find your voice

Finding Your Voice After Weight Loss Surgery

December 30, 2015

When I work with couples and individuals in my private practice, one theme seems to be consistent – they are all having a difficult time communicating what they want and how they are feeling about any problems in their relationships.

There are healthy communication styles, which are productive, appropriate and healthy for the relationship, and there are other communication styles, that can be toxic and self- destructive.

Healthy and Toxic Dynamics in Communication

Every relationship we have in our lives is directly impacted by our own past experiences and our learned communication skills. Since we were very young, we observed how the caregivers in our lives communicated their feelings and resolved conflicts. Some families avoid talking about their problems even when they are very obvious. An example of this would be when a family has a member who has a mental disability or addiction. Children from these families grow up with the understanding that it is important to keep the family secret, which only reinforces shame-based beliefs and fears. It can be very difficult to challenge this family system, because to do so would mean confronting the issues.

There are other family systems that exist in an environment of ongoing emotional or physical abuse, or abandonment. Children from these family systems learn that their needs and feelings are not important. To survive in this family system, to stand up for themselves and talk about what is going on could cause further abuse and abandonment. In addition, it could be dangerous to confront the abuser so avoiding conflict is the safer avenue.

When someone grows up in a healthier family where differences of opinions are respected, they learn, that it is safe to express how they are feeling even when they are angry. In this healthier family dynamics, it is acceptable to say "no" and use your voice.  Without the consequences of being abandoned or negative repercussions, these individuals will ultimately have an easier time navigating the relationships in their lives.

The Impact of Obesity On Your Life

Obesity frequently contributes to feelings of low self-esteem and shame, and reinforces feelings of low self-worth due to fat shaming and judgement by society. Just like any other addiction, when individuals with disordered eating are confronted with difficult situations, binge eating, restricting, purging, etc. become the “go to” way of coping to avoid their thoughts and feelings. They have never learned to use their voice through effective communication. This often leads to anxiety, depression, sadness, anger or distress.  While post-op individuals may be talking, it does not necessarily mean they are effectively communicating.

Verbally providing information without the need or desire of a response or understanding. The verbal and non-verbal exchange of information that occurs and desires a response.
In a one-directional manner, verbally relaying the information to a person or group without knowing (or caring in some instances) if the message has been received or understood.A two-way exchange of information in a joint conversation. The message is expressed with the goal of the other person(s) to understand.
"You" statements are accusatory and can be confrontational.
* You always
* You make me feel
"I" statements take responsibility.
* I like
* I want
Uttering words to get the message or information across; sometimes it is received and understood, and sometimes it isn't. The speaker isn't aware either way.The successful transmission of a message, making sure a joint exchange occurs with the goal of mutual understanding.

As you can see, it is much better and healthier to have communication over merely talking. When we aren't able to engage in communication, it often leads to negative consequences to one or more of the persons involved.

In my experience working with the post-op community, weight loss surgery can often disrupt personal/professional relationships, but this does not have to be the outcome.

Using Your Voice is Empowering!

As an example, Nancy (not her real name) had weight loss surgery and successfully lost over 140lbs within her first year. She told me that she never felt better about herself as a post-op but taking the step to have weight loss surgery was the hardest decision she had ever made in her life. Nancy disclosed that the surgery itself was not difficult because of all the research and testing appointments she had to go through.  It was very challenging because, for the first time in her life, she took care of herself by standing up for what she believed she needed.

In other words, Nancy found her “voice” and was able to go against the family consensus for her not to have the surgery. She understood how everyone was feeling, but underwent the surgery anyway because it was best for her.

Another woman, Mary, found her voice, confronted her employer, and avoided possible legal ramifications when instructed to perform fraudulent office procedures at her workplace. Mary stated that because of having surgery and therapy, she was empowered to use her voice and validate her self-worth.

Transitions in Relationships After WLS

Post-surgery can be a time of personal reflection and transition in relationships. I was recently working with a couple, let's call them John and Kathy.  Kathy had bariatric surgery and has been successful losing weight.  The husband stated since the surgery they were both feeling disconnected from each other, and arguing more than they ever had in the past. John stated that Kathy had become selfish, and preferred to go out with her friends rather than stay home. Kathy shared with me that for the 25 years they've been married, she never allowed herself to do the things that she wanted to do. Kathy constantly felt as though she was unappreciated and taken advantage of by her spouse and family. Kathy stated that even if she tried to talk about her feelings to John, it would inevitably end up in a fight.

What it came down to was that John and Kathy were “talking” to each other, but using provocative statements such as: “you’re always going out and never home” or “what’s the use of trying to talk to you when you’re never really listening to me, and then want to start a fight.” Does this dialogue sound familiar?

There is a big difference between talking to each other versus communicating how you are really feeling in a proactive versus reactive manner. In this scenario, John came from a family that suffered from alcohol addiction, and arguments occurred every night. His family would often argue and never resolve the underlying issues that caused the fight. Kathy came from a family where her father abandoned her mother and siblings when she was very young.  Kathy had a conflicted relationship with her mother, who often left her alone to care for her brothers and sisters.

Addressing the Past and Move Forward

Kathy and John learned in therapy, how to address their underlying triggers and false beliefs from their past, and communicate their feelings more effectively. Kathy and John began utilizing “I” statements such as: “I’m feeling lonely and insecure when you go out with your friends, and I’d like to spend more time with you.” Quite a different dialogue, wouldn’t you agree? I am happy to report that Kathy and John are still together because they were willing to do the work and incorporate effective, healthier communication tools.

Finding your voice after weight loss surgery is an important part of your post-op journey.

If finding and using your voice is a challenge for you, I suggest you consider finding a therapist in your area.  An experienced therapist can assist you to identify your voice and communicate your needs. It takes work and commitment to challenge and replace negative beliefs. Ultimately, by understanding your needs and using your voice, you will have more satisfying professional and personal relationships throughout your post op journey.



Jean Marie Rafferty is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a trained ObesityHelp Support Group Leader, and a member of ObesityHelp’s Professional Network. She has completed training as a Bariatric Support Centers International Life Coach, Back on Track facilitator and WLS Success Habits facilitator.

Read more articles by Jean!