My friend Jemm was close to tears when she called today.
She’d invited the whole “fam damily” as she called it to come for Thanksgiving dinner. She had been excited to take a turn at it, even if a little overwhelmed by the notion of 10 adults and six children at her kitchen table and a couple of card table annexes. Then the phone calls started rolling in.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “Who knew a dinner could get so complicated? I was going to put together a traditional turkey and stuffing meal and ask everyone to bring sides and pies and suddenly I’m negotiating like the Secretary of State.”
“Huh?” I asked. “What’s the problem?”
“Well, it turns out my niece has declared herself a vegetarian and doesn’t want the turkey to touch any of the vegetables or she says she’ll just throw up. The other niece is one-upping her sister by saying she’s vegan, whatever that is. All I know about it so far is that I’m not allowed to use butter on the vegetables. Their father (my brother) has called to say that I should ignore the girls and they can just eat the salad if they’re going to be so particular. No surprise there. You should have heard him the year my mother didn’t make my grandmother’s special sausage stuffing! One of my sisters wants to know if the turkey is free range because she just can’t stand the idea that our poor turkey lived a life in a crowded pen before slaughter. And my Aunt Hildy is on one of her perpetual diets so she wants me to make sure I’m using butter substitutes when I cook and fat-free milk in the gravy. It seems like someone’s going to be mad or unhappy or offended no matter what I do. I’m ready to throw in the towel and disinvite all of them.”
“Isn’t anyone offering to help?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she sighed gratefully. “Thank all that’s above for Aunt Myrna. She managed this circus last year and offered me lots of sympathy and the promise of three pies – including one made with a sugar substitute so the dieters don’t have to feel guilty about having dessert. Not that Hildy will eat that one, knowing her. And the mother of the nieces did call and say she would bring some tofu dish that both girls will tolerate.”
Being Jemm’s friend, I offered comforting words of support. Being a psychologist, I thought to myself, “Here we go. Family holidays bring out the family dynamics – the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
What I know is that Jemm’s family is a not-too-extreme example of what many people will be experiencing at the next family feast. Most of it has to do with people’s best, but failing, attempts at dealing with anxiety.
The opinion of family is powerful. When folks are nervous about being seen as they want to be seen, when they aren’t sure they or their beliefs will be treated with enough respect, when their self-esteem is threatened or they are worried they will be criticized, it’s not at all unusual for them to act out in some way. Understanding the reasons people behave as they do can help us be more tolerant and more able to make them more comfortable.
Anxiety-Based Family Mis-Behaviors
Here are five common anxiety-based misbehaviors:
- For some people, established family rituals and routines reduce anxiety about what is going to happen and provide structure for how they, and others, should behave. Having the usual meal, serving dinner at the usual time, or doing the usual things (watch or play football? Go to a movie?) is both a way to revisit the past and keep things predictable in the present. Change the routine by, say, declaring that dinner will be at 6 p.m. instead of 2 p.m. is disorienting because it shifts their whole day. They thought they had the family dinner thing down and now they aren’t sure of the rules or their role. They then can become cranky or sulky or demanding without even understanding why themselves.
- For those who are insecure about their importance or the family’s acceptance of their individuality, insisting on a particular dish (vegan or veggie, stuffing with sausage or without) is a way to say, “Notice me. I’m special. I’m someone to reckon with.” Adolescents think that making people do things their way means that they have some power and are to be taken seriously by the grownups. Others, regardless of age, think that getting people to respect their demands is a way to get any respect at all.
- Sometimes anxiety gets expressed as competition, even over things that the rest of us find hard to understand. Many people, for example, have diets they are committed to for reasons of health, politics, or beliefs. Such commitments are amenable to either compromise or accommodation with a minimum of stress or fanfare. It’s when a person insists that their dietary needs or preferences supersede someone (or everyone) else’s that there is more to it than what to have for dinner. In Jemm’s family, the vegan sister is trying to outdo the vegetarian sister by having an even more complicated diet. It’s not about the food: It’s a way to assert “I’m more special than you are.” Her self-esteem is wrapped up in being in some way better than her sister.
- Some cover their anxiety by taking a political or ethical higher ground. Insisting on a free range bird or fair trade coffee may be a commitment to an ideal or it may be a way to quiet anxiety through superiority. It depends on how the request is presented. A calm and reasonable request asks the family to have a conversation about principles they haven’t considered before. A strident and uncompromising stance, however, may be an effort to manage anxiety by trying to control what others think and do.
- Sometimes demanding behavior is an attempt to avoid criticism by showing good intentions. Aunt Hildy may be embarrassed about her weight and anxious about what others may think or say. By making a fuss about the diet she’s on, she heads off criticism or suggestions by others that she go on a diet or forgo the pie.
Jemm is very much like her name — a jewel. She’ll go to the ends of the earth to please her family and friends. She’s generous to a fault and people love her for it. But if she meets the anxiety of the various members of the family with her anxiety to please, she’ll burn herself out even if she doesn’t burn the turkey. By turning the requests back to the people making them, she can keep herself sane and keep the focus on family togetherness, not individual’s food.
The solution to hosting “the circus,” as Jemm called it, is for her to announce (in the friendliest way possible, of course) that she is happy to have everyone over for a traditional Thanksgiving Day meal. She can go ahead with her plans to make the turkey, Grandma’s stuffing, and her mother’s green bean casserole, served at 2 p.m. as it always has been. If she’s willing to spend the extra for a free range turkey, she could offer to buy one as a concession to the sister. (If not, sis should come up with the extra cash.) Since everyone is already potlucking the sides, she can ask anyone who has a special dietary preference or need to bring a dish. That ensures they each have something appropriate to eat and gives others a chance to try it. If someone just can’t handle the resulting menu, Jemm can express her regret that they won’t be able to join the family for dinner and suggest they come later for dessert (which will probably include her cousin’s contribution of fair trade coffee, served with Hildy’s low fat cream, and a choice of the niece’s vegan chocolate cake or Jemm’s own apple pie).
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.