5 Tips for Surviving Thanksgiving This Year

Are You Nervous About Going Home for the Holidays?

If you are, you are not alone! The Holidays are a wonderful time to get together with extended family. We can re-connect with people we love, eat good food, and even take great photos to post on Instagram. So why are we so anxious about the whole thing?

girl opening door in Los Angeles

Being with our family can bring up all kinds of issues we thought we had already tackled as a grown-up. It seems like we walk in the front door of our family home and we are instantly twelve years old again. What’s up with that?

Well, that’s just the way our brains work. Growing up, we learn whether or not the world is a safe place based on how we felt in our “family of origin”. Many of us weren’t all that emotionally safe, and some of us weren’t even physically safe. Going back and spending time with our family, subconsciously brings up those decades-old feelings of danger. As an adult, we interpret that feeling as “anxiety”.

What was your role in the family?

Were you the one who always succeeded? Everyone has always been so proud of your successes—good school, good job, etc. You don’t dare tell them about how much you struggle in your relationship, or figuring out your career path. What would everyone think?

Maybe you were the one who always fixed everything, who calmed other family members down, soothed hurt feelings, etc. You’re tired of being in charge of keeping everyone else happy; it’s exhausting!

Were you the one who always screwed up? You’ve been succeeding in some areas of your life, and you’re really proud of that—but you know that everyone is going to bring up the old stories of all your mistakes; it’s as if that’s all they see.

road sign in Los Angeles

Families are complicated, and even when we truly love our parents, siblings, and extended family, going home is usually a mixed bag of feelings—happiness, nostalgia, worry, anger, joy, frustration, love. It can be confusing when we have many of these feelings all at the same time!

The best way to have a great holiday is to plan ahead for the pitfalls, and be easy on yourself as you try to navigate the family drama.

Here are 5 Things You Can Do to Prepare for Thanksgiving with Your Family:

1. Anticipate your Triggers, and Plan Your Responses

What are the kinds of things your family will bring up, that really piss you off?

Do they comment on your looks—your body, your hair, or your clothes?

Do they comment on your partner or your dating life? Or the lack thereof?

Do they ask you endlessly about your life path, your career or “what’s next”?

These are some of the most common triggers when we go home. Be aware of which kinds of things will make you the most anxious, and be ready with your response.

Just Breathe on the sand in Los Angeles

First, take a deep breath. Sounds a bit silly, but this actually triggers a physiological calming response in your body, so don’t neglect this important first step.

Next, as much as you are able, remember the phrase, “It’s not about me”. Chances are your mom is commenting on your looks because she is insecure about her own body image, or your dad is quizzing you about your career because he isn’t comfortable talking about more personal things. People generally are oblivious to their own reasons for commenting on your life; they think they are just being curious, or helpful.

Finally, have your response ready:

“Well, Mom, I’m pretty happy with my body right now. I have so many other things to talk about—I’d love to tell you about this new project I’m working on.”

“You know, Uncle Joe, I’m just fine without a partner right now. I’d love to have one, but I’m focusing on other things for the moment. I just took on a new client at work—can I tell you about that?”

“Gee, Dad, I know you’re worried about all those California wildfires, but I love where I live and I make sure I’m safe. I sure enjoy coming back to visit you guys, though. Would you like to shoot some hoops this weekend like we used to do?”

Actually practice these steps before you go. You want your response to be pretty automatic, so you don’t have to try to think past your anxiety and come up with something on the spot.

Also, changing the subject is allowed, even if it’s abrupt and awkward. You do not have to talk about anything you don’t want to. You can even say, “You know, I just don’t really want to talk about that today”. No explanation necessary. New subject.

2. Know Who’s Got Your Back

It always helps to have someone in the family that can jump in and assist if they see you are getting sucked into an old toxic family dynamic. You can watch out for each other that way! This is pretty simple, but it can be a life-saver. Try to enlist someone in your family ahead of time—you’ll feel safer from the minute you arrive knowing that you have a partner helping you be your best self. If your SO will be there, have a sign you can give them when you need a “rescue”.

3. Watch Out for the War Zone

It helps to identify ahead of time if there are places that are likely to be safer than others. If nosey Uncle Bob is usually stationed in front of the TV watching the game, then maybe you could bring something that has to be prepared on site, so that you “have to” stay in the kitchen getting ready. Or maybe your mom and sister will be on the attack in the kitchen; bone up on the Redskins vs. Cowboys game so you can explain how you are really hoping to watch it on the big TV in the family room.

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4. Have an Escape Plan

It’s always wise to have an escape plan. Let everyone know that you’ve made plans to meet a friend (real or imaginary!) for a post-Thanksgiving walk or chat. If things are going well and you don’t want to leave, no problem. That’s the arrangement with the friend from the beginning. Even if you think you won’t have any need to leave, it can be a lot easier to say in the moment, “Oh, I have to leave for 20 minutes to go make that call to my friend I told you about”, than to say, “Hey, guys, I really need a break from all this drama”. A 20-minute break can do wonders to give you the boost you need for the next round of family togetherness.

5. Gratitude

Well, it is Thanksgiving, after all! And gratitude has been shown to have a significant effect on mood, so it’s definitely worth giving it a try. It doesn’t have to be a major effort, just start each day before the holiday with 5 minutes of thinking about something for which you are grateful. Really let yourself sink into the feeling of gratitude. Think about the person or experience for which you are grateful, and engage all your senses in your imagination. The more you can experience the feeling, (don’t just make a list) the more you will affect your mood for the day to come. If you can think about a family member who triggers you, and find something about them for which you are grateful, that will definitely come in handy when you next see them over the holidays.

One Final Word

Try to avoid the “Getting too drunk to care” strategy. This is the time-honored solution in many families, but it doesn’t usually end well. Plan ahead how much you are going to drink—how much before dinner, how much with dinner, how much after—so that you are aware of what you are doing in the moment. Alcohol is a disinhibitor, which means that if you are tipsy, it’s going to be a lot harder to stick to the strategy above. If you need some help figuring out what you can handle before you start to feel like telling Aunt Sally what you really think about that new dress, check out this app for calculating how much you can drink., so that you will be much less likely to say or do something that you will regret the next day.

It may seem silly to go through this much preparation for your family gathering, but being prepared for anything is a long-held Thanksgiving tradition. At the very first Thanksgiving feast, the Wampanoag Indians brought weapons, because they were unsure if it was an ambush. Kind of a perfect metaphor, don’t you think?

Still want more?

If family drama is way more than you can handle with just these 5 tips, you might benefit from some extra help. Give me a call at 323-999-1537, or send me an email at amy@thrivetherapyla.com, and we will set up a free consultation where we can discuss your situation and how therapy can help you.

Thanksgiving dinner in Los Angeles