You know who you are. You’re the person at Thanksgiving who everyone at wishes was not there.
They think you are rude or critical. They think you drink and say far too much. Or that you tell the same stories and jokes that others find boring. You’ve been told you scare the little kids and offend the other guests with your opinions. And, yet, here you are once again, the unwelcome Thanksgiving guest others must put up with.
Yes. There are families that are so toxic that it is best to just stay away. But if you know in your heart that members of your family (or at least most of them) are decent people, you all may be caught up in a dance of annoyance and counter-annoyance.
Sadly, you’ve become a lightning rod for negativity.
I’m going to let you in on a secret. Being the unwelcome guest has become your role in your family. It isn’t something you set out to be. It isn’t what the family wants either. But somehow being with your family brings out the worst, not the best, in you. You may even go with intentions that this year you’ll behave differently. But it never seems to work out that way.
Why? Because the family can’t let you change. You have a role in your family’s history and current drama. The reasons may now be lost in the mist of time. By now, everyone is reacting to each other’s expectations and reactions and nothing changes.
Why doesn’t a family change? Here are a few of the factors that keep everyone, including you, from making a holiday easy.
- Everyone is anxious. Going “home” makes you a nervous wreck. You feel like you are being judged. You know that others don’t agree with your deeply held beliefs. You have always felt like an outsider. Your anxiety takes over and you talk too loudly, tell too many jokes, and try to be the life of the party. Alternatively, you withdraw in sullen silence. Family members react to your presence and behavior with their own anxious behaviors. They ignore you, talk over you, or argue with you. They may roll their eyes at your jokes and accuse you of being a wet blanket. It’s not pretty.
- Defensive strategies kick in: You were hurt so often by family members in the past that you are convinced someone will hurt you again. You strike the first verbal blows as a way to fend off the blows you just know are coming. Family members don’t understand. They only see what looks like aggression and respond defensively. Now all of you are on the defensive. None of you can listen.
- You are in a family argument: You really, truly believe your family is misinformed about issues you care about. To you, a family gathering is an opportunity to educate them. When logic doesn’t work, you try dumping a load of facts in the middle of the gathering. The argument gets louder and more heated. You can’t believe they just won’t get it. They can’t believe you’re at it again. They argue with your arguments or shut you out to shut you up.
How to Become a Welcome Guest
People are most comfortable when things are familiar, even when the familiar is uncomfortable. Everyone is on guard. No one feels safe enough to take the lead in making a change. If someone does attempt to change the family routine, there will always be family members who don’t know what to do in response. Often, they will push back to return to their “abnormal” as a way to feel their kind of normal.
If your role has been the family outlier and you want to change it, it’s up to you to take the lead in changing the family’s uncomfortable but familiar dance. You can’t change family members’ expectations of you or their behavior toward you, especially when you only see them a few times a year. You can’t make anyone else change. But you can change things about yourself. Over time (sometimes quite a bit of time), your family will also start to shift in response.
- Deal with your anxiety directly: The tools for coping with your anxiety around the family have never worked. It’s long past time to do something about it. Instead of seething, arguing, or withdrawing, set some new eyes on the problem. See a therapist who can teach you some better coping strategies and who can give you some support while you try them.
- Don’t drink or drug: You may think having a drink or two or more can take the edge off your anxiety. Unfortunately, alcohol also takes the edge off your inhibitions. Drugs may seem to make things easier but they separate you from people.
- Help: Yes, you’re a “guest” but this is a family dinner not a 4-star restaurant with service. A cool way to handle anxiety is to offer help. Take direction from the host, especially when you believe you have a better way to do things. Help in the kitchen if you can. Parents will love you if you take little kids out for an age-appropriate game that will wear them out. Dog owners will love you if you play with their dog. You’ll feel better and others will see you as a generous helper.
- Be a good listener: It’s just true. People are most attracted to people who listen to them. Instead of venturing your opinions or listing your accomplishments since last year, ask people about theirs. Be interested. Even if you don’t agree with someone’s views, you can always say “That’s interesting” or “I’ll think about that.” You can always find something in a person’s story to support even if it is only that they shared the story. Just say, “Thank you for sharing that.”
- Bite your tongue: In a family of deeply held but different opinions, certain topics can be like a match to gasoline. Remember, you are not sharing a holiday dinner to fight about politics or to educate people about current events. You won’t change others’ beliefs. You’ll only frustrate yourself and make them mad if you try. So bite your tongue and deftly change the subject to something less flammable.
I’m anticipating that some readers will respond that following these suggestions isn’t honest or is manipulative. So I’ll ask those folks to consider this: Changing one’s role in a family requires first detoxing others’ expectations. If that is your goal, the path to success is to gracefully and steadily change your part in the family dance.
As trust and affection grows, as you all become more relaxed and less defensive, there will come a time when you can have more complicated and perhaps challenging conversations without reverting to old roles. For now, your goal is to be a welcome guest.