I had actually started drafting this post a couple of weeks ago, but the episode of My 600 lb Life on Feb. 8, 2017 (Erica’s Story) pushed it to the forefront. Calling her family ‘unhelpful’ is like saying Josef Stalin was ‘kind of a mean guy.’ Most of us have met unhelpful people in one form or another. They are the ones who know everything, especially about what’s best for us, even if they are unwilling to help us. They are the ones who are always telling us what we are doing wrong. Some times- most times- they are doing it out of a sincere wish to help us. (This is my mom.) Some times, they are people who are just mean and love to see us fail so they can say “I told you so.” (This is Erica’s family.) Occasionally, I see posts from my fitness friends who are upset, angry or just plain frustrated with someone in their lives who should be supportive but isn’t, or who thinks they are being supportive but is actually getting in the way. It’s a difficult and awkward situation, especially if it’s someone who means well, but sooner or later, whether it’s fitness/ health or something different, we all have to deal with this pseudo-supportive people and unfortunately, the obnoxious ones too!
Generally, they break down into the two groups mentioned above: those who mean well, and those who really want to see you fail, as well as a third group: those who are indifferent or unaware. In most instances, there isn’t a lot of difference in how you deal with these groups; it basically comes down to whether or not you mind offending them or not. The people who mean well and genuinely want to help you are the ones you want to take care not to offend, obviously, since they are most likely friends and family members. The others who want to watch you fail and the ones who are indifferent are another matter entirely. Depending on who they are, you can choose either to be as offensive as you like or as polite as you please. Sadly, some of the obnoxious people may be family members. (If they are ‘friends,’ they certainly aren’t people you need as friends!)
Group 1: Honestly Supportive People: Quick and dirty fact here: even though they mean well and think they are helping you, these people may just be getting in your way. My mom tried so hard to help me lose weight and eat healthier, but everything she gave me and all of the advice she kept sending were just not helpful to me! If anything, it just made me upset, made me angry and made me more frustrated and unhappy. Most of what she sent over were things like the latest diet books and the latest ‘magic powders/ pills.’ I am sure they were effective for some people, but for me, they weren’t strategies I knew I would keep up with over the long term and then I would just be back where I was to start with, unless of course I gained back more than the weight I’d lost on the diet, and most people do. I had done A LOT of diets and even though I hadn’t tried what she gave me, I knew that a diet is a diet is a diet and I DIDN’T want to do it again.
What I learned to do with my mom was take a look at what she gave me (usually the latest ‘how to lose weight forever’ diet book) and tell her thanks, I’m looking at it and then I’d add it to the stack on the bookshelf. This is what I call ‘tuning out the noise.’ These people really want to help, and it’s frustrating for them too, because they don’t know how to help, so they are doing the best they can. Keep that thought forefront in your mind when you deal with them, and then I suggest doing a variation of what I did with my mom: thank them for their help, tell them you are going to consider it, or if you already have a plan you are following, tell them your current plan/ program is working for you, but if you need to make changes, you’ll keep their advice in mind. It doesn’t hurt to ask them to keep being supportive by doing XYZ that you do need help with. Many times if you tell them how to help you, they are more than willing to get behind you, and this is what’s happened with my mom: now that she knows how to offer support, she is extremely supportive.
Group 2: Obnoxious People: Who these people are can surprise you. As I mentioned above, Erica’s family had essentially abandoned her. She lived alone and, at 661 lbs, had difficulty taking care of herself and probably would not have been able to live alone if her niece had not been the one family member who did help her. Her younger brother and sister offered no assistance whatsoever other than telling her she needed to lose weight if she ‘wanted to be part of the family’ and that she obviously needed some kind of help, but beyond that, there was no help at all without emotional and verbal abuse, recrimination and blame. She was expected to meekly take all the abuse if she wanted any of their help. Their focus was on how little they could do for her while inconveniencing themselves as little as possible. In at least once instance, her sister’s insistence on not being inconvenienced by a long drive from California led to Erica’s flying to Houston, which quite literally put her life at risk as Dr. Nowzaradan explains in the episode.
