Thanksgiving is known for food, football, and family fights.
Whatever topic will spark a conflict, whether it’s deadlines or the state of your relationships, you’re sure to be presented with half a bite.
“All it takes is one look, a complaint or a comment to trigger a conflict that families know all too well,” says Vienna Pharaon, family therapist and author of the upcoming book, “The Origins of You.”
There’s a lot of “unresolved pain” that originates in families and then gets reactivated during those rare moments when they’re all together, Pharaon says.
Resentments and disappointments can be carried from generation to generation.
“Families are these unique relationships that, despite the passing of pain, there is still an expectation that the relationships will continue,” says Pharaon.
“So people dance around whatever is unresolved over and over again, often trying to put on a happy or cordial face, until the pain finds a way to rear its head, which it will.”
Families are these unique relationships that, despite the passing of pain, there is still the expectation that the relationships will continue to be maintained.
Pharaoh of Vienna
Families also have a way of undermining any growth or change you’ve made over the past year, which can be endlessly frustrating.
“No matter how much you work on things in therapy, or how much healing or growth you’ve had over the year, the family just has a way of getting to the point of pain and pressing on it,” she says.
You may feel that the person you have become, the person you are with your friends in your day-to-day life, is not being recognized or accepted.
If your Thanksgiving family feels more like a figurative cage match, there are ways to calm down before you arrive and calm down at the dinner table.
“Prepare for who you know your family is, not who you expect them to be,” says Pharaon.
Think about how these meals have gone, historically, rather than idealizing how you think they should go.
1. Cook a canned response
You likely know exactly what will set you off, so prepare a response that allows you to engage without escalating the conflict.
“Can you wait for a certain uncle to make a comment that ignites something inside of you?” says Pharaon. “Plan how you will respond. What will bring you the most peace in this experience? Whatever the response is, build around that.”
Remember, there’s probably no point in arguing.
“Stuck in chaos is not healing,” he says. “Trying to change the mind of a person who is committed not to change is a waste of your energy and peace.”
2. Do something relaxing beforehand
Take some time before you leave, says Brittany Stewart, a family therapist at Growing self-advice and coaching in Denver, Colorado.
“Do whatever seems to regulate your nervous system,” she says. “Like going for a walk, meditating or taking a shower.”
Going into the meal with a calm mind can lengthen your fuse.
Clinging to chaos is not healing.
Pharaoh of Vienna
3. Enlist the help of a sibling
Before you arrive, ask a sibling or partner for support if there’s a conflict, suggests Steward.
Some ways to do this include asking:
Could you back me up if I say we can’t talk about this? Can you help by introducing a new topic? Maybe there is a time when I feel overwhelmed and I want to go for a walk, can you go for a walk with me?
You may even come up with a code word or gesture that indicates you need to move away or that you need someone to intervene.
4. Set a boundary
Call your family ahead of time and vocalize what exact topic you’d like to avoid, says Stewart.
An example of a script he gives is:
“Hey, I’m so excited to see you. I really wanted to hang out with everyone. I’d really love if we didn’t talk about the election. I’d love to hear what’s going on in your life. I’d love for us to connect with other things in our lives.”
You can also set a time limit if you think this is best for your health.
“Let your family know, ‘We’re here until 8 p.m. tonight and then we’ll have to leave at that time,'” he says.
No matter what boundaries you set or how much backup you get, family can still push your buttons.
That’s why it’s important to have tools at hand to help you stay calm and not escalate an argument.
1. Take a walk
Think about the acts that help you regulate your emotions on a daily basis. Maybe it’s going for a walk or quickly texting a friend. If you can’t get up and leave, practice doing some breathing or mediation.
“Take care of yourself first,” says Pharaon. “Don’t worry too much about managing the emotional experience of others. I know, it’s easier said than done when it’s a role you’ve played your whole life, but do your best to tune into yourself and take care of yourself the best way you can.”
2. Tell them you won’t commit
Sometimes we are on edge around our emotions or needs. But tackling them head-on might be more effective. If a subject provokes you, say something, says Pharaon.
“If things start to get tense, you can say the following: ‘This isn’t productive anywhere, I’m going for a walk.’ We’re clearly upset, I’m done having this conversation. I feel different than you. ; Thanks for sharing your opinion, but I disagree. I’m not interested in arguing.”
If the conversation continues, excuse yourself to get a drink or some air.
“When things don’t work out in a family system, there’s a dysfunctional dance that likes to take place,” says Pharaon. “Think of your part in this dance.”
Visualize what will happen and when they tend to enter you. Then imagine stepping out of it again. Keep this thought in your head before and during the meal.
It can help remind you not to get swept up in the annual meltdown.
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