Did you know that the diet industry is a $70 billion, that’s billion with a B, industry? Did you also know that 95% of diets fail? I’ll let that sink in for a second!
People spend more than $70 billion in a year on a product that will fail more than 95% of the time! Would you buy a car that wouldn’t work 95% of the time, a house that had a 95% chance of collapsing into a pile of rubble, or buy clothes that had a 95% chance of falling apart on the first wear? Of course not! Yet that’s what millions of people in America do each and every single day when they go on a diet. They’ll spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on something that will ultimately fail them.
When I begin treatment with clients who have an eating disorder, like Anorexia; Binge Eating Disorders; or Bulimia, one of things I introduce to clients is Poodle Science. I was introduced to this concept by Tianna Smith, a a wonderful dietitian based in California. For the non-dog lovers out there, a Bullmastiff is a HUGE dog that usually weighs 100 pounds or more while a Chihuahua is a small dog that usually weighs around 6-7 pounds. Because of genetics, it would not matter what kind of diet or exercise you did with a Bullmastiff, it would NEVER weigh anywhere close to the 6-7 pounds of Chihauhua. Not only that, that Bullmastiff would probably be pretty miserable from the lack of food and constant exercise. And yet, it would never come close to having the bodily figure of a Chihuahua.
At SYTI counseling, when we work with our clients in therapy, we talk to them about Poodle Science because the same concept applies to humans. We have a biological blueprint based on our genetics that determines the shape and size of our body. Some people will naturally be 100 pounds while others will naturally be 150 pounds or more. Like the Bullmastiff and the Chihuahua, it’s an impossible fight for a 150-pound person to try and get down to 100 pounds. All you will do is fail, be miserable, and in some cases do incredible harm to your body. By accepting your biological blueprint, you are going to lead a happier and healthier life. So, the next time you see or hear diet culture in the media, brush it aside and be proud of the beautiful body you have!
I really wish that we were talking about Pascal, the chameleon from Rapunzel. He is one of my favorite Disney characters! Has anybody ever discovered a stuffed animal Pascal? I’ve looked high and low but cannot find one anywhere! So if you know where I can buy one, please let me know. Clearly it’s a very urgent matter!
But I digress. What I really want to talk about today are the human versions of chameleons – those whose thoughts, beliefs, and opinions can change depending on their environment. Pete Walker, author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, first coined the term “fawning” as a trauma response. Fawning is essentially described as being a chronic people pleaser. Some trauma survivors will engage in fawning, or people pleasing, as a way to diffuse tension if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. But what I don’t think many people know is that fawning extends beyond saying “yes” to everything and everyone’s requests. People pleasers are also the kind of folks mentioned above – the ones who tend to have different beliefs or different personalities depending on who they are around.
For example, someone who is fawning could look like your friend that tells you all the time she is a Democrat, but in a room full of Republicans she will quickly turn into one of the most passionate Republicans the world has ever seen. Someone who is fawning might also look like that cousin of yours who complains constantly about how much she hates this one person in her friend group, but the second she hangs out with that person she acts like the two of them are best friends.
As a whole, the public generally doesn’t take kindly to people who behave like this. It creates a sense of mistrust and frustration among people when they see that somebody acts one way one minute, and is completely different the next minute.
Now I am not saying that every single person who engages in these types of behaviors is fawning, because that simply isn’t the case. But what I am trying to say is that sometimes people aren’t trying to copy others and sometimes people aren’t changing their beliefs and values out of a desperation to fit in. What this behavior actually could be is fawning, or in other words, a type of trauma response.
I myself can be like this when I feel threatened in some ways. Recently, I found myself in a situation that felt tense, uncomfortable, and downright awkward. The people around me were in a heated discussion about something that I actually found offensive. On a good day, or even a so-so day, I might have chimed in and dared to have an opposing viewpoint. But on this day in particular, I was already having such a bad day, and between the topic of conversation and the harsh tone of everyone’s voices, I was triggered beyond belief. I did the only thing I could do to try to get the conversation to come to a close: I simply agreed with them. Yep, against everything I believe in, I became the person that I thought that they wanted me to be and I agreed with what they were saying, even though, if you were to ask me to speak on that same subject any other day of the week, I would have given you a completely different opinion.
I didn’t agree with them because I had an overwhelming desire to fit in, and I didn’t pacify them by siding with their beliefs because I wanted to make friends with them. It was more so that I felt emotionally unsafe, and feeling that way put me in such a high state of emotional distress that I said whatever I could to get myself away from the situation. Fawning, like fight or freeze or flight or any of the other trauma responses, is a survival tactic. I wasn’t able to fight or flee the situation, so I became a chameleon and I blended in with my surroundings in the best way that I knew how.
Millions of folks do this. I’ve watched it time and time again, and while a younger version of me might get annoyed and accuse that person of not being genuine, the person I am today realizes that so many people engage in fawning because they have found themselves in situations that trigger their previous traumas.
While I have come a very long way in my PTSD recovery, I was reminded by this event that there is more work to be done. Even though I am tempted to sit in a pit of shame and self-loathing, I’m refusing to do so because my brain did whatever it could to keep me safe in the moment, and that is no reason to feel ashamed. So here I sit, pouring vulnerability onto the page in the hopes that I can educate other people on this type of trauma response, as I think it is often misunderstood and creates a lot of tension in relationships.
