Taylor Wark

Taylor Wark, RP #11063

Navigating the Holidays – Boundary Setting for your Body and Mind

It’s no secret the holidays are not everyone’s favourite time of year…

The holidays are meant to be a time of cheer, visiting family and friends you haven’t seen in a while, and indulging in all the goodness that comes with festivities… A.K.A Food. Unfortunately, for some people this “joyous” season is more stressful than enjoyable. Seeing people after long periods of time can bring up feelings of self-doubt and intrusive thoughts for individuals who struggle with body image and/or eating disorders. The pressure to “show up as your best” and have positive updates that align with others’ expectations, not only in career and life but also in appearance, is a lot to ask of anyone, but can derail individuals who struggle with their bodies and eating.

For any holiday I try to help clients formulate a plan to decrease anxiety and discomfort, whatever that entails. Often, it includes navigating vast amounts of food, diet talk, comments (even perceived kind ones) from others, and how to be kind to themselves if they ‘look different’ from last year. Yes, the holidays are sold to us as a fun-filled time of year to reunite with loved ones, but the reality is that the same society that has sold us this ‘dreamy time of year’ has also caused us to internalize unrealistic beauty and body expectations that prevent many people from enjoying the holidays.

So, how do we navigate this?

It’s true, we cannot change expectations others place on us, but we can choose how to respond and what expectations we have for ourselves. This means working on our self-compassion and internal belief systems throughout the year, and learning to set healthy boundaries with loved ones, even when difficult.

Healthy boundaries will look different for everyone, and may not always be understood by others, but identifying what is most important to you, your mental safety, and your needs, helps to be firmer when the time comes to decide if you will respect your own boundaries or let unhealthy cycles continue.

The first tip in preparing for the holidays is this – Plan your visits ahead of time and keep all your appointments. What does this mean? When planning for big holiday events, figure out when all social events are scheduled and decide which ones you will attend and which you may have to say no to this year. This is boundary number one. People often feel pressure to attend every holiday event in fear of disappointing others, even when it means putting their own mental and physical health at risk. This often leads to more stress, exhaustion, and the inability to cope as effectively.

In attempts to prevent this from happening, I encourage everyone to keep their appointments, and make yourself a priority. Planning with your therapist about how to tell loved ones you are busy, say no to certain friend gatherings, or simple how to approach conversations that make you uncomfortable, can give you the confidence needed for the holidays. If you are in recovery, I also recommend meeting with your dietician ahead of time to solidify your progress and new eating habits, so they do not get derailed on busy or food-filled days (portable snack stashes anyone?!).

The second tip for my food-fearing friends – do NOT skip meals. Let’s be honest, no matter how much everyone is looking forward to the holidays, we have all mentally prepared for how full we will feel 90% of the time, which realistically, we should be thankful for! Instead, we stress, or don’t eat, or say things like “my diet starts in the new year!” to make ourselves feel better. Make ourselves feel better about what?

Instead, our goal should be focused on nourishing our bodies with foods available to us, and eat what our bodies ask for, without judgement.

This looks like eating your regular meals, at regular times, and in regular quantities. By doing this our bodies are not starved by the time we allow ourselves to ‘indulge’ and we can eat for the sake of pleasure instead of compulsion or starvation. Our body’s hunger cues will be better informed of what it wants to eat and how much.

And I know your next question will be, “But, what if I eat too much and I’m still uncomfortably full?”

My response to that is simple, “So what?”

Festivities are a time for joy, and connection, and many cultures do that through food. Sometimes we eat until we are uncomfortable and that’s okay. The next step is to notice your body’s response, and the discomfort, and simply accept that it’s there.

There will be no comments of “working it off’ or “not eating for the remainder of the day.” Take judgement out of the physical feeling. Feeling “too full’ should not be tied to thoughts of poor self-control, the size of your body, or a comparison game. Taking away these negative thoughts and just noticing what’s happening is enough.

An example of this may look like – I am full. My body feels uncomfortable. This is good information.

When is the last time you felt full without making negative comments and judgement running through you mind? If we are being honest, negative thoughts are probably more common than not.

This leads me to my third and final tip, and probably the hardest one – talk to family and friends ahead of time. What do I mean by this? When working with individuals recovering from eating disorders, they often express fears of family making comments about their bodies (even “positive” ones), food choices, portions, or making comments about their own bodies, which can be very triggering for people in recovery.

The reality is that people often don’t realize how their comments affect others, even when we believe we are giving someone a compliment. No body or food comments should be received when in gatherings of any kind.

This includes individuals talking about their own bodies, not just the struggling party. The best way around this dilemma is talking to people ahead of time, if you can, and providing them with alternative statements to comments that are unhelpful.

Example: “You look so great! Have you lost weight?”
Alternative: “It’s so great to see you.”

One strategy to go about this is to send a group email to family members, or text messages, explaining why food and body talk is not productive and ask them to abstain while you are present.

Be understanding and have your own coping skills ready if people “slip up” (and people will, as our society has normalized these types of conversations), but also be firm in your expectations and needs. This is often the most difficult step because people are not used to setting these types of boundaries with their inner circles. When we start to frame boundaries as your needs to feel safe and comfortable, it can help with internal discomfort. Boundaries can be hard, and therefore I stand by my first tip – keep your appointments.

If you struggle with setting boundaries like the one above, I instead suggest that clients have an “ally” during the holidays – a friend, family member, partner, in-law, co-worker etc. who they can lean on when feeling overwhelmed, or when the negative self-talk takes over. These people can be present at the gathering or be on standby with words of encouragement, self-compassion reminders, or to review your pre-set goals and coping plans.

In addition, one of my favourite exercises with clients is creating pat statements (statements previously prepared and can be used without any real thought) to shut down uncomfortable conversations or comments, or statements clients can use to excuse themselves from the area. These statements can be anything from a simple change of conversation topic to outright “callouts;” it’s up to the client what would be most effective for them. The only stipulation is that the statements do not allow the individual to compromise their own boundaries or safety.

The main barrier for individuals following through with these tips is worrying about making others uncomfortable. To this, I usually respond with one simple question – Why is their discomfort more important than your safety?

If you have done your groundwork with boundaries and self-compassion before the holidays, then I hope your answer will always be “It isn’t.” Until then, small steps in the right direction will keep you moving.

There is nothing more powerful than the way we talk to ourselves and not allowing other people to tell us what determines our worth.

Practicing self-compassion, and having your coping toolbox ready, can help make this holiday season special, because you are finally putting your needs first.

I hope with some boundary-setting and self-care you can enjoy your holiday season the way you want to, however that may look!

Resources for Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders:

Taylor Wark

Taylor Wark, RP #11063

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