5 Signs You're About to Have a Toxic Holiday Season (& How to Flip the Script)

Ah, the holidays. That glorious season of gift-givingcookie-eating, general merriment and, often, major stress. We don’t mean to be a bunch of Grinches, but for all the fabulous parts of the most festive time of year, there are lots of not-so-fabulous parts, including pugnacious relatives, too-packed social calendars and financial worries. Luckily, though there are a number of ways your holidays can turn toxic, there are also antidotes to ensure you get through the season feeling merry and bright.

20 Ways to Practice Self-Care Right Now

toxic holiday season

1. You Have a Million People to Shop for & You’re Not a Millionaire

What to Do: Think outside the box, gift-wise

Holiday shopping is pretty much always an expensive endeavor. But just because you might not be in the position to splurge on fancy presents for friends and family doesn’t mean you have to show up to the gift swap empty handed. There are quite a few zero- or low-cost options, from whipping up a batch of delicious holiday treats (we’re partial to no-bake sugar cookie truffles) or DIY-ing a gift like a hand-knit beanie or a photo album to offering free babysitting services for a night or making a small donation to a charity in their honor. It is, after all, the thought that counts.

2. You’re Diametrically Opposed to Your Family (on Pretty Much Every Issue)

What to Do: Have conversation starters at the ready

Whether it’s a rant about the January 6th hearing or deeply personal questions about when you and your spouse are going to give your parents grandchildren (what a weird way to put that), the holidays are ripe for uncomfortable conversations. And as much as we’d love to absolutely obliterate a distant cousin in a debate about immigration policy, a holiday gathering is not the time. So when Aunt Karen brings up her objections to a livable minimum wage, it’s best to have a few ‘I’m changing the subject right now’ questions locked and loaded. Here are five creative options we like to keep in our back pocket.

If diversions don't work, have an exit strategy at the ready. There’s a time and a place to engage in tough conversations with people who hold opposing views, but the Thanksgiving dinner table is not that place. For conversations you know aren’t going to go anywhere positive, think of a few let’s-shut-this-down statements to keep in your back pocket when Uncle Matt brings up his thoughts on the second amendment. Naiylah Warren, LMFT, a therapist and Clinical Content Manager at Real, told us back in 2022, to say something like, “I don’t see us seeing eye to eye, so let’s change the subject.” If all else fails, she says it’s totally fine to say, “I need some fresh air, I’ll be back soon” or “I need some solo time, I’ll see you later,” and excusing yourself from the room altogether.

3. You’re a Perfectionist (Even Though You *Know* Something Will Go Wrong)

What to Do: Cut yourself some slack

Expectations are just premeditated resentments. That saying originated within 12-step programs, but it really applies quite broadly. Think about it: If you go into anything with sky-high expectations, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed. We’re not saying to go into the holidays believing that they’re going to suck, but try to remember that perfection isn’t the goal.

Rachael Todd, a burnout and spiritual coach and founder of Return to Flow, gave us simple but invaluable advice for perfectionists in a previous story: “Use your ideals as guides, not absolutes, and aim for 80 percent rather than 100 percent.” Your Thanksgiving dinner probably won’t resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, and that’s totally fine. As long as you spend the next month and a half surrounded by people you love, you’re golden. 

4. You’re an Introvert & There’s Way Too Much on Your Calendar

What to Do: Set boundaries with your loved ones

Especially for introverts, the holidays can be mega-stressful. All those cocktail parties and cookie swaps and multi-course dinners? No thanks. To avoid burnout, work on setting boundaries with your friends and family. Remember to prioritize yourself and your sanity, and that it’s OK to say no from time to time. Maybe you go to your parents’ house for Christmas Eve dinner but politely decline their invite to open presents with your nieces and nephews the next morning.

“Sometimes people can feel rejected or uncared for when someone is setting a boundary with them,” clinical psychologist Kibby McMahon told us in 2021. “Make sure that person knows you care about them and you need more boundaries at the same time. Setting and respecting boundaries is a normal part of any healthy relationship, so make sure you communicate what they mean to you while you are asking for them to change their behavior.”An important part of self-care is knowing your own boundaries and respecting them.

5. You’re Sober/Sober Curious & It Seems Like Everything Revolves Around Drinking

What to Do: Have sober strategies in place

‘Tis the season for spiked eggnog and mulled wine and festive punch bowls. If you’re sober—or even just trying to imbibe less—this can cause a ton of added stress. You don’t want to be a buzzkill, but you also want to stay true to your goals and what you need to be healthy and happy. Having a plan in place will provide you with some peace of mind as you embark on holiday festivities. This plan should help you avoid any potential triggers and can include attending a meeting amidst the craziness of holiday parties, ensuring your sponsor or other support system is available to be on-call should you need them or feeling empowered to remove yourself from a situation if it’s beginning to feel like too much. For more tips, check out this helpful list by the folks at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...