Coming Together at Thanksgiving – Even When You Disagree

This post has been on my mind for months and, with Thanksgiving now upon us, I’m finally at the “no more procrastinating – either do it or let it go” point.  I’m hoping the timing will end up being perfect!

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. What’s not to love about a day devoted entirely to gathering with the people we love most to reminisce, laugh, share stories, and eat?  

I’ve spoken recently with so many people who, after many months of isolation, are looking forward to Thanksgiving more than ever this year. But the two years (plus or minus a few months) away from large gatherings has left many of us with mixed emotions about getting together with family. We may find ourselves feeling excited but also apprehensive. There’s so much divisiveness in the world – we’re surrounded by starkly opposing views on countless topics and issues and that, understandably, can create some uneasiness.

We need to remind ourselves that it’s OK to be both energized and wary – just like, if you’re hosting, it’s OK to look forward to entertaining and also dread cleaning. Or to feel happy about visiting relatives, but hate the thought of the long drive. When we’re feeling conflicted, the best thing we can do for our own wellbeing is to first acknowledge whatever we’re feeling, and then to accept that these feelings are normal and make sense. There’s no wrong way to feel. So, once you’ve recognized that there’s some worry, apprehension, fear, or anxiety, what do you do with that?

The next step is to prepare for the situation that’s causing distress – in this case, your Thanksgiving gathering – by exploring what, specifically, is bothering you. Maybe you’re worried that someone will bring up a topic you’d rather not discuss, that will make others feel uncomfortable, or that could lead to arguments. Perhaps you’re open to discussing more controversial issues but are concerned about the conversation remaining respectful. Or maybe you’ve realized that you’re uncomfortable with the idea of making small talk because you haven’t done it in so long.

After you’ve identified what’s worrying you, think about how you’d like the day to look. Focus on what you DO want, rather than on what you want to avoid. Are you most looking forward to lighthearted banter? To laughing over familiar family stories? To catching up on the ins and outs of each other’s lives? To learning new things about the people you love? To feeling more connected to those you don’t know as well? To passing on family traditions to your children? To making your mother smile because having everyone together is important to her? Once you have a clear picture of what will bring you joy and make you feel good about the day, you can plan steps towards achieving that outcome.

Perhaps you’d like to reach out to family and friends prior to seeing them on Thanksgiving, by communicating in advance, “I’m looking forward to hearing about what’s going on in your life, sharing memories, laughing and being together.” Maybe you’d like to add, “With so much heaviness in the world, I’m looking forward to a day of lightheartedness.” Or a more direct, “Let’s focus on enjoying each other’s company and keep politics out of the conversation.” If advance communication feels awkward and forced, and you may prefer not to say anything unless an issue arises. In that case, having strategies at hand can be helpful. How would you like to respond if the conversation starts to get heated? You may want to redirect the conversation, saying, “Why don’t we talk about something else?” Or you may prefer to remove yourself, saying, “I’d rather not be a part of this conversation. I’m going to step away unless we can change the topic.” Or maybe you’d welcome a respectful conversation around topics where there may be disagreement. (If that’s the case, you may want to check out this re-post of an article published in Sept. 2020.)  

If there are specific conversation topics you’d rather avoid, it may be helpful to create a list of those – either to share or simply to help you prepare. We’ve all been thinking and talking about the coronavirus so much for almost two years now, it makes sense that it may come up at our Thanksgiving gathering. While discussing the pandemic may feel therapeutic to some, especially those who have been lonely and isolated, others may not find talk of masks and vaccines to be the most rewarding way of spending the day.

If you’d rather discuss something else, think in advance about possible alternative conversation topics. Thanksgiving gatherings present a perfect opportunity to share family history and learn new details about loved ones – especially those older or younger than us. Conversation starters like, “When was your first kiss?” “When was your first trip on an airplane?” “What was your first pet?” “What was your favorite meal when you were a child?” or “What’s the best gift you ever received?” can be fun prompts for discovering new things about people you already know well. Of course, since it’s Thanksgiving, “What are you most grateful for?” is also a wonderful question to pose.

By reminding ourselves throughout the day of why we’ve been looking forward to being together, and of how we hope to feel at the end of the day, we can make choices that help create those experiences and feelings. When our focus is on what connects us to one another, we’re better able to find ways of strengthening those bonds.

Wishing everyone a Thanksgiving filled with love, harmony and gratitude!



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