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A circus called Thanksgiving: Why we revert to old roles with parents, siblings and turkey

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Let me be clear: I am incredibly grateful for family.

But this is not about that part of Thanksgiving. This is about the part where past and present clash around the Thanksgiving table, leaving us feeling just a little insane.

This is about how we fall into old roles when we’re all together in the kitchen; how we feel a little awkward that our mom or dad still doesn’t really understand what we do for a living, or that our sister hates our boyfriend, or how our “little” brother has somehow grown to be 6-foot-5 and towers over us.

This is the part about how we get to someone’s house at 2 p.m. to celebrate the holiday, and by 2:30 we are certain that if we don’t leave immediately we will lose our minds. And then the cook announces that dinner will be late because the turkey just will not finish cooking. The kids are already cranky because there are no video games in sight.

And suddenly, you revert to the role you played at 13, or 15. You cease to become the functioning adult who makes decisions and accomplishes things in the real world, and you reclaim your old, familiar place within the family – regardless of how dysfunctional it was. And you really want a drink.

Ah, now I have you, don’t I? You are very familiar with this Thanksgiving, even if you, too, love your family and are grateful to have them.

Psychology Today understands.

“Why do we get so caught up in our expectations and crazy family dynamics?

“Long story short, we go down the same roads in our brain over and over again. When we have an experience, the neurons that fire together in response to that experience tend to get wired together.
Those roads get built up over time into superhighways to hell.

“Let's take the experience of Thanksgiving at your Aunt Louise when you're four years old. All of a sudden, she angrily and sharply criticizes you in front of everyone at the table because you're not well-behaved enough. Your brain takes this in and puts it into readily accessible storage: "Aunt Louise = Anger + Shame."

Do you tend to gain weight during the holidays?
Yes, I'm a sucker for holiday sweets.
55% (40 votes)
Nope, I'm usually pretty good.
45% (33 votes)
Total: 73 Votes

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LOL Diane. This is so funny. When I was younger we used to have a proper Thanksgiving dinner at the table but we never had extended family over because they lived in other states or Canada. I have to say I really loved it-- it was one of the rare occassions where we all just sat down together, gave thanks, and had dinner.

When I met my husband my Thanksgiving changed COMPLETELY. We used to do the "Two Thanksgivings" for a few years, then just last year we started blending my small family with his enormous one. The thing about my husbands family is that they are anything BUT traditional. They don't sit around a table, it's not quiet and Thanksgiving is actually more of a party or celebration. At first, I was a bit shocked but then I realized there were over 30 of them- how could they possibly sit down and have a civilized dinner? If you don't like a family member you can avoid them, it eliminates the awkwardness out of the situation so this actually works! I enjoyed my Thanksgivings then and I enjoy them now-- and I actually don't have to avoid anyone yet! Ha, ha.

Happy Thanksgiving, Diane!

November 25, 2009 - 7:36am
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