Nothing this year has been normal. Weddings have happened over Zoom. Home runs have soared through empty stadiums. You are now, bizarrely, a person with a favorite mask. For eight months, the world has felt unfamiliar. Thank goodness, then, for Thanksgiving! If there’s anything our collectively beleaguered psyche needs, it’s a holiday embracing gratitude and mashed potatoes.
But it’s also a holiday that’s likely to be fraught with complexity. Beyond the usual family friction, there is the stress of fresh election wounds, simmering racial unrest and a surging pandemic. “Thanksgiving this year will be intensified,” said Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University and the author of “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them.”
“Politics has moved beyond policy to people feeling like their core values are being attacked, which is a breeding ground for family tensions,” Dr. Pillemer said. “On top of that, you’ve got people who haven’t seen each other in a long time. You’ve got people who are comfortable with different levels of risk.”
One key to a lower-stress Thanksgiving at a high-stakes time is a pinch of self-awareness. Your holiday table may be smaller this year — or even virtual — but it’s helpful to know what types of guests are around it.
Up until now, The Squabbler has done battle on Facebook, directing the odd scathing comment at a sister with opposing political views. But with an empty well of patience, a full bottle of Pinot and that cousin now across the table, The Squabbler is poised for attack.
For some, the holidays may be the only time they engage with people holding dramatically different beliefs, Dr. Pillemer said. “Suddenly, you have an actual person in front of you who represents the other side,” he said. “It’s tempting to make them the target of your frustration.”
Walking into a room of people who voted for the other guy can feel like entering a foreign country with different codes and customs. So consider the perspective of someone who spent years doing exactly that. “In diplomacy, you get really good at not reacting to things in a knee-jerk way,” said Matt Fuller, a former U.S. diplomat whose postings included Jerusalem and Tokyo. “You may already know you’re not going to convince each other, but you can still create a civil space to exchange views.”
Listen before speaking, Mr. Fuller said. And when you’re ready to speak, start by establishing some common ground. “You can always find something,” he said, “even if it feels minor or obvious.” Next, “acknowledge something positive about their side.”
Susan Heitler, a Denver-based clinical psychologist and author specializing in conflict, calls this “the three As: agree, add and appreciate.” Once you’ve found mutual territory and contributed something that makes your opponent feel heard, Dr. Heitler said, go a step further: Thank them.
“Just saying ‘I appreciate you helping me think about that in a new way,’ changes the tone of the conversation,” Dr. Heitler said. “Now it’s less oppositional, more collaborative.”
Observe The Referee in their natural habitat: Arranging the place cards so the Steelers fan isn’t next to the Ravens one. Kicking their partner under the table before he says something controversial.
Even if you’ve committed to a Thanksgiving where the only pot you’re stirring is full of cranberry sauce, you can’t always control others. Still, a few preventive measures don’t hurt, said Lovern Moseley, a psychologist at Boston Medical Center and chief executive of the Empowerment Counseling & Psychotherapy Center.
“Keep the news off,” she said. “If you think alcohol will contribute to outbursts, don’t drink — or don’t even serve it.”
You can also declare talk of the election or pandemic off-limits. But then, Dr. Heitler said, “plan something to fill the gap. Prepare a Thanksgiving quiz. Start a game of Pictionary. Do a group project, like building a marble run from cardboard.”
To avoid mismatched expectations, be upfront in advance about rules you expect people to follow, Dr. Heitler said. “Eliminate any potential surprise that might lead to hurt feelings, like why the kids won’t be hugging grandma.” Keep an ear out for words that can signal a conversation is devolving into an argument, like “but” and “not,” which criticize or erase the previous point. Counteract them with positive connectors like “yes” (although not “yes, but…”) or “and” (as in, “and, at the same time…”).
Even as a quarrel builds, you can still divert the danger, Dr. Heitler said, by falling back on that timeworn parenting strategy: Separate the offenders from a situation they can’t handle.
Just don’t tell them to stop talking. “That’s a low-odds strategy since it hands all the power to the other person, who may not be willing or able to stop the escalation,” she said. Instead, take control by switching to a new topic or speaker. And while it’s jarring — which is kind of the point — you can even introduce physical activity. “Say ‘OK everyone, 1-2-3, we’re going to stand up and stretch,’” she said. “Whatever it takes to break the rising tide of tension.”
The Problem Solver
With everyone finally together, The Problem Solver can tie a bow around pressing family conundrums. Midway through the turkey is the perfect time to ask their parents about selling the family home!
Not so fast, Dr. Pillemer said. While it can be tempting to broach big issues, particularly if it may be a while before you’re together again, “don’t use Thanksgiving as a time to try and fix someone’s life.”
Instead, consider it a research period for the issue you’re concerned about. “Ask leading questions,” he said. “But make them neutral and show genuine interest: ‘What are your plans over the next five years? What are your friends doing about downsizing?’ Use the time together for compassionate inquiry. Then come back to a real discussion after the holiday, based on what you’ve learned.”
If you can’t resist, Dr. Pillemer said, at least rehearse the conversation beforehand. “Role-play it first with someone who’s not emotionally involved and can give you objective feedback about the content and tone,” he said.
That doesn’t mean you’ll have to eat in silence. Instead, focus on everyone’s favorite topic. “People love talking about kids,” Dr. Moseley said. “If there are children there, ask what new things they can show you. If not, bring up fond memories everyone can appreciate from when you were a child.”
While some people look forward to the comforting fanfare of Thanksgiving as a way to smooth the rough edges of a difficult year, others can’t pull themselves out of a funk while the world feels like it’s on fire. The Eeyore wants to celebrate, but if the festivities are smaller, what’s the point? Might as well just eat a frozen pizza on the couch, right?
It’s normal to grieve missed experiences, Dr. Heitler said, and important to give yourself some time to mourn. After that, try to lean into the idea that different doesn’t always have to mean worse.
“The concept of newness engenders positive emotion,” she said. Even if it’ll just be your immediate household, “launch a new tradition or ritual. Have everyone research a fact about Thanksgiving and share it at dinner. Or write down adjectives, put them in a jar, then take turns pulling them out and describing a ‘blank’ thing that happened to you this year.”
The Put-Upon Perfectionist
Peer behind that impeccable Instagram feed and here you’ll find The Put-Upon Perfectionist, whose holiday dishes are arranged in rainbow order.
The pressure to stage a flawless gathering this year is high, said Dr. Pillemer. “People are taking heroic measures to be together — driving long distances, quarantining for weeks. It can feel like there’s a lot on the line.” Write out a Plan B — “literally, write out the specifics of your plan,” Dr. Moseley said, if things don’t go the way you expected. “And by the way,” she said. “They won’t.”
It can be hard not to feel resentful if you’ve worked hard and people don’t recognize your efforts, Dr. Moseley said. But don’t tip over into martyrdom. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be validated, but reduce the amount of pressure you’re putting on the situation. Don’t expect ‘you’ from other people.”
Whichever holiday guest you are, tuck this piece of advice in your back pocket along with that favorite mask. If you’re perched on the precipice of a decision you may regret, Dr. Pillemer said, fast-forward 24 hours and think: “What will I wish I had or hadn’t done?”
Holly Burns is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a Put-Upon Perfectionist with an Eeyore rising.