Rising Above the Relatives
By Cynthia J. Turner, PhD
One of the major issues that people face after losing a significant amount of weight is setting limits and managing reactions related to comments from friends and family. These issues can present major obstacles in long-term maintenance of weight loss, in that often, buried in these reactions, are subtle, undermining dynamics, that can ultimately lead to an individual giving up or compromising their long-term success. Dr. Doug Lisle, the psychologist behind the fascinating book, The Pleasure Trap, has explored boundary issues around dietary issues at length. He reports that there are two categories of these individuals: The Misinformed and The Irritated.
The Misinformed are individuals who are often worried about restrictions and potential dietary deficiencies in your diet. They see that you have had significant weight loss and will sometimes make remarks to you or others such as, “You just don’t look good.” On top of this, they often don’t have a clue as to what constitutes a healthy body weight or BMI. One patient said that the most painful experience of his first year after bariatric surgery was having several people ask him if he had cancer. These are innocent people who become very uncomfortable when they observe major changes that you are making in your dietary habits and your weight. Their comments and the pressure they put on you are based on an attempt to get us to conform to old, ingrained patterns and beliefs around nutrition, so that ultimately, they feel more emotionally comfortable. Dr. Lisle describes what he terms the “Seem Strategy,” which includes using a somewhat fuzzy, uncertain response to the unwanted comments, such as “Well, I talked to my doctor, and he thinks my numbers look good. I seem to be feeling better. I think I’m going to stick with it for now, because it seems to be working.” Assuming a tactic of diplomacy and assuring them that you have the back-up of your trusted physician, can give you greater ease in continuing with your regimen.
The Irritated is a different group! These folks KNOW that you are eating in a way that is healthier, and they understand that you are observing how THEY eat. They offset their guilt and embarrassment by launching an attempt to undermine you. We’ve all heard it, the manipulative, sarcastic comment: “You have no meat on your bones. Just a little taste won’t hurt you.” These are complex, pressured situations, and you need to be prepared to think on your feet. Two approaches can help. First, help your relative or friend boost their self-esteem and feel safe by thinking ahead of some appreciation or acknowledgement that you can give them, which has nothing to do with weight or diet. Be ready to deliver these positive messages when the critical, controlling comments start. Secondly, maintain your integrity and commitment to health and weight loss by communicating through a humble framework, and remembering that your relative is having their own struggle with imagining how you might see their food habits in a judgmental way. Dr. Lisle calls this “integrity with humility.” A response might be, “Well, I seem to be in a good place right now and so far, I’m sticking with my plan, so I’ll pass for the moment. It does look pretty good though.” We are communicating our own battle with self-control issues and not taking the high horse.
These approaches need practice BEFORE you attend events with relatives or friends. Write down your responses prior to the event and mentally rehearse. With practice, you can achieve a significant level of confidence as you move through these challenging situations.