Dear Lauren,

I'm almost 17. When I was 12, I gained a little weight – nothing much, but to my overweight mother, older sister, and aunt, it was an immediate and serious problem. They mentioned it to me every single day and they talked about it to me and to my other extended family members, who then kept mentioning my weight to me and telling me I had to lose weight. Food was locked in the freezer, no one helped me with breakfast or lunch any more, and I was essentially told to stop eating anything other than rice cakes, vegetables, and plain tuna or turkey.

I was hungry, of course, and I bought chocolate bars and potato chips in school, snuck junk food at home, felt physically lousy, and of course gained more weight. No one seemed to care if I were happy, if I were kind, if I were good. They only seemed to care about and talk about my weight.

After three years, my weight went back to normal on its own, mostly because I realized that no food is off limits and I should eat at least three meals a day and include healthy options and chill out and ignore every single voice other than my own. Like a baby who knows when she is hungry, I learned -- again -- when to eat. But the comments about my appearance have only gotten worse. In the last year and a half, every single visit by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins has brought comments about "how much weight" I lost, how I must be very disciplined, how I must be on some diet, and that it's so wonderful (and now I can be a success, get into a better college, have pretty babies some day, have a perfect, stress-free life...).

I cannot stand the focus – still – on my body. I also realize that the same way I think my family turned me into a weight, instead of a person, I turned them into people who talk about my weight, instead of whole people who have lives outside of whatever I eat and weigh. I know they have thoughts and feelings and experiences aside from my weight and food intake, but I haven't been able to experience that. What can I do to make them stop talking about my "weight loss" and "diet?" Or more to the point, because I don't know if I can do anything about that, what can I do to stop being so concerned with what they say? I know it's their obsession, not mine, but it's really hurting me and I have to stop letting their comments run my life.

A Heavy Weight

Lauren Roth's Answer

It’s obvious from your question that you know the healthy things to do. (1) Eat healthful foods, and only when you’re actually hungry. (2) Ignore damaging comments from and unhelpful obsessions of the people around you. The million-dollar-question is: why, when we know what’s right, can we not get ourselves to do it?

Believe me, I have experience with this. Do you know why I have experience with knowing what the right thing is, but not always doing it? Because I’m human. And so are you. And so is everyone on this entire planet. We are all fallible human beings who will, inevitably, not be perfect.

Do you know what I do to myself when I mess up? I forgive myself. I coddle myself. I tell myself, “Lauren, you knew what was right. Kudos to you for that! Don’t worry that you messed up. You’ll do better next time. Now, let’s figure out together what triggered you to do the wrong thing when you knew what the right thing was.” And then I sit with myself and think over, rationally, why I flipped out and acted badly when I knew I should have chilled out and acted properly.

If I have to be perfect, then I can’t be real with myself.

But I never would be able to sit comfortably with myself and calm myself down and go over the reasons for my failures with myself if I had not first forgiven myself for making a mistake. If I have to be perfect, then I can’t be real with myself. If I can’t forgive myself for being a fallible human being, then I have no chance at having a healthy, gentle relationship with myself. In other words, if I always have to be running from my own truth, then I’ll never learn a better way.

Your first step is to forgive yourself for not handling your family’s obsession well. Tell yourself it’s okay to not deal well with challenges and struggles. Believe it or not, that will help you cope better with – challenges and struggles!

Your next step is figuring out why their comments bother you even though you don’t want to be bothered by them. Perhaps you still think their views are somewhat correct, even though you don’t want to think that? Perhaps part of you really does believe what they’re saying. If we really and truly know, with certainty, that what someone says to us is ridiculous, we usually don’t get upset – we just realize that they’re saying insipid, insignificant nothingness. Perhaps there is a part of you that still believes “Thin people get the good stuff in life.” If you were my client sitting in front of me, I would explore that belief with you and see if there were vestiges of it still hanging out in your heart and mind.

Even if you do believe, to a certain extent, that “Thin people get the good stuff,” you can make peace with that belief and not be bothered tremendously when your family alludes to it. How? By being aware. Just your awareness of having that belief will release you from fighting against their utterance of it. In other words, again, your truth will set you free. If you realize that you, also, think “Thin people have it better,” then you don’t have to fight their words. You can just calmly hear your family and realize: “I agree with them, to a certain extent. I know they take it more to an extreme than I do, but that’s okay. We can agree partially, and that doesn’t make me a bad person.” When you feel frustrated, it means you’re internally conflicted. But when you gain awareness of the internal conflict, the frustration abates almost magically.

Trying to be perfect will lead you to all kinds of misery in your life. And running away from your truth will make you unhappy and stressed and reactive. So allow yourself your humanness, and stay aware of your real thoughts and feelings.

Of course, you might not be able to access your real feelings, with all their multitudinous twists and turns and trapdoors and dead-ends, on your own. You might need the help of an expert psychotherapist. As a therapist, my job is to help each person clarify for himself or herself the answer to the question: If I know it, why don’t I do it? Part of your healing perhaps should involve working with a good psychotherapist to figure out your own individual reasons for getting stuck. You can call Relief, a Jewish mental health referral service, to find a qualified therapist in your area.