How to cope with self-critical behaviors as holiday season approaches

Anne L. Edwards, Psy.D., spoke with us about the struggles surrounding holiday parties, self-harming behaviors and when to get help.

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This post serves as part of our continuing coverage on mental health and positive habits for self-care. For more health content, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

When imagining the upcoming holiday gatherings of 2019, there’s one thing that comes to mind: food.

Hot plates, casseroles, hors d’oeurves and more are piled high on plates again and again until New Year’s resolutions are made and the decorations are packed away. But what about individuals that live with eating disorders or have anxiety about food?

It can be challenging for them to voice their holiday-season struggles, especially if they don’t want to draw attention to them, or make them worse in the process. That’s why we spoke with licensed clinical psychologist Anne L. Edwards about what self-critical behaviors look like, where they stem from and how to best cope through the holiday parties, family dinners and bountiful buffets. Highlights from our conversation are below.

Can you discuss what self-critical behaviors look like, and the types of things that people say to themselves that can be harmful?
I often hear people saying things like, “I’m so fat,” “I’m gross,” “I’m ugly,” or “I hate my (insert body part here).”  In addition, people will link these to thoughts about food, such as “I don’t deserve to eat that,” or “I shouldn’t eat things that are high in fat.”  More recently, I hear a lot of people cutting out certain food groups or going on “cleanses.”  More subtly, people may not realize that they glance at themselves in the mirror with disappointment, a wish that something was different and a focus on the negative.

How can these types of behaviors carry through your life at different stages?
Sometimes these thoughts and behaviors can be brought up around puberty and significant body changes. Teenage years are a time of wanting to fit in and not to stand out. It can be difficult if you feel your body is different from those around you. People can be mean and tease, usually more during adolescence. Often as we age, people seem to throw in negative comments in about getting older and seeing those signs on their faces and bodies. Being in environments that are very accepting and celebrating of differences, versus those that are more competitive and critical, can have an impact as well.

Where do these behaviors tend to stem from? Do they come from familial or societal influence, or is it a combination of many things?
It’s complicated and we don’t have all the answers. There may be genetic factors that influence eating disorder symptoms. Genetics certainly influence body size and shape. Having someone significant in your life who is modeling criticism and focus on body image or focus on eating and exercise can certainly be a contribution to self-criticism and particular expectations of oneself. Social pressures from peers, as well as broader societal definitions of beauty, can lead to unrealistic expectations and can teach unhealthy behaviors. Trauma and other mental health struggles can impact body image, eating and weight as well.

Can you discuss why the holiday season can be a tough time for those with self-critical behaviors, eating disorders and more?
It can be a tough time for many people. There are expectations around the holidays. Often people feel they should be happy, enjoy family and friends and have lots of social gatherings. If people don’t have this, it can affect their mood and self-esteem.

Often people with eating or body image struggles have difficulties if they are spending time around people at events with food. They may want to avoid these events so that they don’t have to be anxious or self-conscious about their bodies or food choices. Having to make food choices in a setting with foods that may bring up specific struggles like bingeing or not having options that feel safe given their stage of treatment can be a real challenge. In addition, they may have family members that do contribute to their eating and body image struggles and being around them can heighten those difficulties. Events can also become a place people feel they will be on display and that they have to look a certain way to attend. These factors can make months leading up to the holidays a difficult time.

How should individuals best cope with trying to maintain what is best for their mental health?
Because eating disorders and body image struggles are so complex, it’s hard to answer. Everyone has different needs. Generally speaking, working on self-esteem separate from appearance can be helpful, considering the values placed on appearance and challenging those, learning about what things may increase negative self-talk (such as looking in the mirror critically) and avoiding those activities, and seeking help in identifying what mental health needs there are and how to address them.

What point should people seek help (even if they haven’t before)?
Diagnosable eating disorders are difficult to treat without professional help and rarely can be improved without it. I would definitely suggest anyone meeting the criteria seek professional help. Short of that, I would suggest that anyone feeling badly about themselves or wanting a healthier relationship with food to seek help. There are so many factors that can perpetuate those behaviors, it can be really helpful to have an outside source supporting you. Also, it has become so normative for people in our society to accept that we don’t like our bodies, that our eating isn’t ideal and that we won’t ever live up to expectations we have for ourselves. We don’t have to accept that premise and professionals can help to shift that standard view in our world.

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