Thanksgiving is a holiday for cultivating gratitude for all the good in our lives. It’s also an opportunity to participate in a ritual of breaking bread with loved ones, a celebration of our connection to others, sharing the plentiful food that we are fortunate enough to have.
Yet as Thanksgiving approached, several of my clients who see me for help with their eating-related problems expressed apprehension about the upcoming holiday. Their worries focused mainly on the plethora of food they anticipated would be at the meal, and some described family gatherings at which food was around at all times.
They feared they would “lose control,” which meant eating too much – for them, a terrifying thought. Although Thanksgiving is an occasion at which overeating is the norm, the idea strikes fear in the hearts of people who struggle with eating and body issues. Many of these people spend copious amounts of mental and emotional energy obsessing about what they have eaten, what they will eat, how much they’re exercised, and what their bodies look like. They feel anxious at the prospect of gaining weight, anxious if they think they had too much to eat, anxious if they think they’ve not exercised enough. Conversely, eating according to their ideas about the right amount of food reduces their anxiety. Exercising more or harder reduces their anxiety. Getting on the scale and seeing a lower number reduces their anxiety. Throwing food back up reduces their anxiety.
So a day like Thanksgiving, a time that is supposed to be about sharing loving connection with others and expressing gratitude for all the good we have, becomes instead a holiday much scarier than Halloween.
For a woman (the vast majority of the people who see me for help with these issues are women, so for the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to women) who fears gaining weight so intensely, weight gain means becoming fat, and fat equals being lazy, unproductive, worthless, unlovable and these things ultimately mean being all alone. She often believes that her worth or goodness or loveable-ness is dependent on controlling the size and shape of her body. She believes that such qualities aren’t inherent, but rather are determined by the number on the scale. Thus, Thanksgiving represents a day that can undo her.
In many families, food is a means of conveying love. For someone vulnerable to developing disordered eating patterns, growing up in such a family can contribute to a conflicted relationship with food and body. The conundrum is this: If food is love, then I need to eat to feel loved, yet if I need to be thin in order to be loved or wanted or respected, then I can’t eat too much.
So Thanksgiving presents a dilemma. Some figure out ways to, no pun intended, “have their cake and eat it too.” They eat a tremendous amount of food on Thanksgiving Day, and secretly vomit it back up. Or they exercise excessively before and after. Others simply deny themselves much food, eating far less than they actually need. Regardless of the strategy, their focus is on controlling the amount of calories consumed and reducing their anxiety.
I also work with people whose eating difficulties manifest in binge eating and compulsive overeating, who have been told in weight-loss programs that they must view food simply as fuel, and nothing more. They’ve come to believe that getting pleasure from food is wrong. They see Thanksgiving as an obstacle to be strategically overcome, planning their intake for the meal ahead according to strict guidelines. They, like their counterparts whose eating problems manifest in restricting or compensating for their food intake, see getting through Thanksgiving having eaten according to plan as success.
Either way, they miss out on the warmth and ease of a day sharing good food with good people, giving thanks. They miss out on the joy of consuming food lovingly prepared in the company of those close to them. Fear of what they’ll lose supersedes gratitude for what they have.
The holiday season is supposed to be about love, not fear. At the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, rituals are performed to stop the sun from abandoning the peoples of the earth, to bring the light back. As we move ahead into the holidays, may fear of the dark be outdone by the power of light: that light within each of us, so those of us who struggle with eating and with our bodies might see and our own innate worth and goodness, which can’t be earned by controlling or lost by losing control over our eating or our bodies. Instead of fearing having too much so much that we don’t allow ourselves enough, may we know we deserve all that we need and be grateful that we have plenty.
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