How to handle holiday party stress when it sounds exhausting

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Take a moment to time-travel back to December 2019, when invitations to actual, in-person holiday parties flew fast and furiously and you had to decide which to go to, or whether you’d hit several in one night, and what condition you’d be in for a festive brunch the next morning.

It feels like another life — and in many ways, it is. We’ve been through a lot in the last four years, and while some of us are craving community, others aren’t sure about how much socializing they want to do. Do we even remember how to get out there and have fun without regretting it afterward?

One thing’s for sure: There’s no returning to the old days (and COVID’s not gone, either), but we can prepare to forge ahead in the way that’s right for us, whether we prefer to sit at home with hot cocoa and Netflix for most of December or we’re inclined to hit every shindig we’ve been invited to and then some.

Here’s how the experts say we should prepare as we move into mistletoe season.

Take a minute and embrace the change

“I think we got to know different sides of ourselves during COVID, right?” says Shannon Philip, who, with Meike Hennon, co-founded and run Shinebright, a Los Angeles-based career and life coaching practice. So, give yourself and others space to create a new way to approach parties this year. “What I saw with my clients and friends was that some of them just really loved the solitude of COVID,” says Harel Papikian, a psychologist who runs the West Hollywood Couples Therapy Clinic in Los Angeles. “Now they’re not as eager about going back into socializing mode, because the small circle was really what they wanted and what felt good.”

Val Nelson, a career and business coach for introverts and HSPs (highly sensitive people), agrees. “Many people have had time to rethink how they want to socialize and be around other people, and some of that’s even changed as a result of the pandemic. Their own boundaries may have pulled back, or some people might be super hungry and leaning in. Everybody’s in a figuring it out mode as we jump in.”

Come up with your holiday intention

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of social vs. homebody, it’s time to take stock and think about what’s best for you. Philip and Hennon recommend identifying what matters to you this season, and then, Hennon says, “Really creating a vision or setting an intention for what you would like December to look like.” Next, set boundaries that will help you stay true to what feels important, like making sure you have enough family time, or not feeling stressed out. This may mean you need to be selective about the events you decide to attend. As Papikian says, “For me to enjoy, connect, have a good time, and feel the holidays, I would choose one or two parties of people that are closest to me and focus on those.”

Find your why, adds Nelson. “Maybe you’re going to that holiday party at work because that feels like the right thing to do to honor your co-workers or the people that work for you or your boss.” Later, if you find yourself wondering why you’re going — or even dreading it — remember your initial why. “Hold that purpose when you go; that can really help with the energy,” says Nelson.

You can absolutely say no

Give yourself a minute with each invite and see how you feel. Take a look at your schedule. Think about the intention for the holidays you’ve set, and how going to this party might or might not fit with it. In terms of practical strategy, Hennon and Philip note that instead of saying yes or no in the moment, when you might feel pressured to accept an invite, you can say, “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” Then take a moment and ask yourself, “If this was tomorrow or if this was tonight, would I want to go?” they say. If it’s not an emphatic yes, listen to that.

If you decide no, “You don’t have to give any reason why you can’t attend,” says Lizzie Post, co-president at the Emily Post Institute and Emily Post’s great-great-granddaughter. “You can simply say, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m going to have to say no, but thank you so much for the invitation.’ No host who is operating from a place of politeness is going to berate you or question you.”

Don’t take too long or ignore the invite, though. “It’s important to, in a timely manner, let the host know whether you plan to attend or not,” adds Crystal Bailey, director of the Etiquette Institute in Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t have to be a long drawn-out thing, like, ‘Oh, I’m not coming because I’m just so overwhelmed’ — the shorter we keep it, the better.”

Once you say yes, stick with it

It is, in fact, rude to cancel last minute or just not show up at all: “I think that’s one of our biggest etiquette faux pas as of late,” says Post. While being sick or having an actual emergency is fair cause for cancellation, “for everything else, psych yourself up and go.”

