Friday, June 11, 2010

(Not) Giving Anything Up

Imagine that you are on a beach with several other people. Each person has different swimming capability. One person is an expert swimmer who has been trained not only as a lifeguard, but also has participated in swimming marathons. Another person is a strong swimmer, though has no formal training. Yet another is an average recreational swimmer who occasionally hits the pool in the summer. And then there is you. You can do the dog paddle if you have to, but you really can't swim at all. In fact, your swimming skills are sufficiently weak that you feel uncomfortable swimming without a life jacket or flotation device.

When you go out for a swim, you're fine as long as you have your life preserver with you to help you survive the deep with your limited swimming skills. The other people that are watching you are initially understanding of your need for a flotation device, then they are mildly bemused. As time goes by, they encourage you to abandon your life jacket and attempt to learn to swim better. However, you are concerned that the environment you are swimming in, the ocean with its depth, undertows and currents, is not a place that you can learn to swim in without risk of drowning. The swimmers who are with you become critical and start to make judgmental assertions about your refusal to abandon your life preserver, but you simply cannot do so; at least you cannot do it now in this place. Perhaps in the right place, at the right time, with proper support and guidance, you will manage to become a better swimmer.

Recently, I read a thread in the popular weight loss support forum where a woman was critical of people who have difficulty losing weight. She said that the thing which she took issue with was that such people seemed "refuse to give up ANYTHING" (her caps). She was essentially saying that people who can't lose weight don't want to sacrifice food, time, effort, etc. to be at a lower weight. She was saying that she felt they wanted to have their cake and (especially) eat it, too.

My feeling about people who cannot make the sacrifices to facilitate their weight loss goal is that they are like the weak swimmer I describe in the first two paragraphs of this post. It's not that they don't want to give things up; it is that they simply cannot. They are not in a situation where they can make those changes. In many cases, they are barely "treading water" in their lives as it is and currently do not have the psychological and/or physiological mettle to make those sacrifices. If they do, they will, metaphorically speaking "drown".

I don't think people should be judged for their seemingly contradictory desire to lose weight and inability to give up whatever is necessary to achieve their stated goal. I think we all do our best to survive, and when I speak of "survival", I mean as much or more from the mental viewpoint as the physical one. If people can't make the sacrifices (throw away the life preserver), it's because they lack the proper environment, experiences or skills that would allow them to do so at this time. They may want to very badly, but it's simply not possible right now.

When such pat judgments are made of people, it really makes me angry. Even though I have been successful for nearly a year now (and "sacrificed" a great deal by many people's standards) and lost a lot of weight, I have not forgotten that I was incapable for many reasons of making these changes before. None of those reasons are related to a lack of desire to make sacrifices or a childish "demand" for cookies or treats that could not go unsatisfied. They were all related to an inability to do so due to circumstances in my life that were largely beyond any sort of reasonable control.


RedPanda said...

Another thought-provoking post. I agree that we should look at others (and our former selves) with compassion.

I know it took me a long time to change my eating habits and lose weight. I couldn't adopt a new "lifestyle" overnight simply because there was so much else going on in my life at the time, and like the rat which had to turn around before pressing the lever, I had to cling to some old habits for a while.

Maybe the critical woman at "3 Fat Chicks" has forgotten all the baby steps involved in losing as much weight as she has?

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, RedPanda, and thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I appreciate it. Like you, I also took some time to reach full speed on my changes of habit, and I still struggle with them on occasion (though less so all of the time, I have not forgotten the earlier times).

I think that people who judge others without cause or evidence do so mainly to elevate their choices or value above that of others. In essence, "I made hard sacrifices that others are unwilling to make. I am stronger and more virtuous than them." To me, what she said was a blatant statement to deride people who are overweight and want to lose weight but cannot. I don't think she forgot the steps. I think she is simply complimenting herself on her ability to have made them when others could not.

Being fat (or formerly fat) gives us all something in common, but not one of us can live in another person's skin or in their shoes, and cannot know the hardship they endure or what they need to cope with the difficulties of life. One thing I realized very early on in life is that not all nervous systems are created equal. Some of us are more sensitive to various things than others. This is how we all develop individual character strengths and weaknesses even when in similar situations.

We can't choose this biology, and it limits our capacity to handle particular stresses. Sometimes I think people believe we're all minted with the same basic hardware and then life experience writes the software, but that's just not so. It's harder for some people to change their lives than others because they're suffering more under similar circumstances and their need to cope is greater. I respect their pain and enhanced hardship, because that's what I think they deserve.

RedPanda said...

Sometimes I think people believe we're all minted with the same basic hardware and then life experience writes the software, but that's just not so.

That's true, and something I have been pondering.

I was thinking about a former colleague who went on extended stress leave after a less-than-glowing performance appraisal, then slipped from view. (I think she may have taken early retirement.)

She is an incredibly smart and capable person. I know that she has low self-esteem, an overly-critical and unsupportive husband, and problems with her teenage children. Maybe the performance appraisal was the straw that broke the camel's back? Or maybe she could cope with life's other stressors, but the performance appraisal was an assault on her sense of self?

Anyway, your comment is a good reminder to those of us (which is probably most of us) who tend to look at other people from our own standpoint.

screaming fatgirl said...

Perhaps your coworker, with all of the other difficulties in her life (the husband, kids, etc.) mainly derived hervalue from the validation she received through her work, particularly if she was smart. When that seem to crumble in the face of a less than stellar evaluation, her entire self-worth collapsed. It doesn't sound like it was propped up on much else. It's all too common a situation for many people, particularly if they were raised by parents who didn't instill a good sense of worth and security in them.

RedPanda said...

Yes, that was what I was trying to say - only you expressed it better. ;-)

Anonymous said...

LOVE this post and discussion!

Perhaps some people who have successfully lost weight (for the time being) NEED to believe that if they could make the required effort than others can too.

They need to believe that they found the *magic key* that unlocks the secret of weight loss (even if that *magic* is a formulaic model of food restriction) and others just need to use the same key. It would be threatening for them to believe that their magic key could be a fluke that might stop working if too many life stressors piled on in the future or if things like hormonal changes threw the magic out of wack. It sort of goes back to your discussions about the false belief that life is fair for everyone (that there is an even playing field) and that if we just do X,Y, and Z then we will all experience our very own triumph.

Again, it's a superstitious mindset that believes we can all get to the promised land if we obey the same rules, and of course the rules are equally possible for all of us to follow. A deeply flawed form of reasoning that has it's roots in superstition and religion, perhaps.


screaming fatgirl said...

I think you're really got something when you say that they need to believe that they've found the key and that anyone could unlock the door to their trimmer self if they'd just pick up and use that key. I also think you're right about how this plays into "just world" thinking and how this helps them feel more powerful and in control.

I wonder, and what you have said sparked this thought, how many people are *convinced* that they will beat the odds and not regain the weight they have lost. The thoughts you offer about their motives would seem to fit into idea that they must create a worldview in which we can have indefinite control if we just keep up the same behaviors and the notion that anyone who is "willing" could do it as well.

As long as you subscribe to the notion that "will" plays a significant component in success, you have the perception (whether it is accurate or not is impossible to say) that you have control. If you don't apply a strong element of "will" to the process, then you may be doomed to failure after one shift in life circumstances.

Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comment, Rebecca!