My friend Rachel recently told me about a furniture shopping trip she took with her mother. Her mom wanted to purchase a comfortable guest bed that would accommodate her sister and brother-in-law. Both Rachel and her sister were in their 40s and had recently married for first time. Their mother was still adjusting to the new guests coming to her home for Thanksgiving.
“We used to have two girls. Now we have four adults,” her mother said.
“Mom,” Rachel said. “We were adults before we got married.”
Her mother quickly apologized. She hadn’t meant it that way, and Rachel knew she was sincere. But that attitude is one many singles confront when they see family during the holidays.
For many singles, it comes out pretty plainly, as they’re subjected to inquisitions about their relationship status. “When are you going to settle down?” “Have you met a nice girl yet?” “You’re not getting any younger, you know.” (Yeah, you know.)
But for others, the feeling is more subtle. No one is actually saying anything condescending, but somehow you feel dismissed anyway.
This might simply be a projection—you feel self-conscious about being the only person at the table without a partner, and you assume everyone else is thinking about that too–when in truth they’re thinking about their own stuff.
Or you might notice little things—you’re sleeping on the couch while your brother and sister-in-law have the guest suite. You’re not consulted in the kitchen, even though you cook gourmet meals at home all the time. Someone makes a passing reference to your life as “carefree,” as if your single status somehow exempts you from paying your taxes or mortgage.
Whether the feeling of being not-quite-a-grownup comes from others or yourself, I’ve found that the best way to combat it is quite simple: Be a grown up.
You can’t change other people’s attitudes, but you can change your behavior. Instead of focusing on how others perceive you, place your attention on making sure they have a good time.
Of course, that means helping out in the kitchen—dishwasher-loading, table-setting, recycling-bin-emptying, etc. But it also means paying attention to what the other guests might need. Do the elderly relatives all have comfortable chairs? Is there a hard-of-hearing grandparent who needs someone to sit up close and talk about the old days? Would your niece be happier if she could work off some energy by playing ball in the backyard? If you’re looking out for others, it’s going to be very hard to feel bad about yourself.
Many of you will no doubt read this and think, “Hey, I’m already helpful and considerate. My family still treats me like a kid.”
I’m not suggesting that making sure Uncle Joe has a ride to the airport will change the way your family sees you. Chances are, they won’t even notice.
But it’s not about changing the way they see you—it’s about changing the way you see yourself. The surest way to drop your need for others’ validation is to feel good about your own behavior.
Sometimes, no matter how others treat you, you have to be the bigger one. Adopting that mentality is what makes a person an adult, and it’s what gives you dignity. That’s something no one can take away.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her questions here.