The Silent Agreements that Keep Us Stuck

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There’s a common romantic comedy tale of an emotionally distant, successful professional who has it all, until they end up in circumstances that send them home to their wacky family for the holidays. The next thing we see is them quickly unravel, usually in the most tragically hilarious of ways. In our own lives that same thing usually happens to some degree, and it never seems as funny as in the movies. The mother-in-law who never thought you were good enough, the alcoholic uncle who is incredibly inappropriate, the mother who brings up embarrassing memories or the brother we have always been in competition with. These classic characters of the family holiday story tend to trigger us like no one else. These stressful moments can lead us to make abrupt and impulsive decisions that we might never make in our regularly scheduled lives, especially around food. 

The holidays are steeped in traditions: all the sights, sounds and smells which tap deeply into our memory bank. In holiday situations we are more sensitive to being triggered because these traditions have already brought us into a reflective and emotional state. This is part of the reason why even if we make a plan to avoid these difficult situations, we usually end up sticking to the same old scripts, eating too much food and drinking the booze anyway, and then feeling badly about it afterwards. This guilt, shame and anxiety only fuels us into another episode at the next opportunity. So what is the solution?

What if this year, rather than struggling to fill a role you have outgrown, you could take the opportunity to celebrate your growth and how far you’ve come? Instead of feeling anxious and overwhelmed about whether you can adhere to your new healthy lifestyle, you could look back on the things that have changed for you in a positive way as you have become a healthier person, and then absolutely own it.   

The week before Thanksgiving I met with a client named Sara to talk through her personal holiday nightmare story so she could mentally and emotionally prepare. Sara was always labeled as the overweight and naïve sister, youngest of three. She has always been protected by her parents and never had to do her own problem solving or make decisions. She has also replicated this dynamic in her marriage. At family gatherings it was expected that she would never make waves, would always have second helpings, and could never say no to sweets. She was coddled by her mother, and her mom’s baking represented love, so in the past she had stuffed down multiple desserts to dress the wounds of her older sisters’ bullying and snide remarks about her weight. Although she had experienced great success in her 90 day challenge and felt a big improvement in her self confidence, she was worried these triumphs would only fuel her sisters’ jealousy and she would end up feeling a need to overeat as a result of their hurtful comments. 

I asked her a simple question:

Why did she believe that, despite all her progress, she would react as she always had?

“Well, because that is just how it is with us.” Sara responded.

“Ahh, so you have already made up your mind about what will happen, because you have decided who you are and to honor your unspoken agreements with your family members.” I replied.

“I suppose,” Sara said, “but what would these agreements be?”

“Ultimately we are the one whose opinion matters most, and yet generally we are always willing to sell ourselves out for the comfort of others. We have created silent agreements, unspoken rules, with the people in our lives about needs, wishes and expectations. We cannot know if we share those needs, wishes and expectations with the others in the agreement, because they are unspoken, but we hold ourselves and others accountable to them anyway. As these agreements do not have a basis of authentic communication, they tend to create more problems than good. In this instance, you fill a role in your family that you do not like. You feel the lowest in rank of your siblings, and you accept certain ritualistic habits and behaviors as yours, even though they no longer serve the person you have become. Why else would you do that unless a rule or agreement dictated it would be so?” 

How does this influence self image?

We attach many labels to ourselves: parent, partner, sibling, rich, poor, clever, dumb, laywer, accountant, etc. which help us integrate ourselves in the world and with those around us. These labels also apply when it comes to our self image. We decide if we are short, tall, fat, fit, or healthy usually based on the judgements of others. We then create the rules we live by based on these judgements. Unfortunately, like the silent agreements we make with others, these labels are difficult to change unless we consciously bring awareness and insights to them. Like we do with our Food Dialogue, we must address who taught us these rules and if they are still serving us well. If they are not serving us and our goals, we need to change the rules and labels accordingly.  

Now why would you invest the time and energy into doing this kind of self reflection, especially at a busy time like during the holidays? 

We know that the holidays are when ‘bad’ behaviors and habits flare up the most, and though we try, some just can’t seem to stop participating in them. This may be because ultimately a shift in habits and behaviors requires a shift in our perspective of ourselves. Shifting our perspective of self must be done from a place of self appreciation and acceptance. 

In order to look at ourselves differently we need to feel differently about ourselves also. Our assumption that we need to be the “me” that people are used to is often what is limiting us. People are relating to their own version of you because we are all just looking for our place in things. You are responsible for being who you wish to be, and for communicating how you wish to be treated by others.

In the case of my client Sara, she seized the family gathering as an opportunity to celebrate becoming a healthy person. I advised her to write down all the unspoken agreements she felt that she had with her family and herself. Sara was then tasked with the goal of discovering whether these agreements were actually shared with those involved using open communication. If the rules were not enriching her life she would take steps to change them. She reached out to her sisters before the weekend gathering to say that their healthy lifestyles was what originally inspired her to join the program. One of her sisters responded that she had followed her WILDFIT journey, was so proud of her, and could not wait to go to the gym together. Sara discovered what she perceived as bullying was her less sensitive sister’s attempt at expressing concern about her health. Her sister apologized after Sara openly expressed herself.  

Sara reached out to her mother to ask if she could please use the WILDFIT cookbook to create some recipes that she and her kids could enjoy without guilt. Her mother was initially taken aback, but with further discussion the two were able to express their love for each other without using food as a communication tool, and Sara was able to set some healthy boundaries for the first time in her life. 

She had created new labels for herself as assertive, active, healthy and strong, then acted through those labels in her previously difficult family dynamic. This positive experience helped her build further self confidence in this perception of herself. Her family accepted her new labels and their new dynamics, but only once she was brave enough to give herself permission to take action as this version of herself and ask for what she really needed. 

And so, if you are feeling trepidations about gatherings, family and traditions this holiday season, I would ask you to contemplate: What would need to happen for you to see yourself as a healthy person, rather than a person trying to be healthy? If you are looking for tips to beat holiday stress eating, click here. Can you create a new perception of yourself? How would this potentially change your life? Let us know in the comments below! 

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