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How Your Attachment Style May Affect Your Holiday Eating

By LifeStance Health on December 21, 2021

The holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is filled with gatherings of colleagues, friends and family. At this time of year, those gatherings typically also include traditional comfort foods and holiday beverages. Everyone has a different reaction to the abundance of food and parties, and for people who use food to satisfy emotional needs it can be a difficult time of year for self-regulation.

Even for those with a healthy relationship with food, the holidays are still a time of temptation. However, there are ways to reduce unhealthy eating habits without guilt and one of them is to understand how your attachment style affects your relationship with food.

Attachment Theory: The Blueprint?

Modern attachment theory was developed by British psychologist John Bowlby who explored how the early relationship between a child and their caregiver created a psychological blueprint for the interpersonal relationships that child would have later as adults. Recent research has shown that this blueprint also extends to our relationship with food, explained through the different attachment styles. Attachment theory is one way of understanding how we value ourselves through our relationships and by extension, how we choose to treat ourselves – either with kindness and grace or with judgement and denial. Once these habits or stories have formed, we routinely lean into them especially in stressful and emotionally demanding situations such as during the year-end holiday season.

How Do We Attach Ourselves To Food?

By observing babies with their caregivers, Bowlby and others observed four different attachment styles: secure, ambivalent-insecure, avoidant-insecure, and disorganized-insecure. These early attachment styles can predict behavior later in life and we will review how people with different attachment styles differ in their approach to relationships and food. There are ways that everyone can be more mindful around food during the holidays, however, people with insecure attachment styles will need to be more vigilant with their holiday eating habits and generally are more prone to eating disorders.

Attachment Style: Secure

About 56% of people have a secure attachment and are comfortable expressing their needs and emotions openly. They initiate relationships with an expectation that partners and friends can be depended upon. For the holiday season, a person with secure attachment tends to have a practical approach to food and eating, based on honesty and awareness of their emotional and dietary needs.  Those with secure attachment will treat themselves with an understanding that they might eat a few more cookies or have that glass of eggnog this month, but it won’t lead to feelings or guilt or shame. Holiday eating tips for this group includes spending more time at holiday parties chatting with friends and family than cruising the buffet table or bar.

Attachment Style: Anxious

Ambivalent-insecure attachment is described as an anxious adult who seeks approval and frequent reassurances from their partner and who validates their own intrinsic value only through the lens of another. Women are more represented in this attachment style. They value relationships highly but also have a heightened fear of abandonment. People with this attachment style may be inclined to binge eat or drink at a holiday party in order to be the life of the party and keep other guests engaged to avoid being alone. For those with ambivalent-insecure attachment, it may be best to attend holiday parties with friends or family members and also make arrangement to leave the party in advance. By making plans ahead of time, whether it is about how much to eat or drink at a party or who to attend the party with, they can reclaim their self-worth by making decisions on their own, without fear of abandonment.

Attachment Style: Avoidant

The next attachment style is avoidant-insecure and those with this profile tend to see themselves as a lone operator, self-sufficient emotionally and avoiding any emotional attachments. Typically, there are more men in this attachment style. They don’t prioritize close relationships and tend to minimize emotional experiences. Those with avoidant-insecure attachment style might not attend any holiday gatherings or dismiss the ones they are invited to. By emotionally withdrawing, they do not meet their own emotional needs for connection and may not listen to their bodies as they fast or eat too much. By committing to attend a few holiday events, those with avoidant-insecure attachment style will be able to maintain friendships and other relationships on their own terms, while observing how others navigate healthier relationships with food.

Attachment Style: Disorganized

The least common attachment style is the disorganized-insecure attachment. Only 1% of the world’s population fall into this category. Those with this attachment style have unstable and ambiguous social bonds and have difficulty trusting and depending on others. For those with disorganized-insecure attachment, the holiday season might be an exceedingly stressful time of the year, where it might be hard to attend events or meet holiday expectations like a gift exchange. Holiday eating warning signs might include emotional eating at home, sneaking food, or hoarding treats.

Setting The Table For A Good Holiday

A mental health professional will be able to provide guidance and support during the holidays if you are experiencing emotional distress around gatherings or disordered eating this time of year. For many, speaking to a trusted professional who has no ties to family or friends may feel safer and more comfortable. There is no question that our earliest relationships with caregivers play a role in our perception of our own self-worth and influence our relationship with food. For many, the holiday season is a happy one filled with friends and traditional comfort foods while for others it is a minefield that needs to be navigated carefully.