“It’s OK to say no,’’ says Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading experts on stress and the mind-body connection. Saying no to someone else can be a way to say yes to yourself — and it is one of the most important tools for holiday mental health.
So, what are some specific tips for letting go of things that might not benefit you this holiday season? We asked 5 experts, and this is what they said.
1. Say no to cooking
“I say no to pretending to be Martha Stewart,” says Megan McDonough, founder of the Wholebeing Institute. “I don’t like to cook, and I do not want to spend my holiday cooking. I say yes to having everyone over to my house to celebrate. My husband cooks the turkey and everyone brings a side.”
McDonough says instead of cooking the perfect Thanksgiving meal or setting the perfect table, she focuses on saying yes to what she loves — good conversation with the family and singing holiday songs with anyone who will join her.
2. Say no to old traditions
“People often have an idea of how the holidays should be and [they] go to great lengths to recreate what they experienced, or didn’t experience, in their childhood,” says Dr. Alexandra Stockwell, MD. “This is a set-up for disappointment — as the reality is often less idyllic than imagined.”
This was an issue for me after my parents got divorced — when my dad no longer came to Thanksgiving and my mom no longer wanted to cook. As someone who loves everything about the holidays — the food, the tradition and having the family together —those first few years were more than disappointing, they were downright upsetting. Seeing my dad’s empty chair at the dining room table was an unpleasant reminder that our family was no longer intact.
After a few years, I started to think about the holidays in a new way, and I began to say yes to our new family — me, my mom and my brother. For the first time, I decided to cook most of the meal myself, making it into a pretty gourmet affair with fine china, cool table decorations, turkey and sides — like fresh cranberry sauce with Grand Marnier, maple-caramelized brussels sprouts with pancetta, and homemade, gluten-free apple pie. Overall, the food is better and I’m happier knowing I could create a new tradition out of the old one.
3. Say no to feeling depleted
“Between buying gifts, shopping, cooking and cleaning, the months between Thanksgiving and the New Year leave many well-intentioned people depleted,” says Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a psychotherapist at Urban Recovery. He says limiting the number of things you do can help you be intentional, rather than reactive.
Urban Recovery’s Dr. Lipi Roy adds that you should only agree to what you have the mental and physical capacity for, especially during the holidays.
“If you’re getting overwhelmed, slow down, politely decline and remind your loved one that ‘no’ can simply mean ‘not now,’” says Roy. “If you’re going through a lot, share that with family and friends. Being forthcoming may decrease the tsunami of tasks that would have otherwise come your way.”
4. Say no to cheating on your diet
Do you find it hard to stick to your diet and go to the gym with all the junk food and sweets around?
Stockwell suggests marking workout times in your calendar before the holidays. And if Aunt Betty insists you eat her cookies, explain you are not eating gluten or dairy for health reasons. Stockwell says people are more likely to leave you alone if they think your choices are medically related.
If spending time with family is difficult, Stockwell suggests bringing a board game, or some other activity, to create a new focus while everyone is hanging out. If a conversation turns to something you don’t want to discuss, be kind but firm by saying “I would rather not talk about that.” Also, set a non-negotiable departure time to limit the hours you spend together.
It’s important to set aside time every day to do something that nourishes you. It could be something as simple as taking a walk, calling your bestie, taking a bath, watching Netflix or writing in your journal.
6. Say no to overspending
“If giving gifts to everyone in the family is a financial burden, say no, and institute a new system this year,” says Landolfi. She says try a secret Santa, where everyone picks only one person to buy for, or opt to give gifts only to the kids in the family.
Looking for a way to cut costs? Consider making your own Christmas decorations and holiday cards, or baking cookies to gift in attractive tins.
Stockwell admits it can be challenging to change long-standing traditions, “but once you say no to how it used to be — and yes to your budget — you’ll find you can still have a wonderful holiday, without the regret come January.”
7. Say no to obligations that aren’t a priority
It becomes easier to say no to obligations when you are clear on how you really want to spend your holidays, says life coach Krista-Lynn Landolfi. Take time to envision what that would look and feel like.
Is it ditching your work holiday party for dinner with friends? Once you are clear on your priorities, say no to invitations and tasks that don’t align. “This is essentially Konmari-ing your schedule,” Stockwell explains.
8. Say no to giving a quick answer
It can be downright uncomfortable to say no, but it’s important for holiday mental health. Stockwell says the best way to handle this is not to give an answer in the moment. You can respond by saying, “I need to check my schedule.”
In the end, what you do isn’t going to be as important as how you feel. Don’t focus on how hard it is to say no. Instead, focus on how good it will feel to honor yourself and actually enjoy the holidays.