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A Sensitive Girl's Guide to Holiday Gatherings

Ah, November 1. The time of year in the Northern hemisphere when the daylight hours get way too short and holiday stress starts to sneak up. For me holiday stress is not determined by how many gifts I want to buy but by the number of holiday events I’m invited to.

A group of men and women standing outside in the dark with sparklers.

I self-identify as a highly sensitive person (HSP). There’s no solid definition for an HSP, but by general consensus we usually describe them as people with highly attuned nervous systems (they notice more stimuli than most) and people who process all the information deeply. So parties and large gatherings can be tough because there is a lot going on (high stimuli) and a lot of distractions (making it hard to process) which means many HSPs get overwhelmed easily in this type of situation. Now, every HSP is different in what they are sensitive to and how they process different inputs, so you may love holiday gatherings and still be an HSP. However, most HSPs agree that big parties are tough on various levels.

I also identify myself as an introvert, which adds an additional layer of holiday season exhaustion. There’s just a few things I want to say about introverts to dispel some misconceptions many people have. First, not all introverts are shy. Many assume these go together but they don’t. Some introverts present as shy because they are cautious about expending their energy socializing (as opposed to being afraid of socializing). Introversion is really about where you get your energy (from being alone vs being with people) and how you process information. Introverts tend to process inputs deeply. Since they process deeply, they often want to talk deeply too. A series of events centered around casual chit chat can be exhausting. So even a very social, outgoing introvert (yes, that’s a possibility) can be overwhelmed by a bunch of parties in a row because they don’t have time to recharge or process what they’ve been doing.

You may have noticed that both HSPs and introverts are described as processing information deeply. This can lead many to the conclusion that the two are the same. However, this is not the case. In her book The Highly Sensitive Person’s Complete Learning Program, Elaine Aron, Ph.D. writes that her research has found nearly 3 out of 4 people identify as both HSPs and introverts. So not all HSPs are introverts and not all introverts are HSPs. If you look at a Venn Diagram, the groups would overlap, but not completely.

Yes, this is a bit of a digression, but it felt important to say because I don’t want you to assume that the three things are the same. I’m both an introvert and an HSP, so I will talk primarily about those categories. Feel free to read through my suggestions and take whatever you want from them without feeling like you have to decide what label to put on yourself. It’s not really necessary for our purpose here. Although, if you find you struggle with social situations often, it’s worth trying to get some help to understand why and what you can do to ease the discomfort.

Family eating meal around a large dinner table together.

No matter which group(s) you identify with, it does not mean that holiday parties have to be hard. Yes, there are challenges for all three groups, but this does not mean that social engagements are necessarily going to be awful. You can learn skills and tricks that make gatherings easier and more enjoyable for you. If you go into a social situation knowing you have tools to make it work for you, you are more likely to be relaxed and able to enjoy it than someone going in stressed and anxious.

I personally find that even when I’m excited about seeing family or friends around the holidays, it can still be a challenge on the day of the event. I’ve had times when I’m in a perfectly good mood and then people start to show up (or I arrive at my destination) and I’m suddenly feeling totally grouchy. It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have a mood disorder, but I was feeling overwhelmed by all the stimuli. Here’s a short list of things that HSPs process in crowds (if you are an HSP you may not notice all of this, and introverts who aren’t HSPs will likely also notice many of these):

  • Noise (multiple voices, music, crashing of dishes, etc.)

  • Smells (food, perfumes, animals, holiday scents, etc.)

  • Emotions (determined by voices, facial expressions, body language, stories you are being told, etc.)

  • Energy (especially the energy that doesn’t match the emotions being presented or a million cell phones beaming their energy at you)

  • Touch (particularly people touching you if you don’t like that sort of thing, kids running around, animals sticking their tongues on you unexpectedly, etc.)

  • Crowded spaces (for all the above reasons as well as feeling hemmed in and unable to get away)

  • Location (holiday decorations, spaces you haven’t been in, finding the bathroom, scoping out safe places to stand, etc.)

  • Names and faces (meeting new people while all the above is going on or trying to bring up names of people you met last year at the holiday party)

  • Social cues (Did I dress correctly? Did I bring what I was supposed to bring? Are we drinking alcohol at this party? Is everyone happy? Is that person looking grumpy because of me or something else?)

