Survive Thanksgiving: How to Maintain Your Sanity This Year

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Survive Thanksgiving: How to Maintain Your Sanity This Year

Last updated: October 2020

Was Thanksgiving last year difficult? Do you anticipate that this year will be hard to get through? Consider how to survive Thanksgiving by choosing to control yourself rather than other people or things. We can’t tell the future or decide how people should interact. The most we can do is be present and focus on our own thoughts and behaviors. And that’s enough.

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How to Maintain Your Sanity and Survive Thanksgiving Dinner

What is Thanksgiving is Supposed to Be?

When you think of Thanksgiving, what comes to your mind first?

Maybe it’s pumpkins and fall and family dinners. The changing leaves and sweet potato pie. Football games and parades. All of these things are good and common in American Thanksgivings.

However, sometimes Thanksgiving doesn’t have these things in it. Maybe instead of those good things, you think of family arguments and overbearing relatives, or relatives that won’t be here this year to celebrate with you.

Thanksgiving, although a common event across America, means different things to everyone. You and your family members will sit down at the table together and each have different expectations about how the day is supposed to go. Your expectations this year might even look different than your expectations last year.

For many of you, I’m sure these expectations are very high. Not only does the food have to be perfect, but you might want to avoid certain conversations, or certain people intermingling. And if dinner is late – just forget about it.

While these specific examples might not be expectations you specifically have about your Thanksgiving, I would challenge you to consider what expectations you do have.

Because here’s the thing. If we attempt to live life the way it’s supposed to go, we will ALWAYS be unhappy because life NEVER goes exactly the way we want it to go. It’s just a fact of nature.

You and your family will sit down at the table together with different expectations, different recent life experiences, and different goals. Rather than attempting to make everything go exactly the way you have planned, or exactly the way things were last year or the year before that, let’s try something new.

You’re in Control to Survive Thanksgiving

This year, you’re in control of how to survive Thanksgiving dinner. You know why?

Because the things that you are in control of are not whether the Turkey doesn’t burn, or if someone remembers the bread rolls, or if grandpa doesn’t say anything racist.

The thing you are in control of is YOU.

You control your own thoughts and behaviors, and you can choose to change your expectations about how Thanksgiving dinner is going to go. To survive Thanksgiving, you have to be prepared to change yourself, your thoughts, your behaviors, your expectations. Flexible.

That’s a hard pill to swallow.

How to Prepare Yourself to Survive Thanksgiving Dinner

So, what does choosing to be flexible in your expectations really mean? Let’s talk about some common difficulties surrounding Thanksgiving and address them from a wellness – whole person – perspective.

Know Your Food Limits

While food is a good thing – it helps fuel our bodies, brings enjoyment, and generally has positive connotations – many times, food can complicate the situation.

You might have dietary restrictions, or be on a diet right now, or just tend to overeat around the holidays.

Related: Five Easy Steps to be More Present Using Mindful Eating

Given these common challenges, I would encourage you to consider what your food limits are ahead of time, so that in the moment, you know your boundaries. Take a mindful look at what your body might need on Thanksgiving day, and what your typically eat. Are the answers to each of these the same? If not, consider what your personal values about food might be telling you.

I know for me it’s so easy to fill my plate with yummy food (mac & cheese where you at) that I can go overboard. But one of my values is to reduce food waste, so if it goes on my plate, I eat it. No matter how full I am. Knowing my own tendencies and my values can help me make choices at Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe I don’t get green bean casserole because I want double mac & cheese. That’s good. I’ve mindfully prepared ahead of time what my food limits might be.

This is how I can honor both my body and my mind. Consider what eating habits you might change to better respect your own physical wellness this Thanksgiving.

Practice Boundaries and Communication Skills

Now, I know what you might be thinking given the previous discussion: What will Aunt Sally think when I don’t get any of her famous green bean casserole this Thanksgiving? Won’t she be offended that I didn’t even try it, but I ate two whole helpings of mac & cheese?

Maybe. But I don’t eat to please other people.

That’s a firm boundary that I’ve set, and is likely one you might consider as well. This year, to survive Thanksgiving you will need to consider what your boundaries are ahead of time. Make choices based on your own values, your own goals, and your respect for your own wellness, rather than because you feel guilted into things.

Related: How to Stop Wasting Energy on People Pleasing

Before you get to Thanksgiving dinner, be prepared to say no, but also be prepared to respect others when they say no.

Along with good boundaries comes good communication skills. When Aunt Sally asks me what I thought of her green bean casserole, I’m going to choose to be honest and straightforward with her, but also kind. I might tell her that it looks and smells so good, but that my tummy only has so much room, so I had to make a choice. I might emphasize how grateful I am that she is here and that she thoughtfully prepared the dish for us.

You’re going to have friends and relatives that will likely attempt to impose on your boundaries. When this happens, choose to stay in control of yourself while respecting the other person.

Encourage Gratitude

One of the best things about Thanksgiving is the emphasis on being thankful for the people and things you have. Practicing gratitude is SO good for us – research has shown that keeping a gratitude list of three things you are thankful for every day can improve your mood similar to other treatments. Yes – you read that right. Gratitude can be just as effective as counseling or mood medications.

