Maybe you feel a combination of both happiness and anxiety. If you feel conflicted about the holidays, you're not alone.
Why are the holidays so difficult for so many people?
TV commercials and magazine ads start showing happy, loving, close families gathered over a table loaded with food. Everyone is beaming and grateful for their wonderful lives.
If that’s your reality, consider yourself lucky. But for many people, if not most, that’s a fantasy world that’s not even close to reality.
If it seems as if everyone in the world is living a perfect Hallmark holiday life, full of peace, love and happiness - and then there’s YOUR family, that can be painful.
The contrast can be really difficult especially if you think the picture perfect image is how it’s supposed to be, and it’s just not.
That’s upsetting, which leads to overeating or bingeing (or other forms of disordered eating) as a way to numb or distract from the pain.
Or, because these families are often shown having meals together, eating, overeating or bingeing can be a means of “feeling” like you’re part of the picture perfect holiday family. If you can't have the family, at least you've got the food.
And what about the food?
The holidays start with Thanksgiving (at least they do in the United States) and Thanksgiving is often referred to as “National Binge Day” – the whole day is a tribute to excess.
You’re expected to overeat. It’s even considered bad manners not to try everything on the table. If you struggle with food, this can be extremely challenging.
Another problem with the holidays is everyone talks about food. A lot.
Some relatives get offended if you don’t try everything. Someone will say, “I know you’re watching your weight but you’re just GOT to try my pecan pie. One bite won’t hurt you. Go on, have some.”
And then there are the people who watch every bite they eat – and every bite YOU eat.
They say, “Oh, I shouldn’t have this.” Or worse, “Do you think you should eat that? Do you really need that?”
All this focus on food can lead to a lot of stress – you’re anxious, upset, and sad – and if you don’t have other strategies to deal with those stressful emotion, that makes you more vulnerable to using food to cope.
So it can be a vicious cycle. The key is to learn to express feelings in words, instead of behavior.
How do you stop the cycle?
People often think they are triggered by food but they’re not. They’re usually triggered by situations and experiences that are painful or upsetting, and make them want to turn to food to cope – to numb, or distract from what’s upsetting them.
Start by asking yourself some questions:
What is the most difficult part of the holidays? Food? Family? Lack of family?
Are you emotionally hungry, lonely, upset, or maybe even jealous?
What is eating "at" you the most?
When you deal with and process those situations and feelings directly, you won’t use food as a coping strategy.
What is my top survival tip for the holidays?
Be a social anthropologist.
When you're watching and observing, you're not a participant. Observing means creating some distance and that distance can be very illuminating.
Hearing your grandparents criticize your sister or brother or cousin, helps you see you learned to criticize yourself.
When you realize that your mother apologizes for every bite she eats, you’ll recognize how you learned to feel guilty for every bite you take.
It doesn’t matter whether you celebrate Christmas or Hannukah or Kwanza, or nothing, pay attention to what’s going on around you.
What do you like about them? What do you dislike?
What do you appreciate? What do you wish was different?
Give yourself permission to hold the positive and negatives about others – it’ll make it easier to hold both about yourself.
When you’re observing others, you don’t feel as much under observation. That makes you feel less self-conscious, and you feel better. When you feel better, you’re less likely to use food to cope.
Add some gratitude!
It’s the holidays, and ultimately the holidays are about gratitude, so be grateful. Think of one thing you appreciate; whether it’s a person or a situation, because hanging onto one good thing can keep you going when things are challenging.