"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
December 17, 2015
Touchy Subjects
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


We are going to visit my parents for Christmas. Every time I see my mother, she tells me how great I look. Then, she tells me to lose 10 pounds.

I'm not overweight and I don't need to lose 10 pounds, but--just like always--I've spent the last month worrying and cutting back and trying to lose weight, even though I know she'll still say it.

I don't think this is a healthy behavior pattern, but I don't know what to do about it. I know I'll never be thin enough for her, but I still care what she thinks and it hurts my feelings every time I visit her.



One of the funny things about families is that they will say the most awful things to one another, things they would never say to a friend or even a stranger. Can you imagine your mother telling a stranger that she looked great but should lose 10 pounds? Or her friend? Of course not. If your mother is even moderately socially competent, she would never criticize another person's weight to his face. She would not want to be rude or hurt someone's feelings; she would not want her friend to dump her.

Perhaps it's the feeling of intimacy and history among family members that causes them to ask questions, make comments and dredge up old history in a way they would never do among non-family members. Touchy topics can include weight, hair style, clothes, education, money, profession, work status, old romantic partners, current romantic partners, missed opportunities, exercise, social life, eating habits, fertility, health, housekeeping, child rearing, character flaws and unflattering stories from the past. Not to mention politics and religion.

Not all of these topics are touchy to all people, of course. But family members should generally know who is sensitive about what, and should take care not to poke sore spots. Asserting that, "She shouldn't be so touchy," is no excuse for hurting a family member's feelings, especially when you know you have brought up a topic someone finds painful or irritating.

In your case, the touchy subject is weight. Nobody--whether slim or stout--likes to be told to lose weight. Not only is it hurtful and insulting in and of itself, it also shows that the person making the comment neither understands nor cares about your feelings. And it seems to communicate that to this person, your physical appearance is your most important, most defining feature, and that your weight is so important that criticizing it is worth violating social norms and hurting your feelings.

Now, it is possible that your mother is manipulative and cruel, and that she really does try to keep you down with criticism. If she is like that, you might ask yourself why you visit her at all. If she is awful on purpose and if you are upset to the point of an unnecessary diet, you should not visit her.

But if you have an otherwise positive or supportive relationship with your mom, it seems more likely that her comments are some kind of unfortunate habit, a manifestation of a personal concern or merely thoughtless. It seems unlikely she knows how hurt you are when she tells you to lose weight, or to what lengths you go to please her.

In this case, therefore, especially in the context of a close relationship, you can ask your mother not to mention your weight any more. When you see her next, and when she tells you to lose 10 pounds, have your response ready. "Mom," you can say pleasantly but seriously, "It really bothers me when you tell me to lose 10 pounds. Will you please not do it anymore?" Or, if you'd like to be specific, "Mom, when you tell me to lose 10 pounds, it makes me feel like my weight is the most important thing you see about me. It hurts my feelings. Could you not do it anymore?" Stay calm, don't lash out and keep it short. She will probably be surprised, but even if she gets defensive, you can stay calm. "I just don't like it," you can add, if further explanation is necessary. Then, you should change the subject.

You don't want your mother to feel bad. Your goal is to strengthen your relationship, not to put her down. Think of how you'd want her to act if your positions were reversed. Just like you don't want her to think of you only in terms of your weight, you shouldn't think of her only in terms of how she criticizes your weight.

Will it work? If you have a decent relationship with your mother, the chances are good. Most people will not refuse such a direct request. And you're not asking her to change what she thinks or how she lives. You are only asking her not to say certain things to you, which is the kind of reasonable request that family members are entitled to make of each other.

Here are six further suggestions for your upcoming visit.

One, expect her to tell you to lose 10 pounds. Instead of hoping for a spontaneous change of the greeting ritual, plan to hear the dreaded admonition. It will still be annoying and discouraging, but at least your hopes for an insult-free greeting will not be dashed as well.

Two, be an adult. It is easy to slip back into your old childhood role when you visit your folks, especially if your siblings are around. If you catch yourself behaving peevishly, petulantly or childishly, I suggest you take a moment to think about how you would behave in your own home among your adult friends. Then, behave like a gracious adult. Pitch in without being asked, buy some groceries and participate in the plans your parents have made. Think of others before yourself. Be grateful for your parents' hospitality and don't criticize them, their home or their ways. This mindset will help you respond maturely when touchy subjects are broached.

Three, engage on positive subjects. If there are subjects you'd like to avoid, think of something else to talk about. For example, if you don't want to talk about your job, open conversations on other topics. This will be especially effective if you choose topics that interest the other people in the room. People like to talk about themselves, and you can show a genuine interest in your family members by asking them about things that are important to them.

Four, avoid touchy subjects. If you don't want to discuss your social life, don't bring it up, even in a self-depreciating way. If you even suggest you are dissatisfied, you open the door for questions and comments. Even if you speak positively about the touchy subject, you open the door for comments and recommendations. So stick to subjects that you don't mind discussing.

It may also be helpful, during your visit, to avoid other people altogether for a little while. You might go for a walk, run to the store, turn in early or take a drive. In an extreme case, you might get the flu.

Five, reply to comments with questions. It is sometimes possible to deflect an awkward question or comment by asking a question in turn. For example, if you are single and your mother asks you whatever happened to that nice Bob from the office, you can say, "He still works there, but we don't date anymore. Did you ever date a co-worker?" Or, "Sandra married a guy she met at work, right? How are they doing?"

Six, refuse to discuss it, but nicely. You don't have to divulge private information or engage in conversations you don't want to have. But you don't have to throw a fit about it, either. Instead, try to project a calm confidence in your actions. If your mother asks if you are planning to buy some new jeans soon, you can simply say, "No. How's Janice these days?" If she asks, with eyebrows raised, if you really want a second helping of ice cream, you can say, "Yes, please. Could you pass the hot fudge? How is your Primary class going?"

Finally, although touchy subjects are, well, touchy, there are times when the people who love you raise them for good reason. Close friends and family can provide valuable perspective on sensitive subjects. If someone close to you broaches a delicate topic with you--your fiancé is bad news, you seem unusually blue, your child's behavior is concerning--don't shut that person down. Instead, listen. This person has gone out on a limb to talk to you about something important. You should hear him out and carefully consider what he has to say.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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