The Homebody’s Guide to Socializing During the Holiday Season

By Marisa Cohen
December 15, 2022

For the past two years, the holiday season has been muted for many people: quiet dinners with immediate family, wishing Grandma and Grandpa a merry Christmas or happy Hanukkah over Zoom, thinking longingly about all the gathering and partying we were planning to do when the pandemic was finally over.

Well, the pandemic is not quite over, but with travel restrictions lifted and COVID-19 feeling manageable for many families, this year promises to be the first “back to normal” holiday in a while. “For extroverts, who really need social interaction, this is going to be amazing,” says Annie Miller, L.S.C.W., a psychotherapist in Bethesda, Maryland. “But many introverts were really pleased to stay home,” she says.

And after having the perfect excuse to indulge in the low-key homebody holidays of their dreams, switching back to a scene of chatty relatives, high-energy kids, noise, and gossip may be a shock to the system. “We acclimate to our environment pretty quickly, so when we get used to something being a certain way and then have to switch back out of it, it's an adjustment,” Miller says. “I have clients who are really feeling a lot of anxiety about it.”

One thing to remember is that this Christmas, Kwanzaa, or Hanukkah does not have to make up for all the missed holidays of the COVID-19 years. “Some families are feeling increased pressure to spend every possible minute together this year,” Miller says. But you can feel connected to your family and friends while protecting your personal space and downtime. Think of the following four tips as your introvert’s guide to the holidays.

Take Small Steps

Although it might be tempting never to go to a party or gathering ever again, you should at least make a small effort, says Miller, who points out that avoidance tends to make things seem worse than they really are. “It makes our brain sensitized and alerted to the fact that this is a dangerous thing,” she explains. “Instead, we want to tell the brain that this is positive.”

The best way to ease back into the season of togetherness is to take it one manageable event at a time. “The first thing to ask yourself is, What am I willing to handle?” says Brittany A. Johnson, a licensed mental health counselor and author of Get Out of Your Own Way.

She clarifies that this is very different from asking, What can I handle? “It’s important to stay true to yourself—if a large gathering is going to make you anxious, then choose a smaller one to start out.”

It’s also important to create time limits and stick to them. If you feel you can only handle an hour or two of a family dinner, share that info with the host. You can say, “I’m so excited to come and see you, but I'm still getting used to being around large crowds, so I need to say good night by 9 p.m.”

This can be hard, since, as Miller says, people with social anxiety also tend to be people pleasers. Johnson suggests deputizing one close friend or relative as your backup. “You can give them a look or say a code word, and they can say, ‘Oh, the two of us have to take a walk now,’ ” Johnson suggests.

Visualize Success

In the days leading up to your first big social gathering since the Before Times, self-talk can be incredibly helpful, says Miller, who compares the situation to an athlete preparing for the big game. “You don’t want to tell yourself, ‘This is going to go terribly, and I’m going to be awful,’ ” she says. “Instead, keep telling yourself, ‘These are people who love me, and it’s going to go just fine.’ Your brain really picks up on that, and it matters.”

Build In Breaks

When you do gather with friends or family, stay in touch with yourself and be aware of any physical signs that you’re getting overwhelmed: heart racing, feeling overheated, clammy hands. If your discomfort and stress are ratcheting up, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, take a walk around the block for fresh air, or just sit in your cousin’s bedroom with the lights down low until you can center yourself again.

Learn What You Love Best for Next Year

Consider this year your test run to help you discover what you'd love to do during future holidays. You may find you actually missed the hubbub of the big extended-family dinners—or you may realize that the small dinners with just one or two close friends have far more meaning for you.

“During the pandemic, people were going for authenticity and what’s important, but this season, we’re going back to larger events,” Johnson says. "I think next year, it might go right back to smaller, more meaningful ones.”

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