Four Tips to Navigating Triggering Family Situations in Eating Disorder Recovery

Do you ever struggle with all of the focus on “family” and “togetherness” this time of year? Does it seem as though you can barely get through family events without feeling like you want to run out of the room screaming? Holidays can be such a challenge if you have an eating disorder. A lot of family-focused activities center around food, which can trigger a lot of anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions. It is hard when parents, spouses, grandparents, great-aunt Petunias, or whoever comment about your body and what you are (or aren’t) eating. Especially in San Diego, when in December you can be wearing tank tops, shorts, or a skirt as you take family trips to the beach. It can feel as though your body and how you eat is on display. It may seem that loved ones have free reign to comment on it. It really, really sucks. As an eating disorder therapist, I love helping people navigate family situations that can be tricky and triggering, so I’m here to help you get started.

It’s true that family support is so important for recovery. The emphasis on the family in the media/in society during holidays is touching, but it can set up expectations that everything SHOULD be fabulous and wonderful, when in reality, being with family can be stressful, awkward, and painful. The disconnect between the expectation and the reality can be especially excruciating. I’ve therefore listed four tips below to help you manage challenging family situations and even stand up for yourself so that family members can know when you’re feeling triggered.

TIP #1: Set external boundaries.

External boundaries typically have to do with time, personal space, and interpersonal interactions. It’s also about problem-solving and setting limits. For example, you can limit the time you talk on the phone or converse in person with a family member. You can stay in a hotel instead of at your family’s house. You can rent a car or use Uber or Lyft instead of borrowing your parents’ car. If you are in a sunny place like San Diego, you can drive yourself to the beach or to a theme park to meet your family. That way, you can leave if you are feeling stressed or triggered. During family meals, you can excuse yourself and go to the restroom and breathe, or even text an eating disorder support buddy for encouragement. If family members think you should eat something (or not eat something) that’s goes against your meal plan, you can eat what YOU know will nourish you. It’s about taking care of YOUR needs and prioritizing YOUR recovery. Will family members get upset at you? It’s possible. But you can deal with that. Your recovery is worth it.

TIP #2: Set internal boundaries.

Internal boundaries are about how you manage your emotions when facing stressful family situations. It’s basically not giving your full emotional self to family interactions that could be triggering. There are two strategies of setting internal boundaries: distraction and self-talk. With distraction, you can subtly do something else during conversations with family members. If you’re talking on the phone with someone, you can look at stuff online or fold your laundry. If you’re in person, you can look at the scenery around you, play with silly putty under the table, or sing “Jingle Bells” in your head—backwards. When I was a professor and in a stressful meeting, I sometimes would doodle or count the ceiling tiles. It really helped! With self-talk, you can tell yourself, “this interaction will be over in 10, 20, 30 (whatever) minutes.” You can say, “whatever this person has to say about me has nothing to do with me—it’s about them.” Making self-compassionate statements such as, “I am loved,” and “I am worthy,” can also be very beneficial.

TIP #3: Use effective communication skills.

Effective communication is KEY when it comes to addressing issues that come up with families. It’s all about HOW you convey your message to others. When you feel frustrated or angry with a family member, avoid saying “you” statements like, “You are triggering me,” or “You make me feel so angry.” When you employ “you” statements, the other person typically gets defensive. Instead, use “I” statements, such as, “I feel triggered when you comment about my body/food/eating,” or “I feel mistrusted when you keep looking over to check on what I’m eating (or not eating).” By employing “I” statements, you let the other person know that you’re uncomfortable without blaming them. When you couple “I” statements with a specific behavior the other person is doing, it is especially helpful. That way, the family member can know what to change.

TIP #3: Employ self-soothing strategies.

Doing lots of self-care during this time with family is essential. Think about what you usually do to soothe yourself. Is it taking bubble baths, listening to music, drawing, taking naps, or journaling? Whatever self-soothing techniques you employ on a regular basis, double or triple them during this time with family. The reality is that you will be on edge. You are in recovery from an eating disorder, which is no easy feat. You will feel easily triggered about comments about body and food (even if it isn’t your body—or your food). The best gift you can give yourself is to have an overflowing cache of self-soothing strategies so that you can help yourself calm down. Need some ideas? Check out this list from the Eating Disorder Hope website. You can also read my blog post on mindfulness for some other tips.

Above all, I believe that you can survive family events not only this holiday season, but throughout 2019. Remember that you have an arsenal of coping skills at the ready—and use them. You deserve to take care of yourself. You deserve to put your eating disorder recovery FIRST. The payoff—being fully recovered—is worth it.


Thanks so much for reading my blog!  Have a wonderful day. :) 


If you are struggling to find eating disorder treatment in San Diego give me a call for your free 15-minute phone consultation at (858) 699-3754, and I will help you get where you need to be!

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