Navigating the Holiday Social Scene

The holiday season is wonderful.  It is also challenging.  During this season we are doing a lot of things we don’t typically do other times of the year. We are attending holiday parties, we are obsessing about what to wear to holiday parties, and we are searching for—and spending money on—ugly sweaters.  We are reconnecting with family and we are avoiding our crazy uncle (we all have one).  We’re eating differently (different foods, different schedules, different amounts). We are hunting for the perfect gift and we are standing in long lines. We’re making small talk with strangers at social gatherings. We are excited and we are exhausted. Need I say more? 

The holiday season can be a season of opposites and managing seemingly contrasting needs, desires, and emotions.  One of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of the holiday season is increased interactions with others.  These are wonderful opportunities to get to know others better and reconnect with loved ones we only see once a year.  And yet all these social gatherings can be overwhelming and—at times—upsetting.  Let’s identify some of the most common social triggers during the holiday season, and some ideas to help you navigate the holidays smoothly without avoiding social connection.

Being in a Strange Place with Strange People

You’re with your partner at their holiday company party.  Most of us do not look forward to these gatherings.  We can often feel like a stranger looking in on a party where everyone knows one another: there are shared jokes, a shared vision, and we are completely lost.

Wait, that is exactly what a partner’s company party is like!  Is it any wonder we dread them?

Rather than standing awkwardly in the corner or keeping your partner back from engaging with his or her colleagues, find an ally.  Look for another bored spouse or partner and strike up a conversation.  Make a joke about how exciting it is to attend someone else’s holiday party.

While you may not prefer to attend someone else’s holiday party, rather than having a bad attitude and guaranteeing a miserable time, be a curious observer and learn what you can from those you meet.  As a psychologist, I’m naturally intrigued by the relationships among people and typically cue to potential patterns and dynamics in social situations.  Use these gatherings as an opportunity to be an anthropologist where you are observing the social interactions of other party-goers.  This can be fascinating and a fun way to engage you in a social situation where you may not know many people.

Talk to the Strange People

For instance, who is the flamboyant woman speaking with her hands in the center of the room?  Wouldn’t it be fun to see what all her energy is about?  Ask questions.  Introduce yourself.  It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes it’s easier to talk to complete strangers because we worry less about impressing them and we are freed up to engage in novel ways.

So, you typically wouldn’t walk up to a stranger and begin talking, give it a try.  You might discover that the person shares your passion for obscure 17th century Dutch literature.  Or not.  But being curious about someone else will certainly be more enjoyable than sitting in the corner, arms crossed, eyes rolling, waiting for the ordeal to be over.

Speaking of strange places, it’s not uncommon to find yourself celebrating the holidays with new people with traditions that may be very different than your own.  This often happens with newly married couples who are working to integrate two families into one holiday.  This can be challenging and sad when you discover yourself missing your own holiday traditions.

Give yourself space to feel sad about the change in your celebrations, and then learn what you can from the new celebrations.  Are there traditions you’d like to incorporate into future plans?  Are there ways you can include some of your favorite traditions this year? Is there an opportunity to get to know someone who is very different from you?

Feeling Exposed

Social situations can leave us feeling exposed: what are people thinking about me?  What if I trip over my foot?  What if I put my foot in my mouth?  Does this ugly sweater make me look fat and what if my pushy-aunt comments on said fat?  What if I embarrass myself?  Or even worse, what if others embarrass me?

Social situations bring us face to face with our inner critic, and—for most of us—it ain’t pretty.  Our inner critic is our worst version of ourselves, always ready with a snide comment about our appearance, our personality, our laugh, our accomplishments (or lack thereof).  And we often assume that everyone we see at holiday gatherings are eyeing us the same way our inner critic is.  This is a huge assault on self-esteem and leave most of us with one of two options:  avoid or obsess.


We try and avoid social situations at all costs so as to avoid our inner crtic and our belief that others are judging us.  We make excuses, we feign illness, we back out at the last minute.  Or, we go but grudgingly.  We hide behind our bangs.  We refuse to engage.  We’re the ones sitting in the corner, arms crossed, eyes rolling, waiting for the ordeal to be over.


It’s not uncommon to obsess about holiday gatherings and put pressure on ourselves to be perfect.  We must have the perfect outfit, the perfect witty comments, the perfect plastic smile.  When the goal is perfection, there are endless things to obsess about, and the thing is, your efforts will never be enough.  The reality is that there is always someone smarter, wittier, prettier, thinner.  Stop worrying about being perfect, and focus on enjoying yourself.

Both of these approaches require a lot of emotional and physical energy, leaving us depleted and demoralized.  The good news is that there are other options.  Let’s think about a few.

  1. Be yourself.  Novel concept, right?  When I think about the things I love about my friends, it’s their quirks that stand out, their imperfections that endear them to me.  Know that you are unique and different and just perfect in all your quirkiness.
  2. Challenge the inner critic.  Remind yourself that the critic doesn’t get to vote in your life.  It’s messages are mean and spiteful and usually just plain wrong.  Know that you lose nothing by being kind to yourself and then kick the critic to the curb every time it tries to sneak into your head.  Have a simple mantra that you can “talk back” with, such as “those messages are lies.  I don’t have to believe them” or “I rock this ugly reindeer sweater like no one’s business.”
  3. Ask for support.  If social gatherings are challenging for you, ask for support in advance.  Let your loved one know the ways you may struggle, and how he or she can support you if they notice worrisome signs.  Take a breather, and then rejoin the festivities.  Know that it’s okay to spectate from the sidelines—you don’t have to be in the heart of the action.
  4. Enjoy yourself.  When you are so busy trying to be perfect, it’s really hard to have a good time.  Parties are for enjoyment!  Laugh.  Dance.  Cheer and shout when you win the grand prize in the raffle.

One of the best things about the holiday season is the opportunity to connect with others.  Although there are challenges, remind yourself of the value of connecting, and let go of rigid expectations for yourself. Remember that the holidays are a season of celebration. So let yourself celebrate!