For some families, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays like it are wonderful events, filled with more bright nostalgia than a Norman Rockwell painting. For the rest of us, there’s therapy.
To help you through those difficult parts of your holiday weekend, Patch surveyed four Southwest Minneapolis psychologists and therapists who specialize in family conflict to find out their best tips for surviving a weekend with the folks.
Lesson 1) Anticipate what could stress you out, and plan ahead.
Holidays can stress us out. A lot. Whether it’s trying to make a flight on time, get a big dinner on the table, or worrying how you’ll measure up to others’ expectations, sometimes the best thing to do is listen to your anxieties.
“We’re hard-wired to need belonging and community and a place where you can go and always be welcome. We all hold those needs and often expect them from family,” said Barbara Nordstrom-Loeb. “That’s a really high level of expectations.”
It can be helpful, she said, to remind yourself of any allies you might have in the room.
“You want to be aware of what will set of your chain reaction,” Kelly Rose said. “If it’s politics, and someone wants to get into an argument, it’s ok to respectfully disengage.”
By walking into Thanksgiving dinner aware of what could set you off, and with a plan in place for how you can de-escalate that situation, it will be easier to keep a situation under control and enjoy the good parts of the holiday, Rose said.
“If you have a spouse or sibling, you could have a safe word —say, Uncle Keith is getting way to drunk and inappropriate,” she said, “you can use the safe word and have help cutting him off or getting out of there.”
Giving yourself permission to bow out of some activities or conversations, as needed, is important, Brian Stawarz wrote in an email to Patch. Sometimes being kind to yourself and notice the positives in experiences, yourself, and in others is key, he wrote.
Lesson 2) Strategize for self-care
Sometimes, we self-medicate over the holidays, using too much food, much booze, or televised, over-excited commentary at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But there can be more helpful—and healthy—ways to care for yourself.
“If you’re feeling really pissy and grumpy, mashing potatoes by hand can be a great thing. No one has to know what you’re thinking as you go ‘Whomp-Whomp-Whomp,’ and then people are very appreciative because you get these lovely mashed potatoes,” Nordstrom-Loeb suggested. “The point is, if it’s not a useful place to keep feeling (anxiety or anger) any more, you can plan to chose this or that. It’s being proactive.”
Part of that, Rose said, is taking a breather from the adults by walking around the block or playing with the dog.
“If you’re in a family situation where there’s so much stress and obligation that it causes too much emotional stress, do something else,” she said. “This holiday is about what we’re grateful for.”
Lesson 3) Heated dinner table debate? Try a more human tack
Sometimes, other family members are the source of the pain and irritation.
“I would encouraged family members to agree not to discuss topics they know may cause conflict,” Christie Wick suggested. “If all parties aren't in agreement that certain topics should be off limits, and a contentious topic is raised, don't engage in the discussion. You can't control others' actions, but you can control how you react”
If you find yourself getting hot under the collar, she said, take five deep, calming breaths, and stick to “I feel” statements instead of directly accusing someone or swearing at them.
When people feel backed into a corner or like their opinion isn’t valued, Rose said, they stop listening. Even if someone is expressing a political opinion that you can’t stand, she said, try asking them “What do you mean by that?” to head off a fight.
“I’m a therapist so I’ll tend to do this anyway, but if you can get into underlying feelings—in an underlying way why is that opinion so important to them? Trying to empathize with them can sometimes calm them down,” she said. “For one it’ll be a more interesting conversation, and you’ll all be more authentically present and sharing and learning more.”
Lesson 4) Don’t try to sooth an open wound.
If you’re tempted to use this Thanksgiving to try to resolve a long-standing source of tension with someone, every therapist we asked agreed—don’t, or at least be realistic.
“You could gently say to the other person ‘I really want to turn over a new leaf with you,’” Rose advised, but postpone much of the actual leaf-turning to a future date. “Brining up the past in front of an audience is not good. It’s sacred work that needs to be resolved in a sacred space.”