Written by Jennifer L. Gaudiani, MD, CEDS and originally featured on the Healthy is the New Skinny website.
With the holiday season upon us, many people feel a mix of excitement and dread. The reasons for excitement are clear, while the reasons for dread may not be understood by well-meaning families. Folks who live with weight stigma and those who struggle with an eating disorder (of all shapes and sizes) may struggle through family gatherings, in which societally-approved topics of conversation unfortunately often include judgmental commentary on bodies, weight, and dieting. These conversations can be immensely painful and triggering. They can also threaten to undo therapeutic progress around our commitment to being kind and compassionate with ourselves.
Good news: you can get through the holiday season with your sanity and your sense of self intact! It’s a great time to set boundaries and live your values. Let’s talk first about setting boundaries. Do some thinking before family get-togethers, about lines you simply don’t want to cross, and are willing to defend. Few want to fuel conflict when the whole family is together, nor be disrespectful of elders in the family, but it’s also absolutely appropriate for you to establish some rules of engagement as they pertain to you and your body. Here are some examples of situations that might arise, and how to establish boundaries:
Uncle Ben says, “You look bigger/smaller than last time I saw you!”
“Actually, I choose not to make my body size a topic of conversation. How’s your business going?”
Aunt Angela says, “I’m eating another slice of pie. It has so many calories! I’m probably going to put on five pounds this weekend. Who’s going on a diet with me next week?”
“I prefer not to talk about calories and weight while enjoying a delicious meal. Let’s talk about what we’re thankful for this year.”
You’re in a fragile place in your own relationship with body and food, and you’re nervous that the experience of sharing a big holiday meal with the whole family will jeopardize the hard work you’ve been doing.
Skip the big family gathering. Sure, it would be nice to be able to join everyone and eat without a care in the world, and there might be some eyebrows raised and maybe disappointment expressed in your not joining. But it’s your life. If you’re feeling fragile and aren’t in a place right now to withstand this kind of challenge, sit it out this year. Nourish yourself well that day, spend extra time on compassion, and consider finding a smaller group or one friend to get together with that day. If you so choose, there’s always the next holiday or next year to rejoin everyone.
The second half of this strategy is living your values. What does that mean? It means knowing what your individual priorities and goals are, and committing to dedicating your time and energies accordingly. No one can dictate to you what your values are. They are unique to you. One of my patients recently told me something so wise. She said that at the beginning of the school year, she almost chose not to try an extracurricular “in service of my anxiety.” However, she pushed through, and it’s become one of the great joys of her daily life.
When you are deciding how to spend your time over the holidays—whether that’s choosing to go home over school break, attend a family gathering, accommodate the family traditions or make your own new ones—be sure that you choose in line with your values. The patient I mentioned was thinking about skipping out on Thanksgiving activities altogether, because she was so nervous at the prospect of eating the feast in a public setting, with family. However, she realized that if she used binary thinking (either I do Thanksgiving all my family’s way, and that’s not acceptable, or I stay home alone), she would be again doing so in service of her anxiety. Coming back to her values of connectedness, adventure, and independence, she’s chosen to take a road trip with a friend and have a quiet Thanksgiving with her, then see her family the weekend after.
Check in with your decision-making processes over the holidays: are you holding boundaries? Are you letting fear make your decisions, or are you making choices congruent with your values? Consider this activity: write down your values, and then consult the list when you’re making a decision, to see if the values and the decision align. Here’s a list of values you can look at to help get the wheels turning: http://corevalueslist.com.
I wish you a joyful, meaningful, mindful holiday season.