This Thanksgiving a joy for many will be preparing food with family and friends, dining together, giving thanks. Thousands of fortunate people enjoy this pleasing ritual with regularity. To quote a close friend who has a monthly Sunday late afternoon open house for just this purpose, “Absolutely nothing related to food is as much fun as these special Sundays, where good friends cook, catch up, laugh together and enjoy what we have created. Failed attempts bring as much happiness as culinary success!”
Unknown to most of us, however, there are those who are very uncomfortable – truly unsettled and anxious -- at the thought of such gatherings. Those who like to entertain around good food have an opportunity to offer an enormous gift to those who seem retiring and alone. Reaching out in this way is the height of generosity. It is important to remember that enjoying cooking and dining together is an acquired taste.
My 35-year-old client, Bill (not his real name, of course), a successful accountant, consulted me because, in his words, “even the idea of close companionship during mealtime both sickens and terrifies me.” Bill grew up in a family where dinner hour was a time for horrid family conflict. As Bill explains it: “Afternoon after afternoon my mom would work hard preparing a wonderful meal for our family of four. And night after night, all my dad would do was complain that something was not right: the mash potatoes were lumpy (they weren’t), the fish was too salty (it wasn’t) or the homemade bread lacked salt (it didn’t). My mom would scurry around, trying to accommodate his impossible tirades, but nothing worked. If she dared to mutter a sentence, such as, ‘How in the world can I please you?’ Or, ‘Please just try to relax and enjoy what you can,’ he would erupt in rage, slamming his fists on the table, terrifying my younger sister and me with his uncontrollable temper.’” It is no wonder that when I met Bill he had chosen to live alone and dine alone, preferring a book as his mealtime companion.
Sally was three when her father abandoned their family of four, never again to make contact. She had three older brothers, each two years older than she. Sally’s mother, extremely competent and intelligent, supported their family through secretarial work, rising to the position of office manager of a large law firm. However, during our first meeting together Sally explained that dinner was always fraught with tension: “Mom would come home exhausted. We would all try to help her, but meals were thrown together, and tasteless. Often, out of frustration and exhaustion, mom would be unable to eat, crying throughout our entire time at the table.” Sally met her husband Ben in high school, and found what she described as “peace” with him. However, she wanted no children, and could not bear to share a meal with anyone other than Ben. She consulted me due to ongoing friction with her husband, as at age 30, two years older than Sally, Ben longed for children.
In each of these instances, change happened because both Bill and Sally were determined to leave isolation behind. A breakthrough for Bill occurred when a colleague at work invited him to join him and others for Sunday brunch. Bill used the reliable Rose and Candle technique to alleviate anxiety before what became regular social gatherings: (Please click on Alleviating Sky High Anxiety.)
In addition, during our weekly appointments Bill faced and discussed his most painful memories; doing so caused them to recede in importance. If they began to creep up, he learned an InnerSelf Dialogue technique to alleviate them -- he told himself that the past was over, and he must let go of it and live in the here and now. Then he got busy with a fulfilling activity. In time, Bill was also cooking and dining with others at his apartment. As important, he met a cherished companion at one of his ongoing gatherings, the sister of a man who had become a trusted friend. They are now married -- cooking together for friends, as well as their family of four.
With Sally, concentration was on finally being able to see that her mother’s life and her own were separate — and that her life was rich and deserving of pleasure. She was encouraged to recall painful past days, face her sadness about them, as well as her anger concerning her father’s abandonment of his family and his responsibilities. Like Bill, the goal was to face these feelings in order to let go of them, and not let them intrude on the joys in Sally’s present life.
Sally and Ben always enjoyed diner food; they began weekly outings to explore new diners in various neighborhoods. Sally compiled a list of her favorite diner dishes, asking to speak to those in the kitchen, who offered the couple cooking tips. In time, she and Ben began cooking their favorite foods at home, inviting friends to join them. As with Bill, the Rose and Candle and InnerSelf Dialogue techniques were learned to address and remove anxieties in order that yesterday remained just that. And yes, Sally and Ben now have a son, who is about to enjoy his third Thanksgiving at a table rich with gratitude and friendship.