Let Me Be Clear

I’ve been compiling a list of phrases I want to retire next year and “let me be clear” is right up there near the top. How many times per week can I listen to that phrase followed by a statement clearly intended to muddy the water and not lose my mind? If you said, 10,472 you’d probably be close.

There’s nothing wrong with the words or an intent to be clear. My problem is that the phrase is rarely used to mean the speaker wants to be clear. More often it means the speaker wants you to pay attention to a half-truth or full-fledged lie that creates the illusion they desire for you to see. So enough with deliberate misuse, misrepresentation, and misdirection already. Please stop!

Let’s all be clear!

Clarity is important. It’s crucial for a recipe. Without clarity, you may not end up with the intended result. But we all speak using unique turns of phrase. What’s crystal clear to me may not be clear to you. That’s where consistent format, industry-specific terminology, and formulaic rules can help – think grammar for instance. But no matter how carefully we craft, what content we create, which words we write, and how we verbalize sentences, our communication is subject to each consumer’s context.  

Clarity is even more important for health guidelines. It’s critical when writing conclusions drawn from data. And each time we pull back, hedge, or try to soften the message, we run the risk of confusing people.

So how can we communicate clearly?

I cannot possibly outline a way to avoid all misunderstanding, but I will give you five tips for drafting clear communication.

  1. Determine the scope and purpose of the communication.
  2. Identify and research your audience. Communication must be delivered in language that will be easily understood using an accessible method.
  3. Assume nothing. Draft every document, policy, and procedure as if nothing has preceded it and nothing will follow it. Write it as if it must stand on its own. Once the draft is done, document any overlap with other relevant documents. Keep a log of this overlap. Reference other existing documents and remove duplication when possible.
  4. Put all pertinent facts that live in your head in the draft. Once that all-inclusive version is written, review and pare down to essentials. It’s tempting to pare down first, but this creates one of the most common errors I see – critical information is left out. Since the information is known to you, you are less likely to recognize its omission upon review.
  5. Stick with the facts. Do not embellish or diminish them. Resolve conflicting statements prior to publication. Be conscious of word choice, but recognize that you may not please everyone. It is best to be concise and straightforward.

I realize this topic may be a stretch for this blog, but I feel really hungry for clear, concise communication that I can rely on for facts. I don’t think I’m alone in that. And, if you follow these tips, there should be no reason to say, “Let me be clear….” And not hearing that will work very nicely for me.

Food or Feud

In my family, it can be food or feud. The simple solution is for us to eat on time. But what happens when things aren’t simple?food or fuedI am sitting in 3000 square feet of emptiness looking up at the ducts on the ceiling 22′ above me. My head is hurting. I planned to be here until 1pm. Now the heat & air installers say it may be 4pm. I am hungry for more than the cheese and crackers I brought to tide me over until 1. It may be fall, but it is hot!

Hot, hungry, and tired with a headache that won’t quit can be a recipe for a family feud or at least a lot of misunderstanding! When someone in my family starts to become easily annoyed, we immediately look for food. We know that we’re grumpy when we’re hungry. Because of this, we’re pretty good planners and we always have a snack handy, but the unexpected can still sometimes catch us unprepared.

If you’re one of those folks who can go all day without a meal, you’ll have no idea why this is significant. If, on the other hand, you begin to feel shaky, confused, sweaty, and sick if you don’t eat on time, you’ll understand why I’m writing this.It’s hard to count the number of times I’ve told a travel companion that I’m hungry only to have them stall me for 3 or 4 hours. Long before that time is up, I feel like I’m going to throw up my guts. I physically hurt. I cannot think straight enough to tell you what I want to eat.

What I’m describing has happened to me all of my life. It also happens to my son. It probably happened to my grandfather who could not tolerate sugar. He never ate cake, pie, cobbler, or cereal with added sugar. He would occasionally eat chocolate covered cherries. I don’t remember, but I’m guessing he ate those after a meal when they would have less effect.
I say this because that’s my experience with sugar. I can tolerate some after a meal, but feed me pancakes with syrup or a glazed doughnut for breakfast and I will be puking them up in 5 minutes. I will feel a horrible sinking sensation, then wretchedly nauseous.

