It’s the time of year when I see and hear a lot of tips for handling the holidays, because it’s the time of year when food-and-drink-laden events abound, and we’re often spending more time with family members, or spending time with more family members, than usual. Holidays with family are meant to be a time to break bread together and share in joy, abundance, and love. Yet for those who struggle with disordered eating, the food and family combo can be overwhelming.
Learning to navigate situations such as these that can be emotionally charged because of interpersonal dynamics as well as challenging food-wise is hard work. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach: it depends on one’s personal situation. Yet all human beings operate in the context of relationships to others. Our attitudes and beliefs are shaped by these relationships. In childhood, in reaction to things that significant people in our lives say and do, and circumstances and events that occur, we form parts of ourselves that function in relationship to other parts within ourselves. In the case of disordered eating, we might have a part of ourselves that overeats, or undereats, or both. These parts step in to help when we find ourselves in untenable situations.
For example, we might learn from experience in our families as we grow up, perhaps without being aware of it, not to express certain emotions or points of view. Operating this way helps keep the peace, maintaining an illusion of harmony. If we have an opinion or an emotion that differs from the family “status quo,” we learn to automatically and unconsciously repress it. If we attend a family event, and a situation arises in which this emotion or perspective is activated, our psyches protect us from even knowing we are feeling or thinking this thing by bringing out the big guns: urges to eat, or worries about calories or weight gain, or urges to restrict food intake, or all of the above. So our attention is diverted, disaster is averted, the illusion of harmony is maintained, and the battle is played out within ourselves, where no one can see it. Exponentially increase the degree of difficulty here by throwing in a spread of holiday food, and disordered-eating parts of ourselves are operating on a hair trigger.
Sorting out the moving parts of holiday events can be tricky. The media tend to focus on the food aspect, with magazines featuring recipes for luscious desserts alongside articles on how not to blow our diets. I believe the truth of it is both simpler and more complicated: it isn’t about food. Food becomes a smokescreen, a red herring, distracting us away from the real issues. Having a strategy for managing food at holiday functions is an essential part of a plan for handling family holiday functions, but it must be paired with a strategy for managing emotional challenges. This means, even if you are lucky enough to be a part of a warm, loving family, recognizing that your eating issues are there for a reason– to provide protection from some sort of emotional distress–and that urges to engage in disordered thoughts, attitudes or behaviors are a response to some kind of trigger.
So here’s the plan: focus on mindfulness: staying present in the moment to your experience of the moment. First, come up with a strategy that involves enjoying as much and as many types of food as you would like, ideally using your body’s hunger and satiety levels as a gauge for quantity. Make sure that this includes a balance of nutrients—proteins, carbs and fats. (If you are recovering from anorexia, you’ll need to agree with your dietician upon a minimum amount that you’ll eat.) This entails staying connected and attuned to yourself and your physical, mental and emotional states. Toward that end, watch the alcohol intake: it’s hard to be mindful when intoxicated.
Notice, without judgment, thoughts about body and calories, and urges to overeat, undereat and/or compensate for food eaten (via inducing vomiting, using laxatives or diuretics, exercising or restricting food intake), and recognize them as the voices of parts of yourself that have been activated in reaction to something, and then look for that “something.” Recognize that you are seeking, via the eating disordered thoughts and urges, some sort of comfort. Ask yourself, “What’s the discomfort?” Often there are emotions present that seem incompatible with holiday festivities, such as anxiety, sadness, or shame. Go to a quiet place—a bathroom is usually good for this—where you can pause and take stock. Look at yourself in the mirror and assure yourself, gently and kindly, that you are OK, that even if there’s no apparent reason to be feeling bad (or even if you’re not aware of feeling bad) that the eating and body-related thoughts and urges you’re having aren’t about you being a pig, or inadequate, or some other variant of negative judgment, but that they make sense, even if you don’t know right now what that sense is. If you have a relative present with whom you can talk openly and honestly, take him or her aside and do so. And whether you do or not, make an agreement beforehand with someone from your recovery support system that they’ll have their phone handy in case you call them, so you have a lifeline available should you need someone to talk things through with. Don’t try to go it alone. Get the help and support you need and deserve. Giving yourself this gift is truly the holiday spirit.
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