Plan ahead: Phase One: Coping with the inevitable This week end before Thanksgiving Thursday, look into your mind and heart for answers to questions about your family. Be honest. Who are these people? You know them well. If you must have expectations, expect them to be who they are.
Don’t look for change. And don’t look for a storybook Thanksgiving gathering. If Uncle Mike drinks too much, he will probably drink too much. If Aunt Millie teases you about your looks, she probably will tease you about your looks. If your father complains about money; if your mother cries in the kitchen; if your sister refuses to help clean up; if your brother and his friend plop in front of a football game instead of coming to the table on time; they all will most likely continue these behaviors on Thanksgiving. Expect this and allow yourself to be happily surprised if these normal (normal to your family) things don’t happen.
Strategy development Planning ahead means developing a strategy for caring for yourself when the inevitable happens again like it always does. The best strategy for coping with stressful family dynamics is, do not engage. Walk away – not in a huff – but because you suddenly have or hear or remember something you must attend to. For example, your father complains about the cost of the turkey at dinner and you drop your spoon loudly or cough in some way that takes you out of the conversation. Your mother cries in the kitchen telling you yet again about her victimization. You listen for a moment. Then you apologize because you remember you must make a phone call or get something out of your car and do a little task for someone. You don’t have to accept psychological and emotional pressures that you probably have been subjected to and accepted all your life. Nor do you have to find a way to change these people who, despite your anger and stress, you probably love. Planning ahead involves developing personal strategies for coping with these irritating and perhaps hurtful people who happen to be the family you love who probably love you in their own bewildering and idiosyncratic ways. You don’t have to absorb the stress and eat to numb yourself. Your challenge is to sidestep the stress.
Plan Ahead: Phase Two: Bring in something new Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time of celebration and thanks. Monday, after the week end where you developed your methodology for avoiding lures into traditional family conflict, you begin to plan your second phase of coping. Look at these people who you love, even if sometimes you forget you do, and see what you are grateful for in their ways of being. For some people this is an easy exercise. For others you may have to dig deep. Uncle Mike may be reliably helpful when your car needs repair. Aunt Millie may be great at remembering and telling family stories that keep family history alive. Your father may be courageous and determined to see that his family is well fed and sheltered. Your mother may be a loving and tender nurse when you or anyone is ill. Your brother may stick up for you when his friends tease you, and he may be able to make you laugh. Your sister may offer you advice (that doesn't make sense for your life) but she gives it because she believes she is genuinely helping you. Find these qualities to celebrate. Make cards or write notes for each person where you, in a few lines, tell them what you appreciate about them. Let them know, in writing, specifically and clearly how grateful you are that they offer these qualities throughout the year.
Benefits to you If you take care of yourself and give real expressions of thankfulness to your family, you may find that you won’t need the food behaviors to rescue you from the usual stress of family gatherings. You will not change the people but you will have changed the family dynamic you experience. You'll be sturdy enough to remain intact while simultaneously giving a Thanksgiving experience to others. You might even enjoy the dinner! I hope so.
P.S. This could be a helpful project to discuss with your psychotherapist. And you will be glad to be able to share the imperfect and maybe happily surprising results with someone who understands on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day.