My grandfather and his sisters who shared this sugar sensitivity were never diagnosed with a condition or disease. I have had blood work done just after two of these episodes. It is always in the normal range. My body may struggle to break down sugars because of celiac disease, but no one has been able to tell me that with any certainty.

That’s the thing sometimes. You know how you’re feeling isn’t normal, but whatever you have isn’t showing up, isn’t being tested for, or falls in the “normal” range. That can feel really frustrating. But life goes on. You learn to recognize when you’re approaching critical and do your best to stay ahead of the problem.

But when a plan suddenly changes, things run late, or there is an unexpected problem, what I most need is for you to believe me when I say I need to eat. I may say it matter-of-factly and without drama, but I need for you to understand that it will soon be more than I can do to remain calm if you ignore repeated requests to stop at the next place we come to.

I know that you may be trying to get to a better restaurant 10 miles down the road, but what I need for you to get is that once I hit a certain point, I do not care whether the food will taste good, I just need it in my tummy. Telling me to hang on because there’s a great restaurant in the next town is like telling me you’re going to break my arm. If I respond as though that’s what you’ve said, it is because that is how it feels to me.

When I am using my energy to stay calm, ask politely, and try not to puke or cry, it is overwhelming to ask me to choose a restaurant, name what I want, or really to communicate at all. Keep in mind that I will have attempted to address the oncoming problem I am sensing before I get to this point. If you did not recognize that those attempts were important, you may not recognize that I want to cooperate, but am feeling as though my situation is dire. Boom! Argument, misunderstanding, or meltdown may be imminent.

While I may get into a situation in which grabbing a handful of crackers from the table is tempting, since becoming gluten-free I have never made that choice. And that adds a second layer of distress when communication becomes difficult.
Today, when I began to feel vague hunger pangs, I ate some cheese and crackers. An hour later, I was getting seriously hungry. About that time, I received the news that my stay would be extended several hours past what I had planned for. I recognized that it was important to either stop the crew and go get food, or find a way to get some brought to me.

I did not wait until I could no longer think straight. I made a short list of people who could help, decided what I would request they do, and proceeded to call the list. Before the next hour was up, I had eaten lunch and no longer had a headache.
Today, things worked out well. Other times, they have not. Most often those have been times that I was accommodating a group or an individual with little insight or empathy. Occasionally it has been at times that I was forced to deal with a person who simply can’t be reasoned with or does not value how I feel.

What’s the best plan in those instances?

Recognize that not everyone you come into contact with has your best interest at heart. If there are people in your life who are routinely difficult and make it hard to take care of yourself, avoid situations that make you dependent on dealing with them. Take a separate car. Choose a different work group. Volunteer for a different committee. Say no if you have to.
Know that you will never be able to make an unreasonable person be reasonable. They must come to a point where they choose to see their contribution to a situation that distresses you before you can reach them. How you feel can be communicated and cooperation can be requested, but it is helpful to know that you cannot force understanding.

You will never be able to make crazy behavior make sense. It is not necessarily important to understand why someone does something. If they exhibit a pattern of behavior that is detrimental to you, it is enough to know they do it and that it is not acceptable to you.

Once you determine that, you have many choices for what to do next:
Set and enforce better boundaries.
Minimize your exposure.
Leave behind friendships, romantic relationships, jobs, or distant relatives that hurt you.
Become realistic about your contribution to any friction in a relationship and apologize for your part in a misunderstanding.
Refuse to be lured into apologizing for taking care of yourself so long as you have managed to remain calm and kind and have tried your best not to inconvenience anyone else. You cannot control every circumstance.
pork roast
On the flip side, you also have choices about how you view another’s actions:
Extend the benefit of the doubt. Some people mean you no harm, but will inadvertently hurt you anyway.
Be present. We are all less likely to hurt each other when we are fully aware of the effect we’re having in the moment.
Allow yourself to see and feel the discomfort of someone else’s distress. Being attuned to subtle signs will change how you respond. Isn’t this what we want from others?

