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A Seat for Ed at the Holiday Table: How to Cope with an Eating Disorder During the Season

For individuals struggling with eating disorders, holidays can be challenging. Bright holiday lights are shining, mom’s cookies are baking, and a festive spirit is filling the air. But then they see it—a table card lying gently on the table with a name in bright red letters. A seat is reserved for an uninvited guest, their worst nightmare, Ed.

Who is Ed? Ed is the voice that haunts them every day, reminding them that they are not thin enough, that they do not have enough willpower, that they are not worthy. Ed may remind them how many calories they need to burn the day after eating a latke. Ed is the demon within that brings out their intense anger towards the people they love the most. Ed thrives and raises its voice during the holidays.

Many clients in eating disorder treatment say that their top concerns for the holidays include facing feared foods that they only have to see on the table once per year, responding to triggering, diet-related comments from family members, and trying to suppress the pressure to look good. These concerns can make the experience of gathering with family to enjoy significant meals and share gratitude a minefield of potential relapse triggers. Not exactly a heartwarming scene from a Hallmark Christmas movie.

This narrative is not unfamiliar to me as a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and body image issues. Each holiday season, I hear clients discuss the specific brand of food and body-related stress that comes with seeing family and sharing meals. And, each holiday season, I work to learn and nurture my clients’ unique concerns and help them strategize against Ed’s manipulation. I help clients develop motivation and confidence to do what often seems impossible—to fight back against Ed’s harmful voice.

No matter where you are in your journey, your engagement in this article speaks to your strength. Here are some tools that might help you navigate this holiday season:

Practice “Coping Ahead” Through Thought Defusion

My year-round work with clients includes helping them create space and distance between themselves and their thoughts. When we are “fused” with our negative thoughts, we accept them at face value. Accepting negative thoughts as absolute facts or commands we must urgently attend to can leave us feeling anxious and threatened. The goal is to “de-fuse” our unhelpful negative thoughts, allowing them to play out in our minds without letting them guide our behavior or change our emotional state.

For a moment, it might help to anticipate your thoughts around food and your body ahead of time and strategize ways to address them in a healthy, recovery-focused way. In the psychotherapy community, we call this strategy “coping ahead.”

What are your triggers? For example, I might fear gaining weight when eating the chocolate chip cookies my aunt made.

When I notice myself having this thought, I can take a moment and say to myself, “Ed is telling me that I will gain weight from this cookie,” or “I’m noticing Ed talking to me loud and clear! He’s telling me to be aware of my triggers” or “Here’s Ed again, telling me to restrict my calories.”

As we know, Ed is an unreliable narrator who only wants to cause chaos and pain. By creating this little bit of separation, you can “lower the volume” of the thought and name it as an overplayed tune that runs in your head. The intention is not to get rid of this thought but rather to notice it, create distance, and see it for what it truly is—a negative thought that has come to be through personal experiences and a society fixated on shrinking our bodies.

Setting Boundaries

When traveling along the road to healing your relationship with food and your body, it is helpful to surround yourself with people who support your healing. This can become difficult when a relative you love throws out a comment about your body’s shape or size, even if it is intended as a compliment. Any and all comments made on someone’s body can be harmful and difficult to cope with, even if the intentions are benign.

Setting boundaries and advocating for yourself can play a crucial role in healing. Boundaries can consist of saying, “I am working on healing my relationship with food and my body, and it is upsetting to hear those comments.” Another option can be setting an unspoken boundary by physically separating yourself from the environment in which you felt triggered.

Give Yourself Self-Compassion

Cultivating self-love can be difficult and frustrating when the eating disorder voice is too loud. While it can be challenging to give yourself love when all you hear is the beat of failure and worthlessness, you can instead think, “How can I be kind to myself at this moment?” Then, reach for your journal. Listing all the positive qualities that have nothing to do with your body can shift the focus.

It can be easy to feel shame after binge eating or projecting our “ravenous rage” onto loved ones. However, the feeling of shame can only perpetuate the cycle of restricting ourselves from necessary emotions and nutrients.

Taking self-compassionate action is essential before, during, and after stressful events. As an act of self-compassion, you can do activities that make you feel supported and calm, like reaching out to someone who feels safe or practicing meditation. You can engage your five senses in a way that feels good to you. For example: listen to your favorite song, light your favorite smelling candle, put on your coziest pair of pajamas, watch a funny movie, and sip on your favorite tea.

Wherever you are in your journey, know that you are not alone in feeling stressed about the holidays—it is okay to feel no-so-merry and bright. I encourage you to welcome any and all emotions that come your way during this time. Take care of yourself this holiday season and continue writing your story—one that is deserving and just beginning.

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About the Author: Danielle Konsky is a psychotherapist (MHC-LP) specializing in working with adolescents and adults struggling with disordered eating behaviors. She creates a safe, non-judgmental space for individuals that is rooted in Health at Every Size (HAES) and intuitive eating frameworks. Danielle is passionate about using CBT interventions to combat diet culture’s message that being thin equates to health, worthiness, and beauty. To learn more about Danielle and book a session with her, please visit https://www.feelinggoodcenter.com/therapists/danielle-konsky/

Photo by Libby Penner on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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