Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive person survives a holiday dinner

How to Survive Holiday Dinners as a Highly Sensitive Person

What’s that I’m seeing everywhere? It’s fall, y’all? It’s true. The holiday season is upon us, and for the highly sensitive person, this comes with a big ol’ mix of emotions.

First of all, there’s autumn itself. The weather cools down, layers are layered, apple cider is drunk, and in Seattle where I live, the rain rains. All these things make me take a ginormous, cleansing breath of relief. For me, fall signals a time to relax.

On the flip side? I know the craziness of the “holiday season” is right around the corner — including big holiday meals. Don’t get me wrong; I love my friends and family! But tell me if this sounds familiar:

It’s Thanksgiving and here comes Great Aunt Maude. She approaches you, arms raised, wanting to squeeze you just like she did when you were seven. Her perfume envelopes you as her arms close around you — it’s a lot for your highly sensitive system. And then she wants to hear everything you’ve been up to, where do you even start?

Then there’s peas. Peas and I have a hate-hate relationship. They pop in your mouth funny. And you have to chase them around with the spoon before you can even claim one. And the smell of peas cooking? I kid you not, one time at summer (not band) camp, I made myself throw up so I could go home and not eat the peas on my plate. For the record, I don’t recommend this tactic, but to a five-year-old, it seemed worth it!

Fast forward to my first holiday dinner with my now-husband and what veggies do you think were his mother’s favorite? Yup. Peas. To be fair, she was British, so the whole holiday dinner was bound to be something different than what I was used to. How we made it through that night, I don’t know. But I do know how to hold my nose without using my fingers. Stupid human trick.

Aaaaand football. Now, I come from a strange family that doesn’t really like sports. But football will always be on before and after dinner. My dad and great uncle will be sprawled out in recliners snoring away. So if anyone wants to talk with you, they have to shout over the game AND the snores to be heard. Add in the raised voice of your mom telling you the pumpkin pie is ready — can you please whip the cream? — and holiday dinners are not relaxing!

How the Holidays Affect Highly Sensitive People

I can’t speak for you, but I can explain what gets me all stimulated about the holidays. It’s a perfect storm of these things:

  • Visuals. Lights. Ornaments. Shiny things. Your eye goes to each one of them. The rest of the year, I can usually re-focus myself. But when I have so many things vying for my attention (some of them flashing), it’s hard to keep track of who Ruby Sue is and why it’s okay to have her dog at dinner. At a certain point, my eyes hurt, and I can’t even make myself listen to the conversation anymore.
  • Silver bells… Silver bells… It’s Christmas time in the city. And there are silver bells, and car horns and Salvation Army ringers and the general hummmm of the crowd you’re in all season long. Don’t get me wrong! Some of my very favorite songs are holiday songs (Chris Cornell’s “Ave Maria” anyone?). But the JOY is everywhere! Elevators, lobbies, grocery stores. Ho ho NO. I need to think, and that means quiet is necessary for my HSP mind.
  • But the thing that most overwhelms me is the pure FEEL of the season. The emotions that go into it: anxiety from attending an office party solo; nostalgia when you see little kiddos earnestly telling Santa what they want for Christmas. (I’m not crying; YOU’RE crying). And not least, the love. Because if you’re an HSP like me, you love to the 100th degree. You love your family and your friends. Even the humbug who cuts in line gets a little thread of empathy this time of year. But it’s just. So. Much. You love it, and it’s exhausting. 

Can I just hibernate in a little cave and come out… well, never?

So yeah, a lot going on. And while anyone may feel overwhelmed, highly sensitive people process these things very deeply — our entire brains are designed to go through stimuli as deeply as possible. Yikes.

While we can’t control everything, there are some things that can make holiday get-togethers easier for us highly sensitive people.