I wish for a partner who understands my physical limitation to the extent that in a pinch he is willing to voluntarily bring me something to eat that doesn’t take much energy to digest – a banana, a glass of milk, or some Greek yogurt. It sounds so simple. I’m sure any man who has failed to do so would read this and say, “I would do that.”

Of course you would if it seemed important at the time. But what if you got distracted by a work call or the kids throwing a fit or trying to figure out how we’re going to pay for replacing a heat & air system we haven’t budgeted for? What if you felt annoyed when I repeated a request for food when you’re planning to EVENTUALLY honor that request? What if you were in the mood for a really good meal and thought I’d be ruining my appetite by eating before our 9pm reservation? What if your mother believes I am trying to avoid eating the meal that’s taking extra time to prepare because she’s making it gluten-free for me? What if you simply don’t believe how sick I feel because you’ve never experienced it and my test results are normal?

We all like to see ourselves as reflected only by our best moments. In real life, we’re experienced by those around us as a sum of our level of presence, our tolerance for vulnerability, our priority in the moment, our insight, our ability to empathize, our reliability, our helpfulness, kindness, and thoughtfulness, our flexibility, stability, and mindfulness, our willingness to entertain different points of view, our truthfulness, genuineness, respect for others, and our courage to make the difficult choice. Other’s experience of us may not match up with what we believe about ourselves.

So what?

We are surrounded by evidence that many of us have difficulty taking care of ourselves. If we were consistently receiving the message that we matter, we are important, we are valued, others wish us well, and our loved ones are willing to help us, would we have a rapidly increasing number of pervasive, preventable, chronic health problems? Would we ignore simple lifestyle changes that can give us the ability to live longer, more productive, more comfortable, and more joyous lives? I don’t think so. I think part of the struggle to eat in a manner that maximizes our health comes from the messages we receive on a daily basis.

Why does that matter?

Only you know how significant, painful, overwhelming, exhausting, or stressful something is to you. You may communicate that clearly and still find yourself without assistance. That does not mean there is something wrong with you, that you should not take care of yourself, or that you do not deserve help. It could mean you need a better communication strategy, or it could mean that you are surrounded by relationships that need to be reexamined.

For my family, it’s food or feud, so there are repeated opportunities to observe, examine, and improve our interactions. Most of us accept each other’s limitations and work together to take care of each other. We also accept that some family members will choose to make things more difficult and that we have many options for dealing with this. Those options may not be easy choices and may require some self-sacrifice to maintain a relationship. We accept that at some point a relationship could become be too harmful to continue. At that point, we can choose to let it go.

Eating on time may not be a feuding issue for your family. Your point of contention could center around eating gluten-free or vegetarian It could be that a battle breaks out every time you try to convince your sister that your diabetic mother doesn’t need carbs. It could that no one but you lives near Grandma, but the rest of the family condemns you for wanting to put her in long-term care.

The specific issue may vary. The importance of expressions of empathy, kindness, helpfulness, thoughtfulness, care and concern, and acceptance for ourselves and each other cannot be overstated. These expressions are critical to our health, our families, our communities, and our nation. They make a difference. They can make THE difference, especially when things don’t go according to plan.



How can I make my family support my eating plan?

Let’s state the obvious right off the bat. You can’t change other people. If your family isn’t generally supportive or does not function well, many of its members may never come around. While it would feel good to have their support or to feel like you are a top priority, the fact may be that you are not the highest priority for any given family member.

Ouch, that’s harsh.

Is it? I know, it feels awful when your desire and need for support are met with resistance, cruelty or, perhaps even worse, are ignored. This can leave you feeling as though you do not matter or hold an important place in the world. It can leave you feeling angry that you are experiencing hurt or neglect from those who you believe should be protecting and nurturing you. Nonetheless, if these are the facts, these are the facts. It is important to tell ourselves the truth. It is important to allow ourselves to consciously recognize what we already know.

Why? It is only from a place of truth that we can learn to rely on our inner strength, stop blaming others, discover that we can value ourselves even if we haven’t been valued, find a way to give up the fear and anger that keep us from feeling empathy and compassion for those who behave badly toward us, and most importantly recognize that we have a choice to live however we want to live.
Yes, I know you may not feel strong enough. You’ll get there.
You may not feel capable of taking on a difficult task all on your own. You’ll get there.
You may want to eat in an unhealthy manner to fill an emotional hole. This one takes awhile, but you’ll get there.
You may feel compelled to gulp down comfort food that makes you unhealthy and not know how to overcome this compulsion. Don’t worry, you’ll get there.

