Robin Zarel, LCSW

Robin Zarel LCSW

Mind Over Matter

Is the Turkey on the Table or Sitting Next to You?

New responses can make for a better time.

Posted Nov 18, 2012

“The other night I ate at a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going”. George Carlin

Holiday dinners can be times of joy, laughter, and fond reminiscing. Or they can be times of old wounds resurfacing, people regressing, buttons being pushed and a wish that you were anywhere else but where you are.

Those in the former group of holiday attendees, take a moment to be truly thankful for all you have. And if in the latter group, here are some helpful hints for you.

Knowing Your Buttons

If you dread going to family functions, take a moment to think about why and whom you fear seeing most. What is it about that person that sets you off? Are they critical, competitive, intrusive or narcissistic? Repetitive in the stories they tell?  Worse, do they tell the same embarrassing stories about you over and over again, when you would rather forget them? Never ask anything about you, ask way too many questions, or give unsolicited advice about how you should run your life? Voice political opinions that make you want to scream?

Do you maneuver where you will sit to avoid certain people? If you are the one making the meal, are you bracing yourself for the moment your mom will tell about the best turkey she ever made? And what if you get along with most people, but there are those who fight, have longstanding feuds or resentments which then create a toxic, tense atmosphere for everyone else?

Dysfunctional Patterns

Understanding what buttons get pushed and by whom, gives you the opportunity to prepare a conscious, healthy response in advance so you are not caught off guard. For example, recognizing that the sting of former criticisms makes you more susceptible to a current one or sometimes anticipate or hear one, when not present, can be helpful.

Emotional awareness about what past and present sensitivities mean to you now helps quell an immediate defensive, reflexive, and often regressive response. Instead of possibly becoming depressed or angry, you might let the person know they have hurt your feelings directly or by using humor to express your dissatisfaction with the interaction. What you choose to do depends upon the person, who else is around, and the specific circumstances. You may decide to do nothing and possibly address it later in private. Make a conscious choice about your response.

How many times have you or someone you know said something like “I’m a perfectly functioning adult, but when I get together with family or sometimes even friends, old patterns, old roles, and hurts get revived”? The question is why.

Unresolved personal and familial issues can resurface during holiday times. Often people seek to get something from loved ones that they didn’t get before but are still hoping to get now. It might be love, acknowledgement and validation, or a sense of being separate from the other person’s needs. Sometimes it may even be revenge – to make them feel some of the bad feelings that you feel, or felt in your life. Recognizing what you need, why you need it and the possibility that you might never get it from some people can feel very empowering. It helps take back the control that has been relinquished to others.

Family members have different roles and alliances within the family system. As people grow and change, the system shifts. But the transition is not always a comfortable one. If one person changes, but the others don’t, turmoil can follow.  Other members might try to get it back to a place that was more familiar and comfortable for them. By doing this they don’t have to look at their own roles, their own possible issues, and what they may need to do differently in the future. For the person who has made changes, the time can also be difficult. They may be fearful of losing some of what they did get in the past, or uncertain about what the future might hold. The best possible scenario is when there is fluidity in the system and growth and change is celebrated.

New Roles, New Responses & Better Times

1)      After you’ve identified what might trigger uncomfortable feelings, prepare how you might respond in a more positive manner. Anticipate resistances to change - both your own and the recipient of your changed responses and behavior.

2)      Recognize that as adults we have more choices and power than we did as children. If holiday dinners are too dysfunctional and painful, don’t go to them. Although it may be hard, the choice is yours.

3)      Create new traditions and spend time with people who treat you well.

4)      Humor helps. Sometimes deflecting a tense situation is better than dealing with it directly. Know your audience; be creative in what you say.

5)      If prior to the get together you know there are certain people who don’t get along, think of a way to create a different dynamic. Plan a game or activity that will direct people’s attention in a new direction.

6)      Become more curious, rather than reactive to your own and others’ dynamics. It’s educational and can take some emotionality out of the moment.  Net result is more positive relationships and a better life.

So put the turkey on the table.  Let the roast be where it should be – and don’t let them roast you!

About the Author

Robin Zarel, LCSW

Robin Zarel, LCSW, is a New York-based therapist. She has been in practice for 30 years.

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