Marcia Eckerd Ph.D.

People Skills

Enjoying Your Family on Thanksgiving: 3 Keys to Making It Work

You can de-stress Thanksgiving and enjoy family.

Posted Nov 22, 2011

We all know that we want the holidays to be a lovely experience with our families and loved ones, and we all know the holidays can be pretty stressful. There are three keys to getting through gracefully: having realistic expectations, letting go, and an "attitude of gratitude."

First, let's look at expectations. We can easily expect too much. Somehow we forget reality and think a constantly late spouse will be on time, a very active and impulsive child will sit still, or a sister will be accepting instead of having her own strong opinions.

It helps if expectations are realistic; that way we can create strategies for handling predictable situations. I've had a Mom bring me a child with social skills problems and announce that she had to be ready for a family reunion in two weeks. We agreed that this was unrealistic, and we created a plan for the little girl to get together just with her grandparents, or one set of cousins at a time, doing an activity that she enjoyed. You can't expect a super-active kid to sit still for a long meal no matter what Grandma expects. Plan for breaks with something to do. Agree about timing and plan an extra hour with your partner, and have a "get me out of here" signal for when you're cornered by Uncle Ben's stories. None of us are perfect.

Now let's think about "letting go." We can dwell on thoughts and feelings that upset us. This actually is a choice; we can calm down and let go. Do something relaxing, like a taking a walk or some kind of break. Mindfulness meditation or relaxation in any of its forms can help, because it teaches us to let go of thoughts in a non-judgmental, accepting way. Meditation is actually simple: you sit up, with your feet on the floor, and pay attention to the feeling of your breath, sensations, sounds, or else to a word or phrase. Thoughts will come into your mind, you accept this this is normal, and you gently guide your attention back to your focus without any judging. That's it. If you can practice to 10 - 12 minutes a day, you will build your meditation "muscle" to where you can use it at will, even to use a one minute "mini" relaxation in tough spots. Here's a video leading you through a meditation:

When you can let go of thoughts like "She always makes me feel stupid," you can substitute a positive thought "I'm OK, and I can just let her be her." Think of this as like judo. A small person can throw a large person by going with their energy rather than fighting it. You let your sister's energy just go on by, thinking, "She can have her opinion, that's OK." You can even say "Thanks," or "I'll think about that" without having to do anything else. This really does work.

Last but not least, it helps to have that "attitude of gratitude." How often do we go on autopilot, not noticing anything, or only noticing what's wrong? What if you set an alert on your phone, and once an hour you had to stop and think of something for which you're grateful? Wouldn't life feel different? If you aren't burdened by expecting everyone to act as you wish they would, and you can let go of fretting, you might notice all the good things going on around you: people who genuinely care, someone who's taken the time to cook, a nice day outside or just feeling well. Take a minute to let it sink in and enjoy it, and the holiday will be that much better as well.

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