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How to Navigate Triggering Conversations During the Holiday Season

Recently I attended the Break the Freeze workshop put on by fellow ATB X cohort #5 member Empowerment Inc. While the purpose of the workshop was teaching communication and self-defense skills, I immediately saw that a lot of the skills could be applied to navigating triggering topics, like diet and body talk, during the holidays (or any time of year, for that matter.)

What is “The Freeze”?

The “freeze” is part of the “fight, flight, freeze” response that naturally kicks in during stressful situations. While we typically associate “freeze” with a deer-in-headlights sort of image, it can actually show up in a lot of different ways.

Think of the last time someone made an uncomfortable comment about food or weight, or any other awkward or triggering situation—how did it feel, and how did you respond? Perhaps you felt a lump in your throat, a tightness in your chest, or maybe your shoulders tensing up toward your ears. Maybe you said nothing, laughed awkwardly along, or stopped eating even though you wanted more.

Recognizing your unique freeze response is the first step to breaking the freeze.

Turn the Attention Outwards with a Question

Part of the reason why certain situations feel triggering and cause us to freeze is because we feel that power and attention has been put on us. In our culture, women are generally socialized to take that attention and turn it inwards. We ask ourselves, “What did I do to get myself in this situation? What should I have done differently?” We take so much time ruminating and overanalyzing that we end up freezing instead of responding.

A quick way to turn that attention back outwards is to ask a question. Different situations may call for different questions, but here are a few to have in your back pocket that can work in a variety of scenarios:

  • “Why do you ask?”
  • “What makes you say that?”
  • “Why is this important to you?”
  • “Where is this conversation going?”
  • Reflect back their original question or statement (i.e. “Are you going to eat all that?” “Were you to planning to eat some?”)

Refining Your Response

Of course, there isn’t one universal response for every single situation—even a change in your tone of voice or body language can change how your reaction comes off. In Breaking the Freeze, this difference was defined as “light touch” versus “heavy touch”. Another way to think of it might be “calling in” versus “calling out”.

In the context of family, I’m assuming that a light touch is probably what you’ll be going for in most situations, whereas a heavy touch might be more for situations where setting a hard boundary is necessary and urgent. That being said, a heavy touch may be needed for people who repeatedly violate your boundaries, or are traumatizing you in some way. One point that was repeatedly stressed in the workshop was that it’s not a bad thing to make someone feel uncomfortable with your response because what you’re actually doing is giving them feedback that what they did made you feel uncomfortable, and because of the freeze, this might be the first time that this person is receiving that feedback.

One way to help determine whether to use a light or heavy touch is the Clearing Ambiguity Formula. The formula is responding with, “It seems like… Is that true?” For example, in response to “Are you going to eat all that?” You can say, “It seems like you’re really focused on how much food I’m eating. Is that true?” Like the questions in the previous example, it puts the attention back on the other person. Ideally, hearing it spelled out in this way will stop the conversation in its tracks, but if the other person pushes forward, then it’s probably a sign that you’ll need a heavier touch. Note that the formula does not start with “I feel like…” You are trying to direct the attention to the other person.

Further Reading

Looking for more tips? Check out this post I wrote last year on dealing with the holiday food police—including when the food police is you.

Are you worried about the food police or other triggering conversations at your holiday gatherings? How do you plan to respond? Please share your insights and experiences in the comments below.

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