Ask Gynomite!

March 2, 2011 at 4:01 pm (ask gynomite) (, , , )

In her former life, Emily “Gynomite” Gordon was a couples and family therapist licensed in 2 1/2 states.  In this life, she’s a freelance fighter of your emotional woes with Ask Gynomite.  Write her at all emails stay confidential.  Today, Gynomite takes on being concerned about a friend.
Two years ago, one of my close girl friends moved away from NY to San Fransisco with her boyfriend. I haven’t seen her since then, and she’s come back to new york for a few weeks to stay with me. When she arrived over the weekend, I almost didn’t recognize her, because she’s gained about 80 to 100 lbs. I’m very concerned for her, not only because such a large weight gain isn’t healthy, but it makes me think that it’s a sign that there are other emotional issues going on. This is a lot different than just putting on 20 or 30 lbs.  She’s hasn’t brought it up or mentioned her weight gain to me or my other friend. Is it OK to say something to her or bring it up? And if it is, what’s the best way to approach the situation? My friend and I are really concerned and worried about her.

I totally empathize the very precarious situation you are in. You are a concerned friend, you see someone you care about clearly going through something difficult, and you want to help. That is all to be applauded. The next, and entirely more difficult step is figuring out how to talk to her about it.
This sounds very silly, but I think talking to someone about something sensitive is similar to getting a cat to sit on your lap. My very affectionate cat, if I picked her up and plopped her onto my lap, would immediately jump off, because it wasn’t her choice to jump up there. But, if I call her name, make silly kissy noises at her, and smooth down a blanket over my lap so it looks nice and inviting, 8 times out of 10, my cat will jump onto my lap.
Again, silly analogy, but this is the key to getting someone into a sensitive conversation- making it look nice and inviting. Bonus points if you make it seem like it was their idea to bring it up in the first place. Your friend knows that she’s gained 80 lbs, and she knows that you noticed it immediately. She might even be desperately afraid that you are going to bring it up, and if you do, she’ll feel attacked and possibly ashamed, and good luck having any real conversation with her from there.
In these situations I tend to ask obvious questions and use some very basic active listening skills. 

You: Tell me about how things are going with Roger?
Her: Well, he’s good, he is very busy these days and we don’t see each other a lot, and sometimes things feel stressed at home.
You: So there’s some tension?

You: How are you feeling these days in general? (Maybe throw in concerns or stresses or insecurities you’ve felt lately- remember, she’s your friend and she can support you too)
Her: (echoing that she’s had stresses and insecurities)
You: Tell me more about that.

She may be feeling very vulnerable, so putting some vulnerability out there yourself can help create a safe, confessional atmosphere. Tell her (because really, we should all be doing this anyway) how much her friendship means to you, how much having her as a sounding board means to you, and how you hope she knows that you’re always there to be a sounding board for her too. Don’t expect that to have an immediate effect, but just mention it, sincerely, while getting coffee or walking around.
Sometimes, if I have a hunch someone is going through something difficult to talk about, I’ll bring up an issue that is sensitive to me (but not so sensitive as to keep the focus on myself for hours) and lay it out there first, to set the tone that it’s safe to talk about sensitive things. Nothing as obvious as pretending to mirror what you think she’s going through, but rather, just leading by example.
If you do all this and she still doesn’t mention anything, you’re done. You’ve done all you can do to create a nice comfy space, and plus you got to tell your friend how much she means to you, and that’s all you can do. As long as she’s not in physical danger, staging an intervention would only alienate her. Good luck to you.

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