Thanksgiving is this week and many of us are planning trips to be with our extended families. And with all the tensions that tend to arise within many family gatherings, you may be thinking, “Please just let me survive this.”
After the last two years of the pandemic and the rising polarization in our country, it’s easy to feel estranged from our family members. Our emotions are raw, tension is high, and we aren’t sure what is going to happen when we gather around the dinner table to share a turkey. Is Uncle Frank going to say something off-color that sets you into a tailspin? Will your cousins start an argument with you and try to turn you to “their side” of thinking? How can we make sure that we actually enjoy our holiday and make it a time to reconnect, be thankful for one another, and not let our differences pull us apart?
Here are six steps to lower the emotional temperature this Thanksgiving:
- Get in touch with your why. Why are you going? Maybe you feel like you have no choice, and maybe your biggest goal is simply to get through it. But chances are, deep down you’re going there to reconnect with people you love, even if you don’t feel very loving or emotionally safe with them right now. In your heart, you hope to feel closer to them at the end of your time with them than you do now.
- Before you go, talk it out. Before you arrive, talk with your partner or a close friend, someone you feel safe with and preferably someone who will be there with you, about all your feelings and worries about going to see your family, so you can acknowledge those feelings and work them out to some degree. That way you won’t be so “loaded” the instant you walk in the door.
- Remember, they feel scared and unsafe around you, too. Maybe they’ve been getting the message drummed into their head that “people like you” are against them and want to destroy their way of life. From their perspective, you’re different. You’re mad at and disappointed with them. When people feel emotionally unsafe, they get defensive and rigid. They act angry, or they avoid meaningful contact in all sorts of confusing and frustrating ways. But it’s all because underneath they’re afraid.
- Proactively set the tone for emotional safety. Be the first one to go in for a hug, and the last one to let it go. Smile more warmly and more often. Be the first to extend an olive branch, both verbally and non-verbally. Strong statements of positive desire to re-connect that don’t sound blaming can be very powerful. For example, “I know we’ve been through some rough times lately, but I just want us to feel better together again.” If saying it out loud is too hard, even saying it silently to them while you look at each other will have a positive effect.
- Focus on your commonalities. Instead of dwelling on all the things you disagree about, find the things you have in common and be vocal about them. Tell your Aunt Peg how you also prefer canned cranberry sauce over homemade. And do things that you enjoy together. When we share the things we have in common, both sides calm down.
- Don’t argue, debate, try to convince or rehash old wounds. There’s a huge temptation to want to get the other person to see “the error of their ways.” That’s understandable, but no amount of arguing or “sticking to your guns” is going to change anyone’s mind. If anything, it will only make everyone double down. (If you find yourself unable to avoid engaging with your Uncle Frank, here are eight simple steps for how to do it peacefully and productively.) Paradoxically, the more the people in your family feel you aren’t trying to convince them of anything, the more likely it will be that they will come to see, or at least allow, your point of view…. eventually.
Most important of all, you and they will be on the way to having a happier and more connected holiday season.