Erica’s family are far from unique. Most of these people will insist that your weight problem is your problem and you are the one who made your weight a problem. They are quick to point out what you are doing wrong and usually offer no advice other than “you need to lose weight” and “you need to get with the program.” (Really, how much trouble is to offer some emotional support over the phone?) For example, Erica’s sister was quick to be the Food Police and inspect Erica’s kitchen to make sure she was ‘complying with the diet,’ but was unwilling to offer any other help or support, emotional or otherwise. Being the Food Police is not being helpful: it’s being judgmental, and sadly, the world is full of people who are eager to pass judgment on others. I wish I could say that you will not encounter rude and obnoxious people, but few of us are that lucky. When you meet them, you need to decide if offending them matters to you. My basic philosophy is they don’t care if they offend me, so I’m not going to care if I offend them.
Group 3: Indifferent/ Unaware People: These tend to be people who aren’t intentionally rude or unhelpful; they just don’t know better. These are the people who invite a vegetarian to a barbecue and only serve meat and potato salad. Hope you like potato salad! These are also the people who serve you cheesecake when you are on a diet, either because they don’t know you’re on a diet or they’re a little insensitive or indifferent. Group #1 people would do everything to dissuade from even thinking about desserts and the obnoxious Group #2 people would eat the cheesecake in front of you while reminding you that “if you weren’t so fat, you could have some too!” Most of the time, these people are not your friends or family; they are part of the periphery: they are the people at the office who bring cookies or chocolate and pass it around, or they are the ones whose kids are selling treats for a fundraiser. Since they aren’t really a part of your circle, you don’t owe them any kind of explanation. If they are people you deal with on a semi-regular basis, a polite “no thanks” should suffice. If they get really pushy, feel free to say what you feel comfortable saying: they’ve gone beyond the bounds of politeness.
Tuning Them Out: A lot of how we deal with these people is going to depend on our own personalities and probably some family dynamics as well, if only for the family members involved. I have been blessed (for better or worse) with a fairly headstrong personality (thank you, Grandma!) and so, beyond being sensitive to those I care about, I pretty much ignore those who try to bait me or those who are insensitive. Not everyone is so fortunate. Ignoring those who are rude, insensitive or just downright cruel can be hard, even for me at times, but for someone who is sensitive, shy or not as assertive themselves, it can be a very difficult and hurtful experience. When someone is cruel/ rude/ obnoxious to you, remind yourself that they are doing it for those very reasons: they want to hurt you! And I believe you are perfectly within your rights to be rude and obnoxious in return: it’s called self-defense. For those who are insensitive out of ignorance or indifference, remind yourself that they’re just clueless, either about your food choices or about general social niceties. You can either educate them about both or either or choose to ignore the remark/ gesture (I usually tend to ignore it). The bottom line is that you may need to develop a bit of thick skin to get through this, whether it’s about weight loss, fitness or some other aspect of life. A lot of this has to do with how comfortable you feel in your own skin and with your own choices: if you aren’t comfortable, it’s going to show and sometimes it triggers the obnoxious people to attack. For example, if you keep looking longingly at the desserts/ cookies/ chocolates, they will probably tempt you with them, but if you ignore them, there is less ammo for the rude people to use against you. If you aren’t comfortable with your choices, it’s also a sign that something obviously isn’t sitting right with you, and finding out what it is is can help not only your confidence but also with reaching your goals.
Ultimately, it’s you and your goals that are important. As I mentioned above, I see a lot of posts from friends expressing their frustration, anger or just confusion. This supposedly helpful person has upset them either by trying to help or just being obnoxious. The danger is that most of us (whether we know it or not) tend be emotional eaters and this stressful scenario has not set off a trigger. Instead of reacting with their head and sticking to their healthy habits, they are now reacting with emotion. This is when we are most likely to eat something we know is not going to help us reach our goals or we are tempted to blow off a workout or maybe just be off track enough to feel like we are failing again. The trigger can cause a ripple effect: we eat a cookie or a piece of candy and now we are having sugar cravings again, or we ate the cookie, so what’s the harm in another cookie (or two or three)? We’re too upset to work out or we’re so upset we forget we had it planned, and now we’re feeling inadequate and as if we aren’t doing it right. The stressful scenario can cause us to doubt our process, and if we are still in the early stages of learning new habits, it can be disastrous. Things are hardest when they are new and this can push people to give up and go back to the old dieting procedures which likely failed before. This is when we need to be strongest and stand up for ourselves. You need to have faith in yourself and your strength, because you truly are stronger than you know. You just have to stay strong and don’t allow these unhelpful people- sincere or otherwise- to push you off the rails.
Whatever comes, never be afraid to stand up for yourself and don’t apologize for doing so! If it were someone you loved who was being hurt, pushed around, or criticized, you would stand up for them, and you are just as deserving of the same respect you give to everyone else!