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Entries categorized "Thanksgiving"

Tip-toeing Through Thanksgiving

By Elayne Savage, PhD


Turkey knife and forkI wrote my first Thanksgiving Survival blog November 2007. That year I described how the stressful times we live in contributed to acrimony at  the table.
The know-it-all uncle who always has to always be  right or the aunt who loves to tease and embarrass someone are again guests at the  table.


Over the years I would describe these kinds of unpleasant exchanges with right-on observations and  clever humor.


Things aren’t so funny anymore . . .


Back in 2017 I wrote:

“Every couple of years I blog about ways to take care of ourselves when Holiday get-togethers become tense or uncomfortable or contentious –– especially in stressful times.

“Is it my imagination that this year there seems to be more lashing out, acting out, and fighting it out?

“How can you best stay calm when folks around 
you are losing control? Probably someone will take something personally and overreact, 
saying or doing something that could ruin things for everyone.”


Oh, man. How naïve I was back then about the ravages of stress. Covid has produced even more unrelenting uncertainty, fears for personal safety and security, and for some of us, even a sense of alarm.


Honestly, sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe – and here in California the smoky air from months of fires this last year didn’t help matters.


So grateful to have my room air purifier!


So here comes Thanksgiving again . . .

Thinking positive thoughts of gratitude could be a difficult thing to do while sitting at the dinner table with relatives who have much different ideas about masks or vaccinations or inflation or ballot recounts or immigration or social justice or protests or riots or guns and rifles or climate change or universal pre-K or women’s right to choose or voting rights or infrastructure or childcare or subpoenas and indictments or various trials.


So much intensity and bitterness and everybody seems to be ready to pick a fight, needing to be right – and to make everybody else ‘and wrong and bad.’


Are there any topics you feel safe talking about?


So let’s prepare ourselves in case there is discord at the table. Here are a few ideas and options I’ve offered over the last 15 years and maybe some new ones too.


Uncle George is at the table again. Lately he has been more blustery and obnoxious then ever before. In the past you’ve been embarrassed when you realize you are raising your voice to be heard above his rants and to make your point.


So how do you handle him this year?

- Remind yourself he tries to ‘bait’ you and try not to bite.

- Be direct. Say "'Uncle George, I can see you feel strongly about your ideas and I respect that. However, I do not want to discuss this subject with you.’


• Imagine you are watching family members as characters in Theatre of the Absurd

It usually helps is to take a step back, reminding yourself that observing the drama of your family at Thanksgiving is like watching a Theatre of the Absurd.


Much like Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" or Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author,” these scenes and dialogue sound surreal.


Maybe by creating a little distance you might even find them somewhat entertaining in their weirdness.


Using this observational perspective about the cast of characters at your table can provide the distance you need to protect from hurt feelings and to not take things so personally.


• Stay aware of appropriate personal boundaries when the other person transgresses your emotional or physical boundaries.

From Breathing Room

“Having good 
personal boundaries means being able to recognize how our 
personal space is unique and separate from the personal space 
of others. It means knowing where you stop and the other person 
begins — regarding feelings, thoughts, needs, and ideas."


You may want to set your own safety rules around hugs and kisses because of Covid, and its OK to say “I need you to respect my safety requests here.


• Try to be mindful of your thoughts, words and reactions and remind yourself you can make choices about how you respond.

You may have heard this from me before: walk alongside yourself, and mindfully notice your thoughts and feelings and reactions. (Mindful means ‘without judgment’!). 


Recognizing and ‘naming’ our thoughts and feelings helps to avoid getting swept up in the moment, slows down the intensity and helps you identify your options for responding.


If we can’t recognize it, if it’s a blindspot, we can’t make the choice to change it. Observing gets the flow going and opens up space for seeing our options for how we respond. 


Just because we disagree with someone, doesn’t mean we have to argue or force our point of view.


Can you listen respectfully, without interrupting or arguing or rolling your eyes. If someone feels dissed by your words, tone or attitude, they might overreact and that’s when things get out of control.


And speaking of respect. Here’s a tip I have offered for decades in my workshops and to therapy and workplace consulting clients for dealing with toxic bosses or colleagues:


Since infancy we look into someone’s eyes hoping to find validation and respect. So we are quick to recognize it and respond positively (and quick to respond negatively if we feel rejected – disrespected or dismissed.


• Turning negative energy into a respectful, positive conversation

I suggest trying to employ the concept of reciprocity to encourage an exchange of positive, respectful energy between you and the other person.


Reciprocity relates to how each person's behavior affects and is affected by the behavior of the other.

In other words, what someone thinks you are thinking about them is how they are going to respond to you. 


Can you find something to like or appreciate about the person you are talking with? This can be a real attribute you find likeable or it can be something more subtle like their smile, their choice of colors, their hair style, their laugh. Can you conjure up a positive thought about them? Keep trying. I bet you can come up with something.


Then focus on that feature while you are interacting. They will see respect in your eyes and almost always respond the same to you!


• Strategize escape routes if things start getting off track

– Excuse yourself from the table and walk yourself into the bathroom for a few minutes, close the door and breath deeply.

– Walk into the kitchen to get a glass of water or to help out the host.

– Make a deal with yourself before the dinner that you will give yourself permission to leave early if you are feeling too stressed and upset. Plan out beforehand your excuse for leaving.


And the best survival tactic is to not take things so personally – it’s probably not really about you!

Aunt Judy will be at the table this year too. You have always dreaded her unrelenting obnoxious comments that make you want to crawl under the table and disappear when she broadcasts stories about your childhood insecurities: “You always were too sensitive.”


Try being direct about her boundary transgressions: “Aunt Judy, in celebrating this time of appreciation, i would appreciate it  if you agree not to tell childhood stories about me.”


Can you remind yourself that teasing is bullying behavior and bullies are often feeling ‘less than’ and insecure. They have a need to puff themselves up by diminishing others..


Can you remind yourself that her snide comments to you are most likely reflections of her own insecurities that she is projecting onto you.


Can you remind yourself that it’s probably not about you can do wonders toward helping you regain your balance in awkward and unsettling situations. Someone’s judgments, criticisms or accusations might only be their projection onto you of their own unacceptable and disowned parts of themselves.


These unacknowledged feelings can include
anger, fears, insecurities, aggressiveness, independence, badness, 
vulnerabilities, incompetence, or dependency."


Keep reminding yourself these kinds of criticisms are really about the other person – not about you – so try not to take it personally!


• Remind yourself not get pulled in when the fisherman throws out bait by their teasing, accusations, mean-spiritedness, or cluelessness.

Can you choose not to be the fish that bites the bait?


In my 2015 Thanksgiving blog I wrote this quote from Master Yoda:

"Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”


Would you agree the meaning is so much more profound today?


Happy Thanksgiving everyone who celebrates this holiday . . . and wishing everyone a time of gratitude, of appreciating and of receiving appreciation – wherever you reside in the world . . .

© Elayne Savage, PhD


Until next month,