& Five practical tips to help you approach your next social gathering with confidence and compassion

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I don’t remember exactly when I started to dislike Thanksgiving (aside from when I began to understand its vicious roots in colonialism- that’s an entire blog post for another time)  but I can easily pinpoint why. As my relationship with food became more complicated in college, I became accustomed to the anxiety, dread, and sometimes even rage that I would feel before a food-centered gathering. My nervous system became dysregulated at the mere thought of getting together with people for the sole purpose of making, eating, and talking about food.

This particular Thanksgiving, I was home from college and my parents were hosting our extended family at their house. At first, I hadn’t made the connection between the impending arrival of our guests and the pounding headache and butterflies in my stomach that had plagued me all morning. As family members arrived, the usual greetings were exchanged: “Happy Thanksgiving,” “It’s so good to see you,” “I love that dress” etc., etc., etc.  As part of her typical greeting and initial “assessment” of me, one of my family members grabbed my shoulders and looked me up and down after a hug and said, “I do not know how you stay so thin! What’s your secret?”

Without missing a beat, another family member pinched my side and chimed in: “Gosh, I know! Isn’t it just irritating? I wish I hated food. If I could just stop eating, I would look like you, too. You could actually stand to gain a few pounds. Good thing it’s Thanksgiving!” 

They both laughed. I did not. 

When I tell you the blood drained from my face and I got tunnel vision, that only begins to explain the visceral reaction I had at this hearty exchange my family had about my body. The expectation was clear: I would smile, laugh along with them, consider it a compliment, and move on. And in the moment immediately following their exchange, that’s probably what they thought I was doing when I forced a half-hearted smile and said nothing at all. (Side note: I fully recognize that as hurtful as these comments are, they are not comparable to the cruel comments that someone living in a marginalized body might receive).

They quickly moved on. I did not. 

Their words would replay in my head for the rest of the night. Their words would be the reason I remembered that I was wearing a tan sweater dress and tights with a hole in the bottom of the right foot on that Thanksgiving day. Their words would sear the details of that moment into my brain for the days, weeks, years to come.

I spent days that turned into weeks wishing I had responded differently . . . or that I had responded at all. Throughout my own recovery journey, I have gained tools and language to use in situations like these that have helped me to honor my body and my healing, to prioritize my dignity, to put words to my feelings, and to enter these types of gatherings feeling more at ease and in control.

Here are five straightforward and practical tips to help you approach family or social gatherings with confidence and compassion for yourself, no matter where you are at in your recovery journey:

  1.  Before going to a social gathering or event, set a boundary: Determine ahead of time what you are comfortable and not comfortable with talking about and sharing. You do not owe anyone information about your body or journey, and it is not your responsibility to make someone understand or feel comfortable with either.
  1. Set a time limit: If you find yourself full of anxiety or dread at the prospect of going to a family event or social gathering, put parameters around your arrival and departure time. If it helps, communicate the time you need to leave to your family or friends. This can help ease your nervous system and take away the anxiety surrounding how you will “get out of” uncomfortable settings and conversations. 
  1. Allow yourself the space to feel upset: If someone makes a comment or asks a question that upsets you, allow yourself to feel what you feel. Your feelings are valid.  It doesn’t matter if the “intentions were good” or if the comment was “just a joke.” Caveats like these are unfortunate attempts to dismiss or justify inappropriate words that should not have been said in the first place. You do not need to “lighten up”; You are allowed to be upset, and you are allowed to verbalize your feelings.
  1. Be direct: Directly tell the family member, friend, or acquaintance that you are not comfortable with the question asked, comment said, or direction a conversation is heading. It can be helpful to come up with a few potential responses ahead of time to help you feel equipped in the face of comments or questions you may receive.
  1. Opt out of conversations that make you uncomfortable: It is normal to freeze up when you find yourself in an uncomfortable or unexpected conversation. If a conversation you are directly or indirectly a part of starts to focus on food, calories, someone’s body, or anything else you aren’t comfortable talking about or listening to, and you don’t want to directly address it, give yourself permission to opt out of this conversation. You are allowed to simply walk away. 

Fast forward to a more recent family gathering when a plate of dessert was put in the middle of the table after dinner and another hurtful comment was directed at me-just as inappropriate and humiliating as the comments from Thanksgiving, but I was able to remain collected and confident when I said, “I would prefer if you didn’t make sarcastic comments and assumptions about my food choices; they’re hurtful and embarrassing.”

And while the comment still hurt, I was able to respond in the moment, internalize it less, and move on more quickly — and hey, I don’t even remember what I was wearing that day. I consider that a victory.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildlflower Therapy LLC