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Do I Look Fat?
Would your response be honest or kind? Do we have to choose?
Photo: JC Gellidon via Unsplash
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” - Maya Angelou
“Do I look fat?”
“Do I look skinny?”
“Do I look good?”
"Do I look...do I look...do I look..."
Questions we’ve all asked ourselves at some point or another. They happen in moments of insecurity or maybe it’s something that’s constantly nagging our self-image.
It’s one thing when we ask these to ourselves but it amplifies and morphs into something else when we ask another person.
I hate questions like that. Or any question that at best doesn’t have a practical purpose or at worst is used to test you.
Hey, I’m guilty of having asked these kinds questions myself in the past to my surprised and very often eye-rolling friends and family. Thankfully, those types of inquiries have been lost with time and significant improvements in self-worth, but when someone asks me one of these, my track record isn’t very good.
More on that a little later.
Why do we do this?
We humans are such emotional beings, aren’t we?
Whether we admit to it or not, we place a lot of value on invisible and intangible things for the sake of protecting our fragile egos, self-perceptions and the persona(s) we so painstakingly build over time.
Insecurities about our appearance have this way of rising to the surface no matter how hard you fight them. And when they do, sometimes despite ourselves, we try to verbalize these in a way that will pose the least risk to our fragility at the time.
Very often this will happen in the form of a question whose answer we know but we need someone else to tell us that we will be ok.
So. what would you rather have? Cold, hard truth-based observations from another perspective or gentle nudging towards eventual realization?
You can probably guess from the tone of this post so far which camp I land in.
I'm what you would consider an outspoken, direct person. Nurture and environment helped shape this. I look at providing well-rounded observations without niceties as simply removing unnecessary clutter at a time when direct, actionable feedback is most needed.
Unfortunately, sometimes folks like me go overboard unintentionally.
We have the ability to make someone feel mercilessly small by turning their perceived character flaws into bullets if we’re not careful.
The focus on practicality is appreciated by some of my more thick-skinned friends and understandably not so much by the more sensitive types. My past attitude towards the latter would be "Oh well, you asked".
But, as I'm going through life trying to keep improving as a person, I've arrived at an interesting juncture. You could call it a confluence of honesty and kindness.
Must we choose?
Photo: Javier Allegue Barros via Unsplash
Honesty and kindness sound lovely together, don't they? But to serve up both in one context can often be a major challenge.
Without kindness, honesty can sometimes be insensitive and cruel. Without honesty, kindness is empty, manipulative and serves only the giver.
Emotions have their time and place, but to me they need to be kept in check with personal boundaries. I grew up in an environment where reason and logic weren’t given nearly as much weight as raw emotion. This inevitably led to toxicity. And that, in turn, led to my reliance on “cold” logic and rationale instead of emotional guidance.
My mistake was that in the past I threw the baby out with the bathwater as the saying goes. And this happens with a lot of us.
In our eagerness to provide helpful pieces of advice or perspective, we inadvertently bulldoze over some very valid emotions which - no matter what the question itself asks - is its root.
And this really brings us to a very fragile and tough spot. If we try to temper our honesty with compassion, we can end up not being honest. If we are too bluntly honest, there is a very real possibility that the negative feelings our bluntness evokes will be the thing that stays with the recipient, and not the actual advice.
The goal now is to find that perfect spot in this place where I can provide tangible, helpful feedback without the recipient being hurt by it.
And all of this without giving up the one thing that’s just not in my DNA: lying to make someone feel better.
Here is a quick snapshot of how my responses have evolved over time. Let’s pretend that an obviously overweight friend asked me that most classic of “Do I look” questions. I arranged this in three categories.
Q: “Do I look fat?”
A: “No sweetie of course not. You are amazing just as you are”
Q: “Do I look fat?”
The advantage here is that I was never asked this question again. The disadvantage – to no surprise - is a tiny social circle lacking in emotional closeness.
Q: “Do I look fat?”
A: “I’m sorry that you feel the need to ask such a question. What I feel you should know is that how you see yourself is far more important than what anyone else thinks, so please don’t worry about others’ opinions. If you feel there is something about you that you don’t like, I am here to help you.”
Nice and long-winded, isn’t it? But it sure beats the ‘Past’ category. Not perfect, but a work in progress. It takes a lot more time to explain, but it’s time well spent if it takes the ‘brutal’ out of honesty and gets the real message across.
In the end, it’s unavoidable that the questioner will feel some negative impact on their feelings. Any response other than what's given in the 'Never' category will most likely cause an uncomfortable introspection.
That’s just the inherent risk of asking something that's not really a question at all.
It will most likely confirm what they fear anyway, but it the 'Present' response simply makes the responder sound less insensitive. And sometimes that's about the best that can be done.
The bottom line
I guess in the end it’s not really about the question, or about how to respond to something that comes out of a deeply emotional space.
It’s really about compassion.
As someone who used to ask "Do I look" questions, I now know that all I really wanted was compassion in the reply. It helps to remember that in order to ask these types of questions, a person has to be in an unenviable, vulnerable place to begin with. There's usually a lot of denial at play, and many of us just aren't ready for a direct confirmation of what we're in denial of.
I used to think that by being brutally honest, I was being a more effective helper, but in fact, this very often had the unintended effect of getting the person asking the question to become fixated on how I responded rather than the response itself.
A little compassion goes a long way in ensuring a rational and accurate reply that always remains honest, but doesn't make the enquirer feel worse about themselves.
Worth a little attention in my books.
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