As a young professional, newly divorced, and buried in student loans, I remember calling my parents and crying about the prospect of spending my first Christmas alone. My father said that it would do me some good. He had a knack for that–taking the knife and twisting it in further. I was embarrassed that I didn’t have anyone to spend the holidays with, that I didn’t have the funds to travel, and that my family was so dysfunctional.
Apparently, I give off an air of having it all together, always being surrounded by friends, a social goddess of sorts. But that impression–the story that others make up about me–could not be more wrong. And shame has kept me from pulling back the curtain and revealing how many times I’ve spent the holidays alone. The worst year was 2012, my kids were with their dad, and I had been spending the time constructively reorganizing closets, but as Christmas came to a close, my mother died, and there I was alone in my empty house bathed in tears.
There are lots of people like me–too tired, too ashamed, too afraid of being pitied to speak up, raise a hand, and say, “please remember me.” So, this year, I’m asking on behalf of everyone else. Please don’t assume that your friend, colleague, loved one, neighbor has a place to go, a hot meal to eat, or someone to show them love. Instead, assume they don’t. Use the holidays as an opportunity to connect, express gratitude and love, and be thoughtful.
With that in mind, here are some strategies for those going solo and some ideas for those who want to connect:
I have too many bad memories associated with Thanksgiving, so even when I was married, we would order Chinese food the day before and eat that for Thanksgiving dinner. Whenever possible, I like to meet friends for the Turkey Trot or similar events, where I get exercise, see my friends in a neutral environment, and get some good endorphins. Similarly, the holidays deliver a lot of blockbuster movies, so I try to catch one with a friend if possible. Other years, I’ve been lucky to have a friend available to take a trip and use the time off to relax. If plans with friends don’t work out, I try to use the time constructively by tackling projects (like the closet), doing artwork, writing, giving myself a spa day, jumpstarting a New Year’s resolution, or binge watching that Netflix series that’s been on my list.
Take care of yourself
As joyous as the holidays are for some, they are the source of great pain and loneliness for others. Self-care is critical. Bottom-line: do what you need to do to care for yourself, set boundaries, and don’t worry about the judgment of others.
Take care of others
I’ve found that the best way to avoid feeling sorry for myself is to shift my focus to helping others. There is always someone who has it worse than you. And the quickest way to joy is by helping others. Think about your elderly neighbor. Check in on friends you haven’t talked to in years. Volunteer. Adopt a family. Offer to let your friends leave their pets with you. The comfort of a pet can go a long way to getting through the holidays.
Avoid things that trigger you
For me, I avoid those Hallmark Holiday movies. I also avoid drinking–I know it soothes many, but a glass of wine during the holidays can make me melancholy. Avoid “doom scrolling” on social media. Instead, focus on your vision for the life you are designing. Avoid friends and family that trigger you because they don’t respect boundaries, avoid or diminish your feelings, or engage in “toxic positivity.” Your feelings are real, and they matter.
Have a plan
Understand and accept what the holidays may mean for you. The holidays are a social construct. Redefine what the holiday season means to you. It can mean whatever you want. Have a plan for your alone time. Plan a special meal, stock up on your favorite bubble bath, pick out the show you want to binge watch. Plan activities before and after the holiday so that you have interactions with friends and events to look forward to—even if it’s as simple as going for a walk.
Acknowledge cultural differences
Growing up in a dysfunctional protestant family, I envied cultures that had rich family traditions. I think it would be fun to participate in the Jewish holiday traditions, attend an Italian dinner, or participate in the rich Catholic Christmas traditions. The holidays are a great time to reach across cultural lines and invite people to experience the richness of your traditions.
Things you can do for those spending the holidays alone
First, understand that the holidays bring up so many emotions, so whatever you do or offer to do, respect others’ feelings, and give them room to opt out if that is what’s best for them. Instead of asking people if they have plans for the holidays (which can be a triggering question), say, “If you don’t have other plans, we would love for you to join us.” Always approach with the sentiment that there is no pressure to attend, but we would really love to have you. Send a follow-up message so they know you are being genuine. If, like many young professionals, they are stuck working through the holidays, have a meal, flowers, cookies, some lux pajamas, or a gift basket delivered to them. For neighbors or the elderly who spend the holidays alone, check in on them. Leave a meal, a candle, a plate of cookies, or a thoughtful note on their doorstep. And please don’t forget the single parent! There have been many holidays where I did not receive a single gift and I know this is true for many single parents. Use the holidays to acknowledge those you love and appreciate. Let them know that they are seen and cared for.
Carrington Smith is a single mom, attorney, business owner, and executive search professional. She has survived sexual assault, two divorces, piles of debt, abuse, religious mind games, the death of loved ones, and the loss of close friends. In her debut memoir, Blooming, Carrington combines wit and wisdom to share her journey through what she calls “the shit,” with a positive attitude and a shift of mindset, into a life bursting with joy, opportunity, and purpose. She resides in Austin, Texas, with her two teenage boys.