Psychologists Explain How To Deal With The Nightmare That Is Thanksgiving Dinner

It doesn't have to be this way.

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“Just breathe,” you tell yourself, taking 10 seconds to lean over the bathroom sink. The sound of running water temporarily drowns out the chaos that awaits outside the door. But you can’t hide forever: You’re hosting Thanksgiving.

As you slink back into the kitchen to prepare dinner, your predators await. Your chatty aunts hover, never offering to help but eagerly suggesting reasons you’re still single. Your brother complains there’s no green bean casserole this year, declaring Thanksgiving just won’t be the same without it. And then there’s the turkey. A giant bird carcass splayed open to you once a year, with the expectation you’ll transform its pale flesh from carrion to comestible.

And all you want to do is make everyone happy.

Ji Sub Jeong/Huffpost

Every Thanksgiving, whether you love or loathe cooking, your kitchen can become a microcosm of your deepest insecurities. It doesn’t matter if your weakness is multitasking, terrible cooking skills or horror-show relatives. Thanksgiving has the uncanny ability to zero in on your vulnerabilities and hammer away at them with brute force, which explains why you end up hiding in the bathroom.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Thanksgiving, despite its questionable history and racist origins, is actually meant to be quite pleasant. It’s a day when you’re supposed to put your worries aside, spend time with loved ones and focus on your blessings. But how is that possible when your grandma makes passive-aggressive comments about the mashed potatoes, which are currently boiling over on the stove?

The bad news: Most of the stress you feel comes from within yourself.

The good news: This means you have almost complete control over how it affects you.

It’s all about perception. Psychologists say you can rebound from the stress of Thanksgiving if you reset your frame of mind. We talked to a performance psychologist, a professor of sociology, a family psychologist and a meditation expert to find out why the holiday is so hard on us. Be aware of the following stressors, and learn how to brush them off.

The Pressure To Give A Perfect Performance

Let’s go back to your grandma’s comment about your mashed potatoes. When she calls them lumpy, it doesn’t just feel like she’s judging your potatoes. It feels like she’s judging you.

Psychologist Mark Aoyagi, director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver, said the pressures associated with cooking dinner are similar to those felt by athletes or musicians who perform for a crowd. If you’re afraid your performance will be scrutinized, he said, you just have to change your expectations.

“There’s something called the Perceptual Appraisal Process,” he explained. “It says that the answer to three questions will determine how much pressure, stress or anxiety a particular situation has.”

Those three questions are:

  • How important is this to me?
  • How likely is it that I’m able to have the outcome that I want? How skilled am I in relation to the task in front of me?
  • What control do I have?

“The key to all those questions is perception,” Aoyagi said. “There’s no reality or objective rating for each of those questions. It’s literally what you perceive, and so the most important part of the process is that you can control your perception.”

“The fear of failure can actually be helpful. It can motivate us to do planning. But it can also be really unhelpful if it causes us to procrastinate and put things off, because we get consumed by fear.”

- Mark Aoyagi, director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver

Instead of placing importance on what your grandma thinks of your potatoes, you can tell yourself: “It’s just dinner. If my potatoes are lumpy, Grandma can deal with it and everything will be fine.”

“The way you choose to approach it influences how important you feel it is, and how much control you have,” Aoyagi said.

The Urge To Multitask

The potatoes must be peeled. The rolls must be risen. The turkey must be trussed. And it feels like it must all be done at once. But any psychologist will tell you: DO NOT MULTITASK.

“Don’t do it unless you don’t want to do any of the tasks very well,” Aoyagi advised. “There’s quite a bit of [research] to suggest that although people think they’re good at multitasking, very few people are able to do it successfully.”

“The advice I’d give would be to be present with any given task that you’re doing at any given time,” he added. “Think about intentionally accomplishing each task and gracefully move from one task to another. Even if it’s as little as taking a mindful breath between putting the turkey in the oven and having a conversation with Grandma, it will make a difference.”

Ji Sub Jeong/Huffpost

Sharon Salzberg, a world-renowned meditation teacher and New York Times best-selling author, echoed this sentiment.

“We can’t prevent stress altogether, but we can keep rebounding from it,” she said. “I really believe in what one of my teachers once called ‘short moments, many times’ where you get all caught up in something and then you take a breath. It’s those intermittent moments when we come back to ourselves, and then remember what we really care about. Don’t despair if you feel overwhelmed, because it’s a process of continual recovery.”

The Fear Of Failure

“The fear of failure can actually be helpful,” Aoyagi said. “It can motivate us to do planning. But it can also be really unhelpful if it causes us to procrastinate and put things off, because we get consumed by fear.”

