Thank you for your letters. I received so many letters on this topic asking me what a person can do to help, if mentioning weight is counterproductive. One woman wanted ideas on how to deal with her teenage niece who searches her kitchen for snacks from the moment she walks in from school and then gets upset because of her overeating. Another wanted to know how to help her husband who keeps gaining weight but doesn’t see it as becoming a health problem. Most of the other letters were variations on the same theme, and so let me try and address these issues.
It is so important to remember that the issue of weight is complex and the causes are multifaceted. Pain, uncertainty, unhappiness etc. in people’s lives are often stuffed down with food. Food can also fill the loneliness and makes people feel better. While we may not know what is causing the problem, we can assist in helping a person deal with it simply by making her feel better about herself. The more you like yourself, the less you want to hurt yourself. The more you love your life, the less you will risk losing it. This may sound simplistic, but by simply making someone feel good about who he/she is, you can start him/her on the road to better self-care.
As I’ve discussed, commenting on a person’s weight or telling him that he needs to lose weight, is not an effective means of helping that person deal with a weight problem. Things that do work are usually inviting the person to join you in an activity that you are doing. Asking if he’d like to begin walking with you, as you are starting on a walking regime and you’d love his company, conveys the message that you care about him without pointing fingers at his failings.
Asking for that person’s company as you join a diet club, like Weight Watchers, is also effective for the same reasons. But this takes a time commitment from you and may not be something you particularly want to do. Another way of discovering the best and most effective way to help someone with his/her weight is simply to ask how you can help. Do not bring up the topic, but if you are a good friend your friend will eventually bring up his/her concerns about carrying excess pounds. That is your opening.
It is your chance not to lecture or tell the person what she/he already knows but to ask how you may be of help in what she/he wants to accomplish. Then you must listen and be willing to accept the answer. Do not contradict or challenge what that person is saying. If you are told there is nothing you can do, then that is exactly what you will be doing – nothing – for now. Just say that you are there for him/her any time, should she/he want your help. This lets the person stay in control of his/her own life. Once you respect that choice, you have a better chance of the person coming back to you to enlist your help when she/he is ready. Readiness is a major part of succeeding. Trusting you to respect the person’s choice is a prerequisite to asking for your help.
As for the teenage niece who searches for snacks, when she is sharing her regret over her self-destructive behavior is the perfect time to ask her − not tell her − how can you help. Listen to what she is telling you. “Nothing” is code for “butt out.” “I don’t know” leaves you an opening for suggestions. Would she want you to remind her when she opens the fridge that she will beat herself up about it later? Would it be helpful if you had a healthy snack ready for her when she came over? Would it help to put a child-safe lock on the candy cupboard as a silent reminder for her to stop? Then, listen to her answer and do what she asks you, whether it makes sense to you or not.
For the husband who is gaining weight and has no problem with it, why not try making time to go for a short walk together. Make the walk an enjoyable together time. You can even include your children, making it a family event. As you casually direct the walk up a steep hill, if there is one in your neighborhood, or keep up a fast pace if there isn’t and you both get short of breath, the idea of the need for you both to exercise becomes self evident. The family walk can become a fun way to put some health in your day while enjoying each other.
Whatever direction your help takes, try not to control the other person. Let that person decide the type of help she/he need from you, if any. And if your help is not wanted and the person continues to harm him/herself with poor choices, your choice must be to accept that person, as he/she is. It is the only chance you have, that the person will get help, eventually, when ready to do so.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org