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How to Actually Have a Happy Thanksgiving

(As currently featured in Psychology Today)

Are you excited about Thanksgiving? Are you looking forward to getting together with your whole family because you always have a great time together? If so, this post is not for you. No, this post is for the people who anticipate disappointing holidays, the people whose families always act crazy, the people who walk away feeling crushed.

“I hate Thanksgiving. Grandpa will be drunk by 2:00, and my mother will spend the day crying.”

“Thanksgiving has never been the same since my sister died. We all avoid sitting in her chair, and no one even talks about her. I miss her so much.”

“My Uncle Harry starts drinking, then he makes the most horrible sexist comments. He talks about women’s breasts, criticizes my aunt’s weight, and my mother just loses it. They wind up screaming at each other and the whole day is ruined.”

Every year, clients shuffle in around the holidays, heads hanging low, dreading the day. Even worse, they are each convinced that they are the only ones having a tough Thanksgiving. The television plays sappy holiday movies; Facebook is full of smiling faces and glazed turkeys. It seems like all of America is in a lovefest, eating their perfect meal with their perfect families.

Adjusting your expectations for the holidays

As a psychologist, I have a view into lots of people’s lives. I am here to tell you that the holidays get messy for many people. Dinners get ruined, relatives fight about politics, husbands get drunk and say hurtful things. In other words, Thanksgiving is just like any other day, but with many more people and crushingly high expectations.

It is these high expectations that get us into trouble. Every year, we hope that this year will be different. A little child lives in each one of our hearts, wishing that this year we will finally have that Thanksgiving we always dreamed of. Maybe this year we will feel loved. Maybe this year we will feel understood. Maybe this year Uncle Harry won’t spew horribly offensive comments and our mother will be happy.

However, if Uncle Harry always makes offensive comments, and he and your mother always scream at each other, let’s be clear: That is probably going to happen again this year. There is a chance that Uncle Harry will have attended sensitivity training, or that your mother will have embraced transcendental meditation. But, most likely, Uncle Harry will act as obnoxious as always, and your mother will blow her stack.

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Many clients come to their next session after Thanksgiving, armed with the latest stories of their Uncle Harry and screaming mother. We discuss the events, and I offer sincere sympathy. The thing is, though, people are who they are. If your Uncle has always made insensitive comments, and your mother has always had a temper, the likelihood that their limitations will change is infinitesimally small.

I’m not writing this to be negative; I’m writing it to help you set your expectations.

We get lost in our outrage and upset when our relatives say hurtful things. We protest how unfair it is, that Uncle Harry can “get away” with it. But seriously, people are who they are. Their behavior may truly be outrageous, and terribly wrong. But they will be who they will be, and you can’t stop them. Only they can stop themselves, and let’s be clear: They probably won't.

How to be with your family more peacefully

So now what? I assume you either still want to, or have to, see your family over Thanksgiving. Because of COVID, many of us haven't been able to share a holiday meal together for a long time. Now that we have the chance to actually be together again, here are some strategies to protect yourself and maybe even have a nice time:

  1. Stay Out of the Drama: If you accept that people are not going to change, you will know what to expect, and with that knowledge comes power. Watch for Uncle Harry to start to ramp up. Maybe he has had his second drink. Maybe he saw a racy commercial on TV. Recognizing who Uncle Harry is, you can start to protect yourself. Now would be a good time to walk away. Now would be a great time to take out the trash. Breathe, stay calm, and consider not saying anything at all. It is wiser to let the drama unfold without you.

  2. The Calmest One Wins: Keep your wits about you. Do not get roped into arguing. In the moment, you might feel compelled to jump in and fight. But, if you do, you will probably feel even more aggravated and exhausted. Breathe, and walk away.

  3. Ask for Help: Are there family members you feel safe and comfortable with? If so, seek them out. Play a game, watch a movie, and relax with them. In addition, it is wise to reach out to friends. I have four friends who always text me during the holidays, and I check up on them too. “How’s it going? Everyone good?” Just those quick check-ins with people who love you can keep you grounded.

  4. Take Time for Yourself: Can you get away from the crowd for a while? Taking a walk might be helpful. You can even be the person who runs to the grocery store for more milk. That way, you can help and also get away for a breather.

  5. Stay Somewhere Else: Speaking of getting away, is it possible for you to stay at a nearby hotel? Having the chance to visit, and then get some time away will help you stay clearheaded. It is hard to remain calm when you stay with family for days on end. Staying at a local hotel will give you the opportunity to shake off any tension or disagreements. It will also give you the chance to…

  6. Exercise: and to…

  7. Breathe

I hope that you have a beautiful holiday. It probably won’t be close to perfect. But hopefully, you will have a nice meal, some time away from your responsibilities, and some meaningful moments with loved ones. I hope you enjoy seeing your family back in the same room again, after all these months of social distancing. I hope that there are moments of calm when the sun shines through the window and the apple pie smells enticingly through the kitchen. May your football team win. May you feel loved.

Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader


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