The Five Emotions You Meet at Thanksgiving

The Five Emotions You Meet at Thanksgiving

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)
(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)

Many of you know Dana Velden from her long-running Weekend Meditation column here on the site. Dana started the column in 2008, and while she recently retired it to move on to other projects — notably, her new book, the calming, lyrical collection Finding Yourself in the Kitchen — we turn to her today for some much-needed holiday perspective.

I asked Dana to run us through the five most common emotions as we approach November's biggest day. As always, she not only identifies the pain and pleasure points, but gives us real-world strategies to soothe and celebrate them.

1. Feeling Scared

Fear is natural whenever you confront a big task, and preparing the Thanksgiving meal is nothing if not a Very Big To-Do. Fear, Dana says, comes from anxiety about what's unknown, and leads to assumptions that things won't work out. Worries about making mistakes, letting people down, or feeling embarrassed may compound that fear.

How Can We Soothe This Feeling?

Dana says to recognize when we're scared, but not to obsess over it. "Don't keep winding that tape through your head," she says. If you have to make a dish that scares or intimidates you, why not invite someone over who can walk you through the process before the Big Day? Having a more experienced cook teach a kitchen novice can lead to tighter bonds among relatives or friends. Even better, realize that you don't have to make the whole meal yourself. "In fact," she says, "people showing up with big pots of food to contribute to the meal is really reflective of what this holiday is about!"

2. Feeling Stressed

Fear can be a part of stress, but Dana says stress also includes a feeling that we're going to lose control. "During the holidays, things really ramp up, especially in the kitchen. We're making very important meals that are deeply symbolic of our past, of our sense of family, and of tradition. All of this on top of our regular lives can lead us to feel overwhelmed. We also fall prey to feeling the need for everything to be perfect." Stress spins our gears wildly, wasting our much-needed energy and focus.

How Can We Soothe This Feeling?

"Most wisdom traditions tell us that actually nothing is within our control in the first place," Dana says. "So letting go of the idea that everything will be perfect is the first step." On a more practical level, be as organized as possible, doing as much shopping or prep a day (or five) ahead as you can. And bring in your troops! Maybe if you and your sister prepare the meal together, it'll be lower-key than if you shoulder the burden alone. And although it may seem cliché, Dana says that taking the time to stop, take a few deep breaths, and bring yourself back into your body, into the present, can interrupt the cycle of stress and help you to refocus on what's important, which is feeding the people you love.

3. Feeling Happy

Never forget that cooking can be a pleasure. "It can be a lot of fun," Dana reminds us. "It's very creative. All of our senses are engaged in the act of creating something delicious that will nourish us and our loved ones. How wonderful!" The pleasures of the kitchen can be as obvious as the smell of chocolate brownies baking, and as subtle as the pattern the flour makes when you dust your counter to roll out the pie dough. Open up your senses, and you will find it.

How Can We Celebrate This Feeling?

Science tells us that unpleasant experiences carve deeper neurological grooves in our brains. In other words, as humans, we're actually programmed to remember the less pleasant events, and so it's especially important to also notice when we're happy. "When pleasant things do happen, let them sink in deeply and really register them. When you're feeling happy, pay attention! This positive feeling gives us a sense of abundance, which in turns helps us to be more generous, which then makes us feel happier. Happiness is gold. It's the secret ingredient!"

4. Feeling Triumphant

"So often we remember our failures, our mistakes, but most of the time things really work out in the kitchen. That wonderful feeling of 'Yay, I did it!' when you pull out the turkey and it's moist and burnished and it smells delicious and you know it's going to be good ... that's something worth fêting." If triumphant is too much for you, then at least allow a sense of relief. Phew!

How Can We Celebrate This Feeling?

Don't let successes pass unnoticed. Dana suggests calling a friend or doing a happy dance around the kitchen. "Go for it!" she urges. "Don't hold back on honoring your efforts. People take it for granted, but pulling off Thanksgiving dinner is no small feat. Celebrate your triumphs and then get out there and feed your people with everything you've got!"

5. Feeling Grateful

Gratitude, true gratitude, is not something we can force or feel obligated to experience. "True gratitude rises up naturally when we're confronted with the ways in which we are supported and provided for," says Dana. "So Thanksgiving can be kind of tricky: We're supposed to feel grateful, which can sometimes make us feel guilty, or crabby, or highlight all the ways we that aren't feeling it." Still, recognizing what is abundant in your life and bringing that to the forefront is always worthwhile, no matter the season or circumstance.

How Can We Celebrate This Feeling?

For some of us, Thanksgiving ticks all of our boxes: food, family, and friends; contentment, pleasure, and satiation. "If this is the case, allow the gratitude to flow forward and let it inform your thoughts and actions," Dana advises. "Share this sense of abundance at every opportunity." If Thanksgiving isn't such a great deal for you, if you're not in a place to feel the gratitude, look for ways, no matter how small or ordinary, in which you're supported and provided for. "Focus on that, and let it guide you towards some sense of belonging."

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)
(Image credit: Dana Velden)

Find Dana’s Book:

Finding Yourself in the Kitchen: Kitchen Meditations and Inspired Recipes from a Mindful Cook by Dana Velden

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