Let’s state the obvious right off the bat. You can’t change other people. If your family isn’t generally supportive or does not function well, many of its members may never come around. While it would feel good to have their support or to feel like you are a top priority, the fact may be that you are not the highest priority for any given family member.
Ouch, that’s harsh.
Is it? I know, it feels awful when your desire and need for support are met with resistance, cruelty or, perhaps even worse, are ignored. This can leave you feeling as though you do not matter or hold an important place in the world. It can leave you feeling angry that you are experiencing hurt or neglect from those who you believe should be protecting and nurturing you. Nonetheless, if these are the facts, these are the facts. It is important to tell ourselves the truth. It is important to allow ourselves to consciously recognize what we already know.
Why? It is only from a place of truth that we can learn to rely on our inner strength, stop blaming others, discover that we can value ourselves even if we haven’t been valued, find a way to give up the fear and anger that keep us from feeling empathy and compassion for those who behave badly toward us, and most importantly recognize that we have a choice to live however we want to live.
Yes, I know you may not feel strong enough. You’ll get there.
You may not feel capable of taking on a difficult task all on your own. You’ll get there.
You may want to eat in an unhealthy manner to fill an emotional hole. This one takes awhile, but you’ll get there.
You may feel compelled to gulp down comfort food that makes you unhealthy and not know how to overcome this compulsion. Don’t worry, you’ll get there.
You may feel it’s not fair that you have to make tough choices when everyone else at the table is raving about the delicious cake. Maybe this one particular thing isn’t fair, but everyone has different challenges in life. You can be certain that the people eating cake also have experiences that aren’t fair even though they get to eat cake.
Even if your family is not supportive, it’s okay. You can find a community that is. In fact, we support you. We want you to be healthy and thrive.
Now that we got that out of the way, we know that some families want to be helpful so let’s go back to the question at hand – How can I make my family be supportive of my eating plan?
With a willing participant, you can facilitate the process by being clear, consistent, patient, and gentle in communicating your limitations. For instance, if your grandmother seems to understand, but then offers you gumbo you know was made with a roux and you are gluten-free, what are your options?
1)You can choose to hurt your health rather than possibly hurt her feelings by having to tell her one more time that you cannot eat her delicious gumbo. This choice will be tempting if you feel like you matter less than other people or must earn love by sacrificing yourself. It will also be tempting when you’re afraid of disappointing someone you care about.
2)You can act exasperated because she seems more ignorant than you thought and isn’t meeting your expectation. You may have a high expectation because your grandmother has been smart and wonderful all your life. Perhaps a bit of patience will help you realize that she’s aging and can’t remember as quickly now as she could before – especially if she’s tired or out of her routine. It may be time for you to see her as the real human she is rather than the superhero you have created. Yes, this is tough, sad, and scary because it is hard to watch those we love begin to decline, but facing the reality as it happens will allow you to maximize your connection during the remaining moments you have together.
3)You can act angry or irritated as though she’s deliberately trying to sabotage you. This choice may feel natural if you have another family member who manipulates as a matter of habit. Because you are poised to expect and/or avoid manipulation, the slightest possibility of sabotage can trigger your anger defense. Until you have reinforced your boundaries and have healed from the hurt or humiliation you have endured at the hand of the manipulator, you may need a momentary timeout to gain perspective. That’s okay, take the timeout. Even when you can’t verbalize why in advance, remove yourself. Once you’ve regained your perspective, you can come back and explain. Sometimes the path to healing isn’t perfect and isn’t pretty. It’s still important and making a deliberate choice that disrupts your old-standing habits is always a step in the right direction. If you are inadvertently impolite, apologize. If someone grumbles, let them grumble.
4)You can complain to the rest of the family that if grandma cared about you, she’d take the time to research, record, and remember what you can’t eat. This can be a divisive and negative way of attempting to get the support you need – “Come on team, rally around me-the-maligned”. It can also be a way to avoid taking responsibility for yourself. Once everyone chooses sides and turmoil ensues, you can blame grandma and her allies if you fail to make a positive choice. After all, look at all the opposing forces – who could possibly make a positive choice in this environment? What you may not realize is that you give up your personal power each and every time you allow a group to limit you or blame someone else for a choice you have made. You may also fail to see that you have an active hand in creating chaos and contributing to your own misery.
5)You can throw a fit, yell, scream, and create so much drama that you think it will guarantee she won’t forget next time. You will create the reality you desire – no one will forget, but what they won’t forget is that you behaved badly. They may still feed you gluten.
