concrete strategies for dealing with inevitable triggers
May 26, 2019 2:25 PM   Subscribe

I need to go home and see my dad, who is sick. I haven't been home in 2 years. I will inevitably have to be around my mom and her disordered approaches to food and bodies (her own and her daughters'), which is very triggering for me. Please share ideas and coping strategies with me!

The short version is that my mom has lived her entire life with a ton of her own hangups about food and weight, and is not at all self-aware. A lot of her body anxieties manifested in a desire for boundary-less control over the food/eating/body of her daughters:this wasn't me but it basically describes my childhood. My younger sister is implicated in this in a different way: mom thought I was too big and my sister was too small, and she punished me whenever she felt my sister ate too little.

I've unsurprisingly lived with various issues with food and my own body for most/all of my adult life. With therapy and a f*** ton of very hard work for the past several years, I'm in a better place than I have ever been, though I'm still battling internalized vitriol about my own body on a daily basis.

I've made it clear to my family about a year ago that I will not have conversations with them about anyone's eating or weight or physical appearance, and for the most part that's what made it possible for me to not completely cut them off. But when I go home to visit my dad, I will 1) have to eat meals together and just...physically materialize in front of my mom, who is an expert in wordless body-checking and meaningful glances; 2) have to talk about or at least face dad's health issues, and part of it has to do with his appetite, nutrition, and weight; and 3) my mom understandably stressed out/panicking, and historically her response is to talk ceaselessly about her own eating or guilt about eating or her own body hatred...if not also body shaming other people.

I think at this point, if I want to see my dad, which I really, really do, it'd be more productive for me to brace myself and be prepared for triggers, rather than trying and failing to avoid them completely. Please share with me any concrete strategies, ideas, resources!

* I've come to understand and accept that my mom is a product of her own dysfunctional family and her own childhood spent in anxieties expressed in terms of food and body insecurities. I'm not particularly interested in changing her in any fundamental way at this point. What I want to do is minimize her impact on my mental health

** my sister has her own food and body baggage. She's an amazing ally in many other things, but because we grew up with such opposite complexes, I am alone in dealing with this.
posted by redwaterman to Human Relations (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: When you go, can you stay somewhere other than the family home? Because a huge relief for me, when faced with such circumstances, is being able to completely disengage for as many hours a day as I can manage. Staying elsewhere can be a huge help with that, and might also easily/naturally cover some mealtimes, so you don't have the negativity of actually sitting down to a table with them for every single meal.
posted by BlahLaLa at 2:32 PM on May 26, 2019 [29 favorites]

Best answer: Tell them you’ll organise your own meals, then eat at different time, in your room if need be. Every time your mother brings it or your appearance up, tell them they can either drop the subject and enjoy having you here or bring it up and you’ll just leave and who knows when they’ll see you again? She does it because she gets away with it and there’s no repercussions. Time for repercussions.
posted by Jubey at 3:21 PM on May 26, 2019 [11 favorites]

Best answer: You can go Gray Rock, but that might just prompt escalation.

Once when I was preparing to give a deposition, my side's attorney warned me that the other lawyer would go to extremes to get under my skin and goad me into an outburst. The attorney advised me to flex my feet in my shoes and grip with my toes, as it would be grounding and also invisible to my interrogator. It worked, giving me something else to concentrate on and I've used that tactic with my own toxic mother. I've also dug a thumbnail into my forefinger, not hard enough to break the skin, but enough to feel it and to remind myself that I'm a separate person and can endure whatever she was dishing out.

I also used to let the vitriol wash over me while trying to dispassionately analyze where [$dysfunctional behavior] came from, getting in the mindset of an observer rather than a target.

I'm sorry for what you're going through and hope you can spend meaningful time with your father.
posted by carmicha at 4:05 PM on May 26, 2019 [16 favorites]

Do you have friends in their town that you could visit? Or friends where you live, that you could let know that you're going into a difficult situation, and ask for check-ins/phone dates/to send you funny videos, etc?
posted by ITheCosmos at 4:31 PM on May 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Doubling down on the staying somewhere else aspect. Visit the family; but for the love of it all; being able to disengage and get back to being yourself; in a controlled by You environment such as a hotel room; priceless.
IMHO; I can't handle the 24/7 home to family trip; it is now a 4 or 5 hour at the Max. And then back to room, sweet sweet hotel room; and yeah. My own 'space'. YMMV.
posted by Afghan Stan at 7:56 PM on May 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you can't stay elsewhere, could you go out for a long walk every day, ideally in nature? It helps me get grounded again.
posted by salvia at 8:22 PM on May 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here is a pre-trigger visualization that I find works extremely well, especially since you know your exact triggers in such detail. I’ve used it to great success to prepare for these kinds of triggering situations and it shifts the emotional landscape so you are not so stuck in stimulus-response mode. It takes the edge off, so to speak.

