Trigger, kneejerk, hot-button– whatever you call it, we all have them, mental health diagnosis & crappy life experiences or not. It’s our choice, once we become conscious of those hot topics, to decide how we react when other people start mashing those buttons, on purpose or not.
Sometimes it’s easier to control your reaction. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you can have a conversation with the person who’s pushing your buttons and ask them to stop, take another approach, whatever– fill them in, ask them to be mindful. And sometimes your hot-button “do not want mentioned around me” topic is their “I have to talk about this all the time” issue, because for them, it’s a life-or-death issue they need to be active around. And sometimes, they’re objectively reasonable, or just subjectively trying to keep their head above water. In either case, if you’ve said your piece and they aren’t going to mute themselves, it’s time to start tuning them out.
It all comes down to making sure you feel heard, feel seen– and if you’re feeling ignored, you need to do what you can to protect yourself from feeling unworthy of being heard, of being seen. You are visible. You should be as loud as you want. And you should distance yourself from whomever won’t let you be yourself on your terms.
Either the person you’ve talked to about respecting your own buttons is going to notice & back off, or they’ll get hurt, get angry, or leave you alone. Maybe they’ll even be enraged that you don’t care about them. But wait– didn’t you already have that conversation about how for you, the mention of their “have to mention it all the time” issue is hurtful to you?
I give myself permission to walk away once I’ve had the conversation and the person continues in the problem behavior. I’m not going to fight with them, but I am also not going to waste time trying to make people understand further. If they’re someone I mostly deal with online, well, thank goodness for filters– I can interact with them about things other than the hot button where possible. If they’re someone I work with or live with, well, I just walk away from that conversation. Excuse myself, every time.
Food & weight are something I have kneejerk reactions around. Both my parents are emotional, unhealthy, really overweight eaters who eat whatever’s in front of them and directly contrary to their explicit medical diagnoses, even to the point of it landing them in the hospital, and their pathological “eat everything on your plate” and “eat your feelings” attitudes have made me really fucked up when it comes to not feeling like I have to finish everything, and making healthy eating choices. At 39, they still criticize me for not finishing everything on my plate, or serving a meal that doesn’t have meat in it even if 7/8 of the other meals in the week have animal protein.
Add to that the fact that I was bulimic in junior high so that I could find a way to stop being the fat kid no one wanted to be friends with, and that none of my family or “friends” noticed except to say I looked “great” and that it took getting sick from Lyme disease and then uncontrollably losing weight as a result (and still being told I looked “great”), and I not only have a lifelong aversion to chef’s salad (my food of choice at the time, and it now tastes like vomit) but have a distrust of anyone who compliments my appearance, because it reads to me as only a surface read.
When I got fat again after law school and then lost weight through a combination of low-carb/PCOS diagnosis and then having no control over further weight loss because my anticonvulsant bipolar med made me anorexic and have active revulsions to most foods, a lot of people told me that I looked “great!”
I felt pretty shitty about it, to tell you the truth. None of my clothes fit, and people who’d never paid me any attention were flirting with me as if I was some new magic person. I wasn’t. Just thinner. There was only one person who asked during all of that time if the weight loss was something I had intended, and listened sympathetically– thank goodness for her.
My sister-in-law, who was an objectively physically attractive lady no matter her weight & couldn’t hear that, had her own self-identified weight problems and had never been sympathetic (or maybe willing to acknowledge the reality of) to my mental health issues. She even joked that she was going to get antidepressants if getting skinny was the result. Since at the time I was seeing a nutritionist to try to put weight back on, the comment wasn’t appreciated, but arguing with her was like bashing my head on a brick wall. My husband was mostly non-committal along the lines of “mm-hmm, if you think it’s important,” when I tried to talk about it with him, though toward the end, when I’d moved out of the bedroom and into the back bedroom, almost a YEAR after I’d started having weight issues, he caught me wearing a towel coming out of the bathroom and said, offhand, distracted– “oh, you have lost a lot of weight, I guess.”
Talk about being invisible.
Living with my dad now is its own struggle because he’ll eat everything in the house, and if I bake a treat he will eat anything I don’t hide. He is dismissive of anything that wasn’t a real thing when he was in college (food allergies, medical diagnoses, etc.) and we’ve had a few screaming matches, but at the end of the day he knows, at least, not to poke me because I will poke back even harder, and he at least knows that my tongue is sharp, because I learned it from him.
“Are you putting on weight?”
“I don’t know, I still fit my clothes, so I don’t really care. What’s it to you?”
