If Thanksgiving brings out the worst in you or your family, you are not alone. Sadly, Thanksgiving often shines a light on family, tensions, losses, and unresolved family conflicts.
Here are some tips to get you through:
1. Set boundaries before you get there. What conversations are you going to politely end before they get ugly? How will you take care of yourself so that your resentment doesn't build and blow up? You can always step away from triggering conversations. Boundaries are not punitive. They are self-protective. Think of where things went awry at previous family gatherings and set boundaries to protect yourself.
2. Try to eat mindfully. So often we think about the next bite rather than the one we are enjoying and gorge ourselves with food that leaves us feeling ill. Or, we think about our diet to the point that we can't enjoy the food we eat without feeling stressed out about it. It sounds so simple to just enjoy the food and yet it's not as easy as it sounds. Try to be mindful of the food that you eat and all of the work and love that was required to land it on your plate by both people you care about and people you've never met (after all, the food didn't grow in your fridge). Really notice how the food tastes. Take your time between bites and pay attention to how it feels. You may enjoy your meal more if you are able to eat mindfully. Try. Enjoy the experience of eating a piece of pie rather than thinking about the calories in it.
3. Don't get drunk. It probably feels like a good idea to have another drink if tensions are mounting, but if you have it, you are likely to feel more depressed and/or irritable. Alcohol is, after all, a depressant. Uncomfortable family drama is rarely made better by more booze.
4. Don't be afraid to abandon old rituals if they are not working for you. If the turkey doesn't thaw in time, the day is not ruined. If your children aren't interested in trying the yams, it's not the end of the world. Make Thanksgiving work for you and your family. Forget the rest of it. I celebrated Thanksgiving with my kids last year over monkey bread and bacon at breakfast. It was one of my favorite Thanksgivings.
5. Notice any feelings that come up around the holiday. Don't pretend the feelings don't exist -- they'll just surface when you least expect it or push you toward the liquor cabinet. Noticing an uncomfortable feeling is not going to ruin the holiday. You can feel it. It will pass. You will be okay. Modeling this for your children is an incredible gift.
6. If there are big changes this year -- a divorce, a death, a loss, a move, a new baby-- be especially gentle with yourself and your loved ones. Big life changes may sting or bring up challenges that make it harder to appreciate the gratitude at the heart of Thanksgiving. Give yourself space. Acknowledge whoever's not at the table who you wish was there or any changes that have thrown you for a loop. Treat yourself with the same kindness you would treat a friend going through the same thing.
7. Try to connect with gratitude but don't feel pressured to be thankful. Gratitude in studies is correlated with a greater sense of experienced happiness so focusing on what you are grateful for may actually make you feel happier. However, there is a lot of pressure to be thankful on Thanksgiving and if that's not where you are at right now, there's nothing wrong with you. You don't have to be thankful. Bad moods don't observe holidays. Try to be grateful if just for the fact that it might boost your mood.
8. Be kind. I have been reading Brene Brown's Into the Wilderness and she talks a lot about how we separate ourselves from others based on beliefs or experiences and that it prevents us from really connecting. No matter what you think of your family or friend's beliefs, be kind to them. Lean toward connection rather than separation. Agree to disagree. Accept them for who they are rather than what they think. If their political beliefs don't align with yours, talk about the memories that connect you instead. That's more important.
9. Listen. There is no greater gift that to be heard. I was once at a Thanksgiving with the most offensive racist sexist old white man I have ever met. Everything that came out of his mouth was unbelievably offensive. But I did not argue and I don't regret it. Arguing would not have changed his mind. I listened. And when I could take no more, I politely excused myself. You don't have to agree with everything everybody says. Yet it's not your job to convert their opinions, thoughts, beliefs, or feelings to yours. It never hurts to just listen to what someone has to say even if it's absurd. Truly listening to someone is a gift. It's connective in and of itself. If your partner or a family member is complaining, resist the urge to fix it and just listen and let them know that you get what they are saying and it makes sense. Most of the time they will appreciate that you've listened more than any attempts to fix.
10. Connect with the people you love. We run around in circles trying to get the stuffing just right and make sure that the turkey isn't too dry, but none of that matters. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to connect with the people you care about. Lean in to connection and vulnerability. Remember, if the turkey burns but you are able to connect with your family, that's a great Thanksgiving. Be present with the people you care about.
In an effort to abide my own tips to lean in to vulnerability, Thanksgiving has been a challenging time of year for me personally. The stars have aligned such that some of the most amazing things (the birth of my twins) and most painful things have happened right around this holiday. I share this because I want you to know that if this holiday is hard for you, I can say with absolute sincerity that you are not alone.
We will get through it. We will thrive through it.