Dealing With the Big Family Thanksgiving

You will be having a houseful of people for Thanksgiving. You think you will all get along, be nice, and have a happy time that you will preserve forever in a scrapbook filled with pumpkin-colored paper. What a nice thought. And for some people, that may happen. But for people I know–not so much.

Many people’s family’s run more along the lines of the characters in  Rachel Getting Married. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a good glimpse at real-life family events, in this case a wedding. Everyone acts out, wants attention, brings up old hurts, needs, and faults. Just like real life.

Looks like Thanksgiving, but it's the Boston Massacre

Looks like Thanksgiving, but it's the Boston Massacre

So, while the cooking tips for a big family event are being handled at KentCooks, I’m looking at the soft underbelly of hurt emotions and resentment. Here are some tips to make it through:

1. People say the first thing that comes to mind. You know better. So think before you speak, and let the thoughtless comments you are asked go as if you didn’t hear them. Your Uncle Harvey with the hearing aid has perfect hearing, he just uses it as an excuse to ignore people. You can do this, too.

2. Be literal. Do not assume that being asked “Are you seeing anyone?” is a mean nudge from your step-mother to make her a grandmother, or the question, “How is your job?” is the reminder that you haven’t held a job for more than nine months in the last six years. See them as ways to fill dead air space, which is probably what it is. Answer the question simply and directly, just as it was asked. Even if you doubt the intention.

3. Avoid fixing old hurts. With all the cooking, kids, pets, travel stress, there is little time to be introspective and contemplative. Old hurts require both for healing. To get to the hurt, you will have to bring up some background for context, and you will look like you are digging up past history to “win.” Even with good intentions, repairing old wounds is a complex task, best handled one-on-one and alone between February and May–not at Thanksgiving.

4. Act ‘as if.’ Act as if everyone is nice. Act as if you are everyone’s friend. Act as if you are having a good

Nom, nom

Nom, nom

time. Act as if you care about other people’s feelings. When you act “as if” you are a nice person who cares about others, you will choose behavior that demonstrates that. And you will become that. What a nice transformation!

5. Stay in the present. Kiss your difficult aunt and tell her that you are glad she is here. Tell your step sister that you are happy to spend some time with her. By staying in the present, you will not be tempted to dig up old hurts and display them for everyone to see and help you fix. The present is a nice place for Thanksgiving. Enjoy it.

6. Listen and nod. People tell stories at Thanksgiving, and they tell them the way they remember them. In your stories, you are the hero. In theirs, they are. Let them. Suppress the urge to “correct” people so their memories match yours. It’s not important. It’s just a story. Listen and nod. Smile. Let it go. Even if you are made to be the villain. “Oh, I’m so sorry you have that unpleasant memory,” is a nice bland answer. If someone asks you if that really happened, you can say, “Well, for June, this is how it happened. Everyone has her own memory of an event.” Resist the urge to tell your side.

7. Beware bad news dumps. Not everyone at your table may be at a happy time in their life. They may spill it in your lap. Or out loud at the table. You do not have to fix everyone’s misery. Acknowledge that it sounds like a tough spot to be in, but you don’t have to offer a solution. Bring it back to the present moment. “I know you are having a tough time, but I’m so glad we could be together today,” takes the responsibility off your shoulders.

8. Bring a book, music, or other activity that will help keep you in a safe space. You may have to take a walk, sit in the bathroom, or run a fake errand to get out of the press of too many people. Having something that keeps you grounded during someone’s argument, or general tumult is important.  Just make sure you do it without drama. No storming from the table, yelling, “I have to get out of here,” or other attention-grabbers.

9. Be prepared. Thanksgiving has some traditional chores–photographs, toasts, prayers and going around the table giving thanks for special events. Prepare a simple prayer appropriate for the group. If the guests are of different religions, offer a prayer of thanks that doesn’t mention a specific deity. Dress up for pictures. Bring a change of clothes if you want, but be prepared for pictures. Have a simple toast prepared, so you don’t find yourself caught off guard. Same thing for having something to be thankful for. Keep it short, under 30 seconds.

10. Take the big view. It’s easy to get wrapped around your own axle and not be able to see Thanksgiving as a holiday that has an end. Keep your eye on the big picture. It’s OK if some things go wrong. The big picture is that you have family and friends to fill your house, and no one expects you to do everything all by yourself. Ask for help, and know that everyone goes home soon.

–Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach who runs workshops that help people manage change. She owns QuinnCreative, and will have her parents in law with her for a week around Thanksgiving. Her son will also be at the table. With a lot of luck, dinner will be outside in the crisp November air.

–Baby image: http://www.parenthood.com/article-topics/article-topics.php?Article_ID=10881

5 thoughts on “Dealing With the Big Family Thanksgiving

  1. Pingback: The Best Turkey is Chicken « Author Piper Bayard

  2. Thanks for this article. Every year I read magazine articles on dealing with family stress during the holidays, but yours is the best I’ve ever read! Good, realistic advice. I feel so lucky to be dining with a small group at someone else’s house this year. Of course that means I’m the dishwasher, but I can always treat dish-duty as my safe space!

    —I’m glad you are planning a good, emotionally satisfying celebration this year. And when you do dishes, people vanish and you can regroup! -Q

  3. I think I might just make a copy of this and carry it in my pocket–to read on one of my extended trips to the bathroom seeking refuge.

    Though you make an excellent point–having family and friends is an important part of life. It’s good to remember that amidst all the noise. (And, yes, they do go home!)

    —I think I may make a copy myself! It’s always easier said than done. -Q

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