When an entire family is gathered for Thanksgiving, it’s easy to go on the defensive. Who’s going to ask you intrusive questions? Who’s going to bring up politics and make everyone tense? Who’s going to drink a little too much, or offer unsolicited advice?
I often ask my clients to consider how they can approach family gatherings with curiosity instead of anxiety. To see these events as laboratories instead of haunted houses. For many people, it’s a rare opportunity to see how a family functions on a larger scale. You cram everyone together, pump them full of carbs, and watch the family do what it does best—try very hard to manage the anxiety in the room.
Families all employ a number of fairly predictable strategies to calm things down. And the less surprised you are by them, the less people will seem like villains out to get you. Like you, they’re simply reacting to the tension of togetherness with the behaviors that feel the most comfortable.
Do you expect to see any of these behaviors at your family gathering?
- Turning on TV on to avoid conversation
- Using spouse or sibling as a buffer
- Becoming super helpful to avoid conversation
- Offering unsolicited advice
- Arriving late or leaving early
- Gossiping about somebody who’s not present
- Sticking to superficial conversation
- Playing with kids to avoid grown-up conversation
- Pretending to be incompetent so they don’t have to help
- Using alcohol to calm down
- Asking lots of questions so no one can ask them one
- Changing the subject when politics or religion are discussed
- Looking at their phone to pass the time
- Agreeing with someone just to avoid conflict
- Anxiously monitoring whether people like their food
- Only hanging around people they know the best
- Trying to keep someone from embarrassing them
- Taking sides in an argument with the person they prefer
- Lying about themselves to avoid conflict
- Not helping because someone else will do it
- Avoiding people they find awkward
- Texting their friends to complain
- Pretending to use the bathroom to escape
- Only talking about their kid and not themselves
- Other observations? _______________________
These are just a few of the behaviors we employ to calm down the room. Often they work pretty well. But what is the cost of always hiding in the bathroom? Of talking exclusively to your favorite uncle? Of not being honest about what you believe or what’s important to you? You might miss out on:
- Developing stronger one-to-one relationships
- Learning to regulate your own anxiety
- Understanding how your family functions
- Being a resource to other family members
When you see people’s behaviors as anxiety-managing strategies instead of personal attacks, it’s a little bit easier to access your own maturity. You can begin turn off your anxious autopilot, and try to be the kind of person you want to be around your family. You won’t have to turn on the TV or wash every dish to escape and survive. And when you calm down, the whole family calms down a little too.
So rather than be surprised by your family this Thanksgiving, start to think about what you should expect and how you’d like to respond. Here are some questions you could ask yourself before the next family gathering:
- What predictable behaviors should I expect from myself?
- What predictable behaviors should I expect from family members?
- What is the most mature, principled version of myself doing in response to all these behaviors?
Good luck! I’ll be back next week with some more Thanksgiving thoughts.
News from Kathleen
Preorder my book! Everything Isn’t Terrible, will be published by Hachette Books on 12/31. I can honestly say it is the best $20 you can spend to start 2020 a little calmer. You can preorder it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, or wherever books are sold. But I especially encourage you to support your local bookstore! Preorders help my book succeed and get more visibility in stores.
Preorder Bonus! If you preorder my book, you can read one of my favorite chapters today and get some fun bonus materials. Once you’ve ordered, click here to submit your proof of purchase to receive the bonus content and the sneak peek! Proof is simply a picture or screenshot of your receipt. If you preordered at a bookstore and don’t have a receipt, you can email me and I’ll send you the materials.
Did someone forward you this note? Subscribe to get your own next time, and check out my newsletter archive to catch up on old letters. You also can reply to this email if you have a request for a newsletter topic, questions about the book, want to connect with me about my therapy practice, or would like me to speak to your group.