Encouraging gratitude can help you survive Thanksgiving by boosting your mood, and the moods of those around you.

Related: Twelve Holistic Ideas to Create Your Ideal Self Care Routine

While Thanksgiving is a happy time for many people, it’s also difficult for many who have recently lost loved ones, those who are struggling financially, or those who will not get to celebrate with family. Use your own gratitude to encourage others and improve the wellbeing of yourself and those you come into contact with. Gratitude can diffuse a situation (see conversation with hypothetical Aunt Sally above), and make other people feel loved.

YOU have the power to change your environment just by saying “thank you”.


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Take Time to Pray

If you believe in a higher power, take time to pray this Thanksgiving. For me, prayer represents a release of control. I can “cast my worries” to God and no longer have to think about them. In prayer, I can improve both my spiritual wellness and emotional wellness.

To survive this Thanksgiving, take a moment to call on your higher power or spend some time in nature. By bolstering your spiritual wellness, you will have enough resources to take on whatever Thanksgiving dinner throws at you.

Prayer before Thanksgiving dinner is like a raincoat when it’s raining outside. You feel more confident that you can handle whatever life throws at you.

Stay Within Your Budget

I don’t know about you, but my mom has a tendency to over spend on food. Typically, when we have ten people coming over for Thanksgiving dinner, she will cook for 30 people. While Americans do love their leftovers, at some point, we just go overboard.

To respect your own financial wellness and survive Thanksgiving this year, take time now to consider what you ACTUALLY need to purchase.

I’m not suggesting you take a full on minimalist approach, as I know that’s not feasible for many people at this time (although if it is – more power to you!), but I am suggesting that you use your budget. Even though Thanksgiving often calls for higher costs (more food, higher electric and water bills if you have guests, travel fees) you likely aren’t making any more income this month than you were last.

Related: 5 Steps to Make Your Budget Work for You

Be mindful of your budget and make intentional choices to respect your own financial boundaries. Create a meal plan and stick to it. If you drink, install a bring-your-own-alcohol policy. Ask other people for help. You can survive Thanksgiving financially this year by allowing your expectations to be flexible and planning ahead.

Show Interest in Others

When hypothetical Aunt Sally talks you ear off about all the knitting projects she’s complete this year, truly listen. Not only will she feel heard, but you might learn something new about knitting, or your aunt, or yourself.

Rather than focusing on your own needs and what you want at Thanksgiving, consider what someone else might want or need. Now, I’m certainly not saying that you should disrespect your own self and boundaries to serve others. So if you’re in an emotionally abusive or traumatic situation, get out.

But if you normally watch the afternoon football game but your niece wants to go outside in the cold and swing, go swing with her on the playset! Those are memories you won’t get back and memories you won’t have if you’re so focused on yourself.

Give Back to Your Community

While Thanksgiving is a family and friends focused, it’s also an opportunity to consider your community. To survive Thanksgiving this year, shift the focus away from the traditions and expectations of Thanksgiving dinner to how you might serve those in need.

When I was little, my church did a hot meal drive every thanksgiving. Volunteers cooked food early Thursday morning, different volunteers arrived to package the food in containers, and more volunteers came around lunch time to hand deliver food to homeless shelters, fire departments, police departments, and other agencies in the area. This was one of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions as a kid.

When you give, you’re heart feels full. Your altruistic acts don’t need to be purchasing items or food. When I was little, I didn’t purchase any of that food my church gave, but gave my time, Without cooks or packagers, or deliverers, those hot meals couldn’t have been given to those who needed it Thanksgiving day.

Think about what you might could do this Thanksgiving to contribute in your community. Maybe you deliver food to homeless shelters, or rake leaves for your pregnant neighbor, or you visit a nursing home with flowers.

In choosing to give back to your community, not only are you improving your emotional health, but your also improving your ecological wellness and making your community a better place. That’s something we all need right now.

Survive Thanksgiving? Nah, you’re going to thrive.

If you follow these seven ways to help your survive Thanksgiving, you’ll be thriving, not just surviving. Each of these survival methods helps to support one area of wellness in your life and will contribute to a more holistic and intentional Thanksgiving. You are only in control of YOU and these seven Thanksgiving survival tips only emphasize this idea.

Give up your current high expectations. Be flexible. Choose to make new memories.

Let me know which tips you found most helpful for surviving this Thanksgiving and what ideas you have of your own! As always, if you have any questions, check out the related articles, or ask in the comments.

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How to Maintain Your Sanity and Survive Thanksgiving Dinner
How to Survive Thanksgiving This Year

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Disclaimer: Although I am a mental health professional, I am not YOUR mental health professional. The information provided on this website is for educational and informational purposes only and using this website does not establish a counselor-client relationship, or constitute provision of mental health services. I am not responsible for any damages resulting from your use of the content on this site, as the information provided does not substitute for collaboration with a health professional. Please consult with your health professional before making changes to your health regimen.

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