4 Reasons Thanksgiving Isn’t Always All It’s Cracked Up To Be

There are a lot of expectations at holiday time that can exacerbate hard feelings.


The holiday season is upon us, ushered in by Thanksgiving, the beloved holiday of turkey, pilgrims, football and parades. It’s a great holiday which for many people is not really that fun. Here are four common reasons Thanksgiving may be difficult for you and what you can do about them. 

1.You struggle to feel or express gratitude.

It’s the time of year when social media, magazine articles and even commercials remind everyone to be thankful. But trying to feel a sense of gratitude and appreciation is very difficult and even painful for some people. If you struggle to feel grateful, you are not alone. Studies suggest that some people are predisposed to feeling less gratitude due to their genetics, personalities and brain function. 

Do you consider yourself a pessimist? As a young adult, I adopted this mentality as a protective measure. I avoided any optimistic or overly appreciative feelings because they might later trigger disappointment. Feeling generally anxious and depressed, extra disappointment was something my psyche told me I could not afford. Many of my clients express similar thoughts: If I don’t expect good things, I can’t be disappointed by my hopes. 

In addition, feeling gratitude can be extremely difficult for people whose nervous systems are stuck in a depression or anxious mood. To the nervous system, gratitude is not compatible sensation with these moods and can feel completely out of reach. 

Here are a few steps to help you if you have trouble feeling grateful or thankful. 

  • Do not expect to feel grateful about the same things as everyone else or in the same way others feel it. You may be unique!
  • Allow yourself to breathe and write down any and all grievances that keep you from feeling grateful. 
  • Notice just one thing that makes your life a little easier, that feels fun or that is even a tiny bit better than it used to be. 
  • Notice something in your life that you would not want to do without. This can be as simple as not wanting to live without electricity in your home or a toilet in the next room. 
  • You are allowed to be grateful for anything at all, even a memory. 

2.You dislike being around some of the people who will share the holiday with you. 

Relationships with friends and family members is the number one complaint of my clients during the holidays. Unfortunately, even if you have been able to avoid certain people all year long, during the holidays (and often especially Thanksgiving) your excuses have likely run out. There are many reasons the holidays are particularly tough on strained relations. There are a lot of expectations at holiday time that can exacerbate hard feelings and create a perfect storm of poor behavior. Overeating and drinking are commonplace and complicate matters more. Sometimes it feels like “ghosts of holidays past” return to explode even the most carefully orchestrated get together. 

What can you do if you find yourself caught in the same old interactions that sour your turkey day? Try these ideas for a quick fix.

  • Spend thirty minutes before your holiday event just noticing what you imagine others will do that “drives you crazy”. Write everything down in a hidden place. Acknowledge that these things could happen and notice any parts of you that might contribute to or engage with these behaviors.
  • Breathe and create a strategy to stay close to those you enjoy during the gathering. Can’t think of anyone? Bring a guest.
  • Imagine yourself taking an emotional step back from anyone who triggers negative feelings for you. You may also need to find mini exit strategies like going for a walk, to the bathroom, picking up the house or helping with food to distract you. 
  • Find even a drop of curiosity and see if you can just observe people rather than stepping into your usual role. 

3. If you’re hosting the Thanksgiving meal, you may feel overwhelmed by pressures and expectations. 

Because Thanksgiving Day dinner is a beloved tradition, you may feel anxious about hosting this meal. Everyone has their favorite foods and food shows and magazines warn against drying out the turkey. I remember one year the stuffing was “too different” and some members of the family were shocked and horrified. A dear friend often repeats that Thanksgiving is a meal that you spend days planning, hours preparing, hours cleaning up and about fifteen minutes eating. 

If cleaning your house, coordinating the meal and cooking seemingly sacred dishes leave you feeling anxious and crabby, try these interventions.

  • Notice for yourself if you truly agreed to host the holiday meal. Perhaps you said yes in a weak moment. Or maybe someone even assigned this task to you. If you didn’t agree, spend some time with yourself offering compassion for how you are feeling. Remind yourself that you can do this meal in any way you want as it is in your home. Forgive yourself, if need be, for saying yes without really checking in with yourself first. 
  • Let at least one other invited person know that you are going to need some help and encouragement. 
  • If you decide to change things, let people know ahead of time and invite them to bring anything they would like that feels essential to them. Then let that worry go.

4. A “traditional” Thanksgiving celebration feels trivial or brings up painful associations. 

Most of us were raised with a fictionalized Thanksgiving story that denied the exploitation of Native Americans. As an adult, you may feel misled and even angry. It can be very confusing to celebrate a holiday that represents so much goodness but was cloaked in a lie. 

For some of you, the typical parade, food and football Thanksgiving feels trivial and contrary to your values. Although a time set aside for family, friends and gratitude sounds good, it gets overshadowed by all the hoopla. There are many serious concerns in the world today. As social media connects us in ways and makes the world feel smaller, you may be urgently concerned about more people and even the world as a whole. 

Difficult life situations like loss and illness do not take a holiday. You may wonder how to celebrate when you or loved ones are personally struggling. Finding a way to give thanks is not always obvious or simple.  

Here are a few ways to adapt your Thanksgiving to address your need for meaning and authenticity. 

  • Take your concerns seriously. These are important considerations and as such it will not be easy to simply push them away. 
  • Again, spend a little time writing down your feelings. This is the simplest way to get them out and gain perspective about what you feel. 
  • Remember to show yourself and others compassion. If you are feeling some kind of pain, remember to be patient with yourself and others so as not to cause more pain. 
  • Share what you care about with those you trust. Use the day to create small new rituals you can revisit each year that have more meaning for you. 

Sometimes just acknowledging difficult feelings during what is supposed to be a happy, grateful experience can be soothing. All emotions are acceptable and you cannot have exclusively positive feelings. By taking the time to really look into what is making this (or any) holiday a tough one, you can give yourself the gift of understanding and insight. And who knows? You may even have some fun. 

There are many more ideas to help you gain a sense of self-confidence and stress relief in my book. Calm Your Worries: Unlock Your Secret Code to Lasting Stress Relief and Self-Confidence. Get yours today!

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