7 Strategies to Help You Get Through Thanksgiving with the Family

We have arrived at what I sometimes think of as Mandatory Togetherness Season--the month and a half from Thanksgiving to New Year's when we're expected to gather with family, friends, and coworkers to celebrate one thing or another, most of which have little to do with the occasions' origins.

For some folks, this is the best time of the year, but for most--or at least most of the people I know--the season fills us with varying degrees of anxiety and/or dread. 

Like most Americans, my extended family falls somewhere between the airbrushed wholesomeness of the Brady Bunch and the epically dysfunctional Roys of HBO's Succession. But when you put grandma, grandpa, the grown kids, some sugared-up grandkids, and the odd aunt or uncle who has been nipping on the Old Oberholtzer since breakfast into even the most spacious kitchen, tensions are bound to build, especially if the turkey looks like it came out of an Egyptian sarcophagus, but the green bean casserole is yet to be assembled, the gravy is lumpy, and someone (probably grandpa) has picked most of the pecans off the pie.

Recriminations and conspiratorial smirks will ping pong off the formica. Someone will idly contemplate a wooden spoon's potential as a truncheon. The gravy-maker will sulk on the back porch. Grandma will sigh a sigh that speaks volumes.

Why holiday get-togethers go wrong: A Theory

All of us have a vision of the ideal holiday in our heads. Some are mainlined straight from pop culture. Some are memories smooth and frosted as beach glass with none of the jagged edges of the original. Some are Martha Stewart-inspired visions of culinary and aesthetic perfection. No two of us share the same vision. Gathered in that kitchen, we are all working toward slightly different goals, so failure is assured for most. Mix in a few long-held resentments and a glass of wine or two to signal our internal editors they have the day off, and things are going to get a little messy interpersonal relations-wise.

Simple strategies to make the holiday look more like the ones on TV commercials.

(Try to) agree on off-limits topics - every family has topics that are guaranteed to raise blood pressures, voices, and the possibility of wooden spoons being put to use in ways for which they were not intended. If you can't all agree to avoid these topics, then come prepared with diversions: questions, and jokes--anything that might steer the talk away from the precipice. (ProTip: a well-timed spill can work wonders in this department).

Decide that you will not be the one they remember (for the wrong reasons) - Easier said than done, but you can do it. Do your best not to take things personally. Remember that everyone has their own struggles, blindspots, and flaws. Comments directed at you often say more about the commenter than about you, You don't have to challenge or even acknowledge them.  Often letting a remark echo into silence is a very pointed and eloquent response. 

This, of course, goes both ways. We all need to watch what we say, especially, if like me, your humor tends toward the snarky and sarcastic. What we think is a funny off-hand remark that has little to do with how we really feel, can be taken the wrong way. 

Stay busy - Offer to help any way you can: take the kids outside for a while, help set the table, offer to run to the corner store for more Redi-Whip. What I'm saying here is it's better to be a moving target than a sitting duck.

Take a few minutes for yourself -  If you feel yourself getting tense or overwhelmed, take a break. Go for a short walk. Sneak off to a quieter place and meditate or give yourself a pep talk.

Remember why you're here - These family gatherings are meant to reaffirm the connection of family. For good or ill, these are your people. They, more than anyone else, have formed the person you are. Take this time to celebrate all the best things you have shared together over the years. I'm not saying you should forget the bad. Just let it rest for the day.

Remind yourself how good you've got it - Yeah, Uncle Chad may hold political views reminiscent of Attila the Hun. Sure, every single member of the extended family has managed to corner you to ask a). when you're going to settle down and get married. b). when you're going to give up on your dream and get a real job or c). have you put on a little weight? Here is a selection of books featuring families--some real, some fictional--who make yours look like it jumped out of Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover.

Families that will make you thankful for your own

List created by davec_hcpl

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Sometimes it is best to stay away - For those of us whose families edge closer to the Roys than the Bradys, or where there are issues with mental health, substance abuse, conflicting belief systems, unwillingness to accept sexual orientations and gender identities, disparities in socioeconomic situations, histories of abuse, insurmountable resentments of one kind or another, sometimes the best option is to avoid the gathering altogether. If you truly believe that attending a family gathering will put your mental or physical well-being at risk, you are right to stay away.