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Don't let the relatives wreck your holiday

Comments and criticism can be at their peak during holiday get-togethers. Dr. Gail Saltz offers advice on how to stay neutral and have fun.
/ Source: TODAY

Q: My relatives, whom I saw during Thanksgiving, say I am too thin. (I weigh what I weighed in high school.) They claim they are concerned about my health. This ridiculous criticism comes from people who are all too fat, like 200 pounds. How do I respond to them?

A: I suggest that you defuse their comments by responding in a brief, neutral way, with a statement like, “I am fine with my weight.”

Thanksgiving and other holidays are hot-button times for relatives who see little of each other during the year. On the rare occasions they get together, they feel the need to squeeze in everything they want to say, both positive and negative.

These gatherings bring out tremendous feelings of competition and rivalry. People are catching up and comparing, and are all trying to present themselves in a good light. Envy causes some people to make subtle digs at others.

Of course, some people do struggle with eating disorders, excessive thinness, or medical issues that cause weight loss. If this particular criticism really does bother you, perhaps it’s a red flag to examine how you really feel about your weight. Trouble keeping weight on, for those with this problem, can be as upsetting as trouble keeping weight off.

“You are too thin” is just one of many criticisms relatives might level at you: Your makeup is too heavy, your heels are too high, your kids need a haircut, your job is a dead-end, your car is dirty, ad nauseam.

But weight is especially easy to focus on, because it is so visible and, for many, so problematic. In this case, your heavy relatives probably feel envious. It’s no surprise they are the ones criticizing your weight.

Rather than saying, “I wish I weighed what you weigh,” or “I wish I were as slim as you,” they get defensive and put you down by claiming you weigh too little. It might not even be conscious, but this is their mind’s way of protecting them from personal frustration and disappointment.

It may not be worth turning this into a big dispute that casts a pall on the holidays and, possibly, on days to come. Your goal is to set limits — not to stir the pot further or promote a more heated exchange. (This applies even if the criticism is valid — you ARE too thin, your kids DO need a haircut, your car IS dirty, etc.)

Nonetheless, you need not be a doormat. If your relatives don’t back off after a neutral response, you can say, “Thanks for your concern, but we can talk about this another time.”

If one particular relative keeps bringing this up, you can politely take that person aside and say, “I would appreciate it if you kept your thoughts about my weight to yourself today, and we can revisit this issue later.” The way to deflect unwanted criticism is by being clear and direct; don't be antagonistic.

I suggest you not go into attack mode by countering with, “If I am too thin, then you are too fat,” or, “You might be struggling with your weight, but I am not struggling with mine.” Doing so virtually guarantees a big argument, an unpleasant holiday and lingering regret.Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: If outspoken relatives threaten to wreck the holidays with criticism — whether of your weight or anything else — stay neutral rather than rising to the bait.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her latest book, "Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts" (Penguin), helps parents deal with preschoolers' questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2005 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.