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October 1, 2014 / 7 Tishri, 5775
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Dealing With The Inappropriate Comments (On the Topic of Weight)

In the past weeks I gave several examples of comments made to friends about their being overweight. The motivation behind these comments was, of course, concern for the other’s health and welfare. The fact that the comments were hurtful and, more often than not, did harm instead of good, as well as helped perpetuate the problem instead of curing it, was irrelevant.

 

How does one deal with this type of comment? Sometimes a request for clarity is the best defense. Simply by asking, “Why did you say that?” may put the speaker on the defensive and force him to think about the hurtful comments that he just made. Should his response be that he only said what he did because he cares and is concerned about your health, you might respond with, “Do you really think your comments help?” Walking him through these questions one response at a time may actually get a well meaning friend to re-evaluate how he talks to you and a not-so-well meaning one to be confronted with his own inappropriate and hurtful words. All you have to do is keep asking, “Why did you say that?” and let the speaker deal with his own actions.

 

Think about the Bar Mitzvah Mom I wrote about, who compared her female relative to the size of a football player. What would have happened if, instead of silence, the response were, “Why did you say that?” The discomfiture and hurt would have gone right back to where it belonged, to the person making the comment, who at that moment would have had to justify what she had just said. Further, if she had made this disparaging comment in a group, the question of “Why did you say that?” would place the focus of the group back where it belonged and off the overweight visitor.

 

It would also work for the book club member who informed an overweight contributor to the group that the Holocaust experience would have solved her weight problem. “Why did you say that?” said in calm, non-aggressive manner would hold up a mirror to the person making the comment. It would force her to see how inappropriate her comments are in general and particularly in this setting. Comparing going through the Holocaust to dieting, comparing living through such cruelty that was perpetuated on innocents to a spa experience that helps with decisions on food intake, truly speaks for itself once a person is forced to look at what they have said.

 

For the owner of the repair shop who in the middle of casual conversation with his customer informed her of her need to loose weight, an attempt at enlightenment might be tempting. “You know I am very glad you volunteered these comments at this time. It will certainly allow me to make better decisions about how I spend my time, whom I talk to, what I talk about and where I get my car fixed in the future.” However, doing this invites defensiveness and the threat of lost business. This can create reactions other than reflection. It is also difficult to come up with a zinger of a response on the spur of the moment. Whereas, “Why do you say that?” asked calmly, invites people to re-evaluate instead of defend, and has a better chance of actually changing the person’s behavior than a zinger. It might even get the person to think about what they have said and why they said it, long after the actual experience.

 

Invisibility is a repetitive theme that comes up again and again for well spouses. People just don’t see them. They don’t see their workload, their pain and their need for help. However, should a well spouse be overweight they are no longer invisible, at least not in that area. Their needs may remain invisible, but their weight becomes something everyone sees and feels they have a right to comment on.

 

I have asked why people say these destructive comments about weight and perhaps the answer is simply because they can. They can and will continue to until they are forced to stop and think about what they are saying. A simple question like “Why did you say that?” may make all the difference.

 

You can reach me at annnovick@hotmail.com

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More Articles from Ann Novick

When one is blind one learns to use Braille to read. When one cannot walk, a wheelchair gives mobility. Sign language allows a mute person to speak and ocular implants assist in hearing when one is deaf. These are all compensatory strategies that help a person function despite his disability. But compensatory strategies are not just for physical problems. Understanding our psychological weaknesses and setting up our lives to ensure that we are not tempted to repeat our past mistakes, is as necessary as any aid to the disabled.

Well spouses have often discovered that their friends and relatives, despite their closeness to the situation, often don’t realize the tremendous emotional impact living with chronic illness has on the family. With the best intentions, suggestions, ideas and criticism are offered, based on the non-experience of those with healthy families. Even when the good intentioned get a taste of the difficulties, it is sometimes not enough for them to then identify and understand what the family of the chronically ill must face on a constant basis.

Over the past two weeks I have shared letters from a therapist and a well spouse. Both of the letters gave personal insights into the process of losing hope, how we react when that happens and some ways of coping when test scores, diagnosis and just simple repetitive behavior indicate that change for the better is impossible.

Dear Ann,

I’ve read your last few articles on psycho-neurological testing (Oct.8-22) with interest. As a therapist who has counseled couples dealing with chronic illness, I’d like to give you another perspective.

Dear Ann,

Your articles on the Neuro-Psychological Testing were right on (October 8-22). My husband underwent testing twice and your articles explained it things exactly the way they were. Besides the test, we also tried therapy.

Very often when we can’t face our big hurts or big loses we focus on the little ones. We can discuss those. We can cry over the small loses, be angry at the smaller hurts even though it may look trite and sound ridiculous to others.

Over the last two weeks we have been discussing one way in which well spouses can determine whether behavior displayed by their ill partners is caused by their illness or is a way they have chosen to act. We have focused on Psycho-Neurological testing, what it can tell us, as well as its pros and cons.

Last week I discussed a question that haunts many well spouses: not knowing if the difficult and often inappropriate behavior frequently displayed by their partners are caused by the disease and therefore not-controllable, or if the behavior is a choice the spouse makes and can therefore be changed. This doubt can be the source of much frustration and many marital disagreements. One way of alleviating this doubt is by having a psycho- neurological work up done. But that path is not so simple.

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