When I sit down with a therapy client to talk about Thanksgiving, it can feel more like we're running football plays than doing therapy. They don't want to get tackled by nosy questions, or they wonder how they can sneak past heated political or religious debates. The truth is, there's nothing wrong with being strategic when it comes to being around your family. In fact, the holidays can be an opportunity for hyper speed growth, because where there is anxiety, there's opportunity for change. So before you take a Xanax and muddle through, here are some alternative plays for spending the holidays with your family.
Avoid the triangle. If you map out family interactions over a single get together, you'll find a tangled web. In therapy we call these patterns emotional triangles, and it happens when two people position themselves against a third. Your aunt will whisper her thoughts to you about your cousin's new girlfriend. You and a sibling will roll your eyes when you grandfather makes a racist comment. The temptation will be strong to bond with others through your feelings about a third. It's human and it happens, but if you pay attention, you can learn something.
While it might feel good in the moment, triangling makes a family more reactive and dysfunctional. To stay outside of a triangle, you don't have to agree with everyone or even like them. You just have to keep things one on one. If someone is looking to complain to you, then send them back to the person they're discussing. This could look like saying, "I bet he'd love to talk to you about his girlfriend." Or, "You should probably talk to him if you don't agree with his comment."
Show up and pay attention. Yes, showing up is a strategy, and it's usually 90 percent of the battle. Expensive flights or hard ass bosses are good excuses, but emotional and physical distance are only temporary solutions for being a member of your family. When you cut them off, you remain just as tethered and reactive to them as ever. Your family may never support you and love you the way you want them to, but for better or worse, they played a role in who you are and how you function.
The more time you spend with them, the more you can learn about yourself and how you get triggered into acting immaturely. I've told clients that all the insight in the world can't help you if you don't get in there and practice what you've learned. When one person starts actively differently in a family, the dynamics have the space to shift and grow. And if they don't change at all, at least it will bug you less.
Practice being yourself. The most anxious people in this world are the ones who are constantly adjusting themselves to seek the love and approval of others. It's normal to want to be accepted and praised, but without a strong sense of self, we become unhappy chameleons just trying to fit in with the group. Being smack in the middle of a holiday gathering might make you anxious, but it won't kill you. And it's the perfect training camp to share your values and goals with your family.
Maybe you don't want to hear someone ask for the tenth time what happened with you and your ex or why never went to law school. But if you can be yourself in front of family, then you can be yourself anywhere. If they don't seem to get who you are and what you're about, then tell them! You might even find that they're more accepting than you anticipated.
You might feel overwhelmed with anxiety this Thanksgiving, but practicing these strategies can help you keep your head above the crowd and gain a little perspective. You might not be able to do anything differently at first, and maybe you'll get angry just as quickly as you always do. But if you can start seeing your place in the emotional workings of your family, then inch by inch you'll gain the space to start making thoughtful choices that are about you rather than just reacting. And who knows, you might even look forward to next year.