Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I have a relatively small family and since I wasn’t raised with religion, Thanksgiving was the main holiday where my sister, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all came together for a festive meal. It’s what gave me a sense of family deep in my heart.
I took it hard when my sister, Amanda, got married over twenty years ago, and agreed to spend future Thanksgivings with her in-laws down in Tennessee. Up until then, I had spent every single Thanksgiving Day with her. After my sister stopped coming, Thanksgiving was not the same for me. The thought that “she left me” put me in a black mood. I wanted to feel happy and excited, but Thanksgiving was now permanently marred it seemed.
Every year, the same “poor me” feeling consumed me. In the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, his life gets stuck one Groundhog Day. Every day from then on, he wakes up to a repeat of the day before. That’s how it was for me every year on Thanksgiving with regard to the bad feelings I had.
I felt my sister didn’t care enough about me, even though intellectually I knew that was not true. She was just being a good wife. The hurt part of me wanted her to feel guilty for leaving me. When we spoke on the phone on the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I could hear how the tone in my voice changed so she would know I was upset. Inside I was having a mini-tantrum. It isn’t fair!!! Another part of me felt ashamed and guilty for not being totally cool with it. I did not want to behave badly, in a way that would make her feel bad. I love my sister and I wanted her to be happy. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t get over my own hurt.
I know my experience is not unique. With modern life, families are spread out. And with so many households where parents live apart, hard choices have to be made for where to spend Thanksgiving and all the other holidays. Few people feel good about not having their parents, children or siblings around on the holidays. (Although it is also very common to feel relief at not going home for the holidays, but that is the topic for another article.) Regardless of the situation, emotions are inevitably triggered around the holidays because of the complex ties we have with our family
When I was in my thirties, I knew nothing about my emotions, except that I felt them. I had no idea what to do with emotions either. How could I? We don’t get any formal education on emotions in our society. As a result, it felt like every Thanksgiving was like Groundhog Day with respect to the same emotional reaction I had to my sister leaving — a miserable mood. At the mercy of my emotions, I just had to wait until they passed, usually towards the end of the holiday.
A by-product of my training to become a trauma and emotion-centered psychotherapist was receiving an excellent education in emotion science. This training propelled my own growth and healing in still ever-deepening ways. I learned about emotions and what to do with them to grow and thrive. So, one Thanksgiving, now armed with knowledge of emotions and the Change Triangle, the tool I use (and teach to others) to understand what is happening in my mind at any given moment of the day, I set out to get unstuck. I was sick of my Thanksgiving Groundhog Day.
How did I get my brain to have a different reaction? When I felt that familiar “poor me,” jealous, angry, sad, soup of a feeling, I turned attention to my body, where emotions live. With a compassionate focus on the feeling sensations inside, I first validated and then listened to the part of me that felt so badly. To do this, I had to slow myself down by grounding my feet on the floor and breathing deep, belly breaths to allow my emotions to flow. I tuned into the sinking, heavy and jittery sensations in my body. I patiently waited for old images from the past to come forth, as they do when we focus on the physical sensations our emotions evoke. I knew from all the mindfulness work I had previously done that it would prove fruitful to stay open to whatever feelings, images, and sensations arose when I turned my attention to that familiar “poor me” feeling.
A spontaneous image of me as a little girl appeared in my mind. I saw little me standing alone in the home in which I was raised. I saw that part of me so clearly even down to the pretty dress I was wearing. As I had learned to do in my trauma training and practice, I imagined my adult-self compassionately hugging that hurt little girl inside, giving her comfort, telling her it was ok and validating her experience. I could feel her receiving it. Then, I felt my body change: soften and shift to a better state.
The body is the archive of our history. We can access things we never thought we remembered and change how we feel for the better by tending to the feelings and sensations in our body. Thanksgiving is different for me now — each year is a fresh experience. Most years are surprisingly wonderful, as I joined up with my oldest friend’s family to celebrate Thanksgiving so it’s bigger and more festive — the way we like it. Some years, I miss my sister as much as ever. But, I no longer feel abandoned and sad for myself in that same way. And I can genuinely feel happy for my sister that she joined a big loving family. Even better, Thanksgiving is back to being Thanksgiving, no longer my Groundhog Day.