Oh let’s just say it- Thanksgiving is a holiday dedicated to eating. No other holiday seems to carry such a food focus. Sure, baked goods are abundant around Christmas. Valentine’s Day and Halloween are pretty candy-fixated. But none of these rival Thanksgiving. The holiday is the dinner folks. From the turkey, to stuffing, to the pumpkin pie- the food is the shining star of the day- which is all well and good- unless you have an eating disorder.
Anyone who has or has had an eating disorder in the past knows that Thanksgiving dinner can feel like one big exposure exercise. From the potential fear foods, to navigating *cough* seriously problematic *cough* family weight/diet chatter- this holiday (and the days leading up to it) can feel, shall we say, less than joyous. In fact, it can feel like a day when you are surrounded by your biggest fear at all times.
But- there are ways to make this day more manageable. Below are my top five tips for navigating Thanksgiving with an eating disorder:
1) Wear comfortable clothing: Yup. This is a tried and true method in my book. We can’t control much in this world, but clothing? That we can. Instead of wearing some tight dress that you feel weird in, try wearing something more comfy. The key is clothing that does not draw your attention to the parts of your body that you bully yourself about. Think loose, flowy tops in prints that you like. Pants that don’t feel too tight. Leggings, if those are your jam. Dresses that feel roomy and/or cozy. You’ll thank yourself when you are engaging in conversations with your loved ones, instead of focusing on what your jeans look like around your waist.
2) Prepare some responses to help you navigate difficult diet conversations: Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude. A time for family. A time for diet chatter- wait what??? It seems that, in this day and age, any occasion that involves food inevitably invites comments about dieting. This is due to the fat-phobic, diet-obsessed culture that we exist in. It makes sense really- no one escapes the constant daily messages about “good” and “bad” food, or the constant thin-idealization that goes on in our society. So strive to hold compassion for those family members who engage in diet chatter-but hold your boundaries as well. Take some time to come up with some pre-prepared conversation-changers. For example, “All foods fit in my book. How’s your job going?” Or “I’m not really down with intentional weight loss anymore. So let’s move on to more important things-Tell me about where you got those kick-ass shoes!” Or “Meh. Weight and diet talk kinda bore me to be honest. Let’s get to the juicy stuff- what type of existential angst are you dealing with these days?” (Warning: the last suggestion may not yield desirable results if you are looking for a light and fluffy holiday convo. What can I say-I’m a psychologist, small talk is not in my repotoire.)
3) Journal about your intentions in the morning: If you know anything about me and my practice, you know I am an absolute stickler for journaling. The proof is in the pudding people- writing something down increases the probability of following through with whatever goal you are striving to achieve by 40%. The real question is, why wouldn’t you journal? One prompt that I really like to use with the people I work with is what I call, “past and present holiday reflection.” Pick a thanksgiving in the past- could have been last year, or five years ago- when you were seriously deep in your eating disorder (or even simply just immersed in diet culture- hello the time I brought a raw, vegan “pumpkin pie” to thanksgiving dinner, and increased the overall bummed feeling in the room by about 60% by doing so). Write out how that day went-how you felt emotionally, what thoughts you had, how the dinner played out. Then, after reflecting on this, write out how you hope this Thanksgiving will go. What are your intentions for the day? How do you hope things will be different than the other Thanksgiving that you wrote about? Don’t force yourself into expecting perfection (ie an intention of having a completely joyous day with no negative body image and no thoughts about calories)-No need to put unnecessary pressure on yourself. If the intention of “getting through the day without using behaviors and having someone else put together my plate for me” sounds like it fits for where you are- you do you! Don’t forget- small steps are still big steps in the end.
4) Rally the troops: If you are worried about this holiday, it’s time to rally your people- your support people that is. Make sure you identify at least one person and speak with them ahead of time about the support that you might need throughout the day. Maybe it’s a friend that can text you motivational reminders. Maybe it’s a parent that can check in with you periodically. Be intentional about explaining your needs flat out to this person. (ie “When I say this____I probably really mean this_______and will need you to _.) Most of the time, our support people are grateful for explicit instructions- and your day will likely go smoother if you have someone who knows how your ED voice can act up, and what they can do to quiet it back down.
5) Have self-compassion-and hold the hope. Like I said above, this is a day that is literally dedicated to feasting. If you are struggling with your eating disorder, it is no wonder that the mere thought of sitting down at the table makes your butt start to sweat (What? Grow up. It happens people.) Have some serious compassion for yourself. Your emotions are real and valid, no matter what other people may suggest about how illogical they may seem. If you are in a particularly low place, your intention may be to simply get through this day. And that is ok. AND (you knew there was an and, didn’t you?) be sure to hold the hope for the future. Remind yourself that just because it feels like this day will never be joyful again, doesn’t make it fact that it will never be joyful again. Hold the hope that things can change. Hold the hope that you will one day take your power back from your eating disorder. Hold the hope that life in color is still waiting for ya- and that you deserve it.
Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving, and sending strength to those who need a little extra support. You got this.
By Dr. Colleen Reichmann