To those of you who have never engaged in fawning and don’t quite get it, please be patient with us.
And to those of us who struggle with fawning, let us try to have more compassion for ourselves. We have brilliant minds, built for survival. And although fawning doesn’t always serve us well, it did keep us safe and alive for many years. We are all a work in progress, but please oh please, don’t forget to love yourself throughout the journey just as much as you’ll love yourself once you’ve arrived at your destination.
Boundaries are limits that we set with other people or sometimes, even ourselves. The point of setting a boundary is to protect our own physical, social, and emotional health. Setting boundaries with others can look like:
-“Thank you for the invitation, but I can’t go out this weekend.” -“I won’t be joining you for the holidays this year due to the pandemic.” -“I have let you know repeatedly that I do not want to speak about this topic. If you continue to bring it up, I am going to leave the party.” -“I have told you that I am not comfortable meeting up without masks. If you are not able to wear a mask, let’s wait to meet up until it’s safer to do so.”
Again, boundaries are put in place to honor ourselves and protect all aspects of our well-being.
Threats are designed for us to get the things we want and/or need, often at the expense of someone else. Threats typically come in the form of a warning that someone or something might be harmed if we don’t get what we want. Some examples of threats might be:
– “If you are going to continue dating that guy, then I’m going to stop asking you how you’re doing since you’re only going to get hurt.” -“If you don’t spend the holidays with us this year, then I’m not buying you those shoes you have been asking for.” -“We aren’t having sex at night anymore since you clearly can’t even have the laundry done by the time I get home from work.” -“I’m paying for this wedding so I think I should have some say in where you have it.”
Threats are about securing our wants and needs by taking something away from someone if things do not go our way.
THE THIN LINE
As you’ll notice in the section on boundaries, none of the examples I provided were about doing harm to the other person in any way. The only thing a boundary should do is help us to protect ourselves without doing harm to others. The line between threats and boundaries starts to blur when we start punishing other people for not getting our way. There is no punishment happening when we tell others, for example, that we aren’t comfortable meeting up with them unless they are wearing a mask. There is punishment happening, however, when we withhold sex, threaten emotional neglect, or hold money over people’s heads in order to get what we want. Sometimes it can be quite difficult to tell the difference between a threat and a boundary. Many people feel that they are one in the same, but that could not be further from the truth; and it is important to suss out the difference so that we are taking good care of both ourselves and our loved ones.
Are we all drained right now or what? We’ve got election stress, COVID-19 anxiety, and good old seasonal depression waiting for us right around the corner. Not to mention we are all fighting battles that others know nothing about.
As we head into the colder months, when the flu meets COVID and political tension rises as power shifts from one President to another, let this be your gentle reminder to take the time to get back to the basics of your life so that you are well-equipped to handle what may be coming down the road.
-HYDRATE. Drink drink drink – not beer, not wine, not tequila (okay, maybe tequila). Drink water. As much as your body is telling you that you need. Take notice of how often you’re going to the bathroom and if you need to be consuming more water.
-SLEEP. I know, I know, it is so difficult to be in a regular sleeping routine when life feels like such a jumbled mess these days. But the world is going to keep turning, regardless of whether or not you get sleep, and nothing earth-shattering is going to happen if you log off of Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok for a while to give your body some R&R. Or maybe something earth-shattering WILL happen – and you’ll find out about it after you have slept. Try not to feed the urge to know everything that is happening in the world the second that it happens.
MOVE. Gyms have stricter regulations. It’s dark by 5pm. The weather is getting cold. We want blankets, and hot chocolate, and Christmas movies, not long walks or cardio or yoga. But as great as all the holiday vibes can be, sitting on the couch or in bed for hours on end can lead to a black hole of depression that can be so hard to get out of. So break up your day a little – go for a walk, stretch, take a 15 minute mild yoga class, or blast heavy metal music and go crush some weights. Either way, the movement will mitigate symptoms of depression and anxiety and will help your body to feel its best.
EAT. November is upon us so everywhere you look you’re going to see diets and holiday fitness programs all designed to help you avoid weight gain during the holidays. This season of life is stressful enough for all of us, don’t throw a diet into the mix and start detoxing or counting calories. If anything, be intentional about eating. Don’t skip meals. It doesn’t matter if all you did was sit on the couch all day – you still deserve and need to eat.
CONNECT. Make plans with friends and family in whatever way feels safe for you these days. Don’t use COVID as an excuse to feed into your depression and stop connecting with your loved ones.
LOOK AROUND. Shut off the TV. Put down your phone. Look away from your laptops and desktops and smart bikes and smart watches, etc. Look around at your environment. Love up on your partner. Snuggle with your pets. Stand outside for a few extra moments after getting out of your car just to feel the crisp air on your face. Be wherever you’re at. Tune in to your surroundings and let the stress of the world melt away, if only for a moment.
In these difficult times, I struggle to maintain all the of above, especially the last one! But when we feel overwhelmed with life, it’s crucial for us all to get back to the basics of living so that we can build strength for the future. So take the time to rest up everyone, for when we wake, we will get back to trying to change the world!