How to Have a Happy Thanksgiving with Difficult Relatives
Plan ahead, anticipate challenges, think about what you want.
Posted November 21, 2016
In the United States, Thanksgiving is approaching.
For many people, Thanksgiving is a joyous holiday; for many people, Thanksgiving is a dreaded holiday. One factor that can make it tough is spending time with difficult relatives. Here are some strategies for keeping Thanksgiving dinner — or any holiday gathering, at any time of the year — pleasant:
1. Before you join the group, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave. Don’t just react in the moment; consider how you want to act — in every way from how you’re going to talk to Uncle Bob to how much dessert you’re going to eat. This is using the Strategy of Safeguards: plan ahead, anticipate challenges, think about what you want.
2. Remember that topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you’re showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: “So do you have a boyfriend yet?” “When are you two going to get married/start a family?” “Didn’t you give up smoking?” “Can you afford that?” “When are you going to get a real job?” Show an interest with more open-ended questions, like “What are you up to these days?” or “What’s keeping you busy?” Also…
3. Avoid strife. Some families enjoy arguing passionately; however, most don’t handle arguments very well. If you know Uncle Bob’s views on the recent election are going to drive you crazy, don’t bring it up! And if he brings it up, you don’t have to engage. Try to make a joke of it, and say something like, “Let’s agree to disagree,” “Let’s not talk about that, and give the rest of the family something to be thankful for,” etc. There is absolutely a time and a place for political debate, but Thanksgiving may not be the best time for that.
4. Play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important; for others, no. You may feel irritated by your brother’s insistence on having exactly the same food every Thanksgiving, or by your mother’s extreme reaction to the possibility that you might not come home for the day. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds. On the other hand, if you’re the one who wants everything to be perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else, so that you can enjoy the day, whatever happens.
5. Don’t drink much alcohol. It can seem festive and fun to fill up your glass, but it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. I basically had to give up drinking because alcohol makes me so belligerent.
6. Don’t stuff yourself. Research shows that in fact, most people add just one pound during the holidays – but then they never lose it. You’ll have more fun if you’re not feeling uncomfortably full and then guilty about having eaten too much. Think about strategies for staying in control of holiday eating; feeling bad about having eaten too much can make you feel irritable and angry, which spills over into your interactions with other people.
Note on #5 and #6 — on the other hand, if people tell you, “No more wine for me, thanks,” or “I’m going to skip dessert tonight,” don’t press them to partake. Don’t lead them into temptation, if they’re trying to eat or drink in a way that’s healthy for them. It can feel loving and festive to urge people to indulge, but they’ll be happier in the long run if they do what’s right for them.
7. Remember it’s THANKSGIVING. Be thankful that you get to cook, or that you don’t have to cook. Be thankful that you get to travel, or that you don’t have to travel. Be thankful for your family or your friends. Find something. Studies show that gratitude is a major happiness booster.
Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell you how to deal with your difficult relatives — they tell you how to behave yourself. Well, guess what! You can’t do anything to change what your difficult relatives are going to do; you can only change yourself.
Also, in many situations, people behave a difficult way in reaction to something else. So you may think your niece flies off the handle without any reason, but she’s furious because she thinks you’re needling her about her appearance. If you behave differently, she will too.
Have you found any helpful strategies for dealing with a difficult holiday situation? What more would you add?
Have you read my book The Happiness Project? Can't help mentioning--it was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, and has been translated into more than 35 languages. It's all about how to be...happier!
- Read sample chapters
- Watch the one-minute book video
- Request the one-page discussion guide or spiritual discussion guide
- Listen to a sample of the audiobook (that’s me, reading from the Introduction
Other posts you might be interested in . . .
Podcast 91: Delete a Soul-Sucking App, and a Deep Dive into Happier 911 Songs
Why the Smell of a Hallway Taught Me Something Important about Myself.
Podcast 90: Very Special Episode on the “Essential 7” for Happiness and Good Habits.
Something that Makes Me Happy: Voting.