Thomas Wolf Was Wrong.
You Can Go Home Again
But . . . Do It Differently
Did Norman Rockwell paint his family’s holiday meal as it really was or as he wished it could be? The picture had three generations of glowing faces around an overstuffed turkey; everyone was enjoying themselves; everyone was delighted to be together.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could picture what you wished your Thanksgiving or Christmas could be like?
Instead, you probably can picture exactly what it will be like. You know who eats which piece of turkey (your older brother is a leg-man, your younger sister is “anything’s fine.”) You can script the conversations, the questions that get asked each year as if never asked before:
“Why in heaven’s name did you buy a house that far out of town?”
“When are you going to settle down and get married?”
“Why don’t you put on a little lipstick and comb your hair?”
You also know how the quarrels evolve.
For instance, Dad will criticize your brother for buying such an expensive car. Your mother will chide your father for picking on him. Your sister will shout at your mother, “You’re always butting in; he can speak for himself.” Your mother will cry. Little Heather will ask, “Why are you crying Granny,” and will be told, “I’m not crying; I just have something in my eye.”
You even know who will smooth things over, saying, “She didn’t mean that,” and who will carry on as if nothing has happened.
The only mystery of these holiday meals, perhaps, is who will be the first to “lose it” and scream, and who will be the first to storm out of the room.
Your family has its own cast of characters, with its own issues, and its own repetitive patterns, yet it’s always the same hurts and the same responses. Nothing new each time, except a new layer of disappointment and anger.
Is it hopeless? Is the only alternative not to go home? No and not necessarily. While you can’t change other people, you can change your part of the script. There is no guarantee your doing something different will have an effect on others, but there is a guarantee it will make a difference for you.
Here are four steps, if followed carefully, that will lead to a less stressful (and perhaps more fun) holiday.
Step One: List the Key Issues Make a list of the heated issues/topics you know will arise. For each, identify the people and their typical comments and behaviors. Do this for the comments directed at you as well as your comments to others. For example, your sister criticizes you for your son’s manners, or you over-react to your uncles’ political stance.
Step Two: Identify Your Own Scripts Write down your usual responses. For example, when your brother harasses your mother, your typical response is, “Pete, why don’t you just lay off of her.” Or, you sit silently steaming but then snap unnecessarily at your son.
Step Three: Prepare for Change For each issue/topic, write down a fantasy response, how you would love to respond, but never would. This can include things like, throwing the pumpkin pie in your brother’s face when he starts on your mother. Or telling your father-in-law, “You’re a disgusting drunken slob.” This is for your eyes only, so have fun. Doing this frees you for Step Four.
Step Four: Plan for Action List three or four non-inflammatory responses for each issue you might really make. Choose ones that 1) end the topic, 2) take the conversation in a different direction, or 3) change the tone. Remember, humor is a most effective and under-utilized means for altering unpleasant family scenes.
Here are some examples.
For ending the topic: “Thank you for your suggestion; I’ll think about it.” Or, “You have a good point; however, I’ll stick with my original decision.”
For changing direction: “Yea, his manners really are awful. Did I tell you the newest gossip at work?”
For changing tone: “I’ll be glad to comb my hair and put on lipstick.” Then go comb your hair in an outlandish style and use your lipstick to draw a perfect set of lips on your forehead.
You probably won’t have a Rockwell-perfect holiday, but if you do your part differently, you might actually enjoy the holiday.
If you have questions or comments or want more information, contact me at:
Dr. Karen Gail Lewis
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