Ask a therapist: How can I tell my family I don’t want to spend Christmas with them?

If your family has always ‘done’ Christmas a certain way – which invariably means everyone being together – breaking the pattern can be hard. Especially if it’s likely to lead to sour grapes, tears and a major guilt trip. But there are lots of reasons someone might want to skip the traditional family gathering.

“Perhaps you just want to do something different this year, like eat out on Christmas Day with just your partner, rather than the big Christmas Day function,” says psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Rosalind Miles (rosalindmilestherapy.com).

“COVID can come into it as well – when people couldn’t meet up and have these traditional Christmases they’d previously had [due to lockdown], by introducing that change, perhaps that shifted people’s preferences of how they want to spend Christmas going forwards. Or you might have some mental health issues and gatherings are difficult.”

Same sex female Asian couple exchanging Christmas gifts
(Alamy/PA)

Maybe you want to treat yourself to a solo holiday, or a cottage somewhere quiet and calm. Maybe your family dynamics are complicated and the stress is too much. Whatever the reason, read on for Ms Miles’ advice on how to approach it …

Be honest and diplomatic

“I would suggest approaching the subject with honesty, however at the same time being diplomatic about it,” says Ms Miles. “I would also consider the sensitivity of the underlying reasons as to why you’re not going home, or spending time with family for Christmas. For example, if there’s a conflict or a tension already there, or some unresolved issues, you may have to approach it in a sensitive way, and decide whether you address the elephant in the room, so to speak, or whether you want to skim over it.”

Remind them you still care

If you’re worried a family member will feel hurt if you don’t go home, tell them this isn’t about not wanting to see them. “Express that it’s coming from a place of love and perhaps mention that the love is still there – the foundation of that family connection is still there,” suggests Ms Miles. “Say that you appreciate the family, but just don’t want to be with them on that specific day, for whatever reason.”

Stay firm 

You’re an adult – you are allowed to decide how you spend Christmas. Getting this clear in your own mind first will help you stay clear and confident when you tell your family.

Young woman enjoying solo Christmas
(Alamy/PA)

“I would suggest remaining affirmed with your own decision, that it is the right decision for you at that time,” says Ms Miles. “People may give you their opinion and it can make you question yourself. Be firm in your decision that it’s the right thing for you.”

Ask for understanding

If the news is met with the reaction you were dreading (i.e. they’re upset/cross/start piling on pressure), try telling them it would be helpful if they could try to understand. Ms Miles says: “I would ask for understanding from that family member, and [to acknowledge] that although they don’t agree with the decision, they respect that [you] have decided this.”

Suggest seeing them at a different time

Ms Miles says suggesting an alternative get-together can be “a nice approach”. She adds: “Perhaps consider an Easter meet-up instead, that can take the pressure off, or a Valentine’s Day lunch.”

This helps everyone remember that there’s a whole year of opportunities to plan get-togethers that suit everyone’s diaries and needs – it doesn’t all have to hinge on 25 December.

Get some perspective on your guilt

Gay male couple outside in the snow taking a selfie
(Alamy/PA)

If the guilt trip is already setting in, some self-reflection could be handy. Is this a heightened example of the dynamics that always play out in your family? Is people-pleasing a factor? After all, a bit of guilt is a normal part of life sometimes – it doesn’t make you a bad person.

“Explore the reasons why guilt is presenting itself,” suggests Ms Miles. “For example, if my mum says, ‘You’re not coming, this is terrible – you always come over’, perhaps I’d need to do some self-inquiry and ask myself why do I feel guilty? Because I’m a grown women and I’ve made my decision – why do I feel like my mum is making me feel guilty? What has it triggered for you? Have I always been a people-pleaser, so the fact that this year I’m not going home, and now I feel guilty, is it because I’m not people-pleasing any more?”

Remind yourself it’s okay to decide what you do and don’t enjoy about this time of year, rather than being swept up in what Instagram or the festive ads on TV are telling us. “Society depicts that we should go all out at Christmas – it’s all around us,” agrees Ms Miles. “It can be overwhelming.”

Have you ever spent Christmas on your own? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: How to reframe the empty nest into a positive

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