Eating Disorder Recovery: 8 Tips for Managing an Eating Disorder This Holiday Season

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If you are in recovery from disordered eating, you may be feeling particularly fearful or nervous about family gatherings around the holidays. Perhaps you’re feeling anxious about eating in front of others, or you’re concerned you’ll be judged for what you do (or don’t) put on your plate. Perhaps you’re nervous that family members will comment on your appearance — but you’re equally nervous about what it means if they don’t.

Recovery from disordered eating is not about getting rid of the difficult parts of you — it’s about making peace with the eating disorder part’s positive intentions, while recognizing their unintended consequences. Perhaps there’s a critical or controlling part that tells you not to eat, or there’s a permissive, hedonistic part that tells you that you deserve a treat. It can feel crazy making having those parts constantly battle it out in your head. The tendency is to try to clamp down and control undesirable behavior, and then feeling guilt and shame when this backfires. Embracing a more compassionate and understanding perspective towards these internal conflicts is a key step in the healing process.

Note: If you don’t know what I’m referring to when I say “parts” — start here.

Here are some useful tips to help you get through this holiday season if you are in recovery from disordered eating. They are modeled after the 8 Cs of self leadership from Internal Family Systems therapy, or IFS for short.

Tip #1: Invite in Calmness

This doesn’t mean, “You must feel calm at all times!” Rather, it means having the capacity to respond to triggers in less automatic or extreme ways. It involves mindfulness and connecting to your body so you can calm your nervous system. To invite in calmness, try these steps: 

  • Take deep, slow breaths. Notice how the air flows in and out of your nose. Extend your exhale just a bit longer than your inhale. 
  • Connect with the part of you that feels triggered. Notice what physical sensations you’re experiencing in your body. If you’re triggered by your great uncle talking about everyone else’s body shape or weight like he always does, notice how those triggering comments show up in your body. Gently bring calm to those physical sensations. Direct heartfelt care toward any tension you may be feeling — whether in your neck, your chest, your shoulders or stomach — notice if your hands are clenching and extend compassion to those understandable physical reactions. 

Take breaks during the gathering. Go outside for a few minutes to recenter yourself with some fresh air. Even something as simple as experiencing a change in temperature or environment as you move from inside to outside can help you breathe in calmness.

Tip #2: Practice being Courageous

One of my favorite quotes is: “Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day that says I will try again tomorrow.”–Mary Anne Radmacher. 

Courage doesn’t always mean taking a stand in a way that’s visible to others. It is also being willing to reflect on what’s happening inside of you. You can practice being courageous with these steps:

  • Ask yourself these questions: What can I do differently?  How can I think about this differently?  
  • Try something new, without the expectation of perfection. It takes courage to try something new! Rather than saying, “I don’t know how,” try saying to yourself, “I don’t know how… yet.” You may not find a solution or all the answers right now, but that’s totally okay! Practice being courageous and notice how you feel when you try. 
  • Remind yourself you have options. You can set a time limit on any family gathering or meal you attend. You can leave when you notice your anxious parts are getting worn out from all the stimulation of managing food and social interactions. You can honor your anxious parts and make a decision that is right for you. 

Tip #3:  Be open and Curious

Fostering an attitude of openness and curiosity — devoid of judgment — can be transformative. Try to foster a gentle curiosity toward yourself and others. 

Here’s an example: Your Auntie makes a hurtful comment at a holiday dinner. With the help of your mindfulness practices (i.e. mindful breathing from Tip #1,) see if you can make space for curiosity. Why did she make that comment? Was your Auntie being intentionally cruel? Was she attempting to be helpful? Is she a product of her generation, family, or culture? Becoming curious about someone’s intentions or actions doesn’t excuse them, and it’s not your job to educate them on the harm they are doing (unless you want to). But curiosity and openness create a greater sense of peace within ourselves as we acknowledge that hurtful comments (such as the one from your Auntie) probably says a lot more about her than they do about you.

Tip #4: Practice Compassion

Bring openheartedness and compassion to yourself first.  It’s great to offer compassion to those around us who are doing their best (even if they’re missing the mark). But remember the airline instructions about the emergency oxygen mask — always take care of yourself first. Only then will you have the capacity to extend care to others. 

Remember that your parts are working as hard as they can to “protect” you and get you through this holiday meal or gathering. You can simultaneously feel appreciation or understanding toward these parts for trying to “protect” you while also acknowledging that they may be contributing to unintended consequences. 

