Ah, the holiday season…chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Uncle Bob drinks more, and your antidepressant usage increases. People who have managed to create happy family environments are joyously prepping their holiday pies, some people are happily joining friends because family is just too unbearable, and then there are those people who are toughing it out in an awkward social situation– maybe it’s with family, or maybe not.
Here are some thoughts we have about how to get the most out of being a guest at any Thanksgiving.
Check your brain at the door. You are walking into a room full of people who are probably feeling awkward and nervous themselves. Don’t set the stakes too high by starting off the night with negative judgment and complaining. If you start off the night thinking, Uncle Bob is such a loser drunk. Every year he is such a blah-d-blah on Thanksgiving, then your chances for a difficult night increase significantly because of self-fulfilling prophecy. Be sure not to set your expectations too high, or project your preconceived resentments. Bring a pie, but as far as your mind goes, come empty handed of your preconceived ideas and self-fulfilling prophecies.
We’ve learned a great piece of survival advice by an award winning film producer who has managed to sustain a lifelong, highly successful career in the contentious film business. His advice: Don’t get too high and don’t get too low. For example, you’re bringing your fiancé to meet the family for the first time and expectations are high. The night starts off great and you’re getting high from how good everything is turning out. Then, Uncle Bob hits the mulled wine too hard and starts flirting with your fiancé. Your high mood tanks low. Now that your mood has tanked, your mental clarity is skewed and you can quickly turn this one night event into a family war by punching Uncle Bob’s lights out. You get the point. Not too high and not too low. Regulating your mood is good practice for most things in life.
Know what you’re getting into. Prep yourself and prep your companion. Will drunk Uncle Bob be there? Is there some covert family baggage that’s floating around? You can’t control for the unexpected but you can know what you’re getting into so that you can feel your most confident.
Use conversational tricks. Conversation tends to be one of the most awkward moments to manage at social gatherings. Awkward moments can happen between two strangers stuck next to one another in a forced seating arrangement, or they can happen with people who just don’t know how to communicate. Here are some good communication tricks, even if you’re shy:
Notice things and be curious. Most people, especially women, are wearing something that is meaningful to them. It may be a watch, holiday sweater, a bow tie, their favorite football team’s hat, etc. Notice something stand out about that person and ask them about it. For example: “I see you have a Broncos cap on. What do you think about how they’re playing this season?” Or, “That’s such an interesting pin. Is there a story behind it?” Most people will respond. But if the response falls flat, you still have an open door. The conversation has started. Move to the next approach, more curiosity.
Don’t underestimate a well-placed question and your silent, sincere listening skills. Few of us are exposed to true curiosity from other people. Just today we got into a conversation with a local woman, who we’d never met. After only a couple of well-placed questions, along with our willingness to listen without interrupting, we found out every gift her children were getting for the holidays and how she made them. We didn’t have to talk at all. Sometimes it’s difficult to come up with spontaneous questions so have some general ones in your back pocket. Here are some ideas for random openers:
So, I’ve been taking this informal survey, just for fun. If you could trade places with any celebrity, who would it be?
What do you really hope that someone will invent soon?
It’s Thanksgiving, what are you grateful for?
For one night, and one night only: It’s more important to understand than to be understood. When in doubt, listen!
When in doubt, be gracious and be grateful. This seems so obvious to most people with good manners, but we underestimate how much work and generosity goes into preparing for guests at the holidays. Even the most unpleasant host has usually put a huge effort into getting prepared and doing the best they can with what’ve they’ve got to make you happy as a guest. Do the best you can, with what you’ve got, to enjoy yourself.
It’s OK to take a break. If your environment is extremely triggering, as some family settings are, you can take a break. Use the restroom, or step outside into fresh air. Find a place for reprieve and bring a mantra with your in your mental toolkit. In the 12 step programs, people put themselves in a Serenity Prayer trance by repeating the prayer over and over: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. If you are not spiritual, and you’re feeling overly attached to other people and their behavior (which is the typical social trigger) you can try a more neutral mantra like: Didn’t cause it, can’t cure it and can’t control it. Take this moment alone to talk yourself off the ledge and regroup. If the environment is too toxic, people fight, your well being is at stake and it’s gotten this bad: then give yourself permission to leave.
Comfort yourself if you get the holiday shame hangover. We don’t have to drink to get a hangover. Sometimes people are set up with so many expectations from long lasting, dysfunctional relationships or family patterns, that we can feel terrible after the holidays. We set ourselves up for a sense of failure by worrying about who we are and what others think of us. Maybe we feel like a failure compared to a successful sibling, maybe our parents are critical, maybe we don’t need others to judge us to feel shame about ourselves. Check in on yourself the next day, or even during Thanksgiving, to see if you’re ruminating on Thanksgiving issues, family dynamics, things you could have done or said, etc. If you’re feeling crummy, you might have a shame hangover.
Here are some links to other resources for specific Thanksgiving issues: