Most of us have a lovely vision of Thanksgiving: Driving along the road to Grandma's house on a familiar road, graced by autumn leaves. We imagine being greeted by warmth and family, feeling grateful and eating our familiar favorites. The kids have made turkey drawings by tracing around their adorable little hands, and the real turkey is large and golden and perfectly moist. We've brought little handmade paper pilgrims to adorn the perfectly set table, just like on the covers of the magazines at the grocery check-out.
Maybe the road to Grandma's Thanksgiving is familiar, but for many, from an emotional standpoint, it isn't exactly a road graced with beautiful scenery or a peaceful, relaxing dinner full of gratitude that we wish would greet us.
There's the disappointment that the guy you've been dating for months didn't even mention spending the holiday together. Or the fight with your spouse about which family you'll go to for the Big Meal.
Or maybe the fight between your divorced parents, about who gets to "have" you. The awful traffic or the overcrowded, delayed plane flight. The kid who refuses to go potty before you get in the car, and then wets his/her best clothes before you get to a rest stop.
If you're staying at home, there's fighting the crowds at the grocery store, feeling mocked by that very same magazine at the grocery check-out...
The pie somehow turns out both soggy and burned, and your sister sniffs at it with disdain. You (or your loved one) forgets to turn on the oven, so for the past hour the turkey has been comfortably biding it's fleshy time, still raw -- and so are your nerves. One (or more) relatives start drinking heavily to cut the boredom and tension, and it's getting ugly. The football game(s) are blaring, and the periodic "Defense, you f---king moron!" is repeated gleefully and in full voice by all of the kids, even the little one whom you didn't know could talk yet.
And for dessert? Your elderly Aunt Betty loudly whispers, "My Thanksgivings were never like this."
Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families
A friend of mine, also a psychologist, has a favorite reply when he's asked about his specialty. With a straight face, he'll answer, "Adult children of dysfunctional families." By which, of course, he means basically everyone. (There's a great cartoon on this by Jennifer Berman.)
Funny or not, being in relationship with our families and loved ones can be challenging, and at times, overwhelming.
Why do we get so caught up in our expectations and crazy family dynamics?
It's All In Your Head
Long story short, we go down the same roads in our brain over and over again. When we have an experience, the neurons that fire together in response to that experience tend to get wired together. Those roads get built up over time into superhighways to hell.
Let's take the experience of Thanksgiving at your Aunt Louise when you're four years old. All of a sudden, she angrily and sharply criticizes you in front of everyone at the table because you're not well-behaved enough. Your brain takes this in and puts it into readily accessible storage: "Aunt Louise = Anger + Shame."
Your brain sets up a sort of template so that if the same stimuli come your way again, you'll be prepared, even if only to cringe, or duck and cover. Subsequently, when you hear Aunt Louise's voice, or smell the same perfume that she wears, or even sit at the traditionally set Thanksgiving table, your brain recognizes the cues (even if your conscious mind doesn't), and you react without even realizing it.
You might get tight in your stomach, or clench your jaw. You might overeat to try to soothe what has gotten stirred up -- often without even knowing that that's what's going on. You might even have this reaction in anticipation of getting in the car to go to Thanksgiving dinner.
When we're stressed out, or anticipating something bad happening, we often behave in ways we later regret -- like when we exhaust ourselves trying to make everything perfect, or overeat to the point of discomfort (and, later, beat up on ourselves with shame and self-criticism), or end up arguing over some small infraction like who burned the crescent rolls.
Then, depending on your tradition, you have one month or less to gear up for the December holidays!
I have three words of advice: Start. Meditating. Now.
I'm not suggesting that you should space out and navel-gaze your way through the holidays, and you're not going to arrive on Grandma's doorstep in monk's robes with a shaved head.
If you decide to meditate:
In short, you'll be mindfully taking a different emotional route to Grandma's house.
Meditation can be as simple as taking five minutes - or even just three minutes - every day, and being aware of the busy-ness of your brain re-hashing the past or anticipating the future.
You don't have to get rid of the busy-ness - just notice it, and then gently bring your attention back to this moment, even if it's just the itch on your knee.
Mindfulness meditation is about focusing your attention on something simple, like your breathing; noticing when your mind has drifted (or lunged) into its usual busy-ness and distraction; and bringing your attention back to that simple focus.
It's a constant struggle - and that's the point. It's a constant struggle in the same way that being with your family at the holidays can be -- not a fight, necessarily, but a challenge for you to not get caught up in the busy-ness of family nuttiness. Practice at getting better letting go of the struggle in your head, and you get better and better at letting go of the struggle with others. You can more effectively choose to go down a different road. (I talk about this more in a previous post.
Say I'm practicing mindful meditation this week before Thanksgiving, and I choose to focus on my breathing - let's say that I get really specific and focus on the sensation of the air coming in and going out of my nose. As I breathe, my mind quickly sets about sniffing out other "interesting" thoughts:
If Aunt Betty makes another snide comment this year, I'm gonna...
They'll probably be out of 16-pound turkeys by the time I get to the store.
I wonder how long I've been meditating now?
Each thought gets noticed, and I don't pound myself for having it. As each thought comes up -- even in rapid-fire succession, I bring my awareness back to the breath going in and out of my nose again. And again. And again.
You can do this.
You can be a little more mindful while you're mashing the potatoes, noticing the audible "squish," and the feeling of working your arm - letting go, even if just for a moment, the worry about having the wrong cranberry sauce, or that Aunt Gertrude might have another meltdown for no apparent reason.
You can be more aware of the sudden "grip" in your stomach when you hear Uncle Bob enter the house and loudly ask, "Geez, what's that awful smell?" - and bring your awareness back to your breath, instead of taking the bait. (You might even laugh, even though he wasn't joking.)
You can eat each bite of food with just a bit more awareness, noticing the feel, the taste, the movement of your mouth as you eat that forkful of stuffing - and you'll probably be satisfied sooner, without overeating.
You can notice that your shoulders are so high that they could be mistaken for earrings, and take a breath or two to lower them -- and then be less likely to lose it when Aunt Louise angrily scolds and shames one of your kids the way she scolded you.
You can be aware that there are things to be thankful for, even in the midst of a bunch of crazy people to whom you are related.
Keep the practice up beyond the holidays, and you'll be changing the connections in your brain (take a look at some of the documented benefits of regular meditation here. Your relationships - with yourself, and with others - will be the better for it.
And who knows? By next year, you could have a whole lot more to be thankful for, even if nothing about your family has changed.
Marsha Lucas, PhD is a psychologist / neuropsychologist in Washington, DC. Learn more about rewiring your brain at RewireYourBrainForLove.com, where she offers a free mindfulness meditation download and a monthly e-newsletter with meditation tips. You can also follow @DrMarsha on Twitter, and join her on her Facebook page.
© 2010 Marsha Lucas. All Rights Reserved