“I'm looking forward to seeing pie this Thanksgiving more than members of my own family.” – Damien Fahey
Do you feel the same?
The truth is, more people feel this way than you will ever know – we still don’t talk much about our families. Especially if the family is dysfunctional, like my family of origin.
But even relatively harmonious families may have difficult members – those disappointing relatives you try to avoid because they drive you nuts. Like Uncle Nick, who behaves silly after a couple of drinks, or your granddad, with his love for provoking political opponents.
Maybe it’s your smart cousin Nancy who thinks she knows it all, or your critical Aunt Ruth with her sharp remarks about your weight, work, or place in society.
It could also be your daughter-in-law (or mother-in-law) who does her best to ignore you every time you meet. Or the worst of them all: your difficult mother. You can’t satisfy her, no matter what you do or how much others appreciate you. She always finds fault in your cooking, your clothes, or the way you raise your kids. Being around her feels like standing close to a high-voltage station – the tiniest hairs on your body are raised with tension.
So when for some, Thanksgiving is a celebration of family bonds, for you it’s a nightmare come true. Just the thought of joining the family gathering fills you with anxiety and unease.
Tango with a "Devil"
There are some socially acceptable ways of not participating that you can use.
However, if you'd like to keep the tradition for yourself or your kids, here is the best advice from us and around the web.
Remember, You Can't Change Them
Remind yourself this of this crucial truth: You can change neither your uncle nor your mum. So strike it out of your plan!
Nevertheless, if you change your behavior, they will have to change theirs in response. And you all will enjoy the party together – a win-win situation, don’t you agree?!
Decide How You Want to Be
Did you argue with your “favorite” person last year? Or did you submit to them, obeying their rules to avoid another fight?
Whatever you did in previous years that didn’t work, drop it. Instead, follow the advice from Gretchen Rubin and think about how you are going to handle a specific challenge. For example: "If I go to the party, I’ll eat one piece of cake.” Or, “If I go to Thanksgiving, I’ll change the subject if my sister asks when we plan to have children.”
Need some help with this exercise? Picture someone you admire, and imagine how she would behave in a similar situation. Keep that image in mind – you can behave that way too.
Mind Your Own Behavior
If you have an annoying habit like talking too loudly, interrupting, overeating or nagging others to eat more, you may want to correct that behavior. After all, you know yourself well enough to realize that these are your weak points, aka trigger buttons, so why keep yourself vulnerable?
“Thanksgiving is a magical time of year when families across the country join together to raise America's obesity statistics. Personally, I love Thanksgiving traditions: watching football, making pumpkin pie, and saying the magic phrase that sends your aunt storming out of the dining room to sit in her car.”
- – Stephen Colbert -
Change Your Response
Trying out a different response that's out of character doesn’t come naturally to us. Indeed, setting our brain on autopilot is much easier! When a cousin makes a rude comment, we often respond without thinking: “You're really criticizing my hair? Look at your skirt! Do you think you’re still 16?” Hah!
Difficult people’s behavior is predictable, so don’t be predictable yourself; instead, prepare your possible responses and surprise your cousin by saying something like “Thank you for your concern,” or “Let me think about that,” or “What an interesting perspective.” Then, change the subject or start a conversation with someone else.
You may have to repeat it
a few many times before it feels natural to you, but believe me, it will! So go ahead and rehearse your new response to words and behaviors that push your buttons.
There must be family members with whom you have mutual sympathies and understanding. Would you like to hang out with them? Go ahead and call them – nothing is wrong with a little conspiracy! Make a pact to be each other’s saviors at the family gathering this year.
And if there’s no one you can be sure of, take a trusted friend with you.
“[You could also] ask your siblings or cousins to join forces with you and prepare for the usual onslaught together, coming up with concrete tasks, like giving that difficult relative a dish to cook”
- Eva Grant -
Manage Your Anxiety
Are you going to be in the same room with a person who easily gets under your skin? You may feel waves of anxiety rolling up and down your body, a long time before the event even begins.
