledge that it’s hard. If we just hold it in and are silently crying while we’re texting and pretending we’re okay, that’s the epitome of feeling lonely.”

If you do spend the day alone, reach out to people. “Message someone who you think will be alone too,” says Gooden. “You may not be super close, but put yourself out there and be a little vulnerable. Go out of your comfort zone to make that connection.”

If using social media does feel like something you can manage, British comedian Sarah Millican runs a hashtag called #joinin on Twitter on Christmas Day. It’s designed for anyone — whether alone or just in less than ideal circumstances — who would like company. It’s now in its 11th year of helping people feel less lonely and more connected over the holidays.

Continue to take care of yourself as we head into a new year

Find small things to look forward to. After the holidays, we’re going to enter that stretch of the year where there’s not a lot going on. For many people, restrictions will likely still be in place and it may still be too uncertain to start planning travel and concerts and weddings.

Instead, says Gooden, focus on little things, like taking up a new craft or hobby. “Plan things that you can enjoy and look forward to so you don’t just feel like you’re stuck in the house and all you can do is binge-watch TV” until the pandemic is finally over, she advises.

Seek out positive news. You’re not burying your head in the sand if you don’t read the latest COVID news every day. Coping with our current truth — that we are simultaneously continuing to be in a pandemic although there is some hope on the horizon as more and more people are vaccinated — is hard.

But it’s OK, and important, to have hope. Hope is coming.

Watch Adia Gooden’s TEDxDePaulUniversity Talk on unconditional self-worth here: