Sensationalism and consumerism aside, the fourth Thursday in November typically kicks off the season of gratitude and giving. Whether you are a spiritual person, a person of color, or a plain old optimist, you are no stranger to looking for the rainbow after the storm or finding meaning in the midst of a mess. As Americans, we live in a perpetual world of paradox. Consequently, we often straddle between honoring tradition and personalizing practices.
Turkey-gobbling and pigskin-throwing aside, our festive gatherings represent downtime to be with loved ones. Whether you consider Thanksgiving a festive feast with family or a harvest of hypocrisy, here are some suggestions for handling the holiday hoopla (quotes from family therapy pioneers are also included).
Take time to plan.
“Life is not what it’s supposed to be. It’s what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.” – Virginia Satir
Because the holiday frenzy is inevitable, time-management strategies are essential. For house-hopping families, will you start out with the grandparents, co-workers or the in-laws? Would you rather end the night at your cousin’s or your best friend’s? And yes, for some, where do you want to watch the game? Likewise, setting a budget can help reduce impulse shopping and frivolous spending. Managing your finances is more important than keeping up with the Joneses and dealing with increased debt in the New Year.
Understand your own needs while enjoying family time.
“We must not allow other people’s limited perceptions to define us.” –Virginia Satir
This time of year brings things to light that may have been swept under the rug. If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, a relationship or even unmet goals, consider ways to protect your energy by setting healthy boundaries and taking personal time to monitor your mood. If you are a caregiver or if you are coping with your own illness, give yourself more time to reflect and rejuvenate. It is essential to set realistic expectations for yourself and with others. Maybe you’ll visit for one hour instead of sitting around for five. You might want to end the evening on your couch binge-watching in your PJs. Perhaps you’ll pick up that turkey or dessert from the store instead of cooking out of obligation or with resentment. Believe me, they’ll be OK.
Remember the reason for the season and keep your negative vibes in check.
“We all have an infant side, but that infant side doesn’t have to run the show.” –Murray Bowen
“The problem is the problem; the person is not the problem.” –Michael White
Maintaining a spirit of gratitude may be the only thing to carry you through when the collards are too salty, the turkey is too dry or that family member keeps giving you the side-eye. Remind yourself to be grateful for others, even if they are petty sometimes and get on your last nerve. Let’s be honest: priceless gifts and sentimental value are often sacrificed for pride and indulgence in superfluous material things. Instead of overemphasizing Black Friday shopping, explore ways to share gifts that money cannot buy like acceptance, forgiveness and compassion. If there is conflict, think beyond the person; even the Bible references that we fight against principalities, not flesh and blood. And if you feel conflicted about gathering around the big table with people you would really rather not be around, just remember, you’re not the only ones participating in a big dinner after a devastating war. If nothing else, be grateful for a place to visit and food to eat. Say a prayer, meditate, take a pre- and post-holiday yoga class, and try holistic remedies for extra doses of good vibes.
Keep it fun and worthwhile; otherwise, what’s the point?!
“I encourage families to be crazy, but the problem is to keep them from being stupid.” –Carl Whitaker
“Life will bring you pain all by itself. Your responsibility is to create joy.” –Milton Erickson
Why slave in the kitchen if you’re going to complain the whole time?! Cooking isn’t fun (and food doesn’t taste as good) if it’s not made with love. Compromise if you and your partner don’t agree on where to go, what to wear, how much to spend, or what to bring. Be spontaneous, and also be smart! Watch out for topics you know will turn that side-eye into a below-the-belt comment or dramatic exit. Tell the jokes. Integrate a little harmless sarcasm. Laugh at your uncles arguing over which one was “da man” back in the day or your aunties battling over whose potato salad tastes the best. Reminisce over photos and fun memories. Have a family dance-off during the commercial break.
Every year can be different, and traditions matter (both/and, not either/or).
“Rituals connect us to the past, present and future. They have the capacity to define our relationships and to tell us who we are to each other.” –Evan Imber-Black
“Once you know what works, do more of it. If it’s not working, do something different.” –Insoo Kim Berg and Steve de Shazer
Guess what? The world will not end if you switch the host house, order take out or even decide to go on a trip. Celebrating differently does not have to be reduced to disrespecting elders or forfeiting family loyalty. Finding a way to both honor and reinvent holiday traditions, especially when the family structure, personal needs or relationship dynamics change, can help create new meaning. Ask elders about your family history and research customs from ancestors. Think about ways to give back, not just during the holidays, but on a regular basis by volunteering, advocating for justice or supporting philanthropic causes throughout the year.
You can learn a lot about who you are by reflecting on your family.
“There are no individuals in this world, only fragments of families.” –Carl Whitaker
“Our biology, our family histories, our gender, race, ethnicity, cultures and spirituality, along with the effects of the choices we have made in life, all shape who we are today.” –Harry Aponte
Instead of getting caught up in the drama, observe family dynamics with curiosity to develop a deeper understanding of yourself. Your personality, values and behaviors are often informed by your family of origin (even if you’ve decided to do a 180). Take a step back during the holidays to explore ways to reduce stress. Personal therapy is also a wonderful resource for enhancing your insight and sense of self-awareness. Working through childhood traumas and exploring dysfunctional generational patterns can improve your sense of peace and can enhance your current relationships. Do you avoid conflict, or do you dive in and attack? How might early experiences serve as a trigger in your current relationships? Do you feel free to be you in your family? How flexible is your family in terms of power, roles and responsibilities? How does your communication style compare to various members of the family? What are some sources of pride and strengths of your family, even in the midst of tough times? Which family traditions do you want to maintain? What will be your family legacy for future generations?