Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow are going to look different for everyone this year, but for those who live alone, these changes might hit particularly hard.
There are an estimated 35.7 million single-person households in the United States — roughly one-third of all households — according to data collected in 2018 by the U.S. Census Bureau. So if you’re looking around your house and wondering how to make this Thanksgiving (and the rest of the holiday season) feel festive, you’re in good company.
Here’s how you can still enjoy the holidays even if you’re flying solo.
Don’t wait until the holiday is upon you to make a plan. Come up with something you’ll do on the day of the holiday: bake cookies, order takeout, work on a jigsaw puzzle, binge a podcast, watch your favorite movie. Just knowing what you’ll be doing in advance “can bring some peace,” said Ivy Kwong, a Seattle-based marriage and family therapist who specializes in healing codependency and intergenerational trauma. This way you won’t scramble to fill your calendar or hunt down supplies at the last minute, which will only add to your stress.
You can certainly ask around and see what your friends and family have planned for the holidays. “That can also help you to not feel so lonely,” said Ayanna Abrams, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Atlanta who specializes in creating healthy relationships. “You might actually see that you have more access to people than you think you do.”
“This is also a great opportunity to tell people exactly what you might need in advance,” she said. Perhaps you can ask a friend to join you on a socially distanced coffee date on the day of the holiday before they celebrate with their family. Or invite a relative to share a glass of wine during a 15-minute Zoom call.
You don’t want to find yourself sitting around waiting for people to reach out to you. That can lead to disappointment “because you think that people are reading your mind or knowing what you need,” Abrams said.
“Loneliness sometimes makes us want to withdraw,” said Kyler Shumway, a therapist and author of “The Friendship Formula: How to Say Goodbye to Loneliness and Discover Deeper Connection.”
“We feel like we’re a burden on people. And we assume that other people don’t want to hear from us or spend time with us,” he said. Instead, be transparent about your desire to connect. Let people show up for you.
Accept whatever feelings bubble up
Sometimes we get so attached to the holidays looking and feeling a certain way that we don’t give ourselves permission to feel another way, Abrams said. The holidays this year don’t have to be all or nothing. Celebrations can — and will! — look different this time around.
“You might come across things that you didn’t even think you liked or would enjoy in the same way,” she said.
Feelings of anxiety, sadness and loneliness are normal, especially around the holiday season.
“We call it anticipatory grief,” Abrams added. “Already thinking about not doing things the way in which they’ve done it before and already missing their family, even though the holiday hasn’t even happened yet.”
If you catch yourself spiraling into bleak fantasies — this isolation will last forever, you’ll never touch anyone again — bring your attention back to the here and now. See what you can do today to give yourself a sense of control instead of obsessing about a future scenario that may never happen.
Identify what’s most important to you and focus on achieving it
Kwong suggests picking out one element of the holiday that’s sacred to you. For Thanksgiving, perhaps it’s eating pumpkin pie. In December, it could be lighting candles, singing songs, decorating a tree, eating latkes and applesauce. Focus on that element and give it time, attention and care.
You can also create brand-new rituals. Perhaps you take this opportunity to create a new Friendsgiving tradition or incorporate a new recipe into your holiday meal. Do what feels right to you.
“There’s no guilting, shaming or doing it right,” Kwong said, “because there’s no one right way to do this.”
Take a social media break if you need it
If social media posts leave you feeling warm, fuzzy and more connected, scroll away. However, if you’re feeling vulnerable, comparing your situation to someone else’s could stir up negative emotions. Remember that images and videos may not tell the whole story of another person’s circumstances. Give yourself permission to pull away from those platforms or at least curate your feed to minimize those kinds of posts if you find them overwhelming.
Be gracious. Live in the moment.
As you catch up with relatives and loved ones during the holidays, Shumway encourages minimizing any distractions so you can fully be present. Stash away your phone, turn off the television, silence notifications — give your full attention to the people you’re speaking with.
“The goal here is to build those memories, to have an experience of being fully plugged in to a relational moment,” he said.
Offer yourself opportunities to create new memories that will make you feel included and connected with the people in your life, Abrams said.
The possibilities she suggested include: Video chatting with loved ones. Sending out holiday cards and handwritten letters. Snapping pictures and exchanging them with friends and family. Decorating your living space to feel cozy and inviting. Mailing gifts to family and friends and then opening them together via a video platform.
And instead of focusing on what you’ve lost by having a smaller celebration, honor the fact that you’re celebrating safely. One of the most powerful antidotes to sadness and grief is gratitude, Kwong said. Think about what you’re grateful for in your life, and make an itemized list if it helps.
Volunteering and donating to local charities is a great way to “really get into the holiday spirit of giving and connecting with people,” Abrams said.
Traditionally, many people volunteer in soup kitchens on Thanksgiving; while that may feel too risky this year, organizations are looking for people to deliver meals or to write holiday cards to people in need. You can even organize your own virtual food drive or fundraiser to benefit a local food bank.
Or perhaps you can foster or adopt a new furry friend.
“Pets do provide an authentic relational connection and they offset a lot of feelings of loneliness,” Shumway said. If your apartment doesn’t allow pets or you’re not able to adopt one, consider volunteering at a local animal shelter. Sign up for a shift where you can walk dogs, which will give you both fresh air and companionship.
If you’re overwhelmed, you can also use this time to take care of your body and slow things down, Abrams said.
“If you’re not going to be in the store shopping and traveling, kind of bouncing all over the place, get some more sleep,” she added. “That’s always the recommendation.”