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How to Support Yourself During the Holidays

Holidays can bring fun traditions, favorite cooking traditions, or quality time with friends and family. The holiday season can also bring a large number of stressful situations. Typically, as an eating disorder therapist, I often hear the number one issue people have even when they are in recovery from disordered eating, or body image issues is when they are around family or childhood friends. Often close family and friends will say vulnerable or inappropriate comments to people (intentional or unintentional) that can cause intrusive thoughts about your body, food, and overall worth being tied to your appearance.

Although I typically see that families and friends are not intending to trigger you, they often do say small comments, compliments, or critical responses which can trigger feelings of doubt, unworthiness or comparison which makes the holidays more problematic for people. Here are some tips and tricks for you to help you navigate the difficulty that comes with your support system this holiday season. These tips will largely be about specifics of setting boundaries and is intended to be breaking down these steps to help support you during this stressful time. Often people feel more pressure to give their time, money, and resources (especially when it is related to family). Here are some basic tips for setting boundaries, along with some basic instructions of how to keep you support yourself during the holidays.

1) Remember- it is OKAY to say NO: It is always okay to say no, even past the holiday season, but ESPECIALLY during the holidays and with friends and family. People have a harder time saying no when they have a pattern developed with people who are not used to taking boundaries. Family members often are the number one culprit of this, and often act entitled to your time, energy or resources. Although it is important to many individuals to be available to their family- it is still important to value and honor your own mental and physical boundaries.

2) Plan Ahead of Time: If your family/friends are often engaging in diet culture talk, body shame, or obsessions with exercise- you may be someone who struggles largely with knowing how to set boundaries. One of the first things I suggest is that you plan some phrases you can use at family events that work the best for you. Here are a couple of suggestions. I often suggest that people connect with family from an emotional level instead of logic, as people often have a defensive response because our diet culture society is so engrained.

a. Food Comment Responses: “I am working on healing my relationship with food, and comments directed about food are hard for me to hear. Can we stay away from that kind of talk going forward?” “Let’s focus on the joy that food brings us instead of what the food is made of.” “I have struggled with my own relationship with food and body, and I found a way that I can often find peace it would largely help if going forward we stayed away from this kind of talk.”

b. Body Comments/ Weight Comments: “I personally can feel worse about myself when I focus on talking about weight with myself or others, in the future can we focus on other things?” “I notice we sometimes talk about people and their bodies, and I have realized on my journey this increases my critical self-talk and I want to stay away from this.” “I realize that talking about food and weight is normal in our society, but I realized it actually does not serve me anymore, can we connect about other things?”

c. Simple Responses: Try changing subject, directing attention away from food/ weight/ bodies. Typically, this works the best if you pick subjects the person is passionate about or excited to talk about. This is one of the biggest reasons why people often report they cannot get others to stop talking about diets- it’s because the person is excited to share! This is one of the most disordered parts of our society, is that diet culture creates what I like to call “diet missionaries” for which people are excited to share about their new diets or weight obsessions with people due to how much of an emphasis our society puts on diets, weight loss, and appearance. Remember, everyone is on their own journey, and even though this obsession with diet/ bodies is not healthy-some people are unwilling to explore this damaging relationship. Sometimes people will get defensive or see these conversations as “healthy” or as a good thing to talk about and trying to set a boundary with them about food and body can cause an argument. And sometimes this conversation may not feel safe for your healing, and distracting or changing the subject with the person can be a great way to set a boundary for yourself to help limit your exposure with triggering diet talk. Remember, you can always leave the conversation if diversion with the conversation does not work.

3) Self-Compassion: Instead of being critical, or engaging in shaming self-talk, something I recommend is that when you feel guilty about setting boundaries, you remind yourself it is normal to feel emotions. It is also normal to be upset by situations that increase self-doubt or body shame, but this does not mean that you have to engage in self-deprecatory talk. Remember that it is easy to become critical towards yourself in situations that feel out of your control- however research proves that this kind of talk overtime can largely impact how you view yourself and your overall self-confidence.

4) Reach Out for Support: Ask a friend or support system to be there to assist you. Sometimes it does not feel safe to set these boundaries within social gatherings, and if this is the case be sure to reach out to people who feel safe and supportive and ask if you can text or call them to get extra help. People often forget to reach out to friends to get support with this because they tend to be used to their family and forget that sometimes being around family can be largely triggering to their relationship with body, food and family.

Our society overly romanticizes holidays, although they can be exciting, they can also largely impact people’s expectations of themselves or others. It is important to remember that you have a voice and a choice. It is easy for people to put the needs of others first, and your mental health is more important than holiday traditions or the expectations from loved ones. Find the support that works for you. Maybe there are goals you have to shut down diet talk or set stricter boundaries in the future, but this feels unattainable this season. That is OKAY and it is more important that you find the route that works the best for your mental health before practicing some of these skills.

Deanna Smith, LCSW

This blog is not meant as therapeutic advice, rather to provide education. If you or a loved one is struggling with disordered eating, or body image issues know that there are many educated qualified mental health therapists and dieticians who are well-versed in these complicated issues. Please seek therapeutic & nutritional support if disordered eating or body image concerns are impacting your life.

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