Family, Friends, and Food: how to become an ally for people struggling with food and body image issues during the holidays

The holidays are promoted by many to be a time of peace, joy, and family fun. Oh, and food; lots and lots of food. For many people, this description brings a smile to their face, or a cherished memory to their mind. And that’s ok, this time of year should absolutely be celebrated and enjoyed (actually, every time of year should be celebrated and enjoyed, come to think of it!). It’s not wrong to love Christmas, to love time with family, or to love food. It’s not wrong, but sometimes it’s hard. If you’ve personally struggled with your body image or eating, or if you’ve known someone who has struggled with these issues, you know the holiday season brings with it all too familiar feelings of your heart dropping in your stomach. You, perhaps, have seen your loved ones struggle with hesitancy or anxiety while dishes are being passed around the family table. Or, perhaps you start to feel uneasy when you see your loved one passing up on certain foods, fearing that maybe they are slipping, again.

These feelings of fear, apprehension, caution, and hyper-awareness are normal for individuals in recovery from eating disorders. These same feelings are also normal for family members and friends of those ED warriors, as you’ve walked with them through some harrowing times and seen them make such brave strides. I’m a firm believer that most fear-based decisions are regrettable decisions. Meaning, if you make a decision with your feet planted in fear, you’ll probably end up regretting that decision. Since both the individual, and the family member have (understandably) a lot of fear around the holidays, it’s important to have some “go to” tips and tricks to NAME your fear, FRAME your focus, and CLAIM your joy.

NAME YOUR FEAR

Curiosity will conquer fear, even more than bravery will.

-James Stephens

This is an important step for both individual, and family/friend, since fear can so easily morph into other emotions (like anger, for example). I love what Brene Brown, a researcher who studies vulnerability and shame, says about “inviting our critics” to the table. She says, by imagining the very worst things they could say to scare us and then rehearsing our responses to them, we can effectively use curiosity to derail our fears. So, take out a piece of paper, or record yourself on video chat, or whatever works for you. Ask yourself who your main critics will be this holiday season (whether they are actual people, fear foods, critical self-talk, or “what if” worries you might have). Write down or record the things those critics might say that would bring up fear in you. Be curious. Be exploratory. Wade into the waters. Once you identify what your critics will try to say, identify how you would like to respond to them. Remember, you are responding from a place of worth, not a place of shame or guilt. If it helps, begin each imaginary response with “I value myself, and…” For example, if your critic/fear would say something like, “if you eat that dessert, you can’t eat anything for breakfast tomorrow.” Or, perhaps, “if my loved one says no to dessert, they will relapse, again.” Some potential responses, from a place of worth, might be, “I value myself, and I can eat whatever I want without punishing myself after. What I eat or don’t eat has nothing to do with my worth.” Or, for the second critic, “I value myself, and I can’t burden myself with trying to predict the future or be a fortune teller. My loved one has learned a lot of skills to deal with their fears, and if I continue to be worried, I can ask them about how to help, instead of worrying from afar about their health.” The beauty of this activity is that no two critics or responses will be the same. The way you respond from a place of worth is TOTALLY unique to you!

 

FRAME YOUR FOCUS

“Always remember, your focus determines your reality.”

-George Lucas

Reality is a funny thing, isn’t it? There are definitely truths and things that are without a doubt “real.” But the cool thing about the world we live in, is that it’s flexible. It allows itself to be influenced by our thoughts, our perceptions, our perspectives, and our imaginations. Think, for example, about temperature. The reality may be that it’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit. One person in the room might be living with the reality that it’s cold, while another person may be living with the reality that it’s warm. The perceptions of the people don’t change the temperature, but it does change the reality the person lives in. Experience adds color, dimension, and detail to reality; and that’s why it’s so important to practice adding color and detail that will be helpful and not harmful to the life you want to live. When I think about “framing” my focus, I think about having a steady stream of influences around me, and inside of me, that help me remember my values and my dreams. I know for me, music is a really powerful tool to steer my focus. Music that is slow, melancholic, or in a minor chord will inevitably make me feel a little bit more sad than I did before listening to it. On the flip side, upbeat, energetic music in a major chord will often help me get out of a “funk.” For you, it could be inspiring quotes on Instagram. Or maybe a conversation with a good friend. Or, perhaps, it’s drawing or painting, or going for a walk in nature. It’s completely up to you! What we think about truly does take up so much of our mental energy, make sure you’re spending energy on what you want to grow. For the holidays, maybe you decide that before or after a meal, you need to find a spot by yourself to refocus. Or, maybe you would like to focus on having meaningful conversations with family members or friends. Whatever you see in your “ideal” future, try and spend your mental energy thinking about and focusing on those values when you find yourself worrying or acting out of fear.

 

CLAIM YOUR JOY

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh

There’s a skill in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) that’s called “building positive experiences.” What this skill gets at is the idea that we can actually create a system of happiness around us, one that effectively builds on itself so that it continues to run even on days we can’t add to it. Think of the idea of momentum. If you’re running really fast downhill, it becomes more and more difficult to stop running. Positive experiences can be like your “downhill” and choosing to do more things that make you happy is like starting to “run” down the hill. The more consistently you practice building positive experiences, the more you eventually find that your positive experiences are actually building you, and the less likely you are to be derailed by the worries and fears around you. It can take some work and energy on the front end, like building a new business takes a lot of work and money and time before it becomes successful. But, as you diligently add things into your life that you find enjoyable, the more those investments reap the energy and hope of living a life based in your values. The more you have this energy, the easier it gets to do more things you love. It’s a positive feedback loop, the opposite of the “negative spiral” idea. You can actually spiral up, not just spiral down. Like the previous points, your joy is unique to you. Your positive experiences get to be whatever you find the most joy and value in. It can be scheduling regular time with friends, or watching a favorite movie in your pajamas, or working on a trade or craft that youv’e always wanted to learn, or playing an instrument, or writing stories, or traveling. The possibilities are endless, and because of this it’s important to start small and not get overwhelmed with everything you COULD be doing. Just pick one thing each week that you’ve been wanting to do.

It can be easy to be generous and sacrificial during the holidays, especially if you’re the type of person who wants to make others happy, but it’s also important for you to be generous with yourself, and find ways you can give yourself grace and joy this holiday season.

Remember, the holidays come and go, and it’s ok to practice self-care, to ask for what you need, and to accept help from others. Make your actions and non-actions rooted in a place of value and worth this holiday season. You are valuable and loved, and you are allowed to take up space. If you’re a family or friend of someone struggling this holiday season, you, too, are loved and worthy. You, too, are allowed to ask for help and to accept grace from others. Be kind this holiday season, including to yourself.

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