Why You Shouldn't Go Home for Thanksgiving

Posted on November 09, 2018 | 0 Comments

It was the week before Thanksgiving in 2015. We were gathered in the SiriusXM studio in New York City for Judith Regan’s annual Thanksgiving Show. She had invited a group she referred to as some of her “favorite guests” from the year to share thoughts and traditions on gratitude and Thanksgiving. The 20 or so guests took their turn at the table with 5 microphones sharing gratitude, family traditions, favorite wine pairings with turkey, and memories from childhood. When my turn came, the host asked me about the challenges of dealing with family during the holidays. I talked about how to maintain your compassion for struggling family members instead of taking irritating and hurtful questions personally. While this practice can be effective in helping avoid hurt, anger, and conflict, it is not the only way to deal with divisive family members.

In answering the question, I failed to observe the phenomenon that was right in front of me. I was the only guest present that was not residing in New York. Furthermore, virtually everyone in the room was a transplant having grown up away from New York City and as Regan asked each guest about their plans for the holiday, everyone present said that they would be celebrating with friends and loved ones in the City, away from their family of origin. Sometimes the solution might be that we leave relationships that hurt us, even if it is family. A Buddhist teacher once said, “In order to grow up you have to ‘kill’ your family.” I would add, “I think you need to ‘kill’ everyone.” This concept refers to the idea that as we evolve and grow, we will grow out of relationships and we must let go of the opinions of others to be fully free. And while many believe that family is an exception to that rule, we must recognize that for some it is essential that they leave family behind in order to grow. I often share with my clients that if my children, as adults, said they needed to stay away from me to avoid a negative, hurtful, or toxic impact—I would fully support them in doing so. If a client came to me and said the same about his or her parent, I would support them 100%. The irony is, of course, that when a parent supports his child and their unique journey, there would be no need for the child to stay away. 

We go home to connect and remember where we came from and reconnect with our roots. We go home, in many cases, to loving family members who will always be there for us. But, in some circumstances it may be in our best interest to stay away. I am not an advocate for running from problems. I believe the first effort with family members can be to talk, express our needs, and listen to understand. Yet, for some, family members may ignore requests and may be incapable of responding to stated needs—they may be unable or unwilling to refrain from harmful comments, judgments, or criticisms of our lifestyle or choices. If we, as I mentioned above, can see through such behavior and know that they are compromised so that such behavior goes through us, then a visit home may still be possible. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it a “Dear One” attitude. He suggests that if we cannot respond to loved ones with patience and compassion, we must retreat to our practice of self-care until we can. Going home should not ask us to ignore genuine hurt and pain that visits to an unhealthy and unwelcoming environment may bring. We can stay away. No one has unlimited emotional bandwidth, but it is our responsibility to own it. Going home to fight, scream, or merely harbor silent judgments for each other serves neither party well and reduces the holiday to a dreadful exercise.

Holidays are what my therapist calls, “Elevator Events.” They tend to trigger regression. No matter your success or your stage of life, visiting family can reduce you to the 16-year-old kid who competed with his siblings and who found it necessary to fight his parents on every issue to maintain a sense of separateness. Sometimes visits home can be illustrative. Many of my adult clients go home and see their parents and their family’s process more clearly. In therapy, they learn to have a sense of their wounds, but because the process is often so subtle, they cannot recall the origin of those wounds. Visits to family and holidays can bring to light those processes that were always present which become more obvious in the light of therapy and new growth. And if one has a supportive and conscious companion, you have a witness to the dysfunction. These kind of visits with this kind of awareness can be affirming and validating of the hurts that were previously invisible. My therapist once pointed out to me, “You are defeated by compromised people now because you were defeated by such people when you were young.” And, I was too young to know that these defeats were not about me. If we pay attention to the discussion around the Thanksgiving table, we may hear and see things through a wiser filter that we never had access to as a child.

The current political climate can highlight some of these processes. As our culture has become more divided and Borderline in nature (read binary or black and white), there seems to be little common ground. Each side of the spectrum seems to have drawn clear lines leaving them miles apart. Liberals cite a regressive and prejudicial social agenda as reasons for their disagreement and conservatives feel that the world has lost its moral compass requiring a reset back to more traditional values. It takes great capacity on either side of this divide to listen closely enough to see the shared human needs underlying the other’s position. Furthermore, each side is threatened by the ideology of the other and can easily cite examples where there is strong judgment and hatred staring back at them from the other side of the aisle.  

Thus, it is a personal decision and unique to each person as to whether going home for the holidays is the right thing for them to do. A member of the LGBTQ community may not feel safe or supported visiting their childhood home where there used to be a TRUMP/PENCE sign on the lawn or a MAGA hat on the mantle. Or conversely, it could feel strange and unwelcoming for a devout believer to come home to a family that doesn’t celebrate the religious aspects of holidays. The more rigid the family system the narrower the space one is required to navigate. In some families, there is a right career and a right way to be. In a more flexible and enlightened system, each child’s truth is honored and is left to feel like they belong regardless of the differences in their lifestyle when compared to the parent’s expectations. While such divisions existed long before the 2016 presidential race, the platforms of social media and the proliferation of public discourse have highlighted the distance between us and the chasm has become deeper and wider.

When I think about Thanksgiving, I think about playing football with my uncles and cousins. Yet, sometimes it can seem like a forced and contrived exercise in gratitude. What if one is struggling with depression and gratitude is elusive?? What if one is mourning the death of a close friend or the loss of a marriage? Is there space in this holiday for these people? Many report a great deal of depression around the holidays for this reason—they feel an obligation to feel happy and grateful and would rather spend the holiday alone than with others where they feel compelled to put on a happy face. Holidays are anniversaries that can remind us of the loss of family members. The first Thanksgiving after mom dies might be difficult for many in the family and no two family members are ever grieving in the same way or the same version of the person.

I think about gratitude like I do any other emotional state. It flows most freely when we are allowed to feel everything. When “who we are” and “what we feel” is welcomed and honored, the joy and pain flow evenly. After my wife and I separated in 2010, later reconciling, I found gratitude more effortlessly. This was in part because of the pain and the freedom I felt to feel all of my feelings. Some people try to keep the sadness and ingratitude of others at bay by offering platitudes such as “others have it so much worse.” Telling someone they shouldn't feel bad because others have it worse is no better than suggesting “You shouldn't feel good because others have it better.” Families that honor each other as Other provide the space for individuality including the entire spectrum of experience. Requiring others to see the world the way that we see it is not my understanding of love or family. Gandhi once remarked, 

A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave. Projection, fusion, going home,” is easy; loving another’s otherness is heroic. If we really love the Other, as Other, we have heroically taken on the responsibility for our own individuation, our own journey. This heroism may properly be called love. 

So, we go home if it welcomes us, all of us. Or we go home if we want to see our family with new eyes. We go home and come into contact with a younger version of ourselves. We go home to celebrate or remember. Or we go home because we think it is the right thing to do and guilt prevents us from staying away. In the end, I hope that if you go home you find that you, all of you, is welcome. And if you need therapeutic permission not to go home and instead spend your holiday with others who love you and value you, consider this your doctor’s note. In the end, as a therapist, I invite you to explore all of your feelings and perhaps this may also allow some gratitude to come through on a day in which we are often told what we must feel.