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What It’s Really Like to be Misunderstood

sharma-obesity-risk2One of the risks of blogging, where putting out provocative thoughts is what makes for interesting posts, is that sometimes these ideas may be misread and perhaps provoke the exact opposite response of what one might expect.

Case in point is a response by the writer and blogger Elizabeth Hawksworth in the Huffington Post to a repost of my recent thoughts on how the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief may (or may not) apply to the issue of living with a chronic disease – in this case obesity.

Here is what Hawksworth had to say about my post:

“When I saw Dr. Arya Sharma’s article, “The 5 Stages of Living With Obesity”, I was interested. Here was a doctor who appeared to actually get what my life was like. I clicked, expecting a change from the numerous fat-shaming articles in the blogosphere, and hoped for a doctor who actually could write from the “fat experience” and offer empathy and advice free of blame, shame, and moral judgement.

What I found was a reworking of the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief, written in what I found to be a condescending and completely detached way. This doctor did not appear to understand what living with obesity is really like. He is an expert in obesity diagnosis and treatment, and it’s clear he’s spoken to and successfully treated many fat patients, but it was not apparent to me that he understood or felt any empathy towards their situations.”

While I would never for a second assume to know what it possibly could be like to live with obesity, it was most interesting to read how my “reworking” was perceived.

Obviously, I took no offence to Hawksworth’s perception – I fully trust that those who follow my work will happily attest to my empathy and understanding of those living with obesity. But it does remind me of the fact that simply taking posts written for my regular readership and putting them out to a more general audience, that is totally unaware of my actual work or positions on these issues, is not a “slam-dunk”.

Not that my regular blog readers agree with every post – indeed they don’t – that’s exactly what makes this daily exercise so interesting and educational (I cannot begin to say how much I have learnt from the many thoughtful comments left on my site). But at least my regular readers have a context in which they read my posts and perhaps even manage to read between the lines, when I fail to clearly express my thoughts.

Thus, Hawksworth’s post serves as a reminder that I do need to perhaps give far more consideration to how I discuss issues in a forum (in this case The Huffington Post), where most readers have no prior knowledge of my thoughts on obesity.

So, indeed I am most grateful to Hawksworth for this kind reminder.

Even more importantly, I must complement her on doing a much better job of describing how the Kubler-Ross Stages may apply to those living with obesity than I ever could – after all, she does speak from experience, I clearly don’t.

BTW – for interesting discussions on how these stages may or may not apply to obesity, readers may wish to revisit some of the responses and discussions in the comments on my original post – you’ll see what I mean by noting that it is these lively discussions that make this whole exercise worthwhile.

As for Hawksworth, I can only offer my sincere apologies for any offence taken – thank you for reminding me what it feels like to be misunderstood.

Edmonton, AB


  1. Yes, being misunderstood is a problem everyone encounters. It happens with the written word just as with the spoken. Communication involves at least two people and both have their own ways of saying things in addition to their own baggage and backgrounds which can impart other nuances and even alter meanings. As a result even if people try their best there will always be those whose own experiences cause them to read words differently than how they were meant. All a person can try to do is to minimize that difficulty which I think you have very well achieved.

    It is a pity that the other author did not contact you for clarification on the points that for her obscured meaning before writing that public piece, but sadly that happens to us all, though that difficulty often could be avoidable. Just two weeks ago I had to write back to a pathologist who is a friend to see if my interpretation of a pers com was accurate. Nope, I was wrong. We all wind up on both sides of the equation on and off.

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  2. I compared both lists, and I actually did not think you were condescending or off track, just less emotional and personal. From an outsider I think you are both trying to say the same thing in different ways. I loved your original post, your new one, and I also really appreciate Elizabeth’s addition. Thank you for your honest response.
    And never have I felt you lacked empathy – in fact I think you are one of the few physicians who really seem to understand the full perspective, and the holistic side.

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  3. said with the grace and aplomb of a true investigative scientist. You are a class act!

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  4. Keep in mind that in any new relationship there is a risk of being misunderstood. Part of the process of interacting with other people. There are two options point out the problem to your regular readers people who know you or talk privately with the individual or even both and show the person in question that while her comments may be valid there is a lot of differences that put you empathic versus condisending. With the facts that back up how you are really different from all other specialists that deal with weight issues

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  5. Dear Dr., you are too kind. I did not mean that as a compliment. If you spend too much time trying to please everyone, you will please no one at all. Anyone who knows anything about you, knows about the countless hours that you devote to help the obese population. Your desire to change societal prejudices is a huge part of your practice and your outreach. Anyone who questions that, simply has not been paying attention. When you write an article or quote a study, I look for one thing and one thing only. I want to know how this piece of information will help me in my life long struggle with obesity. I am not a victim of circumstances, my body, my genetics, or society. I do not need kid gloves or reassurances of your integrity. I actively choose to to find tools which will help me maintain my 100 pound weight loss, and I often find them here, on your blog. The article that drew a complaint was about the five emotional stages that are cycled through by most people dealing with obesity as well as just about every other life difficulty. The lens through which I read the article is simple–is it helpful. Through that lens, I found it a timely reminder of emotional stages that might get me off track. Being misunderstood is typical in clinical settings as clinicians never really know which stage the patient (or reader) is at today. In other words… Dr., what other tools do you have for me today? I look forward to tomorrows blog.

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  6. Dear Dr. Sharma, as an actual patient of yours, I can attest to the fact that you are an empathetic, caring and understanding physician. I saw and read the article written in response to yours on Facebook and I was shocked to see your name associated with a lack of empathy. The writer had many amazing points and I have felt each of them before myself… When I was in a different space and place in my life. I am almost through the weight wise program, about three months away from being discharged, and I’m happy to say that I feel such a freedom from all of those emotions and feelings around being overweight. I’m still overweight (not nearly as much) but I no longer struggle with thoughts and worries about what the world around thinks about me. Working with you team of specialists have brought me to a much healthier mental state and while the authors thoughts are valid and true, they are representative of someone who would really benefit from joining the weight wise program to deal with those deep emotions. I read your article that prompted these responses too and I found nothing belittling or offensive in it. Keep up what you are doing! I was always over sensitive about my weight and what people thought of me before and now that I am in a much healthier place, I have the freedom to live my life and not worry about those things… So thank you for your guidance!

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  7. Coming to the conversation late. Read the woman’s post. Also read about fifty of the comments. Sad. She uses a lot of extreme language. “No one bothers to ask . . .” No one? She obviously feels no support, complete rejection much of the time. Then the commenters come along and prove her right. Ugh.

    It’s too bad that she didn’t read deeper into your blog. I think she’d have found a little more nuance. And that’s what’s lacking in the public and even the medical debates about obesity. You are doing as much as you can to wake up your medical colleagues. Sigh.

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