How to handle that awkward 'hi' with your exes this holiday

Running into your old GF or BFF might not be so bad after reading these tips

Running into your old GF or BFF might not be so bad after reading these tips

A vector illustration. Three people at a holiday party. Two of them look like a couple with a third person in a skirt is holding a present and walking toward the couple.
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

All I want for Christmas is you … to not be at the holiday party. 

OK, so that's not quite the lyric Mariah Carey went with, but for many, that sentiment rings true this time of year. Whether it's heading back to your hometown, celebrating with friends or spending time with family, the holidays, of course, have a way of bringing people together. And the anticipation of seeing a former partner or friend has a way of turning even the most merry of events into a major source of stress. 

"I used to have a panic attack every time I ran into my ex … I was invited to a holiday party where I knew he was going to be there, and I actually tried to get him disinvited," recalls Amy Chan, Vancouver-based author of Breakup Bootcamp: The Science of Rewiring Your Heart. When the host declined to edit their guest list, Chan had to figure out how to handle the situation. She now shares the approach that worked for her with clients seeking relationship and breakup advice. 

Speaking of breakups, they spike around now, "between American Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day," said Natalia Juarez, a Toronto-based relationship expert and self-described "breakup coach" who has been helping clients navigate holiday challenges and more for the past decade. 

With this festive but sometimes fraught season now upon us, Juarez and Chan shared step-by-step advice for how to deal with seeing exes at holiday parties and keep things holly, jolly and healthy.  

How to prepare 

A surprise encounter with an ex can prompt feelings of panic and put us into fight or flight mode, making it harder to have conversations or even think clearly, said Juarez. Her advice for avoiding that, even if you don't know if your ex is going to be at a party or event, is to mentally prepare for a run-in. Ask yourself: What could happen? How would you handle it? What's the worst-case scenario?

Chan agrees that facing your ex is something you can try to think through ahead of time. She cites the practice of "mental rehearsal," which professional athletes and speakers use to build confidence in their routines and improve performance. 

"It's almost like a meditation. You close your eyes and you visualize the entire thing," Chan said. Picture yourself walking into the room, feeling confident and grounded, and seeing your ex. You nod, give a half smile and continue on your way. 

Both Chan and Juarez also recommend having a friend with you who knows that this will be a challenging encounter. Chan calls this person an "anchor," and describes them as someone who you trust and feel safe with. Have a signal or code word in case you need help.

And while TV and movies might have you believing that the way to prepare to see an ex is to get a makeover and a sexy new outfit, Juarez said that mentality is more about winning or proving something. She wants us to rethink that and make preparing for these encounters "about empowerment and confidence."

Handling the moment of truth 

You've made it to the party, and the moment of truth has arrived. While there is the cliché of grabbing a drink when you see an ex walk in, Juarez encourages limiting alcohol consumption in these high-stakes, potentially emotional scenarios. Losing your inhibitions after a few cocktails can lead to saying or doing something you might regret. Simply put, Juarez said, "Alcohol, in these situations, is not your friend."

Next, both Juarez and Chan recommend addressing the elephant, or rather the ex, in the room. "Look for an early opportunity to break the ice," said Juarez. For instance, if they're at the snack table or bar, join them to get some food or drinks and say hello. Just keep in mind that a holiday party isn't the time or place to catch up on life, said Chan. The interaction can be simple small talk, or even just a small nod or wave. 

However you choose to handle that moment will be better than avoiding it, said Chan. "You're not doing it for them, you're doing it for yourself. You will feel a lot better if you [can be] like, 'I handled that with grace and with class, and I'm moving on,' and you continue to [enjoy] that party." And if the party isn't fun, or you no longer want to be around your ex, remember that you can always leave.

How to decompress after 

The impact of seeing an ex doesn't end when you leave a party. "Even if you did all the things, and you're feeling grounded and [like] you handled it with grace, it's very normal, when you see the person, to feel triggered," said Chan. To help process those reactions, she recommends making a plan to meet up with a friend afterward or calling someone to debrief. 

"It just helps to process so that you're not in your own head ruminating, and then feeling overwhelmed by the emotion, and then doing something that you may later regret," said Chan. 

What if it went really well? Maybe your ex was looking particularly sexy or maybe seeing them at a party has you rethinking the breakup. Regardless of how positive the interaction seems, Chan does not advise acting on those feelings, either. 

"The only time you want to actually see if you should get back together with someone is if there has been new data," she said. "Just because you run into a person, they look really hot or you really miss them because of Christmas … that's not new data."

Instead of reigniting an old flame, consider how seeing an ex at a holiday party can be a chance to get closure. "It's the opportunity to end things on a different note," said Juarez — just in time to start fresh for the new year. 


Ishani Nath is a freelance entertainment and lifestyle journalist. She has appeared as a pop culture expert on CBC, CTV and Global News Radio and has bylines in Chatelaine, Maclean's, The Juggernaut, Flare and more. Follow her @ishaninath.

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