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Eating Disorder Recovery
Joanna Poppink, MFT
Eating Disorder Recovery Psychotherapist
serving Arizona, California, Florida, Oregon and Utah.
All appointments are virtual.


small family gathering


Family stress during special days like birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and holidays often intensifies. If control issues and disharmony exists in the relationships, hope for a joyous celebration collides with persistent dysfunctional dynamics. How you respond to this stress largely depends on your internal resilience and self-awareness.

Possibilities include: Being pulled into the behaviors and expressing anger, fear, grief, helplessness, abandonment, frustration as you fulfill your roles in the family dramas.

Your reading this article means you are unhappy with the continuous situation. What are you looking for?

Questions that lead you nowhere:

How can I change them?

Why does my brother provoke violence?

Why does my mother need drama to be center stage and cry if she isn't?

Why does my sister compete to be the most important person?

Why does my father grip his chest and shake as if he's going to need an ambulence?

Why do they criticize and mock me for bringing food and decorations?

Why is nothing ever good enough?


These are reasonable question. However, believing that if you could answer these questions you would be relieved of family stress will keep you stuck in your personal pain.

The most helpful question is: How can I help myself?

You have more influence over yourself than anyone else. Despite the actions of others your self care and well being depends on your ability to be stable, resilient, think clearly and value your life experience.

Your current level of recovery and personal growth will significantly influence how well you manage the heightened stress of holiday gatherings.

The Picture-Perfect Holiday vs. Reality

The idealized vision of a happy family gathering often clashes with the reality of deep-seated emotional and behavioral patterns. In a well-adjusted, loving family, the event might be filled with smiles, laughter, jokes, and hugs. However, in a problematic family, stress can hit hard as familiar destructive patterns resurface. You might attend the festivities hoping the spirit of the occasion will override these negative dynamics, striving to create the happy scene you envision.

You may bring food, decorations, or gifts, and carefully plan conversation topics to avoid conflicts. You might even promise yourself not to get drawn into arguments or dramatic scenes. Yet, once the gathering begins, familiar tensions often emerge:

  • "Why can't you wait for Dad? You always do this."
  • "Your father said he'll come when he's ready. Start without him."
  • "This better be gluten-free. You never remember."
  • "Why did you bring the appetizer? You knew I was bringing it."
  • "Don't fight in front of the children."
  • "Stop fighting!"
  • "Can we be done with the selfies already?"
  • "Give me the camera."
  • "After last week, I'm surprised you came at all."
  • "Let her eat what she wants. It's the dress she's wearing that makes her look chubby."
  • "Keep the wine away from him."

Caring for Yourself During Holiday Stress

Holiday stress is particularly painful not because people act differently, but because their usual behaviors often become more intense. The disappointment stems from the realization that the celebration does not transform negative behaviors. Those who need attention may press harder for it, while designated peacekeepers find themselves working overtime to no avail, often adopting a martyr role.

People with eating disorders or those in early to mid-recovery often find the holidays especially challenging. During this time, calls for help increase, underscoring the need for effective coping strategies.

Choices and Consequences

When facing holiday stress, you have several choices, each with its own set of consequences:

  1. Don't Attend the Event

    • Consequence: This decision might trigger feelings of abandonment, guilt, anxiety, fear of punishment, and criticism. Alternatively, it could bring relief and a sense of freedom.
  2. Attend the Event and Cope

    • Consequence: You need to know how to care for yourself despite potential provocations. Without healthy coping strategies, you might feel rage, fear, and a need to control others.
  3. Engage in Eating Disorder Behaviors

    • Consequence: Resorting to bingeing, purging, or starving can numb you to the stress but leaves you feeling isolated, guilty, and ashamed.
  4. Call for Help and Commit to Recovery Work

    • Consequence: Seeking support can provide encouragement and tools to withstand stress without resorting to harmful behaviors. This approach fosters health and strength, reducing the need for eating disorder behaviors to cope with life and family dynamics.

The Silver Lining

The good news is that the pain you experience during the holidays can be a wake-up call. This pain is not about your personality or willpower but about deeper issues. It can motivate you to begin or recommit to your recovery work, ultimately helping you build the resilience and self-awareness needed to navigate family stress healthily.

By recognizing these challenges and proactively seeking support, you can transform the holiday season from a time of stress and struggle into an opportunity for growth and healing.


Joanna Poppink, MFT, psychotherapist eating disorder specialist, Los Angeles, CA

bulimia, anorexia, compulsive overeating recovery:  www.poppink.com

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