Visiting family — whether it’s your own or someone else’s — at Thanksgiving is stressful for many (if not most) people. The thought of awkward small talk may fill you with dread. Or maybe you’re worried that everyone thinks bad things about you. Simply anticipating the barrage of questions about your career, love life, and future is enough to spoil your appetite.
Since the people closest to us are often the best at pushing our buttons, it’s important to have strategies to manage triggering situations that may come up around the dinner table.
Here are 5 tips to help you have a drama-free Thanksgiving:
1. Prepare and do an emotional temperature check
If you know time with family sends your stress skyrocketing, prepare for it. Ask who will be in attendance so you can anticipate the types of challenges that might arise. Think of ways you can excuse yourself if you need a breather, such as planning time alone or heading out to a movie with friends.
Also, focus on self-care leading up to your visit to make sure you feel strong, healthy, and balanced. Keep tabs on your emotional state in real-time around the dinner table and throughout your visit. Pay attention to the circumstances and people that trigger you. Self-awareness is a powerful tool to better manage your reactions in the moment.
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2. Respond to critical comments with grace
It can be frustrating when your family seems disapproving of your life choices. It’s easy to let passive aggressive comments get under your skin like, “When are you going to get a real job?” or “Shouldn’t you be married by now?”
But getting defensive or lashing out only makes matters worse. Instead, give yourself a minute to calm down. Spend a moment identifying and articulating your feelings. Then carefully respond. Acknowledge their concerns while standing your ground.
For instance, you might say, “I can understand why you might think it’s scary not to have a five-year plan, but I’m excited to see where life takes me.” If you need to set a firmer boundary, simply say “Thanks for sharing your thoughts” and move on.
Remember, sometimes another person’s negativity is not about you — it’s reflection of their own insecurities. Have compassion for the fact that they may be struggling with something in their own life. Send good thoughts their way, then let their comments roll off like water on a duck’s back.
3. Speak up, but pick your battles
When expressing potentially contentious thoughts and opinions try to use first-person statements like “I get really anxious when…” or “I feel unappreciated when…” or “My concern is…” This takes away an accusatory tone that will help deescalate conflict.
If you sense a conversation (about a touchy subject like politics, for example) is heading south, you have a few options. You can redirect to benign connection points like a new TV show or book or a recipe you’ve been dying to try. Or you can put the brakes on it by saying something like, “The tone of this conversation isn’t helpful. Let’s agree to drop it.”
4. Have fun
The holidays are meant to be a time of celebration, so enjoy it! Have activities you can look forward to — puzzles, board games, or an after-dinner walk or touch football game. Laughter and exercise release endorphins, a natural antidote to stress.
Conversation starters or icebreakers can also be a fun way to help everyone loosen up over Thanksgiving dinner. Try to keep them light, but also don’t be afraid to ask everyone what they are grateful for. The answers may surprise you.
5. Go easy on imbibing
Alcohol increases aggression so if you don’t want to skip it altogether, at least be mindful of how much you drink at Thanksgiving. Same goes for sugar which is known to trigger anxiety and make the body more susceptible to stress.
Most of all, try your best to keep gratitude front and center. Feeling thankful is an attitude you can intentionally cultivate, even when family dynamics are challenging…or even dysfunctional at times. If you go into the holiday with realistic expectations and embrace imperfection, it will help you enjoy and appreciate the moment.
Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. A popular speaker, Melody has delivered talks for TedX and others.