Does Your Family Make You Fat?

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The stress of family time can take a toll on your sanity… and your diet. Karen R. Koenig shares how to prevent overeating around your family by improving your relationship with your loved ones and quit playing nice! From Nice Girls Finish Fat: Put Yourself First and Change Your Eating Forever

Not surprising, if anyone can push your buttons, family members can. After all, they not only know what all your buttons are, some of them were responsible for creating them to begin with. One of the biggest problems with food and family is that they’re both around a lot — together. You’re visiting your mother, sitting in her kitchen drinking coffee surrounded by food, out with your sister for a monthly dinner, making lunch or a snack for the kids at home. When family comes to visit, it’s often for a meal, especially a holiday one.

Another reason family interactions can make you nutty is that family history goes back such a long way. Within your family of origin, you’ve been playing nice girl for decades. You’re locked into particular ways of relating that you and they are probably not even aware of. They can shoot up your blood pressure by a look or a word and make you want to beat a fast retreat before you’ve even taken off your coat.

Moreover, we like to put family in a special, idealized category — the people who have to take us in, the folks who will go to any lengths for us because we’re blood, those who love us most (or so they say). We often expect more from family than from nonfamily members, which makes it even worse when they let us down. We might let other folks get away with being ignorant or petty or having faults in general, but we have high standards for relatives, just as they do for us. Especially if you’re the Jill-of-all-trades and family caretaker, the assumptions and expectations members have of you is a setup for high stress and low satisfaction all around. And for you climbing into your kitchen cabinet and staying there.

Okay, okay already, you might be saying, I get it. Sometimes I’m more there for family members than for myself, but what can I do about it in practical terms? I just can’t stop being me and turn into someone else overnight. I have responsibilities and I’m not gonna drop ’em all and fly off to Tahiti tomorrow with Brad Pitt! Of course you’re not. Far be it from me to suggest that you go from being a goody-goody to a good-for-nothing. To give you a taste of what to do in real, practical, everyday terms, I’ve developed a No More Nice Girl Manifesto for you to live by around your family, a list of dos and don’ts for how to think and behave to give yourself that nice-ectomy you need and start turning around your relationship with food.

No More Nice Girl Manifesto for Family


  • Maintain lots of contact with family members who are kind and caring about you and avoid ones who are energy drainers and aren’t looking out for your interests.
  • Make sure that family members are doing their fair share (in physical, financial, and emotional terms) to make the family unit work.
  • Prioritize attending family events and get-togethers rather than attend them all and feel resentful or not go and feel guilty.
  • Ask for help taking care of difficult family members (poor old Aunt Kathy who complains about everything to everyone) or ones whose care is time-consuming (your wheelchair-bound son with muscular dystrophy).
  • Seek balance in relationships. If you’re taking physical care of someone who can’t do for himself, he should at the very least be appreciative and thank you in every way he can.
  • Take time for yourself whether family members like it or not.
  • Tell family members when they are too demanding and their requests are out of line.
  • Teach your children to come to you when they truly need help (physical or emotional) and to work things out for themselves when they’re able.
  • Opt out of any adult living arrangement that is not mutual and where you feel like someone’s mother or maid. Others need to grow up and you need to let them.
  • Delegate tasks even if family members don’t do things as well or as quickly as you’d like. You’ve been aspiring to be superhuman all your life. Give them a chance to learn how to be responsible for themselves.
  • Develop and maintain close relationships with people outside the family. The experience will be refreshing and give you a new perspective on your blood ties.


  • Feel sorry for family members who are such miserable characters that they’ve pushed everyone else away. They made their bed, so (except in life-or-death situations) let them lie in it.
  • Believe that you’re indispensable. You’d like to think so and perhaps family members would too, but you’re not. No one is.
  • Let any family member guilt-trip you into doing anything you don’t want to.
  • Feel you have to do everything yourself and that you’re weak if you ask for help.
  • Automatically say yes to family requests. Instead, get into the habit of saying, “Let me think about it and get back to you.”
  • Infantilize family members whether they’re old or young. Don’t prevent them from doing what they’re capable of and what is age appropriate.
  • Be a poor role model for your children by not taking care of yourself. If you insist on being one, make sure this book stays in good condition ’cause they’re gonna need it.
  • Try to be strong all the time. Instead, aim for mentally healthy, which is a combination of independent, dependent, and interdependent.
  • Let family members undermine your self-esteem, self-worth, or self-care — ever.
  • Allow family members to tell you that you’re a selfish you-know-what just because you want to take time for yourself. Most likely they’re the selfish ones.
  • Play peacemaker in family squabbles. The role of mediator is stressful and you don’t want to go from peacemaker to pacemaker.

Well, now that you’ve had your first lesson in self-care, how does it feel? Terrifying, exhilarating, overwhelming, a bit of all three? Pay attention to whether you’re thinking about food to take away uncomfortable feelings. Instead of wending your way toward the kitchen, just experience your emotions and reflect on what you’ve read and learned. Take a few deep breaths and relax.

To do today
Ask a family member to do something just for you, then sit back and enjoy the moment

Karen R. Koenig, the author of Nice Girls Finish Fat: Put Yourself First and Change Your Eating Forever (Copyright © 2009 by Karen R. Koenig), is a cognitive-behavioral therapist and author of three books on eating and weight. A national speaker, she regularly teaches workshops on eating to groups around the country. She lives in Sarasota, Florida.



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