When it comes to the work party …

If there’s one party you should make time for, it’s the work holiday party, says Bailey: “There’s just so much that we can gain and garner from being there.” Hennon and Philip suggest setting boundaries around how long you’ll go for and what to say in terms of how you leave “so you can show up and be fully present and make the good impression rather than going and being like, ‘I have to be there all night,’ or feeling really resentful.”

If you know you’ll only stay an hour, set the stage beforehand by explaining you’ve had a long week or have an early spin class the next day. “As long as you have your plan and speak with who you want to and show up in a good space, early exits are always a good idea, especially for career events,” adds Hennon.

Set yourself a clear limit for alcohol as well. “You want to have some control over how you’re being seen and perceived and how you’re communicating,” says Philip. “I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to be the drunk person at the work party.”

And, uh, don’t show up late the next day. “Everyone knows what you were doing.”

Before any event, do this

Take care of yourself — and that goes for the holiday season in general. “Get the rest that you need so that you can be at your best for the places you do choose to go,” says Nelson. Embrace your self-care rituals, whatever they are — journaling, meditation, alone time, healthy eating, exercise. If you know you’re going to have a lot of interaction, prepare for that, “so you have more psychological and emotional resources to allocate to socializing and connecting,” says Papikian.

“If I know I’ve got an event that I really want to be at, I really want to have energy for, I’m not going to go out some of the other nights of the week,” says Nelson. “Make sure you get that good night’s sleep.”

What to talk about once you’re there

If you’re feeling on the introverted side, you might set a goal to introduce yourself to two or three people, suggests Bailey. As for that “What do you do?” question: “It feels like someone’s just trying to size you up in that moment, and not reducing someone simply to what they do professionally is important.” Instead, she recommends asking, “Do you have any plans for the holidays?” or “What brought you to L.A.?”

“Studies show that actually the best way to get people to like you and think that you’re a good communicator is to be a good listener,” says Philip. “You don’t have to do anything extravagant to actually build connection or get people to be drawn to you.” If you’re nervous, remind yourself of what you’re hoping to achieve at this party: Perhaps it’s a moment to connect, build stronger relationships, or just learn more about your peers. “Anything that facilitates that is a green light.”

If you tend to feel overwhelmed, it’s good to build in breaks to check in to how you’re feeling, says Nelson. “Even if I don’t really need to use the bathroom or go outside for something, I will go and just tune in, just take a little listen to my own intuition.” What can really drain people at a party, she notes, is having to fake it. So, lean into what energizes you. “For instance, if you dread small talk, then try to find that person that you can have a deeper conversation with.”

Good guesting 101

A few etiquette reminders: Start by RSVPing to the party in whatever way the host has asked you to, says Post. Come dressed accordingly; for instance, if it’s an ugly Christmas sweater party, wear an ugly Christmas sweater. While it’s nice to bring something, you’re not required to do so: Follow your host’s instructions, Post recommends. Seek out your host when you arrive and make sure to greet them. Then, “go talk to people, mingle, go into different rooms where people are gathered, participate,” she says. “Having a good self-introduction in your back pocket is great. And thank your host when it’s time to leave.”

The next day, you can send another thanks — it’s “totally fine” to send it by text, says Post. And, “if you were so inspired or you thought your host might really appreciate it, writing that little note would be pretty impressive.”

Wait, no invites yet?

If the holiday onslaught hasn’t started for you yet, don’t fret. “I have felt like parties have not yet returned to the level that they were at,” says Post. “I don’t know if that’s both not having the bandwidth and the budget as hosts, or if it’s just not having the bandwidth. We all kind of dug not going out during the pandemic or something, you know what I mean?”

If you find yourself craving the company of others (and/or humming along to Christmas carols at the drugstore), “your group might be feeling that way too,” she adds. In that case, you might consider throwing your own party. But you have other options, too. As Bailey says, if a party environment just isn’t the best fit for you, “think about setting aside a time to be able to spend time with the individuals you care about in a different way.”

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