I’m incredibly lucky — my wife Eva is not only drop-dead gorgeous but also supportive of my habit changes. Sometimes she even joins me! What fun that is: doing a workout challenge together, encouraging each other to stick to a new diet change, doing pushup challenges with the kids.
But I haven’t always been so lucky. Early on, sometimes Eva would be resistant to some of my changes (though she was usually great). Other times, the kids didn’t like our ideas of paring down or changing our diet. More often, the resistance came from other friends or family members who didn’t understand why we were homeschooling or becoming vegetarian (then vegan).
Unfortunately, that’s the reality we all have to deal with if we have other people in our lives. They often resist changes we make, or their possibly unhealthy habits stand in our way.
You’re trying to eat healthy, whole foods, and yet your daughter eats goldfish crackers and pizza and Oreos. And she doesn’t seem to want to munch on asparagus instead!
So what’s a habit changer to do? Abandon all attempts at change? No. Force change on family members? Tempting, but not effective.
The answer is that there is no simple answer. This can be one of the toughest obstacles, because we don’t have complete control over it. We can’t force other people to be supportive.
What works? Let’s take a look at some strategies. Try one, try two, or try them all, and figure out what works in your life.
Getting others on board
Here’s a common scenario: you’ve read about some interesting change someone else has made, or perhaps saw a cool challenge you want to take on, and you’ve been giving it some thought. After a little natural resistance to the change, you’ve overcome that resistance and have arrived at the decision to make the change … and then you spring it on your significant other or entire family. They somehow aren’t as enthused as you’d like.
That’s because you have gone through an entire thinking process to arrive at the decision to change, and they are being asked to come in only at the end — after the decision has been made. That’s not fair to them, because they haven’t had time to overcome their resistance to this change, to go through the same thinking process, to consider the reasons, to find the motivation, to be included in the decision.
I’ve found a more effective method is to get all the people who will be affected by the change in on the thinking process as early as possible. Don’t talk to them about it when you’re near the decision-making point … talk to them when you first hear or read about the idea. Talk about why it’s appealing to you. Get their input. Ask whether they’d consider that kind of change. Talk about your motivation. Include them every step of the way, until the decision is made, and even after.
What people don’t like is being forced to change against their will. So try never to make people feel that way. Don’t ask them to change … ask them to help you change, once you’ve gotten to the decision. Say that their support is really important to you, and explain that while they are welcome to join you, they don’t have to change. You just need them to help you make your change. Ask them to be your accountability buddy, someone to call on when you’re having trouble, someone to report problems and successes to.
Accepting others as they are
The problem is that when you make a change, others in your life might unconsciously see this change as threatening. If you’re going to quit smoking, aren’t you saying that their smoking habit is bad? If you’re going to stop eating fast food and sodas, aren’t you saying that their diet of fast food and sodas is wrong?
We all like to think that we’re good people, and when someone implicitly criticizes our way of doing things, this threatens this good self-image we have of ourselves. So your habit change might be taken that way, as a threat to their self-image … and they’re likely to react defensively, or might even attack you in some way. This isn’t a good situation, obviously.
A helpful approach is to make it clear that you’re not criticizing what they do, but rather trying to reduce your own suffering with this change. Try to make it clear that you accept what they’re doing — and if you don’t accept what they’re doing, you might reconsider your non-acceptance, as it is the real cause of conflict here.
How can you accept the bad habits of others? Well, put yourself in their place. Have you ever had bad habits? (Of course, we all have.) Did you like it when others criticized you or tried to force you to change? You didn’t like being attacked, and you appreciated being accepted. This is how the other person feels, and if you don’t accept their bad habit, you’re not accepting them as they are. And they’re likely to resent you and not support your change.
So instead, breathe, and let go of the Mind Movie you have of how they should be. Your ideal for them (no bad habits) doesn’t match reality, and will only cause you suffering, so let it go. See the reality of the other person as they are and find something to appreciate about them.
Once they feel accepted, they’re much less likely to be defensive and much more likely to support you.
Setting the example
While not everyone will be instantly on board with your ideas for change, I’ve found the best method of persuasion is being a good model for change.
