Where we Came From; Where we Can Go
by Barbara Altman Bruno, Ph.D.

I recently received a letter from a reader who speculated on the origins of anti-fat prejudice. He suggested that perhaps negative portrayals of fat robber barons, which pubescent students learn about, might be involved. In replying to his letter, I said that I am more attuned to what people can do in the present to improve their lives, than in where problems originate. This focus underlies my work, although not necessarily the work of many other psychotherapists.

For many years, psychotherapists believed (and some still do) that getting to the root/s of a problem would allow them to relieve their patients of that problem. An analogy might be that of a foreign body which causes an infection. Remove the source of the infection, and all clears up. People spent years, even decades, in therapy, using such tools as dreams or stream-of-consciousness to assist them in recalling past traumas. More recently, a huge controversy occurred in psychotherapy when some therapists assisted their patients to recollect traumatic events in their past, which might have underlain severe present symptoms. It seems that some patients recalled memories of events that never occurred. Some were led to such "false memories" by their over-eager therapists. A painful aspect of this whole situation is that some people really have experienced horrible early trauma, but the false-memory controversy has led others to disbelieve them, adding more guilt and shame to their already overwhelming burden.

The good news is that neither you nor I need necessarily to study the roots of the present, in order to form a better future. It is more useful in most cases to consider how you want your life to be now and in the future, than to consider where your problems came from. Yes, we live in an anti-fat culture (although lately it seems to be getting somewhat better). Yes, we can pinpoint many possible sources of such prejudice. Given that, and given that you, the reader, are probably either fat or love fat partners, how do you want your life to be?

We can certainly be victimized by being or preferring an unpopular size. The effects of prejudice are nasty, and can impinge on our lives every day. But we also have the option of using daily events to build our strength, compassion, creativity, determination, friendships, and so on. We can decide to be a success, even at our size (or preferring a sizable partner). It means hard work; those who are out of favor have fewer opportunities handed to them. But many people I have spoken to are grateful for the hardships life has given them, because they like themselves, and consider the hardships to have contributed who they are.

There may be problems stemming from our past that impinge on the present. As mentioned, one sometimes valuable option is to root out the problems and their origins. Another is to presume that we are the way we are because it is the very best we could do, given who we have thought we are and what we have thought is possible. Ways we behave which now get in our way were at one time the best solutions we could come up with, to help us in our lives. Perhaps-probably-their usefulness as solutions is past, and we should come up with alternatives that are more productive. For example, if someone important in our earlier lives was very abusive to us, we may have learned to shut down around them. We may have stopped paying attention to them, stopped listening to them, thought about being somewhere else even while in their presence. And now our boss or our partner repeatedly blames us for disregarding them. What can we do?

We can recognize that there are times when we need to listen to our boss or partner. We can separate these people now from the person’s who abused us long ago. We can recognize that we have more power now than we did as children, especially if our abuser/s were adults, and that we have more options for survival than we did once. We can set limits now, as adults, if we hear/see something negative that we don’t want to recur. We can even leave, now. We can get help which, as children, we may never have known existed. We can bless and perhaps forgive ourselves for having come up with a way to survive then, whether or not it was a perfect solution, and even if we have now outgrown that way. We can decide what we want for ourselves henceforth. And we can find a psychotherapist with whom we feel comfortable and supported, to help us make these changes.

If you seek a therapist, you can ask friends to recommend one who has been helpful to them or someone they know. You can look in the yellow pages, under “social workers,” “psychologists,” “psychotherapists,” “physicians,” or “counselors.” You can talk to your clergy person. You can call professional societies such as the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association, or if you think you might want or need medication, the American Psychiatric Association. You can get referrals from your HMO or the local Mental Health Association. You can interview a prospective therapist by phone. Some therapists may be willing to offer a free trial session, on request. Useful things to ask and notice during the interview or trial session: Do you feel comfortable, accepted, hopeful, and supported when you speak with this person? Does the therapist have experience helping people with problems like yours? What does s/he charge, and can s/he meet your budget requirements? How does the therapist feel about fat people, and does s/he have a fat-friendly office? (Some well-meaning therapists may need education in how to provide a fat-friendly environment; if they are willing to learn, would you be willing to teach them?) In my opinion, the most useful therapist is one you feel accepted and helped by, regardless of his/her credentials.

Many people think that they are doomed to repeat their past, or are defined by problems they have had. They think, “once a [diagnosis/problem], always a (diagnosis/problem]. While our size and our sexual preferences seem to be predetermined, and best lived with rather than trying to change, our past does not have to predict our future. We can change our reactions to our past. And we can certainly create a better future for ourselves, defined not by who we used to be, but by who we are now and what we want from now on.

Well Being