Learning to Speak Up

Expert therapist Nicole M. Seitz, LPC shares advice for explaining your gluten-free needs to family and friends, specifically throughout the holiday season.

By Nicole M. Seitz, LPC

In August, NFCA hosted the webinar “Cross-Contamination in Restaurants: What You Need to Know.” In preparing for the webinar, we discovered that many of you struggle to speak up about your gluten-free needs. We addressed this issue in the webinar, but we would like to keep the conversation going. Here, we have asked an expert therapist to share her advice as we all prepare for the holidays.

As a therapist specializing in working with people with health concerns, I know that the holidays can provoke anxiety, especially for people who follow medically necessary diets. Perhaps you can identify with one of my clients, “Beth.”  Her name and identifying information have been changed to protect her privacy, but her challenges may feel very familiar to anyone living with celiac disease.

Beth was distraught as she explained her worries about Thanksgiving: “I really don’t know if I can face another Thanksgiving with my family. I wish I could just disappear for a day. My husband and kids understand my gluten-free diet, but when we get together with the extended family, it’s terrible.  All the questions, like this is some kind of fad or something.  Are you still on that fad diet of yours? Or, the pressure to eat something that I know I can’t, like Aunt Jenny’s stuffing.  Believe me, I would if I could.  But, I can’t. So, I spend the day on pins and needles, trying my best to avoid foods that I know will make me very ill. It’s exhausting. And, it makes it really hard to feel close to my family.”

Beth’s worries about the holidays are common, as anyone reading this newsletter can understand,   Almost all of us have had to deal with the questions, the disbelief, the worries about being “glutened” and the cajoling to eat something we know will make us sick.  And, that’s with family!  It can get even more difficult out in the world of dining at restaurants, eating at work-related functions, traveling, and attending special events.  My job is to help clients find ways of navigating the challenges they face every day with resilience and emotional flexibility.

How did I help Beth with her concerns?  First, I asked her to identify the exact problems presented in her scenario.  I heard concerns about being scrutinized for her diet, feelings of being misunderstood and set-apart from her family, a wish to avoid the whole situation, and perhaps some simmering resentment.

Then, we explored all her ideas about what might be helpful in dealing with Thanksgiving.  Beth offered a few ideas, like skipping the holiday altogether. “Well, why not?” I asked.  She decided that was too extreme. She also wondered if she could handle hosting the holiday at her house, making what she could and using a gluten-free caterer to fill in the rest. Or, maybe she could just have a holiday meal with her husband and children, and then head over to the family gathering when it was time for dessert and football. “By then, everyone is so tired from turkey, no one will have the energy to bother me about being gluten-free,” she joked.

As we continued to discuss Beth’s options, I asked her what she had considered doing to directly educate her extended family about celiac disease and her medically necessary diet. “Oh,” she explained, “there’s no way I could see myself doing that. I wouldn’t want to be a bother.” As we kept talking, I got the sense that Beth may not have had very much experience in speaking up for herself.  I asked what might stop her from sitting everyone down and educating them. “That’s just not something we do in my family,” she answered.  I asked how things were done in her family when she was growing up.  She explained, “Mom was sick a lot when I was growing up. Dad was always reminding us to be quiet, that she needed her rest, not to make too much noise. I guess I never really thought about what kind of message that sends.  Maybe I’ve spent my whole life being quiet.  That’s something I need to think about some more…”

Beth and I continued to work on building her skills to speak up and ask directly for what she wants and needs, and she has been pleasantly surprised by positive reactions to her direct requests.  Her story presents an excellent example of how living with a medical condition can be the pathway for getting to know ourselves better, and for changing old patterns of behavior that may stand in the way of getting what we want and need. I see living with celiac disease as an opportunity to cultivate new skills of self-advocacy, self-care and resourcefulness in the face of challenging problems.

About Nicole Seitz

Nicole M. Seitz, LPC is a therapist who specializes in working with people who want to live fully, even though they have significant health conditions.  She has non-celiac gluten sensitivity and has been living gluten-free since 2002.  Her website is www.nicolemseitz.com

This article was originally posted by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, find it here.

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