Overcoming Loved Ones’ Resistance to Our Lifestyle Improvements

How many times over the years have we confidently and with great motivation established a New Year’s Resolution?

How many times over the years have we confidently and with great motivation established a New Year’s Resolution (e.g., “This is the year I will finally quit smoking/lose 10 pounds/learn to play the zither!”) only to peter out before Groundhog Day? As January progresses, we slowly but surely begin to avert our eyes in front of Nicorette print ads, change the channel when the Jenny Craig commercial airs, and become accustomed to using that increasingly dusty musical instrument as a doorstop.

Are we too lazy or uncaring to change our circumstances? Absolutely not. We are simply products of the principles that govern our world. Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion indicates that a body at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an external force. To make an imperfect analogy (and with apologies to Sir Newton), in order to effect a lifestyle change, we must exert a force that is stronger than the forces that are maintaining our status quo. And one of these status quo forces is our social network.

Many personal trainers and health care professionals I know observe that one of the most salient determinants of the success or failure of a new health regimen is the support – or lack thereof – an individual receives from friends and family. You might think it would be a simple thing to be happy for a friend or relative who has decided to embrace a healthier lifestyle, but the truth is more complicated than that. Everyone can probably think of one or more situations where person X lowered their blood pressure or dropped a dress size or two, and while we were happy for them, if we are being completely honest, we might allow that there was still a bit of envy or angst along with the joy.

This doesn’t make us bad or unloving people. It means that we, like the person who embarked on the lifestyle modification in the first place, are going to have to deal with some change as a result of this modification, and that can be scary. Change can beget change, and especially if we are not the arbiters, it can leave us feeling unsure and insecure. So we cling to the status quo. (“You don’t smoke that much.” “I heard those exercise regimens can be dangerous.” “I don’t know when you’re going to find the time to fit that in. Life is already so busy.”) It’s easier than acknowledging in ourselves those things we might like to change if we would just make it a priority – or did not fear failure.

If you are trying to make a change toward a healthier lifestyle but are sensing resistance from the ones you love, read on for suggestions about how to cope:

1. Don’t Judge

Deep down, the people who love us want us to be happy. But when we change the game on them, we need to reassure them of their place in our lives, as well as our continued respect and affection for them. Imagine the reaction of your Friday night drinking buddy if, as a result of your newfound interest in your own fitness, you suddenly start drinking seltzer during these outings. Or more shocking still, if you beg off the adventures altogether so you can be fresh and well-rested for your Saturday morning workout. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if your buddy finds that a little jarring. First, he has lost his partner in crime, without being consulted about it. And second, if he decides to persist in Friday night happy hour, he might perceive you to be sitting in judgment on his choices – whether this is true or not.

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So if you sense disapproval or resistance to the changes you are trying to make in your life, stop to consider what might be the impetus, and try to address it rather than reacting emotionally. Your drinking buddy isn’t the boss of you, but perhaps this isn’t the best time to mention that. Instead, try to enlist his help toward your goals. Explain what you are doing and why, and identify places where you think he could make a contribution. (e.g., “I’m trying to cook for myself more, instead of eating fast food or at restaurants all the time. Since you are an amazing chef, I was wondering if you’d be willing to help me come up with some easy, healthier recipes I could try at home.”) In other words, help your loved one gain some ownership of your efforts.

2. Don’t Budge

Creating buy-in will work with some people; with others, it might not be so easy, because they may be dealing with more entrenched insecurities. No matter how much you appeal, the more insecure among us might continue to disapprove of your goals, not because they aren’t noble, but because they reflect back to these individuals their own dissatisfaction with themselves. In this case, you can continue to love them, perhaps just from a greater distance. Remember why you decided to take this course of action in the first place, and prioritize your own well-being above their need to reduce their insecurities, perhaps at your expense. Imagine how you might be able to help these loved ones by modeling that it is possible to make meaningful change toward your ideal life. Whether they act on the inspiration you provide is up to them, but you will be living proof that it is possible.

3. Be Prepared to Take Some Losses

Even after all your attempts to bring your loved ones along with you as you adjust your lifestyle toward a healthier model, you may suffer some casualties. There may be some people in your circle who simply cannot get on board with your new priorities. Remember that this has more to do with them than with you, and while it may be painful to lose them, the alternative is to lose yourself, which would be infinitely more painful. Again, you can continue to love these people and send them on their way with no hard feelings. As we all are, they are doing the best they can. And perhaps they will come around eventually.