You may feel it’s not fair that you have to make tough choices when everyone else at the table is raving about the delicious cake. Maybe this one particular thing isn’t fair, but everyone has different challenges in life. You can be certain that the people eating cake also have experiences that aren’t fair even though they get to eat cake.

Even if your family is not supportive, it’s okay. You can find a community that is. In fact, we support you. We want you to be healthy and thrive.

Now that we got that out of the way, we know that some families want to be helpful so let’s go back to the question at hand – How can I make my family be supportive of my eating plan?

With a willing participant, you can facilitate the process by being clear, consistent, patient, and gentle in communicating your limitations. For instance, if your grandmother seems to understand, but then offers you gumbo you know was made with a roux and you are gluten-free, what are your options?
1)You can choose to hurt your health rather than possibly hurt her feelings by having to tell her one more time that you cannot eat her delicious gumbo. This choice will be tempting if you feel like you matter less than other people or must earn love by sacrificing yourself. It will also be tempting when you’re afraid of disappointing someone you care about.
2)You can act exasperated because she seems more ignorant than you thought and isn’t meeting your expectation. You may have a high expectation because your grandmother has been smart and wonderful all your life. Perhaps a bit of patience will help you realize that she’s aging and can’t remember as quickly now as she could before – especially if she’s tired or out of her routine. It may be time for you to see her as the real human she is rather than the superhero you have created. Yes, this is tough, sad, and scary because it is hard to watch those we love begin to decline, but facing the reality as it happens will allow you to maximize your connection during the remaining moments you have together.
3)You can act angry or irritated as though she’s deliberately trying to sabotage you. This choice may feel natural if you have another family member who manipulates as a matter of habit. Because you are poised to expect and/or avoid manipulation, the slightest possibility of sabotage can trigger your anger defense. Until you have reinforced your boundaries and have healed from the hurt or humiliation you have endured at the hand of the manipulator, you may need a momentary timeout to gain perspective. That’s okay, take the timeout. Even when you can’t verbalize why in advance, remove yourself. Once you’ve regained your perspective, you can come back and explain. Sometimes the path to healing isn’t perfect and isn’t pretty. It’s still important and making a deliberate choice that disrupts your old-standing habits is always a step in the right direction. If you are inadvertently impolite, apologize. If someone grumbles, let them grumble.
4)You can complain to the rest of the family that if grandma cared about you, she’d take the time to research, record, and remember what you can’t eat. This can be a divisive and negative way of attempting to get the support you need – “Come on team, rally around me-the-maligned”. It can also be a way to avoid taking responsibility for yourself. Once everyone chooses sides and turmoil ensues, you can blame grandma and her allies if you fail to make a positive choice. After all, look at all the opposing forces – who could possibly make a positive choice in this environment? What you may not realize is that you give up your personal power each and every time you allow a group to limit you or blame someone else for a choice you have made. You may also fail to see that you have an active hand in creating chaos and contributing to your own misery.
5)You can throw a fit, yell, scream, and create so much drama that you think it will guarantee she won’t forget next time. You will create the reality you desire – no one will forget, but what they won’t forget is that you behaved badly. They may still feed you gluten.
6)You can politely refuse by saying something like, “Wow, that smells wonderful and I remember how good it tastes. I sure wish I could have some, but I can’t.” If grandma then asks why not, you can follow with, “It’s that darned roux made with flour. My system just can’t tolerate it.  I appreciate the offer though. Thanks for always trying to include me.”

Ahhh, finally a response that allows you to both protect your health and your grandmother’s feelings. Achieving this sort of balance over and over again is the best way to solicit support over the long haul.

