Emotional Health

Keeping the Peace at Thanksgiving

As a therapist, every year I’m caught short by how quickly it comes upon us: the season of misery caused by holidays, which is ushered in by the early one-two punch of Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur. My Jewish patients are thrust into months of drama, expectation, and disappointment that last until Passover. My non-Jewish patients are spared until Thanksgiving, shared by all—and these days Halloween, too, can be harrowing if you have children. And no one is spared the twin evils of New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day.

The less said about Christmas, the better.

These occasions can be divided into two groups: family/religious holidays and “fun” holidays. Either way, we tend to think that everyone else is doing it better. This has been much more prevalent since the media has given us such a wide-open window onto what goes on in others’ lives, and commercial forces have realized that it is to their benefit to exaggerate the importance of each day as much as possible.

Right now, with Thanksgiving approaching, the special emphasis is on family (and food, of course—formerly a simple thing that we have made into something complicated). The issue with family is that if you don’t have one on Thanksgiving, it’s a problem, and if you do have one on Thanksgiving, it’s a problem. Finding a place to go, or finding amenable guests to round out a dwindling or changing family structure can be a challenge. Sometimes it’s best to flaunt tradition by either ignoring the day or changing things around such that the “missing” persons or traditions are not so present, so to speak.

More challenging, perhaps, is the situation that many people encounter, of having family members who are “difficult.” Even worse, there are some family holidays that can bring back bad memories, reignite family dramas, and cause unhappiness and even depression to flare up or reoccur. It is well known to family therapists, for example, that there are “scripts” between family members that have been played out so many times it is almost impossible for the participants to behave differently. The roles were written so long ago, the parts rehearsed so often and so “faithfully,” that other ways of interacting are beyond reach. This is particularly true for older people. Trying to get them to behave differently may be a hopeless waste of energy.

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