Updated on 12/28/23

On TV and in the movies, Valentine’s Day is a big deal. Couples exchange gifts over romantic candlelit dinners in fancy restaurants and clink their champagne glasses together to celebrate their love. But in real life, it’s often a little less romantic. People who are single often approach the day with a sense of dread. Even people who are in happy relationships and marriages aren’t off the hook for Valentine’s Day stress: Are we exchanging gifts this year? What about reservations? How much does that special Valentine’s Day menu cost?! And navigating Valentine’s Day while in recovery from an eating disorder can be even harder, single or not.

Valentine’s Day is yet another holiday focused on food. After getting through the holidays, managing your recovery at Thanksgiving and the string of year-end, food-focused holidays, many of us are feeling the fatigue. And a day focused on romantic love can dig into those soft spots related to self-esteem, desirability, and body image that so often accompany an eating disorder. Here’s how to get through Valentine’s Day while in recovery.

All Foods Fit

To some degree, it’s impossible to completely avoid the candy on such a sweets-centric holiday. The candy, cookies and cupcakes will be everywhere: in the grocery store, in the break room at work. So, what can you do? Well, you can embrace it.

“If you tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have a particular food, it can lead to intense feelings of deprivation that build into uncontrollable cravings and often, bingeing,” wrote Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in their book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works. And so it is with Valentine’s Day candy. By allowing ourselves unconditional permission to eat what we want (including Valentine’s Day candy), we can avoid the “Last Supper” mentality that can cause binge eating and food avoidance. Normalizing all food is an important step in reclaiming our power over food and how we eat.

Valentine’s Day is just another day, and chocolate is just one type of food. So relax, try to enjoy that Whitman’s Sampler, and remember that all foods fit. If that bag of Reese’s hearts on display at the grocery store looks good, buy it and eat one whenever your body is craving something sweet. Grab that Hershey’s kiss from your coworker’s desk and enjoy it. Each time we refuse to give food power that it has not earned and does not deserve, we are closer to healing our relationship with food.

Nurture Relationships

Valentine’s Day is a day that can be very much focused on food, but it can also be a day to nurture important relationships in our lives. Whether those relationships are romantic, platonic, or familial, the holiday can be a time to reach out to those important people in our lives and let them know how important they are. When you’re in eating disorder recovery, holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine’s Day can make it easy to fall into hyper-focus on holiday food as well as our anxiety about eating. But it’s just as easy to shift the focus away from the food and instead zero in one what’s most important: our relationships with our loved ones.

Instead of allowing ourselves to fixate on the food, we can plan to spend the day letting the people we love know how much we care. That might mean dinner out with a romantic partner, a phone call to a parent, a text message to a good friend, or a small gift and card for a child. It doesn’t have to be all about the food — we can refocus ourselves by making Valentine’s Day about strengthening relationships.

Set Boundaries

All relationships are enhanced by setting boundaries and expectations. And when you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day while in recovery, this can be especially important. So, to avoid painful, awkward, or upsetting events, it can be helpful to lay out your boundaries for Valentine’s Day:

  • Gifts: It’s okay to have a blanket “no gifts” policy on Valentine’s Day (and any other holiday). It’s vital that we communicate our boundaries around gifts and enforce them, especially since chocolates and candy are top gift choices on Valentine’s Day. Let romantic partners, family members, friends, and anyone else who might need to know whether gifts are welcome. And it’s also perfectly fine to politely refuse a gift that is offered unexpectedly or against your wishes: “Thank you, that is so sweet of you, but I’d prefer not to accept any gifts this Valentine’s Day.”
  • Chocolates & Candy: We have the complete and total authority to tell the people in our lives that we would prefer not to receive chocolates and candy as Valentine’s Day gifts. There are a few approaches that can work here, depending on the closeness of the relationship and what we are comfortable disclosing. “I’d prefer not to receive any chocolates, candy, or type of food as a gift for Valentine’s Day gift, I’m in recovery from an eating disorder” is a simple, direct way to handle it. But it’s also perfectly appropriate to just say, “No thanks!”
  • Dinner: If you have a romantic partner or friend who may want to go out to dinner on Valentine’s Day, talk about it with them. It’s okay to find an alternative activity if the thought of a dinner out for Valentine’s Day while in recovery feels like too much. Sometimes, simply knowing where we’re having dinner and getting a chance to take a look at the menu beforehand is enough to feel at ease with dining out. By hashing this out ahead of time and making our feelings known (and setting any boundaries we need to set with the people in our lives), we can better avoid pre-Valentine’s Day stress and any surprises that may trip us up.
  • Celebrating Valentine’s Day… At All: Another thing that’s totally and completely valid is opting out of celebrating Valentine’s Day at all! If we don’t feel celebrating Valentine’s Day is good for us this year, whether it’s related to eating disorder recovery or not, it’s fine to let people know that we’re treating it like any other day and request that they not attempt to cajole us into celebrating it.

Setting, enforcing, and revisiting boundaries is something we all need to do in our relationships. This Valentine’s Day, setting boundaries with the people in our lives (and even checking in with them about whether we are in our recovery) can be an excellent way to honor those relationships and our recovery.

Prioritize Self-Care

People with eating disorders tend to have poor self-esteem, negative self-image, and body image issues. And on a day like Valentine’s Day, with its focus on love and romance, it can be easy to fall into a pit of despair wondering if our bodies are to blame for any snags in our love lives. This is especially true if we’re not the ones getting flowers delivered at work or with gifts and a night on the town waiting for us when we get home. So, it’s vital to make sure that we’re taking good care of ourselves on Valentine’s Day.

  • Focus on Gratitude: Starting the day with a list of things in our lives we’re thankful for can keep us from falling into the trap of comparing ourselves to others. Whether it’s being thankful that we are in eating disorder recovery, or grateful that we are loved by parents, friends, family members or even a pet, most of us have some love in our lives worth celebrating. Find that love and be thankful for it!
  • Make Plans: Don’t have a date for Valentine’s Day? No problem. Show yourself some love by making plans to do something you want to do for Valentine’s Day. That could be catching up with friends, spending some quality time with a parent, scheduling a massage, or even just taking a nap or staying home and catching up on Netflix.
  • Tune It Out: If Valentine’s Day while in recovery is just too much, it’s okay to do whatever is necessary to tune it out. If the parade of flower deliveries at work is upsetting, ask to work from home (or plan on taking a vacation day.) If there are a few people on social media who are just going way too hard with the Valentine’s Day posting, temporarily mute them. It’s okay to just treat it like any other day, and take steps to excise the Valentine’s Day out of February 14. Even consider going off the grid until it passes. (And, thankfully, it will pass.)
  • Check In With Your Support System: There are some times when we may need a little more support than others. If Valentine’s Day is stressful, reach out to people who can help. Whether that’s close friends, parents, or a treatment team, it’s important to let them know that some extra support would be appreciated.
  • Practice Self-Compassion: Most of us are our own harshest critics — and that’s especially true on a holiday focused on idealized love. It can be helpful to take the time to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come in our recovery, and be patient as we consider how far we have left to go. Negative or difficult feelings that are brought up by Valentine’s Day are valid, and it’s important to acknowledge them and feel them. Like all other feelings, they will pass!

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