What To Do If Your Family Is Making You Feel Guilty About The Holidays

Hashing out holiday plans with family can be a source of stress, even in a normal year. But in 2020, in the midst of a worsening pandemic, these conversations are especially fraught.

With Thanksgiving just weeks away, infections and hospitalizations are spiking around the country and small social gatherings are fueling the surge, The Washington Post reported Thursday. Experts worry these numbers will only continue to rise in the coming months.

“As the weather becomes colder, these gatherings are taking place indoors, often in the absence of strict mask use, creating the perfect conditions for a virus that can spread among people who are crowded into a poorly ventilated space,” public health experts from PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia warned in a blog post.

Not being able to gather in person during a time when people are yearning for normalcy and connection is a tough pill to swallow — especially if you haven’t seen your family much, if at all, since the pandemic took hold.

Your family may try to guilt-trip you into changing your mind. Don’t lose sight of why you’re making this tough decision. 

Anna Poss, a therapist based in Chicago, said her clients have been bringing up their anxiety over whether or not to travel home since the spring.

“This year, the common issues of complex family dynamics, grief and financial stress that are normal during the holidays now intersect with the very real and frightening concern over the safety of self and loved ones,” she told HuffPost. “Holiday stress is amplified this year and is even common in those who do not normally experience it. In a year filled with a lot of hard decisions, each of us will be faced with even more in the coming weeks.”

Perhaps you’ve been mulling it over and came to the conclusion that it’s best not to go home for the holidays this year to avoid putting your family and yourself at risk. Even if you know you’re making the right choice, feelings of guilt are bound to creep in.

“Feeling guilty about making the safest decision for you and your loved ones is patently unhelpful and illogical,” Poss said. “That is not to say it won’t happen, because it will. However, we have to recognize that by allowing feelings of guilt to intrude and grow, it will only lead to needless suffering.”

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, parents, siblings and in-laws may fuel this guilt, said Roseville, California, therapist Kurt Smith, who specializes in men’s counseling. When you finally muster up the courage to share your decision with your family, they immediately launch their campaign to change your mind, making it hard to stand your ground.

“Making these hard decisions now helps ensure a future holiday season where everyone is safe and well enough to celebrate together.”

– Anna Poss, therapist

“Get comfortable with the idea of simply saying, ‘Yeah, I hear you’ or ’I know, and I’m sorry,’ and then just letting them feel their feelings for a bit,” journalist Rachel Miller wrote in a story for Vice. “Ideally, they’ll get over it once they’ve had some time to process and talk to a couple friends about it. But even if they don’t, try not to let their disappointment make you think you’re a terrible person or that you’ve done something horribly wrong.” (Miller also offered a bunch of great suggestions on what to say to your family if you’re stumped.)

So what can you do about the pressure and palpable disappointment you’re anticipating — or feeling — from your family about not going home this year? Therapists offer some advice on how to deal below.

First, extend some grace to yourself.

Don’t beat yourself up over the conflicting emotions you’re experiencing. It’s important to be gentle with yourself, especially this year. Your family may not agree with your choice — and that’s tough, but it’s OK.

“Give yourself permission to feel safe during the pandemic,” said Atlanta marriage and family therapist Faith Troupe. “Sometimes this means considering all aspects of safety: mental, emotional, physical and spiritual.”

Before you talk, jot down the reasons behind your decision.

Take all of those thoughts swirling in your head and put them down on paper.

“Writing is very therapeutic and just putting your thoughts and feelings into words will help,” Smith said. “But doing this will also give you something to use to explain your decision to others or something you could text to those impacted. Remember to keep it brief though. You don’t have to justify your decision — just explain it.”

This exercise may help you feel more confident in your decision, which is “one of the most important aspects of communicating news someone else doesn’t want to hear,” Miller wrote for Vice.

“If you don’t feel right about it, you’re more likely to waver, over explain yourself, be talked out of it, or make excuses that are untrue or disingenuous,” she said.

Ask your family to respect your decision.

Anticipate some pushback from your loved ones. Be prepared to say, “I know you don’t agree, but I’d like you to respect my decision,” Smith said.

“Respecting different viewpoints is something our society hasn’t been doing so well with in recent years, but it is necessary if we’re all going to live together in some kind of harmony,” he added. “And it’s something that family members certainly ought to be able to do with each other.”

Set limits on how much you’re willing to discuss the subject.

The more you go in circles talking about your decision, the more likely you are to second-guess yourself or cave to pressure from your family. Once you’ve made your decision and shared it with them, there’s no reason to keep rehashing it.

“If you don’t set a boundary here, you’re contributing to the guilt you’re feeling,” Smith said.

Keep reminding yourself that your decision was made with their health and safety in mind.

This year, in particular, it may be difficult for families to deviate from their normal holiday traditions. But don’t lose sight of why you’re making this choice: to protect your loved ones from a serious virus. Even those who survive COVID-19 may deal with lingering symptoms and long-term health problems.

“The familiarity of tradition provides comfort and a sense of order,” Poss said. “The chaos and the uncertainty of the pandemic means that people will emotionally cleave to ideas of holiday tradition more than they have in the past. The disappointment of not being able to have that may be acute for some people. However, that does not mean you should buy into any pressure or guilt from others.”

Focus your attention on planning safe, fun holiday activities.

Crowding around the table for a big family dinner or cuddling together on the couch to watch Christmas movies may be out of the question this year. Come up with some new traditions that spread holiday cheer without spreading the virus.

Instead, consider a virtual watch party, a recipe swap, a long-distance cookie exchange or an ugly sweater contest on Zoom.

Remember that this is only one year.

With a promising COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, hopefully next year we can all safely gather again.

“Remember that this is only for the present,” Poss said. “Making these hard decisions now helps ensure a future holiday season where everyone is safe and well enough to celebrate together.”