It’s pretty much a cliché– you don’t like going to your nasty Uncle Don’s house for Thanksgiving but you do it every year because you have to. You suck it up, grit your teeth, take deep breaths, and end up downing an extra glass of wine or stuffing yourself till you’re uncomfortable BECAUSE you’re uncomfortable; feel miserable, whine about it to your friends and do the whole thing again next year (or for Christmas if you’re very unlucky!).
If you’ve found yourself in this position, here are a few ideas on how to survive:
You don’t have to do anything. Really. OK, so your body probably wouldn’t let you not breathe as long as you’re alive, but most other things are genuinely optional. If you’re somewhere you don’t like, it can be really empowering to consider it a choice. Here are some examples:
- “I choose to take a big helping of this nasty stuffing and push it around my plate because it makes my grandma feel happy to think she’s feeding me.”
- “I will politely ask Aunt Betsy not to go into her politics, but not get into it with her when she ignores my request, because I value keeping the peace.”
- “I choose to drive four hours in traffic because it really is special to have the whole family together.”
Find the humanity.
Think about your inner experience as you go through any given day: you’re insecure about your appearance, you fart, you’re deeply outraged by something you read on Facebook, you can literally feel your heart growing in size when your dog greets you. You have this wide range of weird experiences and big emotions because you’re a human being. And yes, even the most irritating person at your Thanksgiving table is a human being too. Nearly everyone wants to do their best- we just all have different ideas about what that goal looks like and how to get there.
In Rising Strong, Brené Brown suggests coming up with the most generous possible interpretation of someone else’s behavior. So when you don’t like what your relative said about your boyfriend, see if you can’t find the sore, painful, human place that probably came out of. You don’t need to be a pushover, and I absolutely encourage boundary setting- but that’s much easier to do if you can find a little kernel of compassion.
If one or more of your Thanksgiving companions crosses over from “unpleasant” to straight-up verbally abusive, there are ways to set effective boundaries with them. Even if you can’t stop them from saying awful things, a technique like Medium Chill helps you disengage by keeping things light and not giving “ammo.” Most importantly, set internal boundaries by deciding ahead of time that they cannot ruin your day.
Make space for yourself.
This might mean different things to different people, but the key is to not let compromise mean you have to be absolutely miserable. If you are traveling to see family, it doesn’t mean you have to stare at them the entire time. Maybe your sanity is worth staying at a hotel for a few nights even if your cousin has a perfectly serviceable guest room. It might mean recommitting to an exercise routine or meditation practice (or deciding to start one just to get away!). Maybe it means hiding away in your room and watching Netflix for an hour, if that’s what it takes to come to the table refreshed and happy.
Create meaningful traditions.
This may be a surprising confession from a therapist, but I hate the tradition of going around the table and saying what you’re grateful for. I’ll do it if it’s important to my host (see above- sometimes I choose to make the people I love happy), but if it’s not, I prefer not to. I feel pressured to express gratitude for just the right things, owning my privilege and not bragging but also taking nothing for granted- it’s exhausting! If you love that tradition, more power to you. We all have different experiences and different preferences, which is rad. But I’ve learned that to make my Thanksgiving meaningful, I need to take some time on my own to get comfy, get centered, and think honestly about what I am grateful for.
Several of my friends and colleagues choose to use the morning to attend the Indigenous People’s Sunrise Gathering to connect with a more authentic understanding of the colonization of America. Others enjoy a post-dinner touch football game to get their blood pumping. But I highly recommend finding a way that makes the holiday fit your needs and values.
You don’t have to be a miserable cliché this year. You don’t have to please everyone else at the expense of your own well being. Most of my clients find that when they take a few small steps to support their own happiness, there is a ripple effect in all their relationships and experiences.