Wednesday, December 23, 2009

“Your Holiday Toolbox”

So here we are, smack in the middle of the holiday season- that 6-week period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. How are you doing in this stressful time? Are you reeling from that Thanksgiving dinner and hoping to make it through Christmas unscathed? Are you counting down to when life returns to normalcy? Or are you embracing each challenge that this holiday season brings with quiet determination and clarity of thought?

The New York Times published an article entitled “Duck! It’s the holidays” (by Joyce Walder, Nov 18, 2009) that relates the story of Eric Marcus, a 51-year-old NYC writer who invited his mother to Thanksgiving dinner at his home. Despite the wide array of food prepared by professional cooks that were also guests at this gathering, she complained loudly about the lack of a sweet potato dish. Marcus felt that this was just typical behavior on her part as she often found a way to be disappointed no matter the situation.

“Suddenly I’m 12 years old and we are someplace when she says something inappropriate and embarrassing yet again,” Mr. Marcus said in the article. “All her life, she has a habit of saying negative things.”

Does this sound oh so familiar to you? The holidays, with all their revelry and celebration, are often a minefield of negativity for many families. By merely bringing so many family members together, the holidays often trigger age-old family dynamics that have their roots in childhood. No matter if you are 50 or 15, you might find yourself in that caretaker or mediator or rebel or parent role just one more time.

If you have an eating disorder, the holidays might be so distressing to you that you might find yourself resorting to old and destructive ways of relating to food. There is just something about the magnetic pull of family dynamics that sees many of us engaging in old and unhealthy coping mechanisms that we thought we had grown out of.

For me, I know that whenever I face an interaction with my family, be it a mere phone call, a casual dinner or a Christmas party, I have found it useful to take some active steps to ensure that I can take care of myself should the old triggers reappear. Some steps include:

1) Plan, plan, plan: Prepare for potentially triggering situations by talking about your fears and insecurities with a therapist or with a good friend. You might want to draw up a game plan with several constructive things you can do if a distressing situation occurs. If you have an open and cooperative relationship with your family, you might want to send them an email in advance to politely request that they avoid talking about or doing certain things that might distress you.

2) Fill up your toolbox: You want to bring a variety of coping skills to the family dinner table so that you have healthy alternatives other than what you are so used to doing. You might want to write down several self-care activities that you know will be effective in soothing you- walking a walk, bringing a good book, updating your playlist with your favorite music are all good options. Sometimes, when these aren’t possible (maybe you can’t walk away from the dinner table) taking a good, deep breath helps a ton.

3) Lastly, be kind to yourself. If you do find yourself engaging in old patterns of behavior, try to really let it go and forgive yourself. It is important, when you fall, to recognize the fact that your past efforts and that the holidays are a really difficult time for almost everyone.

So for this holiday season, I wish you a time of healthy eating and healthy thought, and a time of non-judgment and self-acceptance.

Jolene Hwee is a master's level practicum intern from Northwestern University.

* The NYT article can be found at!%20its%20the%20holidays&st=cse&scp=1

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