So take an hour to sit down and plan out your menu and make a grocery list. Cook some of your dishes ahead of time. Maybe even plan to make some in the slow cooker. Taking the extra time to think ahead can truly reduce stress.

Social Expectations Placed On Women

The stereotype is so old that it’s become a cliché: Mom cooks dinner while the men watch football, abandoning her in the kitchen without offering a stitch of help. It’s certainly not always the case, and it’s an unfair generalization to make. But there’s a reason this stereotype has become so common.

“It’s been shown so many times that both men and women alike expect women to have the primary responsibility for cooking, and to do a good job at it,” said Natasha Quadlin, an assistant professor with a Ph.D. in sociology at The Ohio State University. “So it’s not just the men who expect that of women, but women themselves also assume that that’ll be a woman’s role, especially on this big holiday event where it’s the biggest meal event of the year.”

“It is important to know yourself and therefore, the patterns that inform your relationship with your family. Family undercurrents can only add pressure to your Thanksgiving dinner if you allow them.”

- Gail Gross, family psychologist

Quadlin said there’s an additional link between cooking and femininity that can put even more pressure on women.

“Women are often judged on their ability to meet certain standards for housekeeping — keeping your house clean, parenting, making sure the kids are clean, that sort of thing,” she said. “So in that sense, Thanksgiving is the epitome of all those expectations because we expect the house to be clean, and the host to be entertaining, and the food to be good. If the family falls flat in any of those ways, the woman is often the one being judged for that failure to meet expectations.”

How should women cope with these social expectations? Push back.

“My approach would be to be explicit with my guests that this is not a situation where I’m going to be doing all the work,” Quadlin said. “This can be a more communal holiday than it has been.”

Enter Friendsgiving. These potluck-style Thanksgivings have been more common in recent years, and are actually a solid solution to this issue. Bring on the casseroles.

Picky Eaters

Not to keep harping on your grandma’s comment about your mashed potatoes, but picky eaters are a major source of stress for any cook. Whether you’re making dinner for people who follow different diets or guests with just-plain-finicky taste buds, family psychologist Gail Gross recommended keeping things simple.

“The old adage that you can’t please everyone, so you might as well please yourself, is true … especially during the holidays,” she said.

That doesn’t mean you have to make your vegetarian cousin eat the turkey. Just make sure there are enough sides on the table to please everyone.

Toxic Family Dynamics

Your family members know how to push your buttons better than anyone else, and those buttons are particularly sensitive on Thanksgiving, when you feel you’re under intense scrutiny. Gross understands this and offers a solution to cope.

“It is important to know yourself and therefore, the patterns that inform your relationship with your family,” she said. “Family undercurrents can only add pressure to your Thanksgiving dinner if you allow them. If you are conscious of those family patterns, you can practice and rehearse how to respond ahead of time. This will prevent you from getting hooked back into childhood behavior.”

When you feel yourself approaching a boiling point, it’s always best to take a moment and breathe. Changing your attitude is much easier said than done ― but changing your behavior is the next best option.

“Rather than trying to assume a different attitude, which isn’t always so easy, we just want to cut the momentum of getting lost,” Salzberg said. “Stress has a momentum to it. It makes us more uptight, and when someone makes a casual comment that we might’ve glossed over two hours ago, now it’s upsetting. So we need to step out of that momentum and acceleration, and ground ourselves. We’re breaking the cycle of that kind of pressure.”

Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen

No one likes the feeling of someone breathing down your neck as you work. It can feel stifling, even if you truly need the help. So what do you do when guests pop in and out of the kitchen?

“Boundaries are very important when cooking Thanksgiving dinner,” Gross said. “It is important to know the rules and present them clearly, in a user-friendly manner. Planning ahead and practicing what you want to say in relation to your rules will help you express yourself in a friendly manner.”

“When my family comes for Thanksgiving dinner, I plan things for my family to do while I am cooking,” Gross added. “I know how I want to present the food and in which order I want to cook. So I communicate that information ahead of time, to my family. That way, everyone has options and no one is offended.”

The Pressure To Please Everyone

This may be the biggest source of pressure on Thanksgiving Day, even if we don’t realize it. Gross offered one simple piece of advice, and it’s a game-changer.

“Love cannot be based on performance,” she said. “And when it is, its partner is performance anxiety. Thus, it is valuable to know yourself and resist the temptation of projecting those fears into new situations. By confronting your inner critic and reminding yourself that you are no longer that insecure child, you can take your power and therefore, reduce your stress.”

So this Thanksgiving, just remember that your worth isn’t in the moistness of your turkey or the creaminess of your mashed potatoes. (You may need to remind your grandma about this, too.) Bon appétit!

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