Let’s be honest, the holiday season can feel like a marathon. There’s so much to do, so many people to see and all those expectations to fulfill — so it’s understandable if you’re feeling burnt out.
Part of the problem is it’s all too easy to say yes to plans and then realize day-of that you would prefer to be doing anything else rather than that dinner party/work mixer/holiday gathering.
It helps to think about what you truly want in advance, but if you find yourself needing to cancel, here’s how to make the conversation go a little smoother.
What to consider before saying yes to plans (to help you set expectations and avoid awkward conversations)
Yes, the pressure to continue holiday traditions, uphold family obligations and attend gatherings is intense. But, also, do you enjoy these events?
“We typically disregard what our preferences might be in favor of honoring traditions and societal expectations,” says Dr. Tuesday Burns, a psychiatrist who sees patients at the Psychiatry Clinic at UW Medical Center – Roosevelt. “I encourage folks to think about what they’d like holidays to look like for them. If you start from what is going to enable you to be your best self and fill your cup, it makes it easier to respond to invites and shape your decisions.”
What you want matters and determining the types of social interactions you prefer can help you rethink how you gather with loved ones as well as decline events that aren’t a good fit for you. This also helps you give more genuine, wholehearted yeses, too.
Ask yourself what types of functions you enjoy and flourish in. Do you enjoy holiday parties of 50 people? What about 100? Is the family reunion something you like? What about the weeklong overnight at your grandma’s house bunking with extended cousins? Are events with heavy drinking your thing or something you’d prefer to avoid?
If you’re honest about what works for you and what doesn’t, you can set boundaries around what you are willing to do. Knowing these boundaries in advance makes it easier to say no (or not this time) when you’re originally invited to an activity, so that you don’t have to go back and cancel later.
Standing up for what you need can be uncomfortable, but it’s a way to honor yourself. Plus, as people come out of pandemic bubbles, they are often rethinking how to go about the holidays, so you aren’t alone in determining what will be best for you moving forward.
What to say to gracefully cancel plans
Even with the best intentions and defined boundaries, you might end up with plans you want to cancel.
Declining and canceling plans with grace will look different based on the event, your relationship with the person asking, the timing and your own comfort levels.
“You need to shift your approach depending on the person,” Burns says. “Don’t go in with the expectation that you need to be brutally honest with everyone, but don’t feel you need to be dishonest, either.”
How to cancel plans with colleagues or a boss
Work parties and social events are tricky because there is the extra element of not wanting to disappoint your employer. You want to respect the relationship and situation while also getting yourself out of an event you don’t want to be in, Burns says.
Some ideas of what to say:
- “You know, going back to big holiday events or plans after a few years out of the routine has left me feeling uncertain. I feel better sitting this one out. I hope things change in the future and then I can participate.”
- “I know I’ve gone to happy hours/work parties in the past, but after thinking about it more I’m realizing it’s not something I feel comfortable going to. I am looking forward to working with you on x project/attending x alternative event.”
How to cancel plans with close friends
If you’re close with the people you’re canceling plans with, you might feel comfortable being more vulnerable and honest about why you don’t want to go. You can share the reason you’re hesitant and then find alternative ways to gather, spend time or celebrate.
“A good friend is someone you can have boundaries with and who would understand if you need to cancel, especially if it comes from an authentic place of what your needs are,” Burns says.
Some ideas of what to say:
- “I love you and love hanging out one on one but the idea of going to a big party gives me anxiety. Maybe we can meet for lunch earlier in the week or afterward to celebrate instead?”
- “I think I’m going to feel really drained if I go out tonight. Can we raincheck? I’d love to see you at x time doing x thing.”
How to cancel plans with family
One way to avoid needing to cancel plans with family is to try to find alternatives to longstanding events you know you don’t enjoy.
“Start with the relative with whom you’re the closest (a parent, a sibling, etc.) and try to have an open discussion with them about holidays and new traditions,” Burns says. “Then, you can approach the bigger group together, as an allied front.”
Again, as we restart holidays after several years of quasi- and full lockdown, there’s a chance to rethink how you gather. And if you need to cancel, you can do that too.
Some ideas of what to say:
- “I’m still not entirely comfortable with big gatherings. I’d love to see you all in the new year, perhaps in smaller groups.”
- “I can’t make it to the event. Can we find another time to get together and celebrate?”
How to cancel plans at the last minute
While consistently canceling at the last minute is not ideal, it’s also OK to bow out of plans if you need to take care of yourself.
Burns recommends getting curious about why you want to cancel. Is it just nervousness and you’ll regret not going? Is it cold feet or anxiety? Is the event something you shouldn’t have said yes to in the first place?
“If the answer is the event isn’t going to serve you and you’ll be a much happier human if you don’t go, then you need to evaluate what is going to be an effective way to communicate that,” Burns says.
Some ideas of what to say:
- “I’m sorry to be canceling at the last minute when you didn’t have the chance to change reservations/the RSVP/etc. I can't make it out tonight, but I do want to see you. Can we find another time to get together?
- “I know I committed to this earlier but unfortunately I’m going to be able to make it. I’m sorry for canceling last minute.”
What not to say when you want to gracefully cancel plans
Minding these pitfalls can help you maintain your relationships and feel better about how you are canceling plans.
Avoid blatant lies
While you don’t need to tell everyone all the details of what is going on, you also don’t want to out-and-out lie. That means no tales of sudden illness, sick relatives or quick turn work deadlines if these things aren’t true.
“You don’t want to be at the next social gathering feeling panicked and trying to remember what you’d said. It’s not a good place to be,” Burns says.
Avoid setting unrealistic expectations
It can be uncomfortable, but you want to be clear if you are canceling plans and don’t intend to reschedule them.
“You want to avoid setting the expectation of, ‘Oh, she said not tonight but then what about tomorrow?’” Burns says.
This might look like saying, “I appreciate the invite, but I don’t think I can go. I hope you all have a great time.” It’s hard to not add on something like, “maybe next time,” or “in the future” but you don’t want to make vague promises you don’t intend to keep. Being clear and kind now will save you and the person from having the same conversation later.
Avoid grandiose or disingenuous apologies
It’s fair to apologize for inconveniencing someone if you cancel at the last minute, but you don’t need to apologize for honoring your own needs.
“You don’t want to give an over effusive apology which can set up unrealistic expectations that you’re so sorry you’ll want to come or you’re so sorry that you owe the other person now,” Burns says.
If you over apologize, this can also put the other person in a place where they feel like they need to comfort you.
Ultimately, you want to be true to your own needs and clear about them with the people in your life. The more you can practice communicating this early, the easier it will get (and, hopefully, the less you’ll need to cancel). Work with the people who love you to find ways you can spend time together that feel good for both of you.
“You have a say in what your days and time looks like. The time we have is fleeting, we want to make sure we spend it in a way that is enjoyable and worthwhile,” Burns says.