Any time you can facilitate simple, clear communication, you will create interactions that offer more time, space, and energy for you to educate and share your passion for being healthy. Following a consistent eating plan makes it less confusing for your family and helps them to adapt and accommodate you. In your home, you can have as elaborate a structure as you’d like. In addition to gluten, I avoid corn, potatoes, and shrimp. Avoiding shrimp and gluten are critical to my health because I cannot tolerate the slightest amounts of these foods. I can tolerate small bits of corn and products with potato flour. When I communicate my needs to a hostess, I do not mention corn or potatoes as a problem because I feel it is best to keep things simple.

Why would I make the choice to only communicate critical limitations? My intent is not for extended family to memorize the intricacies of my dietary plan. My intent is to be healthy, thrive, and have positive interactions with my family. I can eat some cheese dip and chips once every 6 months while we watch basketball or football without sacrifice.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you “fudge” to accommodate your family, but simply that you can soften the way you impart information. Sometimes when something is very important to us, we communicate our restrictions as rigid rules without even recognizing what we’re doing. We lay out the restrictions we’d follow if we were meeting our ideal behaviors every moment rather than communicating the points that are essential and must be followed religiously for us to be healthy. When we make the rules too broad, or based on our ideals rather than reality, we run the risk that before family dinner is over we’ll have bent one of those rules. This causes confusion and often results in the rest of the family taking our real restrictions less seriously.

I am also suggesting that when we communicate with those whose support we desire, we take the time to set clear intentions for that communication. With those intentions in mind, you’ll often find there’s plenty of wiggle room to relax how you communicate without having to compromise your health plan. For instance, if my intent for a conversation is to make my mom comfortable while I firmly assert that I cannot eat her conventional pie crust any longer, I will inherently make a softer presentation than if I enter the conversation with the goal of telling my mom that things have to change because I can’t have the traditional lemon meringue pie for my birthday any more unless she makes me a special crust. Yes, there may be a subtle difference in words, but there is a world of difference in attitude.To help you remember this, it may be helpful to actually wiggle your shoulders before you begin to speak. Remember – when there’s room to wiggle, there’s room for any pressure to dissipate.

If you feel overwhelmed by the changes you’re making or feel as though your family will not take you seriously, enlist outside support. Solicit better behavior by inviting another gluten-free friend to attend a function with you. Most families behave better when there are outside parties around to observe, plus you won’t be the only one refusing a dinner roll. Just make sure you don’t create an us against them atmosphere. Another option when you’re feeling unprepared for family pressure is to skip a few gatherings until you’re in a better position to handle them. You can also have a friend on call for encouragement by phone.

Again, make sure your intentions are benevolent and clear so that a phone call does not become a complain and blame session. In other words, when you call your support friend, a statement like – “I feel like the odd man out every time I refuse the stuffing and rolls and cake. I’m so afraid someone is going to make fun of me or talk about me when I’m out of the room.” is constructive and gives your friend a chance to reassure you in a very specific way because you have clearly stated how you feel. This kind of statement will get a much different result than saying, “I can’t believe my sister! Do you know what she did to me? She put a roll on my plate after I passed the bread basket to her. I’ve told her about a hundred times I can’t have rolls. I swear she just wants to embarrass me in front of everyone.” Now your support friend is in a precarious position.

If she jumps on the vilify-your-sister bandwagon, your friend may add fuel to the fire encouraging you to become more enraged. If he attempts to calm you down by minimizing what she did, he runs the risk of you feeling betrayed. If he simply says, “I’m sorry you had to experience that”, it helps but doesn’t address the specific fear you are masking with angry, blaming statements. While this makes you feel less vulnerable in the moment, it will ultimately leave you feeling less supported.

Please pause for a moment here to recognize that in any interaction each of us can make the choice to be honest, open, vulnerable and invite the possibility of maximum support; or we can choose to avoid our feelings, and the vulnerability that comes with exposing them, and garner partial or ill-fitting support at best.

Which I suppose brings us back to the original question. The best way to get our family to be supportive of our eating plan is to set good boundaries and clear intentions then to make it a priority to be as open, honest, vulnerable and courageous as we can in any given moment.

Do not expect perfection. There is no such thing when people are involved. Solicit support when you need it. Receive support when it is given. Be patient. Be kind to all including yourself. This is a process. Tell us how you’re doing.