“You should finish everything on your plate.”
“I’m 39, I’ll leave leftovers if I fucking want, the refrigerator works and we still have tupperware unless you have something to tell me.” (Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t swear but sometimes I will.)
“Why isn’t there meat in this?”
“Because dozens of human societies manage to thrive without it.”
At work now, in my health-oriented (obsessed) natural foods & organics oriented grocery store, there tends to be an, ahem, bias, toward healthy eating and fitness among the leadership, even as we sell cookies, chips, cakes, desserts, all kinds of healthy junk food. It’s a contradiction I find not funny at all. There are certainly less than Olympic-level fit members of leadership at all levels of the company, but there is a definite thread of anti-fat, anti-meat, pro-veganism, anti-dairy, pro-youth, almost fat-shaming in peoples’ private hearts in the company, and at the store level, it’s a dangerous thing in one-on-one conversations– something I’ve tried to correct when I hear it, one “you know, I’m a fat kid on the inside” conversation at a time. It usually works, and people are usually shocked to find out I’ve been fat, because at 5’6″ and 170 lbs for age 39, I look “normal” or “good,” or “hot” and they “never would have guessed” I was my age, much less had ever been “fat,” but that’s the point, it’s all that external judgment again. I point out that it’s none of their goddamned business what I look like as long as I am 1) in dress code and 2) able to perform my job, and that they need to get out of the game of deciding whether or not someone looks “good,” because not only is it a violation of our harassment policy and going to get their asses sued one day or another when they can’t keep their traps shut, but it’s also just straight out psychologically scarring and hurtful.
Dear world. No one else needs your validation. Ever. And if you feel compelled to give it, compulsively, I suggest you seek professional counseling because there is something wrong with you that makes you feel the need to go around handing out gold stars. (Let your counselor give you yours, and stop assessing the goodness of others. The world has enough problems getting through the day. Leave everyone to their own messes, okay?) None of my less than skinny colleagues need validation of their looks, either, because they come in and do awesome jobs, and to be judged for anything other than that is just crap. Starting in on “but they’d be happier if…” and “they aren’t healthy when…” is infantilizing. DID THEY ASK YOU FOR HELP? No. Did you offer it once and they said no? Ok, then. The conversation’s over. Forever. The end.
I have lots of curvy-and-proud ladies of non-white backgrounds and heavyset dudes from all over who love their mom’s/spouse’s/their own damn cooking, and one of these days one of my skinny (to me, malnourished-looking) vegans or musclehead Latino bois is going to put his or her foot in it because no matter what they might think, there is no one dietary right way. There’s a lot of science out there. The minute you start getting religious about it in the face of someone else’s disagreement, it’s time to shut up and reassess why you’re so angry about someone else’s disagreement.
When it comes to diets and “healthy” eating, there is what works for you and makes you feel happy.
“Good” is so laden a word– not just physical attractiveness but value as a person– stay wide of it. Be specific if you feel the need to make compliments as small talk. “You did a great job today.” “It’s nice to see you!” “Have a great weekend!” “Hey, I like the new t-shirt!” Focus on the things people do, that come from their hearts and their brains– not from their shapes.
Bodies and the food we put in it should be about love and pleasure, not substitution for the love & pleasure you don’t get elsewhere. Food should be an opportunity for creative expression and fun, for sharing and an outlet at the end of a day of paper pushing– it should be whatever you mindfully want it to be. And your body should do all the things you want it to do. If you don’t want it to run a marathon, then no one else should judge you for that.
On any given day you have NO IDEA why someone is the weight that they are, heavy or thin. Maybe they’re heavy because they’re happy that way. Or struggling with a medical condition. Maybe they’re thin because they’re having a medical side effect and working hard to gain back the weight, and are feeling pretty out of control about their appearance & body. Maybe they do NOT feel like they look good at all. Offering your unsolicited opinion on their physical attractiveness is not the way to validate their existence as a human, and in fact may be a pretty shitty thing to do to that person because you’re just mashing their buttons about how they feel about their out-of-control body.
Do you really want to be helpful?
Say hello. Smile. Ask someone how they are, and mean it, and stop long enough to actually listen if they don’t just tell you they’re “fine.” Maybe they’ll even tell you.
And if you ask them to participate in something and they say no, please respect the fact that people don’t owe you their whole medical or personal history just because you have a cause you’re interested in that has some good reasons behind it. Their no isn’t a rejection of you. It’s an affirmation of them.