How simple interactions can affect the agency of those around us.
I had a conversation with a client who wanted to talk about her relationship with food. (I’ve changed any identifying details about her.) We talked about all the reasons she will eat something. One of them was for a social gathering or to accept a gift and show that she’s not rejecting the giver.
(P.S. Thank you Brazil for inventing Brigadeiros)
This is such a common occurrence in today’s world:
“I made these amazing cookies that you’ll just die for. Here, eat one! I know you’ll love it.”
We usually get these kinds of offers from loved ones and think nothing of it. And, usually, there’s really no reason to.
Yet, in a meaningful therapeutic conversation, we need something different than the ordinary. So, what’s really going on in an offer like this? What happens if we slow-mo that 4-second offer?
Let's Break It Down
First, most of us experience something like that as an offering—do you want some? But when you look at the language, that’s an order, right? “Eat some! You’ll love it!” Not only is someone telling me what to do, but they are also telling me how I will experience it once I obey them. Interesting, isn’t it?
Second, there is an assumption among many Americans I meet: How I treat your gift or food is what I think about you. Woah. That’s a lot of pressure. But what if I’m really full? Or what if I know that eating more sugar/bread/broccoli/soup today is definitely not in my best interest? What if I’ve been doing therapy and shifting the relationship I have with my body and have decided not to put food into it for just any spontaneous offering?
But then I get offered something, and I have to say yes?? Or else we’re not friends?
At first glance, it looks like an “either you or me” situation. Either I choose YOU and eat it to make you feel appreciated (i.e. eating is proof that I love you) OR I choose ME and decline, potentially hurting your feelings but certainly being more true to myself and my body, if it’s telling me it’s full, etc.
A tough realization emerges: If I accept the food when I know I don’t want or need it, am I basically sacrificing my body or personal integrity to make someone else feel okay? Am I making myself uncomfortable, or even betraying some honest part of me that wants to decline, so that the giver doesn’t have discomfort? (If eating the extra food would indeed be bad for my body or integrity.)
That thinking might be a little extreme, and most people don’t experience this moment that strongly, but I think it’s worth pointing out. This begs a few important considerations for both the giver and the receiver: What are both parties’ duties in this situation? What can both do to increase the ability for the other to actually make a choice? (Which requires having options, not orders.)
Almost all of us offer food in this way—it’s just part of our conversation patterns. And most of us have great intentions when we do. We are thoughtful, genuine, and thinking of someone else throughout the process. Yet, still, a dilemma exists.
In these stark either/or situations (win-lose), I try and find relational wiggle room or clarity in hopes of creating a more both/and (win-win) situation. When it comes down to it, I think the dilemma lies in the symbology (the freshly-baked danish being offered).
I wonder what would happen if, in these moments, we could see past the symbols and speak directly to the relationship at stake.
How can we let both the giver know in no uncertain terms that we appreciate their thoughtfulness and also maintain a happy tummy, mood, and personal integrity?
Here’s a go at it: “Wow, you made that for me? That is so thoughtful, and I’m touched that you would go out of your way! I would love to dig into this right now, but __________.” Are there any answers that would complete this sentence acceptably?
Which one of the following is the most acceptable and why?
-I’m stuffed beyond belief and will enjoy it so much more tonight
-I’m off sugar right now in hopes of shrinking a malignant tumor
-I don’t eat food just because people tell me to
-I don’t like chocolate
-I’m allergic to gluten
-I’m not hungry
Clearly, there is some meaning around offering food. Like, a lot of meaning. And offering food usually doesn’t center around creating choice for both parties.
Now, what if we switched what was being offered? How would that change the possibilities for either party? Instead of food, what if you were being offered:
-free plumbing work for a year
-a homemade craft
-a new car
Which ones are you allowed to say no or yes to? Why and why not? Which reasons from above continue to fit and which ones don’t?
Sometimes, in a simple exchange, so many things are going on. When we can swap out the details and pay attention to the process that’s happening, it can often help us more clearly see exactly what is meaningful and why.
Changing contextual details lets us have another go at the situation and can provide additional insight.
So, what does this really mean for our next conversations at our in-laws’ place? Or when you invite those friends over for dinner?
I believe there are ways of being that expand others’ ability to choose. For example, maybe I offer my food gift differently: “Tony, I just made some fresh bread. Would you like any?” (Note: expectant facial signals are not present in that offering—it’s a real question.)
That’s maybe a step in the right direction. Now, he can make a choice. At least, if he knows the real me, I hope he feels like he can! And I honestly won’t feel better or worse no matter what he decides. I’ll be fine! He doesn’t need to say yes or no to “take care of me.” I’m good, and my identity isn’t tied to my bread or others eating it. (Which is a post for another time...)
Can you think of other ways we act, speak, or respond that limit or enhance others’ freedom to choose? It can be meaningful to reflect on how you expand or restrict freedom for yourself or others, too, and then try new ways to see how it impacts your relationships.