By Emmy Johnson, MSW, LCSW, Gender Affirmative Care Coordinator, DBH
This blog addresses the challenges of attending family gatherings for those who identify as LGBTQ+. It offers insight into preparing your specific plans for the gathering in advance and lining up your support system. It also includes strategies for having an escape route if you feel your mental health or substance use disorder is at stake.
Social gatherings with families and friends are usually to enjoy ourselves, celebrate a birthday or achievement, or acknowledge an important moment in time. Yet, these get-togethers can present challenges for those in the LGBTQ+ community whose identity may not be accepted by those at the event. And when you are in eating disorder recovery, these gatherings are even more daunting. I talk with my patients a lot about participating in gatherings such as family birthdays, holidays and graduation parties and the feelings or challenges they can bring up. This blog will offer some of my advice, insight and understanding for those in the LGBTQ community who are recovering from an eating disorder.
Preparing for Family Gatherings and Social Events
I suggest preparing for an event by having the answers to the following questions ready:
- What are your plans? – What will happen at this event? Is there dinner and dessert or a group activity involved? How long will you be at the event? While you cannot predict exactly what an event will be like, knowing what is generally going to happen can help you feel more in control.
- What’s your escape route? – An exit strategy is especially important for those with an eating disorder, mental health disorder or substance use disorder. Line up someone who you can call to pick you up. Have an excuse ready so you can leave early if it feels like it’s too much for you or leading you to a negative place in your recovery. Even if you can’t plan a way to fully leave an event, strategize on how you’ll be able to remove yourself from the immediate situation or take a break if needed.
- Who can support you and advocate for you? – Is there someone you can look to at this event when awkward conversation topics come up, or who can advocate for you to others? Is there someone you can text in the bathroom who can help you feel supported? Consider lining up a therapy session or support group before and after the event.
- What do you want out of this experience? – Your holidays and celebrations matter. If you are gathering for a holiday or to celebrate another family member’s life achievement or your own, that matters. Your enjoyment matters. You don’t have to always be just pushing through. Make a list of what you are seeking from this day, such as spending time with someone specific in your family, giving a certain gift, enjoying a great meal or taking time to reflect on what that day means to you. When you know what you want, you can strategize on how to get it, and deprioritize the parts that don’t matter to you.
- How will you affirm yourself? – When you are around less than affirming people, you will likely feel invalidated or unaffirmed. If you are closeted, that will likely be even more challenging. Think about how you will remind yourself of who you are. Is it wearing affirming underwear when wearing un-affirming outerwear? Is it texting friends who know you well and can validate your experiences? Is it listening to LGBTQ+ musical artists or reading books about LGBTQ+ characters before or after (or during) the event?
Safety vs. Authenticity in Social Situations
I talk to my patients about their need for safety vs. their need for authenticity. Ideally, you are in situations where you can have both your safety and your authenticity, but if you are in a situation where you cannot have both or those are in conflict, it’s OK if you are 100% prioritizing your safety. It’s OK if you’re going to an event and thinking, “I’m going to get through this, I am not going to make waves. I am not going to draw attention to myself.” It’s also OK if you choose to be 100% authentic, even if it makes others upset. And, it’s OK if you’re somewhere in the middle. Be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to be in any of those spots.
Be Gentle with Yourself at Events
Sometimes we judge ourselves for not standing up for ourselves. We feel like if we don’t, it means that we’re not brave. Remind yourself that you are just being who you are and that it’s fine to prioritize your safety.
Sometimes we judge ourselves for “ruffling feathers” or “creating a scene.” If you feel like everyone wants you to go along to get along, remember, you have the right to be who you are. What you are asking for is the same level of respect that everyone else is receiving: being called the correct name or pronoun, or being able to wear clothes that feel good to you.
Being gentle with yourself also includes thinking ahead. You can think in advance about when you are going to prioritize your safety and when you are going to prioritize your authenticity. This is part of caring for yourself.
Center for Discovery knows that challenges that those in the LGBTQ+ community face during social gatherings. If you or a loved one needs support, contact us today.
About the Author
Emmy Johnson, MSW, LCSW, (they/them) is a non-binary eating disorder professional working as a coordinator for Gender Affirmative Care. They have been with Center for Discovery since 2020 as a primary therapist before moving into the GAC role. They specialize in working with LGBTQ+ populations with eating disorders and trauma, and they love providing trainings and supporting clinicians who work with transgender clients. They have worked in transgender advocacy and support since 2015 and in the field of treatment of eating disorders since 2018. They received their master’s in social work – with internships at Carolina Partners (now MindPath) providing free outpatient therapy for trans adults, and Carolina House Center for Eating Disorder Treatment – and their BA in public policy and women and gender studies, both degrees earned at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. They strive to be anti-racist, anti-oppression and Health at Every Size®/anti-sizeism oriented in all that they do. Outside of work, they love hiking with their dog Lyra and reading romance novels.
More from Center for Discovery:
- How to Prioritize Your Health and Eliminate Negative Self-Talk During Holiday Meals
- 5 Tips for Living with Mindfulness and Compassion
- Move into the New Year with Mindfulness