When I started exercising, most of my family wasn’t doing it. I tried to convince people, but I wasn’t as good at persuasion as I thought. When they saw me exercising, at first they thought I was a bit kooky. Then they saw the changes in me, and how much I enjoyed it, and I would share how great it was, and over time, it inspired some to think about it.
That’s what you can do — inspire people to consider something they wouldn’t normally consider, just by setting a good example. No one else will do yoga with you? That’s OK … keep doing it, and share your experiences. Do it nearby as they watch TV. Try not to be annoying, though.
Making changes on your own
If others won’t get on board with your changes, ask for a minimum amount of support: ask that they give you the space to make the change on your own, without their help. This isn’t a small thing sometimes — often people are threatened when someone in their life makes changes, or they don’t like the disruption of their routine of doing things with you (eating junk food together, for example). You doing something on your own is a big change for them.
Ask for the space to do it alone, and ask that they not criticize or otherwise make it hard on you. If they are resentful, this makes it more difficult, but you’ll have to make an effort to show that this is something that will make you happy, and you will do your best not to disrupt things for them. If that means you don’t spend mornings together because you are out running, then try to create other time together, like in the evenings or on weekends.
When you make changes on your own, without the support of others, it’s more difficult. You need to find other encouragement — I’ve joined running groups online, a smoking cessation group, and other similar groups. Facebook and other social networking tools can also be helpful in finding online support. Often there are groups in your area where you can meet people in person who are going through the same changes.
Educate, with patience
When others opposed my changes, it was often because they didn’t understand it. My extended family, for example, didn’t understand why we were deciding to homeschool the kids. And that’s understandable, as homeschooling isn’t the usual way of doing things and isn’t widely understood.
What has helped is patient education. When they ask questions or criticize, see that as an opportunity to talk about the change, to help them understand. This is a great gift, this opportunity, so talk with them in a way that isn’t pushy or trying to prove that you’re right, but that shows how excited you are and how you’d like to share what you’re learning about. If they seem put off, don’t drone on and on.
You might also want to share books and websites and blogs you’re reading about the topic, not in a way that insists that they change, but just to show what you’re interested in and how they might learn more if they’re interested. Documentaries, podcasts, magazines, and other good sources of information are helpful as well. You can’t force people to read or watch, but you can make information available.
Have patience. Don’t expect others to understand immediately just because you get it. Don’t attach to the result of getting their understanding, but focus on the intention of being patient and helpful. The important people in your life might not get quite as excited about this change, because it’s not coming from them. They might not want to learn about it as deeply as you have. They might not want to support your change at all, at first … but later, they might come around. Again, don’t push or be obnoxious about it, but instead be patient, encouraging, with an attitude of sharing what you’re learning and excited about.
One of my more successful strategies is creating challenges for my family. They aren’t required to do the challenges, of course, but sometimes people like the opportunity to rise to a challenge. And they like making changes with others.
My wife and I have created eating challenges to do with each other (we call them Lean Out Challenges, usually after we go on a trip and gorge ourselves on unhealthy food). With the kids, I’ve challenged them to do pushups, handstands, running, vegetarian experiments, daily drawing, and more.
Challenges are fun if you do them together. It can be fun to do it as a competition, or to offer rewards for people who complete the challenge.
Supporting their changes
If you want others to support your changes, you should also support theirs, even if you’re not interested in joining them. When my kids or wife express a desire to make some change, I do my best to help them achieve that:
- I share my experiences and what worked for me, and how I overcame some obstacles.
- I share websites and books that help with that change, and often will buy books to help them.
- I’ll do a project with them, or create a challenge we can do together.
- I run and workout with my wife, and created a workout log to help her track her fitness.
- I share vegetarian recipes with my wife (who is now vegan), and with my daughter, who one month decided to try vegetarianism.
There are more possibilities, but these are a few examples. When they see you supporting them, they now have a model for how to act when you want them to support your own changes in the future. It’s not an overnight change that you’ll see in your family, but slow gradual long-term changes.
Mission: Explore your change with others
Today, take a few moments to consider who your changes are affecting, who might feel threatened by your changes, and whether you accept them as they are. Think about how you might involve them in the change process in a non-threatening way, and whether they might be interested in a challenge. Take a few minutes to talk to them about your change and how they feel about it.