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 my sister, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all came together for a festive meal. It’s what 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 in Tennessee.
Each year from then on as Thanksgiving approached, I suffered a significant change in my mood. I wanted to feel happy and excited, but Thanksgiving was now permanently marred. And the feeling was always the same.
In the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray, his life gets stuck on Groundhog Day. Every morning he wakes up to an exact replica of the day before. That’s how it felt for me on Thanksgiving.
I wondered if I really mattered to my sister, even though intellectually I knew I did. She was just being a good wife. The hurt part of me wanted her to feel guilty for leaving. When we spoke of our holiday plans on the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I noticed how the tone of 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 act out in a way that would make her feel guilty. I love my sister and I wanted her to be happy. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t get over my own hurt.
I know my experience is not unique. In modern life, families are spread out. Hard choices have to be made for where to spend holidays. Few people feel good about not having their parents, children, or siblings around. (Although it is also common to dread going home for the holidays, but that is the topic for another article.) Regardless of the situation, emotions are inevitably triggered this time of year because of the complex ties we have with family.
When I was in my thirties, I had no idea what to do with hard feelings. How could I? We don’t get any formal education on emotions in our society. I was triggered by my sister's upcoming departure and at the mercy of my emotions. I had no tools to cope except to try to "suck it up," act the best I could, and wait until my dark mood passed, usually towards the end of Thanksgiving day.
A by-product of my training to become a trauma and emotion-centered psychotherapist was receiving an excellent education in emotion science. This training propelled my own growth, self-understanding, and healing in still ever-deepening ways. I learned about emotions and what to do with them to grow and thrive. So, one November, now armed with knowledge of emotions and the Change Triangle, a tool I use (and teach to others) to help myself, 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? In the moment when I was experiencing that familiar “poor me,” jealous-angry-sad-soup of a feeling, I turned my attention to my body, where emotions live. First, I slowed myself down by grounding my feet on the floor and breathing deep belly breaths to be present with myself. Then I scanned my body from head to toe finding, noticing and staying with the sinking, heavy and jittery sensations that I was trying to process. With a compassionate stance towards myself, I patiently waited for any images to come forth. I knew from all the mindfulness work I had previously done that it would prove fruitful to stay open to whatever feelings, images, and sensations arose.
A spontaneous image of me as a little girl appeared in my mind. I saw little me standing alone in my childhood home. The image that came up was so clear down to the pretty dress I was wearing. It was she who felt abandoned. As I had learned to do in my trauma training and practice, I imagined my adult-self compassionately hugging that hurt little girl inside, giving her comfort, telling her it was ok and validating her experience. I could feel her receiving it. Then, I felt my body change: soften and shift to a better state. Release.
The body is the archive of our history. We can access things we never thought we remembered and change how we feel for the better 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, as 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 overtaken by such a gripping mood. 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 Groundhog Day.