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Challenging Hurtful Remarks

One of the hardest parts of being over- or underweight and recovering from eating problems is figuring out how to deal with unkind or merely unhelpful remarks. While some assertive folks never put up with inappropriate commentary directed toward them on any subject, others stand up for themselves in every aspect of life except eating or weight. Learning how to handle improper comments is an essential life skill.

Assuming that someone has the cognitive ability to change, it’s reasonable to expect that people who say they love you and with whom you are on an intimate basis (friends, partners, and family members) will be able to learn to treat you appropriately. It’s all in what you say and how you say it. The biggest problems I see with clients is either that they sit with hurt feelings so long that they eventually blow up and become ineffective communicators, or that they sometimes let remarks pass and other times go after them, which is called intermittent reinforcement and only supports the continuation of unwanted behavior. An example is when you sometimes challenge a comment your mother makes about your weight and other times let it pass. Because you’re not giving her a clear, singular message, she’s confused about what you want and, therefore, continues her behavior.

Here is the script to stick to when someone says something hurtful or upsetting: “When you say _____, I feel hurt/disappointed/frustrated/blamed/devalued. I do not expect you to say this kind of thing again.” That’s it, all you need to say. You can use the same two sentences regarding unwanted behavior rather than a comment, as in “When you do ______, I feel…” People go wrong in not speaking firmly, and instead saying such things as, “I wish you wouldn’t or I’d appreciate if you didn’t or would you mind not.” Frankly, this comes across as wishy washy. Remember, you’re not asking or begging: you’re telling someone what you expect of them and why (because it hurts you). Best not to go into a lengthy explanation. If someone really cares about you, the fact that they’ve hurt you should be enough. They should want to avoid hurting you at all costs and feel badly that they have. Only if they are genuinely curious is it okay to say more.

Connecting and using the right tone are important. Stop whatever you’re doing. Speak when you’re face to face. Make and hold eye contact when you’re talking. Keep your voice neutral and on the assertive side. Don’t smile, laugh or tilt your head. Sound like you mean business. You’re not asking a question, but making a statement. It doesn’t matter if you feel uncomfortable speaking this way. It works, and isn’t that the goal?