I read an article on food and family stress in the New York Times last week. It was full of stories of families fighting over food at the holidays: a mother berating an overweight daughter for eating too much; a grandmother criticizing a grandson for eating too little; a father trying to keep everyone from eating chocolate. I’m willing to bet most people have at least one story like these about family problems around food to tell.
Holidays are big sources of pressure for vast numbers of people. Food issues hound many, many people. And family problems can replay every time a family gets together. Put those three together and you can have big bad stress waiting for almost everyone in the month of December. What to do?
The Times article recommends that people set up boundaries (that’s therapy talk for rules), like making a “good-natured announcement” that comments about how much or little a person eats won’t be acceptable this year. Then every time someone breaks the rule, call them on it. Oh, and have a sense of humor about it all. Good advice, but I was left wondering how many readers could implement it without more support. Changing ingrained family interactions is notoriously hard, especially if it is your family. That’s why we family therapists get serious training in how to interrupt those old patterns and shift everyone in the family to a new way of acting.
If you aren’t planning to get your parents, in-laws or siblings in to see a family therapist for a few sessions before Christmas or Hanukkah, you can still change the way you react to what your family members do. Try one or more of these approaches now to get yourself ready:
- Practice breathing. I know, you breathe every day. How can that help? I’m talking about the kind of slow, deep breaths that bypass your chest and go all the way down to your navel. They can calm you down and help you think even in the middle of the most stressful times. (I read somewhere they teach this kind of breathing to Marines so they can use it in the middle of battle.) The reason to start practicing this kind of breathing now is that it’s much easier to remember both to do the breathing and how to do it in a stressful moment if you have been doing it every day for a few weeks until it becomes a habit. Then, when your sister says you really don’t need that extra piece of pie, you can take a deep breath and remember to smile as you tell her that comments about how much a person eats are unacceptable this year. For more details on this kind of breathing, see my earlier post. Don’t try this if you have asthma.
- Between now and the next family event, practice acting just the way you want to when your relatives misbehave. Here’s how. Sit somewhere quiet without distractions. Close your eyes. Run a movie of your brother sneering when you put your homemade candied yams on the table (or whatever gets you upset). See yourself reacting calmly, saying and doing exactly what you want to in exactly the way you want. If you start to get heated up, stop the movie, rewind it to a point before you got upset, then play it again seeing yourself being the cool, self-possessed person you want to be. Make the movie as vivid and full of details as you can. Do this at least once every day from now until you all sit down to dinner together. The more times you visualize responding to a stress in a certain way, the more likely you are to act that way when the stress really happens.
- Get on the phone and start discussing the new boundaries (remember those family rules?) with each of your family members now. You may have to clear the air before the big day. Sometimes people don’t realize what they are doing is hurtful. Calmly talking with them about how you feel now can give them time to think about changing their ways. Then they will be less likely to react defensively — and hurtfully — when you announce the new rule while carving the Christmas goose.
- Realize that just telling family members about the new rule may not be enough to change long-standing patterns. You may have to take action beyond just reminding your father at the holiday dinner table that it is not okay for him to call you fat when you take a roll. You may have to get up and leave the table if he continues the rude comments. You may have to leave the house. Decide now what you will do, tell your father what you will do before the day (see Approach #3), then do it if he keeps up the fat jokes after you’ve asked him to stop. Don’t make a scene. Just quietly stand up and go. Dad will be much less likely to joke about your weight at the next family gathering. That sort of dispassionate response to bad behavior is sometimes the only way to establish new boundaries.
Remember, you can’t change what other people do, only how you react to it. Then, if you change how you react, you may be surprised at how they change what they do. But you have to change first.
Of course, some stress and pain goes so deep that these steps will not be enough. You can always try using my Quick Start Guide to tapping to calm yourself down as you think about stressful family scenes from the past that you expect to replay this December. If you need more, think about a visit or two with a family therapist to work on setting those new boundaries.
Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about how we might work together on what’s blocking you.