I am catching up on the news. I just finished reading Thursday’s (8/3/17) paper. The Dear Abby column was of particular interest to me. A woman wrote to ask Abby how she can make her stepmother actually follow through with her declaration to lose weight.
She wrote in a fairly detailed description of how her stepmother eats. “She eats lots of fatty foods, uses lots of salt and eats almost no fruit and vegetables.” Then she praised her father for his healthful eating habits, “He, on the other hand, eats very healthy – almost the opposite of what she does. He rarely eats anything fatty and uses salt sparingly. He also eats fruits and vegetables every day.”
Then the stepdaughter goes back to commenting on her stepmother’s weight and how it’s an issue and how her health problems would improve if she lost weight. It’s probably true that some of her stepmother’s health issues are related to her weight. It’s true that losing weight could improve her health, so why do I suspect the motives of the woman seeking the advice of Abby?
She writes she’s concerned that saying something will strain the relationship. I agree, it will strain it further. I already sense some stress between the two women based on her descriptions of the difference in the way her father and her stepmother eat. It comes across as judgmental.
Abby’s advice, should she follow it, can only make things worse. Abby says, “don’t talk to her; talk to your father.” The stepmother will feel as though the two are ganging up on her. The desired outcome of the talk with dad is to get Stepmomma to see a nutritionist to “tweak” her eating habits. That sounds helpful, but as I am reading the column, I’m thinking talking to Stepmomma because you’re concerned about her health is no different that talking to an addict.
Jim LaPierre wrote an excellent blog (Recovery Rocks). Actually, every blog he writes is excellent, but this one in particular is about talking to addicts with great advice about how to approach it and the expectations one should have as a result of the talk. It’s called The problem with trying to save people.
“But you cannot force a person to be willing to change.
You can shame them, threaten them, guilt them and pressure them. You can point out the suffering of their friends and family. You can implore them, beg them, and point out their proximity to death.
But you cannot make a person stop drinking, using, or otherwise prevent them from destroying themselves.”
In the case of this Dear Abby post, I’m not sure the real purpose of writing is to save her stepmother. The moralistic and judgmental undertones strike me more as shaming than saving. Whatever the motive, the approach Abby suggests is not a good one.
Recently Dear Liz responded to a reader asking how to let somebody know she was concerned with how many prescription drugs a friend was taking. Liz asked Jim LaPierre to weigh in and he said what I wish Abby had replied with the reader with the overweight stepmother.
Here is what Jim had to say:
I’ve been asked this countless times. To an addictions counselor, it translates to, “I’m pretty sure my friend is waist deep in quick sand, but I’m afraid I’ll hurt their feelings by mentioning it.” Maybe expressing our concern over a possible substance use disorder should not be akin to, “Janet, you really seem to be packing on the pounds these days!”
I get it. Folks tend to fear conflict and therefore anticipate defensiveness. Showing concern for your loved one on sensitive topics can be a bit of an art form. Most counselors would suggest that the finesse you’re looking for would come through making, “I statements.”
As cheesy as that may sound, saying to your friend, “You seem to be taking too many medications” will be received very differently than saying, “I’m concerned about how your medications are affecting you.” “You” triggers defensiveness because it points at my friend’s choices. “I” need not trigger defensiveness because I’m expressing concern for you as my friend.
I suggest to folks that when they’re concerned about being misunderstood that they lead with their fears. Example: “Janet, I want to talk to you about something but I’m afraid it’ll come out wrong.” By doing this, we’re enlisting our friend’s support and patience in expressing our concerns.
Think about what you’ve seen that’s changed. What’s different that’s raised your concerns? I’m assuming here that you haven’t just been snooping through her medicine cabinet and are genuinely worried. Expressing this as directly and succinctly as possible is your best bet.
Express your concerns without expectation. Give your friend time to consider whether this is something they need to look at. Don’t get hung up on whether you’re right or wrong – sharing your concerns is a way of showing love. The world needs more of that.
You might be able to help a friend or family member make lifestyle changes that can save their life… and maybe you can’t. If you follow Jim’s advice you’ve done your best.
Before you do anything about alerting a dear one to his or her need to lose weight, examine your motives. Where is this “concern” coming from. Is it concern or judgment? Should you tell somebody they need to lose weight? In my opinion you should not, but that’s not the same as letting somebody know you’re concerned about lifestyle choices that might help that person live a longer and healthier life.