5 Holiday Dinner Survival Strategies for HSPs

1. Dress (down) for the occasion

It can be tempting to buy a fancy new top to wear to dinner. Or pull out those “nice pants” in the back of your closet. Skip both those things. Wear something you know is comfy, because:

  • Less stimulation. You’ll have enough other things to think about than what is directly touching your skin. I have dark memories of those cable knit tights kiddos my age wore when we were younger. Scratchy. Saggy. Ugh.
  • No one’s judging. Honestly? It’s probably not a state dinner. Black ties aren’t expected. Most people can’t decipher your nice pants from your go-to ones. So wear ones you can button up without feeling like a corset situation and don’t stand up on their own from starch.

2. Prep yo’self (for the many, many people)

If possible, see how many people are coming, who you know/will stick to like glue, and a smidgen of what to expect from the humans (big ones AND littles! I love playing with the kids). Here’s what I like to sort out before I go:

  • Remind yourself of names — before you go. Facebook is a great tool for this. Do you know the name of everyone’s significant other? How about their kids’ names? When I’m feeling overwhelmed, this sort of data is the last thing I’m able to access in my memory. Move those details to the front of your mind!
  • Any big news? Someone may be a second cousin you haven’t seen in three years, but if they just had a baby (or a marriage, breakup, divorce, death in the family, etc.), you can save yourself a lot of awkwardness by knowing about it. 
  • Conversation topics. Focus on stuff that’s of interest to others. Maybe the latest album of a band you know they like? Maybe their new job or a project they’re working on? Or maybe a news item you saw that you know will interest them (in a noncontroversial way, please).

3. Dig in — the right way

Now I’m not comparing anyone’s food to McDonald’s, but let’s just say cranberry sauce can take many many forms. And you might not be a fan of all of them. So, check in with your host/hostess beforehand to see if you can add a dish to dinner. Because:

  • It kills two birds with one stone. You’re a thoughtful guest and you have something you know you’ll like, thank you very much!
  • Do you have a food sensitivity? Or a dietary restriction? It’s nice when hosts are thoughtful, but remember they have a lot of people to please, and may have recipes they do every year without much change. Bring the thing you know you can eat.

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4. Be one step ahead of overstimulation

You’re cozy in your warm sweater, happily digesting dinner and have successfully engaged in not one, but TWO conversations! Bam!

You’re counting the minutes until you can escape home to your cat and your page turner. So prep an exit plan ahead of time — there is a LOT of stimulation going on, and you don’t want to have to come up with an excuse when you’ve already started to crash.

Here’s how to bow out on the fly:

  • Keep an eye out for the host. You don’t want a big scene with 40 goodbyes when you leave, but knowing where your host is means you can pull them aside for that quick thank-you and goodbye.
  • If they’re stuck in the kitchen, join them! One-on-one doing dishes versus the crowd and… anything? No. Contest.
  • The turn and burn. If you can pull it off, use the “almost at the door, look back, wave, and say “Bye!” to the group. You just might escape with no additional hugs.

5. After-care

You. Made. It.

Yay! This is awesome! You officially adulted, participated in a holiday dinner that may or may not have involved politics (doesn’t it always?). Now is the time for some self-care to help your system come down from all that input.

For starters, you deserve a treat! Having a dessert ready at home is nice, or soothe yourself with some tea if you’ve already eaten too much. Listen to your favorite tunes or read in silence. Most important: Communicate to your partner/family that you’ll need some downtime when you get back, and make sure they understand that in advance.

And then you might notice something: This was actually pretty great, right?

In the end, we sensitive people aren’t grinches at all! We may seem a bit reserved or look like we don’t want to be there. But we do! Our heart grows three sizes each day! And after all the thoughts, feelings, and prep that go into dinners, gifts, and caroling… we really loved spending our holidays with you. Truly, the most wonderful time of the year.

HSP, what are your go-to holiday survival tips? Let me know in the comments below.

Did this post hit home? Jen Pollard is an online interior designer who makes homes function for the family — particularly creating restorative spaces for sensitive, quiet types (of which she is one!). She believes that when designed well, homes can help us recharge, connect to values, and create a place where we can connect with the people who matter most to us. Learn more here.

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