Hitting a Nerve

Words have power and negative words even more so.

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In the People story I just read, entitled “Mom Fights Back After Nurse Body Shames Her 13-Year-Old Daughter: ‘She is Ignorant,’” [i] Julie Venn took her 13-year-old daughter, Riley, for Riley’s annual check-up. The picture that accompanied the article showed Julie, a personal trainer, and her youngest daughter, Riley, side by side. Both look healthy and fit. According to Venn, she and her daughter were “excited to see how much . . . Riley had grown in the past year.” That excitement turned to outrage, however, when the nurse practitioner started questioning Riley, proclaiming Riley’s weight gain over the past year didn’t “match up” with her gain in height. At that point, Julie said, “I lost my mind.” Over my thirty-plus years as a therapist working with eating disorders, I’ve had the same feeling of total outrage.

I was distressed over what happened to Riley but gratified how Julie stood up for her daughter.

Julie shared what happened on a Facebook page and was unprepared for the response. “I’m shocked how many private messages I’ve received from women all over the country with similar stories that happened to them. Many led to eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, lifelong body image issues and even suicide attempts. I thought the post might hit a nerve but am blown away at the viral run!”

Thirteen is a tough age. I’m not sure any of us get through those puberty-impacted years completely intact. These types of comments, and the attitudes behind them, don’t help; in fact, they can cause a great deal of damage, especially when spoken by someone in authority. Authority can be conferred by something as simple as a white coat or something as insidious as peer popularity. When those words are spoken, they sink and attach in deep places. Ferreting them out can take a great deal of effort and more years than you’d possibly imagine.

Words have power and negative words even more so. Over a decade ago, researchers Robert Schrauf and Julia Sanchez conducted a study entitled, “The Preponderance of Negative Emotion Words in the Emotion Lexicon: A Cross-generational and Cross-linguistic Study.”[ii] When people in Chicago and Mexico City were asked to come up with as many emotions they could think of in the moment, small surprise that half of them were negative, while only 30% were positive and 20% considered neutral. Negativity, it seems, comes naturally. I’ve certainly found that to be true and not because I’m a therapist. In other walks of my life, if I ask people to describe themselves positively, many struggle. Ask them what they don’t like about themselves and I’d better make time for the answer.

I’ve heard, anecdotally, it takes from seven to ten positive statements to counteract a negative one. Researchers Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy attempted to quantify this in 2004.[iii] The Harvard Business Review article on the study reports in “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio”[iv] that 5.6-to-1 is the magic number, at least when it comes to business team performance. I suspect 5.6-to-1 is a bit low when it comes to 13-year-olds.

Julie Venn called the nurse “ignorant,” which can be construed as a negative. In the Losada/Heaphy study, they found, according to the Harvard Business Review piece, that negative feedback, in business, can be positive. “First, because of its ability to grab someone’s attention. Think of it as a whack on the side of the head. Second, certainly, negative feedback guards against complacency and groupthink.”

If we tend to think negatively, naturally, and if it takes multiple positives to overcome a negative, you’d think we’d have learned to be gentler in how we speak to and act toward each other. Hasn’t the groupthink that Julie and Riley Venn experienced gone on long enough? Hopefully, Julie Venn’s Facebook post will act as one more step into turning their negative experience into a positive reminder for us all.

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 37 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.





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