Many of the women I’ve coached have shared with me how much their bariatric surgery has changed their relationships – sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.
After their surgery, it is typical for people to go through a period of radical transformation. Shedding pounds is only one manifestation of this dramatic change. People often feel overwhelmed or confused by their changing relationships, too.
Sometimes after surgery we don’t know how we want to be treated, but even if we do, we don’t always know how to teach others to respect our new needs. Reimagining boundaries can be challenging for those whose care-giving skills are more keenly developed than their “care-receiving” skills.
While it’s never too late to reimagine boundaries, after your initial weight loss is an opportune time to do it.
Teaching others how you want to be treated as you transform doesn’t happen overnight, but you can learn to set boundaries over time. You will have to consider your own particular challenges – for example a history of trauma or long-standing relationships with deeply ingrained patterns.
When you take on the challenge of setting boundaries, you’ll find it’s a life-long process. But the rewards that come with it accumulate over time. And some boundaries you set will create immediate, amazing changes in your life.
One concrete example is when I asked my husband to keep his snacks in a designated cabinet, and to eat them when I’m not in the kitchen – and also, out of my earshot! (I truly hate hearing someone chewing something I imagine is yummy when I am trying to avoid temptation.)
Much to my surprise, he said, “Okay.” And he forever changed his behavior on this. It’s been years now.
When you start practicing boundaries, you can feel reluctant to set them if you’ve allowed those closest to you to call the shots for years. But with time, support, and practice, you can baby step your way into better boundary setting.
At one of my retreats years ago, the ladies took the chance (and the risk) to practice setting boundaries through role playing. If role playing sounds scary, silly, or like a waste of time to you, I encourage you to try it with a safe person, someone with deep empathy and compassion. Role playing is a wonderful way to explore the relationships in your life and what you can do to deepen them.
Here’s an example from that retreat, so you can get a sense of how learning to set boundaries can look:
(I’ve changed some of the details and the names of the attendees to protect their privacy.)
Katie: Rita, why don’t you begin by telling us a little about your boundary issue?
Rita: My mother is completely disgusted with my weight. She always finds ways to bring it up. It’s very hurtful. I have tried to talk with her about it, but she just doesn’t listen. She doesn’t care.
Katie: Thank you for sharing. Can we have a volunteer who would be willing to role play with Rita?
Jennifer: I’ll do it.
Katie: Thank you. Rita, will you give Jennifer a little guidance about something your mother would be likely to say to you?
Rita: Sure. She’s just very critical. She says things like, “That dress is not flattering on you. Why don’t you wear something that doesn’t show your big arms?”
Katie: Ok. Jennifer, why don’t you repeat that to Rita.
Jennifer: [Nervous laugh.] Rita, I don’t want to hurt your feelings!
Rita: Don’t worry. I want to practice. It’s ok.
Jennifer: Ok …. That dress isn’t flattering on you at all, Rita. Why don’t you wear something that doesn’t show your big arms?
Rita: But I like this dress.
Jennifer: [Ad-libbing] I’ve told you a hundred times before that if you’re not going to lose weight, you need to get some different clothes.
Katie: Rita, how would you normally respond to that?
Rita: I probably wouldn’t say anything because I’ve learned that she isn’t going to listen anyway.
The group discussed Rita’s situation and gave her some empathy and compassion. They shared stories that were similar, and the group brainstormed to help Rita figure out what to do.
One group member suggested Rita be direct with her mother and say, “Mom, please don’t ever mention my weight again unless I bring up the topic first. If you bring it up first, I’m either going to hang up the phone or walk out of the room.”
Rita: But what if my mom gets mad or dismisses what I say?
Katie: There are ways to deal with that. Let’s try out some different responses and see what feels the easiest and least stressful for you.
I also shared with Rita one of my personal favorites for setting boundaries like the one she wanted to set. In the 1980s, my first therapist gave me what we jokingly called my “Brat Training.”
For me, the idea of being a brat was scary, but calling it that (and contemplating being a brat) felt freeing to me. The idea was to do something so annoying that my mother would get confused and distracted and give up her attack.
That year, every time my mom brought up my weight, I responded by talking about the drapes in the living room or something else unrelated. Every time. After a few experiences of this, mom stopped mentioning my weight altogether, because she got tired of my responses.
It worked like magic! And it felt less scary than having a direct confrontation.
The weight comments cropped up again when I was considering weight loss surgery. By that time, I had more confidence, so I was able to be more direct. And she accepted the limit I set, because she knew, based on our previous experience, I would stick to my guns about it.
Boundary setting is an underlying theme in many of my programs and classes because I believe healthy boundaries are truly a gateway to real joy.
I imagine Rita would agree. She took the idea of being a brat to heart and came up with some funny, bratty things to do.
For example, when she arrived at a family gathering, she secretly emptied a bag of colored marshmallows into the toilet in the guest bathroom off the foyer.
No one brought up Rita’s weight. They were too consumed with trying to figure out who put the marshmallows in the toilet, and Rita just played along.
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From Katie Jay’s Small Bites newsletter. Subscribe and get your complimentary report: The 21 Most Common Mistakes People Make after Bariatric Surgery at www.BariSupport.com. © 2022, Katie Jay. All rights reserved.