Allow 30mins for this exercise.

The clearer the detail you are able to envision and feel, the better.

Picture Future You and Future Mom at Mom’s house. Future Mom does that exact thing she does (the side eye look or body image phrase) and Future You is flooded with those exact bad feelings you know so well. (Current You is watching this happen from the sidelines.)

Pause the visualization right there.

Imagine that Current You can breathe in the pain of Future You. Out of compassion for Future You, breathe in and absorb her pain right into your emotional heart.

Absorb that pain, and by absorbing it you slowly purify and transform it. Absorb the pain in until Future You’s pain is gone (or at the very least, greatly lightened). You will know this has happened because the feeling of Future You will have subtly shifted.

Now bring up some Love from the heart of Current You and beam it to the heart of Future You. Strongly imagine that she feels peace, she feels settled and the triggered feeling is just not there.

Beam some love to Future Mom too; she feels a moment of peace and even if her behavior isn’t changed, the pain and intensity driving the behavior is just not there.

Spend some time enjoying that everyone in this situation feels peaceful and settled. On the surface it may seems the same but the players feel lighter somehow.

Repeat this meditation a few times before your trip, until you are solid and grounded in the peace that Future You has at her heart.

Ok. So I know It’s kind of trippy and more than what you asked but I have used a variation of the above on my own triggering situations and I find when those situations actually come to pass, my emotionality around it has shifted enough for me to be able to work within the situation and choose new feelings and responses. It is most effective when you are clear about the emotional stimulus-respond that you want to change, and it sounds like you are.

Think of this time at your parent’s as mental training. It’s Emotional Gym push-ups. You may not get them all but you’ll have more successes than before. You got this.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:56 PM on May 26, 2019 [14 favorites]

Best answer: This probably sounds pretty silly but as a way of distancing yourself emotionally a little, you could try to play some bingo with your mom's behavior, with pre-prepared sheets and a nice prize or treat for yourself when you win. Or if your sister's around you could each make a list of your mom's relevant behaviors and switch lists and keep a running tally for each other. If it's just you, you could keep your own running count (maybe using a tracking app that lets you define your own categories), such that for entertainment you can make graphs and pie charts and so on. It's not enough, but it might help a little to take an anthropological approach to your interactions with her.

If you have someone (or even something like an online forum*) to report to at the end of the day, that might also help provide some distance; you can spend less time internalizing what she's saying and more time thinking about how to effectively describe her behavior to others.

And, if you don't want to think about her that way either, then I'd try other distractions that can help you be less in the moment: doodling, a coloring book, brain teasers, game apps, some crafts kit or model to build, etc. (Learn to) knit. Just things you can turn your attention to that are not your mother replaying scripts you already know.

Best of luck.
posted by trig at 1:29 AM on May 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I love the bingo idea, combined with some internal humor when the behaviors you predict will happen actually happen. “Yep, exactly what I thought she’d say” and congratulate yourself rather than reacting to her. I do this with my mom-related triggers.

Also, I find that doing things together that minimize opportunities for talking is good. Go to a movie or a museum together, or see a performance. Watch a movie at home. Play a board game. If your mom is focused on an activity she might lay off.

You’ve talked less about your triggers related to your dad. Is it complicated for you that he needs to make diet / lifestyle changes for his health, like does it make you feel like it you don’t do the same thing you aren’t being loyal? It can be helpful to remember you’re on your own journey and he’s on his.

It might be good to practice some specific phrases. “We’re not here to talk about me”, “I’ve been choosing my own food for a good while now”, “I don’t feel like discussing that. Let’s talk about ___”. You can invoke your therapist and say that it’s not healthy for you to discuss subject X. Or invoke your doctor. “I asked my doctor about my lifestyle choices and they said I’m doing just fine”. I’ve found that sometimes parents don’t believe anything their kids tell them but if a doctor says it they don’t question it at all. Your doctor doesn’t have to have actually said whatever. Your parents won’t know either way.

You are so smart to have asked this question! I’m saving this thread for next time I go home.
posted by flannel at 7:56 PM on May 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

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