Release judgment toward the parts. Practice compassion toward them. 

If food is a coping strategy (whether under or over eating), bring your open-hearted compassion to the part’s intention, which is to “protect” you by making you feel less bad in the moment. The eating disorder part does not know what happens after it uses food as a coping strategy. Its job is done until it decides to work hard to “help” you again. It doesn’t know the physical and emotional side effects of its well-intentioned but potentially harmful strategies. 

Compassion toward a part is what helps it feel seen so that it can eventually create space for more adaptive strategies.

Tip #5: Develop your self-Confidence by focusing on what is doable

When you know that you can stay present with yourself, even in the face of mistakes — yours or someone else’s — you develop your self-confidence and self-trust. 

Here are some steps to grow your self-confidence:

  • Focus on what is doable. Know your limitations and focus on what you can do. You can stay present for a conversation with someone special you haven’t seen since last Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, or Christmas for 2 minutes. Start with 2 minutes! Then maybe gradually you can get up to 5 minutes, or 10 minutes. Remember Tip #4 — you’re extending compassion toward yourself. You’re not judging yourself for how long you can be present. You’re being courageous and — as Tip #2 states — and you’re trying something new without feeling like it needs to be perfect. 
  • Practice a script with your therapist or a trusted friend about how to shift diet culture or body- and food-focused conversations to affirming topics that create connections. Body-focused conversations aren’t helpful to anyone. You are a capable, confident person who has the power to shift conversations to more interesting, feel-good topics. Perhaps your dad wants to talk about his stamp collection, or your sister wants to share her winter gardening tips. When you practice what to say before the holidays, you’ll feel confident enough to initiate a topic change at those awkward holiday get-togethers.

Tip #6: Gain Clarity on your own preconceived notions

On any healing journey, it’s crucial to cultivate self-awareness by examining and understanding your own preconceptions. 

Here are some steps to move toward a more objective perspective: 

  • Limit social media exposure. Social media skews our perception of reality. It contributes to social comparison, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. (Not to mention so much of what we see on there is fabricated, altered, or otherwise not real people in real life.) 
  • Consider the role alcohol or drugs play in impairing your clarity. Acknowledge the impact of alcohol and/or drugs on your clarity during gatherings, and if necessary, limit or avoid them to safeguard your healing journey. 

Try a new mocktail recipe! Taking proactive steps, such as learning a new mocktail recipe, not only provides an alternative to traditional triggers but also allows you to contribute positively to social situations. Communicating with the host about your willingness to assist with beverages transforms potentially challenging moments into opportunities for self-care, clarity, and empowerment.

Tip #7: Put Connection first

Connecting to yourself is the first step. Tips 1-6 give you strategies for how to do this. Then, try getting connected to something larger than yourself. Whether that’s your family, your friends, beloved pets, your higher power, nature — it’s important you make connection a priority this holiday season.

Here are some steps to improving your connections as you navigate the different demands of the holidays: 

  • Choose a support person to lean on when needed. If you need comfort during a holiday event, reach out to your support person — even if they are sitting across the table from you!
  • Connect with your treatment team before holiday events. Your therapist can help you prepare for awkward conversations, and your dietician can help you plan out how to plate your food. Your support team can help you plan so you feel empowered during the holidays.
  • Connect through gratitude. Even if you just whisper “thank you” quietly to yourself each morning as you shower, take a moment to appreciate the people and things in your life that are meaningful to you. 

Tip #8: Get Creative

No idea is off limits for exploration! Brainstorm by yourself or with your treatment team to come up with creative strategies that work for you. If there are forbidden or frightening foods around the holiday, expose yourself to them in advance, either in your imagination or in real life with your therapist or dietician. If family gatherings bring up too much vulnerability, get creative about how you want to spend your time to support your healing. Gather friends or co-workers who are not traveling at your home, or arrange to share time at a restaurant. If you want to leave food out of it altogether, why not organize a game or movie night after the traditional meal?

Family Therapy for Eating Disorder Recovery

Is your family in need of support this holiday season? I am a licensed clinical psychologist and Internal Family Systems therapist with extensive experience treating individuals in recovery from eating disorders. Including the family is a key part of the healing journey. Schedule a free consultation to learn more about how I practice and if we’d be a good fit to work together.

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