By Danielle Konsky, MA, M.Ed, MHC-LP
For individuals struggling with eating disorders, holidays can be challenging. Bright holiday lights are shining, their mom’s cookies are baking, and a festive spirit is filling the air…but then they see it. A table card laying gently on the table with a name in bright red letters. A seat is reserved for an uninvited guest, their worst nightmare, Ed.
Who is Ed? Ed is the voice who haunts them every day reminding them that they are not thin enough, that they do not have enough will power, and that they are not worthy. Ed may remind them of the number of calories they need to burn the day after eating a latke. Ed is the demon within that brings out their intense anger towards the people they love the most. Ed thrives and raises their voice during the holidays.
Many clients in eating disorder treatment say that their top concerns for the holidays include facing feared foods that they only have to see on the table once per year, responding to triggering, diet-related comments from family members, and trying to suppress the pressure to look good. These concerns can make the experience of gathering with family to enjoy significant meals and share gratitude a minefield of potential relapse triggers. Not exactly a luxurious scene from a Hallmark Christmas movie.
This narrative is not unfamiliar to me as a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and body image issues. Each holiday season, I hear clients discuss the specific brand of food and body-related stress that comes with seeing family and sharing meals. And, each holiday season, I work to learn and nurture my clients’ unique concerns and help them to strategize against Ed’s manipulation. I help clients develop motivation and confidence to do what often seems impossible — to fight back to Ed’s harmful voice.
No matter where you are in your journey, your engagement in this article speaks to your strength. Here are some tools that might be helpful in navigating this holiday season:
1. Practice “Coping Ahead” Through Thought Defusion
My work with clients year-round includes helping individuals create some space and distance between themselves and their thoughts. When we are “fused” with our negative thoughts, we are accepting them at face value. Accepting negative thoughts as absolute fact, or commands that we have to attend to urgently, can leave us feeling anxious and threatened. The goal is to “de-fuse” from our unhelpful negative thoughts, allowing them to play out in our minds without letting them guide our behavior or change our emotional state.
For a moment, it might be helpful to think ahead about the thoughts you have around food and your body, and strategize about ways to address these thoughts in a healthy, recovery-focused way. In the psychotherapy community, we call this strategy “coping ahead”.
What are your triggers? For example, I might fear that I will gain weight when I eat the chocolate chip cookies my Aunt made.
When I notice myself having this thought, I might take a beat and say to myself, “Ed is telling me that I will gain weight from this cookie” or “I’m noticing Ed talking to me loud and clear! He’s telling me to be aware of my triggers” or “Here’s Ed again, telling me to restrict”. As we know, Ed is an unreliable narrator who only wants to cause chaos and pain. By creating this little bit of separation, you can help to “lower the volume” of the thought and name it as an overplayed tune that plays in your head. The intention is not to get rid of this thought, but rather to notice it, create distance, and see it for what it truly is — a negative thought that has come to be through personal experiences and a society that is fixated on shrinking our bodies.
2. Setting Boundaries
When traveling along the road to healing your relationship with food and your body, it is helpful to surround yourself with people who support your healing. This can become difficult when a relative you love throws out a comment about your body’s shape or size, even if it is intended as a compliment. Any and all comments made on someone’s body can be harmful and difficult to cope with, even if the intentions are known.
Setting boundaries and advocating for yourself can play a crucial role in healing. Boundaries can look like stating “I am working on healing my relationship with food and my body and it is upsetting to hear those comments”. Another option can be setting an unspoken boundary by physically separating yourself from the environment in which you were triggered.
3. Give Yourself Self-Compassion
When the eating disorder voice is loud, it can be difficult and frustrating to think of cultivating self-love. While it can be challenging to give yourself love in a moment where all you hear is the beat of failure and worthlessness, you can instead think: how can I be kind to myself in this moment? Then, reach out to your journal. Listing all of the positive qualities that have nothing to do with your body can shift the focus.
It can be easy to feel shame after a binge or projecting our “ravenous rage” onto loved ones. However, the feeling of shame can only perpetuate the cycle of restricting ourselves of necessary emotions and nutrients.
Taking self-compassionate action is also important before, during, and after stressful events. As an act of self-compassion, you can do activities that make you feel supported and calm, like reaching out to someone who feels safe or engaging in a meditation. You can engage your five senses in a way that feels good to you. For example: listen to your favorite song, light your favorite smelling candle, put on your coziest pair of pajamas, watch a funny movie, and sip on your favorite tea.
Wherever you are in your journey, know that you are not alone in feeling stressed about the holidays — it is okay to feel no-so-merry and bright. I encourage you to welcome any and all emotions that come your way during this time. Take care of yourself this holiday season and continue writing your story — one that is deserving and just beginning.