The holidays seem to have a special way of making you feel like crap if you're alone. Maybe you're nursing a recent breakup. Maybe you just started university and can't afford to fly back home. Whatever the scenario, if you're spending the holidays by yourself and it's getting you down, here's how to cope. Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Focus on the Present
It's hard not to dwell on the past when you're alone. If you're homesick or thinking about old traditions with your ex, you're mostly missing that sense of security and familiarity. After a while, nostalgia can really drag you down. Alex Hedger, a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist and Clinical Director of Dynamic You Psychological Therapy Clinics, told us:
When we're on our own there is usually more time to get lost in our thinking. This can cause problems if we're ruminating over things or thinking without actually getting anywhere useful as a result. If you find yourself doing this then see if you can move your attention back to the present, rather than focusing on ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.
The holidays are supposed to be a happy time, so focus on what you can do to be happy now. In short: indulge yourself a little. If you can afford it, that might mean taking a trip, even if it's just a short weekend trip to a nearby town. Exploring a new place is a great way to get your mind off of the past and what "should" be. There are a number of tour groups that cater to solo travellers, so it can be a fun way to meet new people, too.
Or, indulging yourself might be as simple as trying a new recipe or conquering a few items on your to-do list. Hedger recommends coming up with a list of "life values" to decide how to fill your free time over the holidays:
Life values are the things that give our lives unique meaning...Try thinking about general ideas of what's important to you in life under the headings of 'family and friends', 'hobbies and interests', 'mind and body', 'career and education' and 'life logistics and chores'. With each value you think of, try and identify a specific thing you can do that matches it.
From there, schedule it into your calendar over the holidays.
Don't Set Up Unrealistic Expectations
According to TV commercials and classic Christmas stories, the holidays are supposed to be magical. Magic a pretty big expectation, and when your reality doesn't even come close to feeling magical, that expectation can leave you feeling extra bummed out.
The holidays do not have to be perfect. You don't have to be full of cheer. It's ok to be sad on the holidays, so don't be hard on yourself for feeling down. Learning to adjust your expectations will go a long way in making sure your emotions are in check during the season. Clinical psychologist Elaine Rodino told PsychCentral:
...there are so many categories of expectations about the season being just right that it brings up all sorts of issues relating to family, stress and anxiety, eating disorders, sobriety, self-esteem, competency — the list goes on. "There's this idea that it's supposed to be perfect, and if it's not, the person asks, 'What's wrong with me?'" She adds that statistically, the number of "traditional households" in this country is not in the majority.
One way to let go of unrealistic expectations? Just block them out. Writer and former TV executive Jim McKairnes says he's spent quite a few holidays alone, and he gave us this tip:
Right around Thanksgiving, I switch from live TV to streaming-only TV so that I am not inundated with holiday programming. I'm no Scrooge and I appreciate the time of year, but too much of anything is a bad thing...Not only has it deflated the value of the currency behind the holiday, it presents a really, really warped view of the holiday season. The special TV episodes and the re-airing of holiday classics and the commercials depicting and representing a seasonal celebration that many if not most of the country just plain doesn't experience can be excruciating for those spending it alone. The message for the fragile mind is: THIS IS WHY YOU ARE A LOSER.
Just being aware of these subtle expectations can go a long way. Remember: the "magic" of the holidays is fun, but it's also a bunch of hype that doesn't have much to do with reality. Your holiday experience can still be enjoyable without matching up to the movies.
Distract Yourself by Helping Others
If you're up for it, volunteering is a great way to distract yourself from the holiday blues, spend time around other people, and help the less fortunate. For example:
What's more, volunteering is actually a great way to boost happiness, too. A German study published by the Institute for the Study of Labour, for example, found that, after volunteering, workers reported a decrease in their overall well being when that volunteering opportunity went away.
Create Your Own Tradition
It might help to take matters into your own hands. If you know other friends, coworkers, or acquaintances who are spending the holidays alone, too: start your own Friendmas or whatever other holiday celebration. Open up your own place, or ask everyone to bring a dish so it's a potluck.
You can create a solo tradition, too. For example, I knew someone who would take his family to the movies on Christmas every year. I thought it was just some kind of quirky way to spend the holidays, but it turns out, he started the tradition when he was single and didn't have anywhere else to spend Christmas. When he started his own family, it just kind of stuck.
Hedger says the key is planning in advance.
If you are expecting the holidays to be a difficult time it can be tempting to try and forget about them and 'cross that bridge when you come to it.' This strategy often fails as it can leave you unprepared, with less options. Instead, think about the real 'flash points' of dates and times that you think will be hardest. When you know what they are, plan something you can do to improve that time, maybe from the tip below…
The thing is, you might feel alone on the holidays, but a lot of people are in the same boat. The holidays are notorious for bringing out those feelings. But keeping realistic expectations and focusing on the reality of the here-and-now, instead of what "should" be, will go a long way toward helping you cope.