  • People or topics you want to avoid

It goes on from there. If you aren’t an HSP, most of this probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to you. If you are an HSP, then you are feeling stressed right now (as am I).

Let’s just say that the onslaught of all this stuff that you notice (because most HSPs can’t help noticing) and have to process (because you can’t shut the processing off and still be able to carry on a conversation) can be overwhelming. I sometimes feel like I’m being attacked by all the stimuli coming at me even when it is a perfectly normal family gathering. Which is why HSPs can shut down in situations like this or have mild panic attacks. I get it. I’ve been close to both on many occasions.

The good news is that you can do things that help ease the discomfort. Some tips will help make your whole experience better, while others will be used only when you start to feel the overwhelm creep up on you. Below are my suggestions of favorite hacks to get me through holiday events. Read them and take whatever you think you can use. Then spend time thinking about your own sensitivities and what tends to push you over the edge. See if you can dream up some hacks that will help you with your particular point of need. (You can email them to me so I can try them too!)

Most of my hacks have to do with closing your circle of attention. It’s typical for HSPs to want to keep track of everything going on around them all the time. However, as the space you are in gets bigger or the crowd gets larger, this is both impossible and overwhelming. The key is to shrink your area of attention and allow your brain to block out everything going on outside of your chosen circle. You will be less likely to get overwhelmed by stimuli if you limit what you take in. So if you are with family, you don’t want to keep track of everyone in the whole house, but just the people near you in the living room. If you are at a work party, then don’t try to process the entire room, but find a way to limit the inputs to a smaller area around you.

Graphic representing a party situation. The large circle is labeled: Don't try to pay attention to everything. The smaller circle is labeled: Make your circle smaller so you just pay attention to what is immediately around you.

Being able to adjust your circle of attention is a skill you can practice like any other. Once you get good at it, you can use it in any situation. For the sake of this topic, I’m going to give you some tricks that will help you naturally pull in your circle. For example, you can find smaller rooms or spaces to cut down on the amount of information you have to process. A table tucked behind plants, a small sitting room, the end of a long dining room table, seating in a foyer, or even hanging out in the corner of a room can narrow your focus to the smaller space around you.

If you are noise sensitive (like me) you will want to find a space that is also slightly buffered from the loudest/most annoying sounds. If the noises from the kitchen bug you most, then get away from them. If the background music is too much for you, then claim a spot furthest away from the speakers (or band). This can also be the same for smells if you are sensitive to those. Open windows are helpful or spots where you are near a vent (unless you get cold easily, then that’s a bad idea). Knowing your most significant sensitivities will help you prioritize your needs.

Which brings me to another tip. I find that for large social gatherings in spaces you don’t know, getting there early can be a big help. You will have your pick of the best place to sit (depending on your needs) where you can get settled and wait for others to arrive. Then you just hang out in your designated space and let people come to you to say hi and socialize. I’ve found this helps me a lot as I get to see people as they arrive and it is less overwhelming than walking into a room already full and noisy. If you are shy or don’t want to sit with certain people, then maybe recruit a few friends to your table before the party so you know that at least you’ll have a safe base to start from.

You can decide if family gatherings work best going early or late. I find it doesn’t matter much to me. It’s still overwhelming. Here’s what does work, though: Go outside! I find that when everyone starts showing up it’s easy for me to get really overwhelmed with all the information about food, seating, how people are feeling, who’s here and who’s best trick is to just walk out. It’s quieter and there is more space so I don’t feel crowded. I can greet people as they head inside and I avoid a lot of details I don’t need to know. If there is a porch you can sit on, that’s perfect. If you want to offer to carry things inside, then you look like you are being helpful rather than avoiding the crowd. You can take pets for a walk or ask kids to show off their new bike skills. I’ve spent a lot of family gatherings taking walks with others to get away from the chaos while also catching up with people willing to walk with me.

Multi generational family outside with bikes, kids, and pets.

