Recognising Strengths

The longer I work in our bariatric clinic, the more I am convinced that this is where you will see some of the strongest people alive. Certainly, no one can begin to imagine what it takes to live as a large person in a fat-phobic society, where carrying excess weight is constantly linked to failure, not to mention ridicule, shame, and blame.

Add to this, the trials and tribulations that many of my patients have faced (some of which are often directly linked to their weight gain), I often wonder just how much effort it takes to go on day after day, never mind showing up in our clinic.

It is therefore absolutely no surprise to me, that our interviews with patients and providers, published in Clinical Obesity, identified the importance of reminding our patients on just how strong they really are.

“Patients attributed great importance to the process of recognizing their own strength. Data bears witness to the powerful impact internalized stigma had on peoples’view of self and their ability to be healthy. By listening for examples of resiliency in patients’ past and labelling them as strengths, providers fostered a shift in participants’view of themselves, which improved their confidence in implementing changes.Patients noticed this as an unexpected impact of a conversation about obesity. Many shared that they had expectedadvice on diet and exercise, behaviours they felt they were failing at. Instead, recognizing strengths opened up a space of potential for identifying strategies that people could succeed at, enjoy and find meaningful for their life. This strength-based approach positively impacted participants’ confidence, self-worth and hope.”

Indeed, it is not hard to identify strengths in any patient. In fact, I often find myself listening to my patients and silently wondering how they have managed to not be twice their size, given what they have been through.

Most patients have heroically mastered other aspect of their lives (e.g. raising four kids as a single parent, surviving an abusive marriage, coming clean from a long-history of substance abuse, etc., etc.). Many have excelled in their professions or serve as important pillars of their communities.

Only when it comes to controlling their body weight, they perceive themselves as “failures”. Usually, this perception of failure is based on a flawed understanding of the real biological challenges that patients face in trying to manage their weight.

Clearly, identifying and building on inherent strengths, is a far more promising strategy than shame and blame, which we know does the exact opposite of what we are trying to help patients achieve.

Edmonton, AB