Here are a few tools to calm your nerves:
1. Imagine this annoying person in a clown gown or as a caricature of her/his most irritating traits.
“What would she look like as a vivid character in a children’s book or movie? Amplify her personality flaws, embellish her appearance and carry this image around as an inside joke in your own mind. When Aunt Nellie starts jabbering at dinner, picture her inflating like Harry Potter’s Aunt Marge. Use the power of your imagination (and a slightly sick sense of humor), and Annoying Aunt Nellie becomes a little less dreadful. Possibly, even, slightly endearing.”
This tool helps you tolerate your aunt better instead of hating every minute of being with her.
2. Do breathing exercises to calm your nerves.
3. Perform tapping to prevent anxiety and panic attacks.
Do you want to learn how? Follow this link.
You could also talk to someone who knows your family and has a great sense of humor to cheer you up.
Minimize the Damage
You may dread meeting this person, but when you're under the same roof, you need a solid strategy to avoid being too close to each other. Try a socially accepted avoidance.
Avoidance doesn’t solve problems in the long run, but it can be helpful when your goal is to maintain peace here and now. So stick to people you like to be around to avoid being alone with your mother or aunt. You could also change your place at the table if you find it too close to her, saying that you want to sit by the window, you have a cold and don’t want to infect her, or that you must discuss the Christmas menu with Grandma. Find something that works for you.
Focus on Thanksgiving's Purpose – Share Gratitude
That’s what Thanksgiving is about, isn’t it?
And if it’s not a tradition in your family yet, initiate sharing one little thing each of you is grateful for this very moment. Become an upholder of this beautiful ritual.
Avoid Political Debates
They are not for Thanksgiving! So when your grandpa makes an attempt to bring politics to the table, gently change the subject. If a debate is already running, say that the turkey this year is so huge, there’s no room for Brexit on your table. Suggest that you all agree to disagree, and then change the subject.
And if nothing works, leave the room until the heat subsides.
Don’t Take the Bait
“Is there a relative who always gets a rise out of you? Decide that it takes two to tango and don’t engage with them. Make an executive decision not to talk about politics with Grandpa anymore, gently change the subject when your cousin asks why you’re still single, or leave the room when Uncle Larry brings up the midterm elections.”
Go Easy on the Booze
You know how people react to alcohol: Some get easily upset, while others become annoyingly silly. Maybe you’re one of them, and that’s not what you want – you want to stay in charge of your senses. So know your limit and stick to it.
And if it’s your turn to have family over for Thanksgiving, you may decide how much alcohol you will serve, if any. It’s up to you.
Take Breaks to Breathe
Use small excuses to leave the table to have a break and recharge. For example, “Let me see if they need help in the kitchen,” or “I need to make a call to my son’s pediatrician.” Or, volunteer to play with the kids in another room.
Even when I am together with people I love, I need to be in a quiet(er) place once in a while to relax my senses and replenish myself.
If your gatherings tend to end in a fight, don’t wait for that to happen. Instead, leave earlier, while everyone is still having a good time. Tell the family that your new dog likes to chew on your furniture when it gets bored, or that it’s your turn to patrol the neighborhood tonight. Leave before the troubles start and enjoy the rest of the evening by taking a warm bath.
A Note of Caution:
If someone is behaving sexually inappropriately, or becomes emotionally or physically violent or abusive, take your kids and leave. You deserve to celebrate Thanksgiving with people who love and respect you, even if they don’t belong to your extended family.
A Final Word
“On this Thanksgiving day, let us be grateful that we were not born turkeys.”
- Anonimous -
You don’t have to behave like a turkey, even if someone at your table does. Be the wise person that you are and keep your head cool.
Use your communication skills to prevent fires, calm storms, and bring a spirit of gratitude to the family party.
And enjoy your meal, although don’t overeat.
“An optimist is a person who starts a new diet on Thanksgiving Day.”
- Irv Kupcinet -
Be present and grateful for having a family, even this crazy one.
Have an amazing Thanksgiving!