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How To Behave On Thanksgiving

If you spend any time on the internet, you know there are only two things we’re talking about on the socials re: Thanksgiving in America.

(1) Food. All my fitness bro’s have been calling out bad advice on eating, body image, and food.

TL;DR: Don’t starve yourself to gorge later. Keep your eyes on your own plate. Stop commenting on someone’s weight, whether it’s too high, “You don’t need more pie,” or too low, “Jesus, have some more stuffing. You eat like a bird!”

Margo’s two cents: People who make comments hate themselves more than they’re judging you. Remember that.

And, then, there’s thing two:

(2) Racism. Everyone’s nervous about the “Loose Cannon” at dinner.

There are 600 pieces of advice about what to do, but all of it falls into one of two camps:

Camp 1: Bite your tongue! Be polite and gracious. Don’t ruin Thanksgiving for the host.

Camp 2: Speak up! Stand up to hate and bigotry! Don’t let inanity go unpunished! Fulfill your mission to civilize!

If you guessed that my advice is neither of those, you guessed correctly.

But first, let’s review why these two camps are wrong:

Biting your tongue is a strategy straight out of the Mean-Girls’ Passive-Aggressive Rule Book my BFF and I co-authored in 7th grade. You don’t say anything, but you let your face do the talking; and then you talk a lot behind her back because seriously, can you believe she wore that? Putting yourself on the moral high ground for staying silent is a type of virtue signaling. Especially, if you want credit for how “good” you were, which you do, you want credit. We all want credit. I want credit every time I bite my tongue to avoid further fighting. We’re human beings, not saints.

Speaking up is likewise problematic because it’s code for, “Behave like an asshole.” Never in the history of racism has calling someone a racist actually resulted in that person reevaluating their life choices and acknowledging their prejudice. It actually has the opposite intended effect (google “psychological reactance”).

It’s another version of virtue signaling. Which is really what’s going on here.

Virtue Signaling: Conspicuous expression of moral values.

It’s kind of like moral peacocking. For the uninitiated: Peacocking comes from the sleazy-pickup-artist world and it means to dress for attention. Specifically, to get a female’s attention. So, you dress like a moron and a woman is supposed to go, “Ooooooo” and be attracted to you….like a peacock.

(Yes, it’s as dumb as it sounds and, no, please do not email me with your stories about how it worked and it’s how you met your wife.)


Moral peacocking is a cry for attention and generally indicating something deeper is happening below the surface. When we call this behavior “my beliefs!” we are minimizing the problem. Beliefs are not combative. People are.

People are combative when they’re feeling anger (which is another word for sadness), when they’re feeling disappointment, when they’re feeling shame, and – most of all – fear. Fear is the big one. Which leads me to my point:

We’re all avoiding the real topic: Our fear.

And when we’re avoiding what we’re feeling, guess where that all comes out? FOOD. Overeating, under-eating, paying attention to how much everyone else is eating. Projecting feelings onto food is like an American right of passage. And like most American rights of passage, deeply dysfunctional.

So, these two memes: Food and Loose Cannon = they’re related. And they have been related for far longer than we’ve had political divides in this country.

Thanksgiving isn’t more tense now that we’re politically at each other’s throats. Thanksgiving is more tense now because you’re forced to confront the things youve been avoiding. ​Not about politics, but about your family.

The Bowen Center has a beautiful explanation of family systems theory that sheds some light on what’s happening at all of our Thanksgiving tables. It has to do with the interdependence of family members. Basically, how one person acts affects the entire family dynamic because “individuals cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as part of the family as an emotional unit.”

There are 8 core concepts within family systems theory and one of them (Differentiation of Self) has this little nugget I’d like you to chew on before throwing stuffing at your sister this Thanksgiving:

People with a poorly differentiated “self” depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that either they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform.

This is moral peacocking. Whether your sister/uncle/mom is thirsty for approval or “dogmatically proclaiming” what other people should believe, they are virtual signaling. If you’ve gotta family full of people with a poorly differentiated selves, you’ve got some moral peacocking coming your way this Thanksgiving.

Family stuff is the best place for moral peacocking to come out because we have SO MUCH OTHER STUFF in there that we don’t want to look at. It’s a wonderful avoidance tool. We don’t need to talk about our disapproval with your life choices or that time you did – well, you know what you did. Instead, let’s project that disappointment onto politics. To be clear: Political standing is not emotional projection – but virtue signaling ​ON THANKSGIVING is.

Picking a fight or staying silent is ineffectual because it’s not addressing the real problem: Your family shit. Picking a fight or staying silent is fine if you’re at a networking event or conference or concert or rally. But the second you involve family this is no longer about politics. It’s about family.

So. What can you do?

What you can do is have a well-differentiated self.

“Differentiation of self is the ability to separate feelings and thoughts. Undifferentiated people cannot separate feelings and thoughts; when asked to think, they are flooded with feelings, and have difficulty thinking logically and basing their responses on that.”

Differentiation of self is one of the eight core concepts of family systems theory that basically says you need to separate from groupthink, starting with your mishpucha.

I think you’re starting to see where I’m going here, but Imma let The Bowen Center close us out:

“A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality.

Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does.”

If it’s super tense at your Thanksgiving today, lock yourself in the bathroom and read more about differentiated selves and family systems theory here (and here).

Save the virtue signaling for social media where it belongs. 

(JK) But for real though, if you want to have a pleasant Thanksgiving, remember the Loose Cannon you’re worried about is moral peacocking. 

And to counter moral peacocking, you need a well-differentiated self.

So this year, let’s all go get ourselves one of those. #goals

Happy Thanksgiving.