6)You can politely refuse by saying something like, “Wow, that smells wonderful and I remember how good it tastes. I sure wish I could have some, but I can’t.” If grandma then asks why not, you can follow with, “It’s that darned roux made with flour. My system just can’t tolerate it. I appreciate the offer though. Thanks for always trying to include me.”
Ahhh, finally a response that allows you to both protect your health and your grandmother’s feelings. Achieving this sort of balance over and over again is the best way to solicit support over the long haul.
Any time you can facilitate simple, clear communication, you will create interactions that offer more time, space, and energy for you to educate and share your passion for being healthy. Following a consistent eating plan makes it less confusing for your family and helps them to adapt and accommodate you. In your home, you can have as elaborate a structure as you’d like. In addition to gluten, I avoid corn, potatoes, and shrimp. Avoiding shrimp and gluten are critical to my health because I cannot tolerate the slightest amounts of these foods. I can tolerate small bits of corn and products with potato flour. When I communicate my needs to a hostess, I do not mention corn or potatoes as a problem because I feel it is best to keep things simple.
Why would I make the choice to only communicate critical limitations? My intent is not for extended family to memorize the intricacies of my dietary plan. My intent is to be healthy, thrive, and have positive interactions with my family. I can eat some cheese dip and chips once every 6 months while we watch basketball or football without sacrifice.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you “fudge” to accommodate your family, but simply that you can soften the way you impart information. Sometimes when something is very important to us, we communicate our restrictions as rigid rules without even recognizing what we’re doing. We lay out the restrictions we’d follow if we were meeting our ideal behaviors every moment rather than communicating the points that are essential and must be followed religiously for us to be healthy. When we make the rules too broad, or based on our ideals rather than reality, we run the risk that before family dinner is over we’ll have bent one of those rules. This causes confusion and often results in the rest of the family taking our real restrictions less seriously.
I am also suggesting that when we communicate with those whose support we desire, we take the time to set clear intentions for that communication. With those intentions in mind, you’ll often find there’s plenty of wiggle room to relax how you communicate without having to compromise your health plan. For instance, if my intent for a conversation is to make my mom comfortable while I firmly assert that I cannot eat her conventional pie crust any longer, I will inherently make a softer presentation than if I enter the conversation with the goal of telling my mom that things have to change because I can’t have the traditional lemon meringue pie for my birthday any more unless she makes me a special crust. Yes, there may be a subtle difference in words, but there is a world of difference in attitude.To help you remember this, it may be helpful to actually wiggle your shoulders before you begin to speak. Remember – when there’s room to wiggle, there’s room for any pressure to dissipate.
If you feel overwhelmed by the changes you’re making or feel as though your family will not take you seriously, enlist outside support. Solicit better behavior by inviting another gluten-free friend to attend a function with you. Most families behave better when there are outside parties around to observe, plus you won’t be the only one refusing a dinner roll. Just make sure you don’t create an us against them atmosphere. Another option when you’re feeling unprepared for family pressure is to skip a few gatherings until you’re in a better position to handle them. You can also have a friend on call for encouragement by phone.
Again, make sure your intentions are benevolent and clear so that a phone call does not become a complain and blame session. In other words, when you call your support friend, a statement like – “I feel like the odd man out every time I refuse the stuffing and rolls and cake. I’m so afraid someone is going to make fun of me or talk about me when I’m out of the room.” is constructive and gives your friend a chance to reassure you in a very specific way because you have clearly stated how you feel. This kind of statement will get a much different result than saying, “I can’t believe my sister! Do you know what she did to me? She put a roll on my plate after I passed the bread basket to her. I’ve told her about a hundred times I can’t have rolls. I swear she just wants to embarrass me in front of everyone.” Now your support friend is in a precarious position.
If she jumps on the vilify-your-sister bandwagon, your friend may add fuel to the fire encouraging you to become more enraged. If he attempts to calm you down by minimizing what she did, he runs the risk of you feeling betrayed. If he simply says, “I’m sorry you had to experience that”, it helps but doesn’t address the specific fear you are masking with angry, blaming statements. While this makes you feel less vulnerable in the moment, it will ultimately leave you feeling less supported.
Please pause for a moment here to recognize that in any interaction each of us can make the choice to be honest, open, vulnerable and invite the possibility of maximum support; or we can choose to avoid our feelings, and the vulnerability that comes with exposing them, and garner partial or ill-fitting support at best.
Which I suppose brings us back to the original question. The best way to get our family to be supportive of our eating plan is to set good boundaries and clear intentions then to make it a priority to be as open, honest, vulnerable and courageous as we can in any given moment.
Do not expect perfection. There is no such thing when people are involved. Solicit support when you need it. Receive support when it is given. Be patient. Be kind to all including yourself. This is a process. Tell us how you’re doing.