“Wow! You’ve Changed!” Endless Reactions In Recovery

“I kind of worked out like a maniac (well actually, not kind of) and belonged to every gym and exercise fad known to mankind. Since I started HDRM* I stopped exercising and thus ceased showing up at many exercise venues that I often frequented. So now, the issue is that very time I leave my house (literally) I see someone who asks me why I haven’t been to the gym or out running. I usually respond by telling people I’m taking a break to which the response will be “Well don't take too much of a break!”

Tom Simpson: Flickr.com
Tom Simpson: Flickr.com

The above is a quote from a frustrated person in recovery who finds she cannot leave her home without people commenting on the changes in her body and habits. In this common circumstance, there are only two options: change your reaction or change the world.

Standard greetings are really, really strange if you think about them. They are generally designed to express concern for the other person’s wellbeing and welfare.

The words "Hey" "Hi" and "Hello" are all various hailing mechanisms—getting someone’s attention. But greetings in our culture span “How are you doing?” to “How you feeling?” and “How are things going?”

One Icelandic greeting is just “Happy” (Sæl)

Botswana & Malawi: “How did you wake?”

For some in Mauritania: “On you no evil.”

Bhutan: “Is your body well?”

Georgia (nation): “Let you win.”

Mauritius: “Speak.”

Mongolia: “How is the livestock, the living, the family?”

Niue: “Love be with you.”

Swaziland: “I see you.”

Zimbabwe: The slow clap. 1

For those with a history of eating disorders, they might find the now fading Chinese greeting (more common for the older folk) “Have you eaten?” much more welcoming.

You likely know what a meme is—it’s a term coined by Richard Dawkins to suggest that there are cultural constructs that propagate in human beings just as genes do, but obviously using different mechanisms.

All the above greetings are memes—ways to quickly impart connection between human primates that also reinforce cultural norms. And the responses are meant to be just as automatic to reaffirm the connection (rather than actually to relay any real information).

My husband, usually as a pedestrian, has a habit of diffusing his irritation with impatient drivers leaning on their horns in response to other drivers by channeling something like a cross between very jovial Romanian taxi driver and the Count from Sesame Street: “Hello!! Yes, yes thank you! Please to be having a very good day!!” It’s a bit ridiculous, but it serves to make for a cheery response that keeps our spirits intact even as those drivers likely have bad days ahead of them.

It’s possible to change your reaction to comments about your absence at the gym or the change in your weight that mimic my husband’s extra-jovial response in a way that may have others perplexed but will make you feel much less tense.

“Wow, you’ve gained some weight you look great!” gets a very chipper rejoinder smeared with big smiles and singsong voice of “I know right?! Thanks for noticing and I feel great too!”

“I haven’t seen you working out at all lately,” gets an equally excited response of “Oh yeah, I don’t even think about it because it's so great I have my life back. I am absolutely never going to grind myself into that boring, repetitive misery again. It’s like my whole world opened up I swear!”

When you change your reaction in these ways it reaps two benefits for you. The first is that you are presuming the individual is greeting you in these ways because social primates have all these weird cultural memes for basically trying to express concern and connection for others. When you do that, your heart opens up a bit. In your mind you could imagine that instead of them commenting on your weight or your absence at the gym what they are really saying is: “How did you wake?” or “How are your livestock?” or just “Happy.” The second benefit is that you are reinforcing a spiral of appreciation for the changes you’ve made in your life rather than a spiral of defensiveness and sense of loss.

Do you feel fabulous when people call attention to your weight and your lack of regular gym attendance? Almost certainly not I’m sure. But if your responses are practiced to express some pride in the work you have done to move an eating disorder into remission, then most other decent human beings around you will find those memes very catching.

This of course doesn’t apply to concern trolls who want to get all up in your business about how ‘unhealthy’ your new behaviors are. The place to go to learn great techniques for dealing with that kind of invasive garbage is Ragen Chastain’s blog: Dances with Fat.

Beyond these changes to how you react, you can also decide to change the world instead. Chances are that your community of gym rats or neighbors is relatively tight and overlaps a fair amount. You can absolutely depend upon gossip to ensure that word spreads based on what you decide to tell one member of those groups in private. That can change the world around you and how they respond to you.

Let’s go back to this part of the quote above: I see someone who asks me why I haven’t been to the gym or out running. I usually respond by telling people I’m taking a break to which the response will be “Well don't take too much of a break!”

When changing the world you say the following: “Actually, I’m not being entirely honest with you Susan (just a place marker name). The truth is I’ve been battling a pretty deadly eating disorder for years and years. There’s little chance I’d ever return to the gym because it’s how the eating disorder destroyed my health and wellbeing in the first place. It’s actually hard to change my life so profoundly in these ways, but I’m pretty proud of my progress. I hope you understand if I ask you to not mention my absence from running and exercise in future, because I actually do feel a bit left out and sad about it all even though I know it’s what I must do to stay healthy in the long term.”

Obviously choose the individual you are going to be honest with and ideally have it be someone who’s connected enough with your other contacts in the community so that within a matter of weeks you find no one is asking you why you aren’t at the gym anymore these days.

We are all taught that gossiping is bad and rude, but it persists precisely because it has tremendous function in human society: it's a means of gaining information about individuals, cementing social bonds, and understanding cultural norms (do’s and dont’s). And yes it is also used for aggression sadly too. Some researchers even refer to gossiping as social grooming, meaning it has equivalent bonding relevance as does actual grooming behaviors in other primates. 2, 3

It’s okay to use the power of gossip to change the world around you so that you are not going to be faced with invasive questions that have you wishing and hoping you could relapse. So speak your piece to one key connected individual, let the mic drop and then await the slow clap of success:

* Homeodynamic Recovery Method.

1. VanPatter, Bruce, “Greetings from Around the World”, (blog), http://www.brucevanpatter.com/world_greetings.html.

2. Dunbar, Robin IM. "Gossip in evolutionary perspective." Review of general psychology 8, no. 2 (2004): 100.

3. Baumeister, Roy F., Liqing Zhang, and Kathleen D. Vohs. "Gossip as cultural learning." Review of General Psychology 8, no. 2 (2004): 111.