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Navigating Thanksgiving with Family


The leaves are changing, temperatures are dropping, fall football is in full swing and you know Thanksgiving family time is just around the corner. Maybe you’re traveling home to see the family, or hosting a gathering at your place. Or perhaps you’re doing the marathon house-hop all in one day, or looking forward to your TV dinner alone because it’s easier than being with family. 


Whatever your individual plans, the collective experience of holidays with family (or friends like family) is muddled and complex. And for many families, a “Will you pass the gravy” can quickly turn into “Why are you the way you are?!” 


But there’s good there, right? Somewhere in between the buried pain, childhood wounds and unmet expectations is family – and with that a hope of love, acceptance, and belonging (even if in the tiniest portion). At the very least it’s the opportunity to not do it alone. 


Setting healthy boundaries during Thanksgiving

So how do you enjoy the time? Here’s a few thoughts as you head into whatever your holiday season might look like: 


  • Anticipate your experience 

Plan ahead for how you might feel at certain points over the holiday. Knowing your triggers, your soft spots, and the weak points in your armor can equip you to live without the unexpected element of surprise, anger, or shame. We have all heard the old adage, “Fail to plan and you plan to fail.” There might be some helpful truth in that colloquialism. 

Pro tip: Ask yourself these questions: Who, if anyone, has access to my emotions? What makes me exhausted/enlivened when I’m with these people? Which behaviors of mine do I want to avoid/encourage? What habits need I keep up or put on pause while on holiday? 


  • Set limits 

Just like the turkey, too much time in the “oven” can burn you. My good friend Justin was packing up his bags after staying with us for a few days and said, “Guys, I’m starting to smell the fish.” He jokingly suggests that after three or so days, someone in the family “starts to smell” and it is time to go. Maybe three days of Thanksgiving with family is not the limit for you, but think about what time frame would set you up for success. If you have kids and are traveling to see family, it might be wise to save a day or two post family events for rest and recovery before the normal routine ensues. 

Pro tip: Whatever your circumstance, set a time frame for how long you will stay or host, what accommodations might work for you and your family and what traditions you want to uphold on your own outside of extended family. It might be the year you finally book a hotel instead of sleeping on the living room couch. Let your limits dictate your accommodations and time frame. 


  • Give yourself freedom to make adjustments. 

Have you ever anticipated something thoroughly, but found your experience far different than your expectation? This is often the case for many of us, so flexibility and resilience are key when navigating murky waters. Give yourself the opportunity to swell and change with time. 

Pro tip: You can always stay longer, but it’s harder to cut time short. See again, planning ahead.


  • Accept what you cannot change.

Everyone’s got a crazy uncle Joe. This won’t be the year you finally convert him to whatever side of the aisle you’re on, so give him (and yourself) a break. In this precious time together,  choose the ties that bind you rather than the ones that separate you. St. Augustine said this concerning finding common ground between others, “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” In other words, do your best to keep the main thing the main thing, and try not to sweat the small stuff.  


  • Seek to understand; not to be understood

First coined by Stephen Covey, this is golden relationship advice at any time of the year, but especially a time wrought with expectation. Get curious. Explore the heart and reason behind how your family ticks. Curiosity is a much preferable alternative than judgment. 

Pro tip: In my experience, people tend to remember how you made them feel over what you said or did. It might be that the exact menu on the table needs to take a back seat to your family members being truly seen and treasured. Listen more, persuade less. 


Thanksgiving is separate from circumstance

Allow me to leave you with the same reminder I am needing this holiday season: Give thanks. If you are cultivating within you the insightful, healthy, flexible, honest and gracious hearts necessary to exercise all of the above; I truly believe gratefulness is the natural overflow. As we steward what’s ours, let us not neglect to give thanks for all that entails.