November 23, 2021 10:27 AM EST

It’s entirely possible to love and dread the holidays at the same time—especially in 2021, which promises awkward conversations along with glad tidings and good cheer. As families and friends plan to get together this year, they’ll not only need to weigh the risk of getting sick from COVID-19, but also the possibility that some attendees have taken safety protocols more seriously than others.

While talking to loved ones about holiday get-togethers in advance can be nerve-wracking, it’s essential. I spoke with Dr. Joshua Morganstein, associate professor of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and Rick Hanson, a psychologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, about staying safe and happy this holiday season.

Forget “Winning” the Argument

Before your Thanksgiving dinner or other holiday gathering, think through the risks, and talk about safety with everyone who will be attending. Questions like vaccination, who is most at risk for a serious infection and how much COVID-19 is spreading in your area are all important pieces of the equation (which I lay out in more detail here).

Set aside any impulse to “win” an argument. Drawing a line about safety doesn’t mean “lashing out or punishing others,” Hanson notes—and definitely is not about politics.

Instead, Hanson advises finding common ground. When discussing safety precautions, he suggests framing challenges as a “we” issue; in other words, “What’s good for all of us? How can we make an arrangement that we all agree to?” Rather than talking about the pandemic or public health in general, focus on concrete actions that need to be taken (who will pick up testing kits?), agreements (e.g., everyone will get tested the day before) or results (focus on keeping a specific person safe, like a grandparent).

While it’s within your rights to cancel plans, that doesn’t mean you should disregard the impact your decision has on others. As Hanson notes, some people might interpret these decisions as choosing yourself or your immediate family over other people. It’s important to show that while your decision is firm, you still care about whoever you would have been gathering with. “[Lead] with a recognition of the impact, followed by an unapologetic statement: what would you feel you need to do to be safe,” he says.

And remember that the pandemic has impacted everyone. “They’re freaked out too,” Hanson says. “It’s been a hard year for them, too.”

Plan Ahead

Whether you’re more worried about spreading COVID-19 or tackling a tough conversation with your unvaccinated uncle, making a plan can help.

Infectious disease experts recommend hashing out how you’ll limit the spread of COVID-19 at your get-togethers as soon as possible. Vaccination, masking and testing can significantly reduce the risk of spreading the virus, but they’ll be much more effective if everyone at your gathering is putting them into effect, especially in the days beforehand.

Efforts to “bring down the threat,” as Hanson puts it, can have the added benefit of making you feel less stressed about your gathering. However, he notes that once you’ve done everything you can to reduce risk, it’s important not to blow the risks of a given gathering out of proportion; any given holiday party will only last for a few hours, and if you feel uncomfortable, you can always go home early.

Planning can also help if you’re getting ready for a difficult conversation with a loved one—like how to break it to someone that you’re not attending their gathering. Morganstein suggests writing out your thoughts in advance, as it can be difficult to think while experiencing intense emotions. Morganstein also suggests “cushioning” tough news between positive statements, which can reduce the negative emotional impact. For instance, if you’re going to cancel plans to see family, start by saying how much you miss them—and finish by reaffirming that you love them.

You also don’t need to explain your decision, especially if you’re worried that the conversation will be difficult. “Consider your own limitations,” says Morganstein. “It’s okay to feel how you feel about it. You don’t have to explain it to other people.”

Don’t Aim for Perfect

Things go wrong over the holidays. Ovens stop working while baking a pie. Siblings bicker over carving the turkey. Relatives get the flu and need to cancel plans. During a pandemic, mishaps are even more likely. That’s why it’s important to have a safety plan in advance—but also why you should be ready to cut your friends, your family and especially yourself some extra slack this year.

Morganstein suggests avoiding thoughts like “That’s what my family always does” and instead reimagining the holidays. “Give yourself a break,” he says. “We can’t fix everything for everybody. We can’t make perfect decisions.”

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