Another great trick I’ve learned is to attach yourself to a kid. If you don’t have kids of your own, find a niece or nephew to hang out with, borrow a baby, or hunt for that younger person who looks as overwhelmed as you feel. Focusing on a little person will naturally make your circle of attention smaller and give you a reason to ignore a lot of stuff going on around you. Hanging out with a kid outside is a great way for both of you to escape while also building a lot of goodwill with the kid’s parents. I once got through a really noisy wedding where I hardly knew anyone by holding my friend’s sleeping baby for an hour and half in the quietest corner we could find. It’s not a great tip if there are actually people you want to talk to, but it can work wonders in the right situation. Also, if you hate hugs, then having a kid in your arms is a great way to get out of that physical obligation (so is gathering coats and carrying things).

When you are starting to feel that overwhelm creep up on you, have a few options you can use to get out of the situation and take a breather. Trips to the bathroom, the car, the backyard, the foyer, or anywhere other than the noisiest part of the party is a great way to get a break. Ask to get a tour of the property, inquire about someone’s new car, see if you can walk around the garden, or express interest in the neighbor’s interesting lawn decorations. You don’t have to be highly engaged in whatever you are asking about, just be interested enough to walk away for a ten minute break from the overwhelming chaos.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask others to escape with you. If there are people you really want to talk to, be honest that you want to catch up but can’t concentrate with everything going on. See if they want to escape to a quieter room or outside for a bit. If you look carefully, you may notice others feeling overwhelmed who would be perfectly happy to go with you. You won’t look antisocial and you can both get away from the stimulation for a few minutes. A bunch of friends and I hung out in the lobby of a hotel to escape the ridiculously loud DJ playing music for one of our high school reunions. We were all happier together and away from the noise.

Helping out is another good way to shrink your circle of attention. If you are washing dishes, then your focus is on what you are doing, not the noise in the living room at the moment. Maybe you can put yourself in charge of hanging up coats (an excellent way to greet people as they come without having a long conversation), arranging the gifts, or putting serving spoons in all the dishes on the table. Making yourself the unofficial photographer for the day is also a great way to focus on your camera and the people directly in front of it.

Another tip is to bring or find pictures to look at. Ask someone for the latest pictures of their grandkids or pull out your Mom’s photo albums and start looking at them with whoever is nearby. Give yourself something to focus on, pull a few other people into it, and you have a situation where you get to enjoy their company without being overwhelmed yourself.

Family outdoors playing soccer.

Playing games can be another way to accomplish this. I’m not a game player myself so trying to play a game within the chaos can actually put me right over the edge. Although I do enjoy playing outside with kids, so sometimes a causal outdoor game on a nice day can be a good break from the indoors while spending time with the younger crowd. So it’s all about knowing yourself and trying things to see what works for you.

If you find that social situations in general are nerve-wracking for you, then these tips above will help, but still may not make you feel comfortable enough to have fun. My suggestion is that you work with someone who can help you learn the skills you need. I don’t believe there is anyone incapable of learning social skills. If you struggle with shyness, names, faces, discussion topics, speaking clearly, or anything else there is someone out there who can help you get better and/or more comfortable with it. Sit down and figure out what you need most and then find someone who will help you practice those specific skills. A few weeks of practice may make a lifetime of parties more bearable. It’s worth it.

And just in case this isn't obvious, be careful how you arrange your social calendar. I would recommend not agreeing to attend more than one party on the same day. Don’t go to an event at night if you know you will spend the day in a highly stimulating environment. Scheduling days off from work or canceling your typical social engagements can give you the down time you need to recover between events. Get the bulk of your own shopping, cooking, decorating, and other tasks done early so you aren’t feeling overwhelmed by social engagements and logistics. Set your schedule up for success and you’ll reap the benefits by going into holiday gatherings more relaxed overall.

The holidays are coming again but there is no need to get stressed about social gatherings! Even if you are an HSP and an introvert (a tough combo to deal with) you can use these hacks to make everything less overwhelming and more enjoyable. The most important thing you can do is STOP telling yourself that it is going to be hard or awful or panic-inducing. Believe that you can manage the overwhelm and you’ll find that your enjoyment shifts along with your outlook. Take these tips I’ve given you, add a few of your own and go into the situation with the mindset that you are going to hack your way to a successful event! Can you imagine what life will be like once you can stop dreading all your holiday parties? Start this season by figuring out what works for you and build a repertoire of skills that you can use forever!

Want some help practicing skills or creating a plan to get you through the holidays? Contact me and let me know what you need. We can figure out how to make your holidays more relaxed!

Check out my Sensitive Girl's Guide to Travel too!

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