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Who’s at your Christmas party? Making a difference with empathy

Photo by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

Christmas is close upon us, and festive jumpers have already made their debut. My own has a knitted Rudolph face. Said reindeer can summon chocolate coins out of thin air for a three-year-old nephew, if you ask his red nose nicely…Auntie Suze tries to set an example in an entertaining way…

Lots of us will have wined and dined by now at the office soiree, which may have ended in a variety of ways. Plans may be afoot for a family Christmas Day event, and perhaps something for the New Year?

Parties can bring joy, warmth and razzmatazz to our lives, particularly for those of us bound by the short, dark days of December. Whatever the social occasion, there is always space for a special guest. Empathy.

Often understated, overlooked or underrated, empathy can make all the difference to another person’s mental wellbeing.

Empathy is about stepping into the other person’s shoes, figuratively speaking, and trying to see the world from their perspective. What might they be thinking or feeling?

Applying empathy to any given social occasion, how might someone be made to feel welcome when they face challenging circumstances?

Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is demonstrating concern or sorrow for someone’s plight.

Here are just a few ideas on how to incorporate empathy into your own celebrations or occasions. They are based upon recent situations in my own family and friendship circles, my motivation for writing here.

Reach out to someone who is bereaved, lonely or both

The other year my Mum went from living with three other beings to just herself, all in the space of five months. Her two beloved dogs died within a fortnight of each other in late summer, then my stepfather was diagnosed with stomach cancer in December. He died just ten days after the diagnosis.

She clearly wasn’t ready for a Christmas party that year, but has spoken about interactions with friends and acquaintances in the months that followed. I’ll start here with some of the most common, but least empathetic social invitations, the noncommittal offers.

Noncommittal offers might just as well be no offer at all. They are a vague indication that the bereaved, separated or generally lonely person might be welcome to spend time with you at some undefined point in time.

They are easy to hand out and can assuage the conscience whilst comfortably avoiding interaction with someone else’s difficult emotions. They sound like this: “Oh, do get in touch if you’d like to come and join us one day! You know where we are! We are always here for you.”

It can be such an effort for the recipient to face the world anyway. The noncommittal offer exacerbates this, constructing a set of insurmountable barriers out of reinforced concrete: “Can I even make myself go? Do they even want me? How would I manage?”

What is needed is gentle and specific help, with options for making things more manageable. Some more helpful approaches include:

  • An initial invitation to meet in a quiet setting within a specific timeframe:“Could I pass by yours at some time on Friday afternoon for half an hour, or would you prefer to leave the house and come to mine?”
  • A clear commitment that you’ll reach out again within a specific timeframe (even when previous offers have been declined): “I’m here for you. Even if you still don’t feel like meeting up in person, I’ll be in touch within the fortnight to see how you are doing.”
  • Options at a larger party or social gathering to help reduce ‘party anxiety’, explained further below.

We all know of at least someone who may be lonely. Perhaps this ‘someone’ lives in the same neighbourhood, is a family member or a work colleague. If it’s not possible to manage the logistics or relationship dynamics involved in laying an extra place at the table on Christmas Day, then what specifically could be offered instead? Start small.

Sharing a mince pie on Christmas Eve? A Boxing Day walk? Just knocking on someones’s door in person to see how they are?

Make others feel at ease: reduce ‘party anxiety’

Parties are for relaxing, having fun and lettting our hair down a bit. They are positive occasions and we naturally want them to stay that way. After all, no one wants to invite a party-pooper who looks like they’ve eaten a lemon, sobs into their serviette or rushes home at the drop of a hat.

It’s easy to overlook how some of the guests may be feeling inside due to their own personal circumstances. We’re not telepathic. Our fellow party-goers may be particularly adept at concealing their feelings behind a social mask. If they wear the mask well enough, perhaps they can ‘fake it until they make it’ and enter into the spirit of things? There’s much to be said for taking personal responsibility to put one’s best foot forwards after all.

Yet life is not always so simple. Most of us will have felt nervous, or downright anxious, attending a party at some point in our lives. For a myriad of reasons.

Single or without a partner? Recently divorced? Suffering from anxiety, which no one else really knows about? Or, like my good friend, Rachel, returning to work after nursing a child with a long-term illness?

Rachel wanted to settle back into work before the New Year, so rejoined for in the lead up to Christmas. The hardest part wasn’t the work, but trying to keep face during the all-afternoon-and-evening Christmas party shenanigans.

How to demonstrate empathy at a party and help relieve any anxiety? Three ideas below. Can you think of others that have made a real difference?

  • Offer someone like Rachel options to join the celebrations and a get-out clause: “We’d love you to join us if you don’t have any other commitments. After lunch, there’s an open invitation to carry on into the evening for anyone who wants to”.
  • Make a single person feel welcome by leaving the comfort of your own group to talk to them. Or actively engage them in your own group, making them part of the conversation rather than a dummy observer.
  • Serve food that people can help themselves to. Beyond buffets, there’s always the option to present the main meal Jamie Oliver style, where guests help themselves from big plates in the centre of the table. Having control over portions can be a real boon to anyone experiencing illness, anxiety or a run of bad luck that results in loss of appetite. More control means less angst about insulting the host. The more relaxed an anxious person feels, the more likely they are to try a second helping.

Final thoughts

Helping my Mum through a difficult bereavement over the past year highlighted the importance of empathy to me in social situations. Empathy can help transform someone’s life for a moment in time, supporting them to explore options for managing ‘well enough’ amidst challenging circumstances.

I don’t profess to be empathetic inside and out. It’s not humanly possible to be completely empathetic all the time, and there’s always scope for well-intended communication to be received as something different. What I do know is that empathy doesn’t have to be The Greatest Showman. A simple but meaningful gesture, some kind words, a specific commitment, it thrives in quiet and discreet form.

May empathy be present throughout the festive season, for those celebrating, and may it lend us all a helping hand in the coming year! Enjoy!

New explorer and writer on Medium…

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