Speaking up and saying what is true for us can take a lot of courage - especially in the online world, and especially when our point of view isn’t popular.
Some people love a good argument, and I am not one of them. I prefer harmony and will do my best to keep the peace. But I am also committed to speaking my truth, and I’m passionate about making positive change in the world, and that means speaking up where before I would have been more comfortable to stay quiet. It means walking into the arena in front of a crowd and baring my heart. And when what I say is met with insults, it can feel like I’m being stabbed.
Sharing the Health at Every Size® (HAES) approach in a world that is violent towards fat bodies isn’t easy. It isn’t easy saying the earth is round when the majority of people think it’s flat (fun side note: apparently people actually knew the earth was round, it’s a myth they thought it was flat, but for the purpose of this analogy I’ll stick with the common thought!) It certainly isn’t easy to hear negative comments when we’re going through the vulnerable (courageous) process of walking away from diet culture and towards body acceptance ourselves.
So what can we do when the negativity or hate comes our way?
I am by no means an expert on this. I wish I could sit here and write out a list of tactics that would guarantee we’d never have to feel the sting of certain words again. The truth is I’m learning as I go along, but below are three strategies I’ve found effective…
Strategy #1: Feel the Feelings
It is human nature to want to defend and protect, especially if someone’s words feel like an attack. I know for me when I read a negative comment my heart rate increases, my body heats up, my stomach or chest tightens, and I want to throw back some choice words that will sting just as much!
But I keep returning to these wise phrases:
what we resist persists
violence begets violence, and
an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
So I do my best not to react. However in order not to react, I must first feel.
This isn’t always easy. In fact a lot of our time is spent doing whatever we can to not feel negative feelings. But the irony is that when we allow ourselves to fully feel what we’re feeling, the feelings can integrate, and pass.
When we allow ourselves to feel what we feel, whatever that feeling is, we are honouring ourselves. When we don’t make ourselves wrong for what we’re feeling, or belittle ourselves by saying things like “this is silly, you shouldn’t be feeling this way”, we build trust and self-worth. This increases our resilience when it comes to handling the haters.
So if we feel angry - let’s feel angry. Anger is a wonderful indicator that a boundary of ours has been crossed. If we feel sad - let’s feel sad. Sadness can break the heart wide open.
Now, we don’t need to do all this feeling alone. If you have a partner or a good friend that can sit with you while you cry or vent anger or frustration then ask if they can support you in this. I will often ask my fiancé to just sit with me while I cry, explicitly saying that I don’t want him to try to fix anything or to tell me “it’s ok”, I just want him to hear me or hold me. If a friend or partner cannot do this for you, honour that. We don’t always have the capacity to be there for each other all the time.
And if what someone says is very triggering, a good therapist or coach can help.
Strategy #2 – Seek to Understand
Another natural thing is that we all want to be heard, seen, and understood. The same goes for the trolls on the internet. In fact, I’d argue that the most hateful ones, are the ones yearning to be seen/heard/understood the most.
Hurt people, hurt people.
Whenever someone is being especially mean or rude, I try to put myself in their shoes. How would I have to feel in order to say what they were saying? What state of mind would I have to be in, in order to say those things to others? My guess: a pretty crappy one. Putting myself in their shoes helps me have compassion for this person and what they must be going through. We have to be in a lot of pain in order to feel the need to be awful to someone else.
Happy people, on the other hand, don’t hurt others.
When it comes to people arguing with me about weight and health, I try to remember that it wasn’t too long ago I was believing many of the same things they do. At the end of the day, we believe what we believe until we don’t, and it’s not my job to convince people to believe what I believe.
The Work of Byron Katie is one of my favourite tools for questioning my stressful thoughts. It’s also what helps me see things from someone else’s perspective. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I will change my position, but it helps me reduce the separation I feel from them. It hurts to feel disconnected.
Strategy #3 – Set Boundaries
I think one of the biggest misconceptions people have about showing compassion for someone who is hurting us (or others), is that we are condoning their actions or ways of being, and that we are disregarding the person on the receiving end of that behavior. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Having compassion means we don’t knock someone when they’re already down. It means that we can relate to knowing what it feels like to be angry and lashing out (we have all been there) so we don’t add insult to injury. But more importantly, it means having compassion and kindness for ourselves, and for me that means not putting myself in the line of fire.
I once heard Byron Katie say “hit me once, that’s on you, hit me twice, that’s on me”. Now – I want to be clear, I don’t at all believe she is saying we should blame ourselves if we find ourselves in an unhealthy or abusive situation. But it means that we have the power to remove ourselves from situations that aren’t working for us. Even though we can probably all relate in one way or another to staying too long in relationships that aren’t working for us. After all, we are all doing the best we can, given what’s going on for us at that time.
So set those boundaries. For me, that meant telling my Mom, who has been a life-long dieter, not to talk to me about weight or diets anymore. And I’m really grateful she has respected that. Likewise she asked me to not talk to her about HAES, so I don’t.
On my Instagram page where I receive the brunt of negative comments, I’m clear I want to create as safe a space as I can in a public forum. So I draw a hard line on the type of communication I’ll respond to or tolerate. This has been a trial and error process, and continues to be a practice. I understand that coming across HAES information can be like walking into an upside-down world. So I first try to understand where a person is coming from – what has been their experience and knowledge up to this point? But if the comments are basically “f**k u” with a series of harassing comments, I block. If they are critical but not harassing, I’ll engage. But if I can tell that they just want a fight, I block.
Being open-minded is important to me, so I try not to be too heavy on the blocking trigger. However, self-care is equally important to me, and that requires setting boundaries, and not keeping myself in the line of fire of people who just want to argue. Arguing is exhausting, especially if it’s going nowhere.
Setting boundaries has also meant I’ve unfollowed and unfriended people who are still very heavy into diet culture because I know it’s not healthy for me.
In short – it’s a balance, and it comes with practice.
It’s a balance to care for ourselves through setting boundaries, while also being humble and open to receiving criticism. I always ask myself “is there truth in what they are saying? Is there something I am missing here? Am I being in any way how they are describing me? This can be hard to do, but for me it’s what helps me find the balance to handle the haters with grace.
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