The problem? Thanksgiving didn’t feel the same
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I have a relatively small family and since I wasn’t raised with religion, Thanksgiving was the main holiday where everyone all came together for a festive meal. This gave me a sense of family deep in my heart. I took it hard when my sister, Amanda, got married over twenty years ago, and agreed to spend future Thanksgivings with her in-laws down in Tennessee. Up until then, I had spent every single Thanksgiving Day her.
After my sister stopped coming, Thanksgivings were not the same, mainly because my mood plunged. I wanted to feel happy and excited, but Thanksgiving now seemed permanently marred. Every year, the same “poor me” yucky mood would consume me. In the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, his life gets stuck one Groundhog Day. Every day from then on, he wakes up to the same Groundhog Day, an exact repeat of the day before. That’s how Thanksgiving felt for me.
Holidays and hurt feelings
I felt my feelings didn’t matter to my sister, even though intellectually I knew that was not true. She was just being a good wife. The hurt part of me wanted her to feel guilty for leaving me. When we spoke on the phone on the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I could hear how the tone in my voice changed so she would know I was upset. Inside I was having a mini-tantrum. It isn’t fair!!! Another part of me felt ashamed and guilty for not being totally cool with it. I did not want to behave in a way that would make her feel bad. I love my sister and I wanted her to be happy, but I couldn’t get over my own hurt.
My experience is not unique. With modern life, families are spread out. And with so many households where parents live apart, hard choices have to be made for where to spend Thanksgiving, and all the holidays. Although it is also common to feel relief at not being together for the holidays, that is the topic for another article. Not many people feel good about not having their parents, children, or siblings around on the holidays. Regardless of the situation, emotions are inevitably triggered around the holidays because of the complex ties we have with our families.
The solution? An education in emotions
When I was in my thirties, I knew nothing about my emotions–except that I felt them. I had no idea what to do with emotions either. How could I? We don’t get any formal education on emotions in our society. As a result, it felt like every Thanksgiving was like Groundhog Day, thanks to my miserable mood. I just had to wait until my emotions passed, usually towards the end of the holiday.
A by-product of my training to become a trauma and emotion-centered psychotherapist was an excellent education in emotion science, technically called affective neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology. This training propelled my own growth, self-understanding, and healing in ever-deepening ways. I learned about emotions and what to do with them to grow and thrive. So, one Thanksgiving, armed with my knowledge of emotions and the Change Triangle, a tool we can use to understand what is happening in our minds at any given moment, I set out to get unstuck. I was sick of my Thanksgiving Groundhog Day.
How did I get my brain to have a different reaction? When I felt that familiar “poor me,” jealous, angry, sad soup of a feeling, I turned attention to my body, where emotions live. With a compassionate focus on feeling the sensations inside, I validated and listened to the part that felt so badly. To do this, I slowed myself down by grounding my feet on the floor and breathing deep belly breaths to let my emotions flow. I tuned into the sinking, heavy, and jittery sensations in my body. I patiently waited for old images from the past to emerge, as they do when we focus on the physical sensations our emotions evoke. Mindfulness had taught me that it would prove fruitful to stay open to whatever feelings, images, and sensations arose when I paid attention to that familiar “poor me” feeling.
Caring for the hurt little girl inside
A spontaneous image of me as a little girl appeared in my mind. I saw little me standing alone in the home in which I was raised. I saw that part of me so clearly, even down to the pretty dress I wore. She felt abandoned. I just accepted and trusted what I sensed inside. As I had learned in my trauma training, I imagined my adult-self compassionately hugging that hurt little girl. I gave comfort, told her it was ok, and validated her experience. I could feel her receiving it. Then, I felt my body change as it softened and shifted to a better state.
Memories and their inherent emotions, sensations, images, and beliefs don’t necessarily neatly relate to present day circumstances. It’s not like I could correlate the experience of my sister “abandoning” me with a specific memory of being abandoned as a little girl. It was just a feeling I had. Maybe the young part of me just loved Thanksgiving with my sister.
The body is the archive of our history. We can access things we never thought we remembered and change how we feel by tending to the feelings and sensations in our body. Thanksgiving is different for me now—each year is a fresh experience. Most years are surprisingly wonderful. I joined up with my oldest friend’s family to celebrate Thanksgiving so it’s bigger and more festive—the way we like it. Some years, I miss my sister as much as ever. But I no longer feel abandoned and sad for myself in that same way, and I can genuinely feel happy for my sister that she joined a big, loving family. Even better, Thanksgiving is back to being Thanksgiving, no longer my Groundhog Day.
For more about how to understand and work with your emotions pick up a copy of It’s Not Always Depression (Random House & penguin UK). Many FREE resources are also on my website: https://www.hilaryjacobshendel.com/