Turkey, pie and a side of family dysfunction: Tips for dealing with Thanksgiving stress

WASHINGTON — Thanksgiving, the official kickoff of the holiday season, is a day devoted to being near loved ones and eating delicious home-cooked food — but it can also trigger painful memories, lead to dinner-table confrontations and simply stress many of us out.

In other words: It’s the most wonderful/dreadful time of the year.

But it turns out that learning to embrace our mixed emotions about the holidays may be key to enjoying the day, according to psychotherapist Robi Ludwig.

“It’s normal to have ambivalent feelings going into the holidays for a whole host of reasons,” she told WTOP in an interview. “And if you make room for that, then the gathering can be much more pleasurable, instead of just expecting to have good feelings, which is not fair to one’s self or the other people in the room. And I think it will heighten everyone’s ability to enjoy the reality of the day.”

Other tips for dealing with family dysfunction during Thanksgiving?

Consider seating arrangements to keep clashing personalities at bay. Make your living room or another space a “politics-free zone.” And maybe stay off social media if you find that scrolling past a highlight reel of other people’s happy holidays is giving you the blues.

So why are the holidays so stressful for so many people?

“No. 1, there’s a lot of imagery that surrounds the holidays,” Ludwig said. “This mythic fantasy of how things should look like and how things should be and this idea that somehow other families might be doing Thanksgiving or the holidays in a much more pleasurable or perfect way. … And then we have to enter our own family, and anything that has to do with families — there’s some baggage there.”

It’s important to be honest with yourself, she said.

“Whenever we enter into a family gathering, there’s going to be feelings of love and then there’s going to be feelings of some negativity,” Ludwig said. “And so if we acknowledge the reality, then I think it’s easy to be less disappointed.”

Another potential holiday stressor? The polarized political climate.

A 2017 AP-NORC poll found that just two in 10 Americans said they planned to talk politics around the Thanksgiving dinner table. But with the drama in D.C. continuing to play out in the aftermath of the midterm elections, many people may find they just can’t hold their tongues.

Some households have imposed a firm no-politics rule. But if it does find its way into the conversation, you have to come at it with the right mindset, Ludwig said.

For one thing, you’re not going to convince Uncle Harold of the rightness of your position over a slice of pumpkin pie.

“You have to somehow be open to understanding that they may have a different perspective, be curious about where their different perspective is coming from and understand that you cannot change their position,” Ludwig said. “And this in some ways can be a tremendous relief, because you’re just going in with the goal to understand where the person’s coming from. And to give yourself credit for talking to somebody who has a different point of view.”

Rather than banning political talk outright, some etiquette experts have recommended setting up a dedicated space for talking political turkey.

“Give people a choice: Have a designated room where people can talk about it and then leave the room if they’ve had enough,” Ludwig said.

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself.

“People have all different kinds of feelings going into different holiday settings,” Ludwig said.

“Sometimes they don’t want to reveal it’s been a difficult year. Sometimes they don’t want to be that exposed. And so I think what’s important is to go in trying to get the most that you can out of it, try to appreciate the people that you’re with, try to come from a place of being as grateful as you can, but have a backup plan in case you need to take a break or leave early.”

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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