How many of you have had the lovely experience of making positive lifestyle changes such as eating better, exercising more, or quitting bad habits, only to have the people closest to you make fun of your efforts, put you down about it, or even start treating you differently as a person?
As it turns out, this is an incredibly common situation. One of the biggest challenges that people face when trying to get healthier can actually be their own friends, coworkers, and family!
(As a disclaimer, the purpose of this is not to complain about how “everyone is holding you back” and how “they hate me cuz they ain’t me” but to explore how to navigate this common social phenomenon. We want to change, but those closest to us might seem to discourage it, especially if it’s a positive change. However frustrating it is, this is totally normal.)
Say you decide to make an effort to live a healthier lifestyle, so you turn down a piece of cake at a family birthday party (probably offered to you by someone who knows you’re trying to stay away from it) and everyone gets a little uncomfy, and you feel “the eyes” on you. If you start losing weight or getting some nice big muscles, you may even be accused of acting like you think you’re better than them, even if your interactions with them haven’t changed at all. They may even start to feel betrayed by the better you you’re becoming. Weird, right?
Say you have a group of friends who like to go out and have a good time on the weekends, and that “good time” involves staying out super late, drinking a little too much alcohol and spending a little too much money, smoking hookah or the occasional cigarette, and running into dudes you met on Tinder. Someday, you will decide that this is no longer your personal idea of a good time. Instead of having fun with this group of friends in other ways not involving going out on the town, this group of friends will wonder what happened to you and probably get upset thinking that you don’t like them anymore.
Say everyone in your office goes out to get burgers or tacos every day. If you bring a salad to work the first time, I guarantee you that your lunch choice will be a topic of conversation (and possibly derision). You might feel weird about it and never do it again, rather risk feeling isolated during lunch.
Why is this? Are salads an inherently interesting water cooler topic? Is going out on the town the only way to have fun? Is turning down a piece of cake betraying your family? Or is there something else going on here?
Why do people who know and love us seem to want to keep us stuck in our old habits and behavior patterns, even if we all know they aren’t doing us any favors? Why is making different choices so emotionally charged?
It’s because you’re leaving the safety of the tribe.
Human beings are incredibly social creatures. Even though we no longer live in a tribal society, we are still a part of tribes. Tribes are everywhere: our core family, the group of friends from work, people who like German hardcore death metal, people who are all dental lab technicians, people who like to drink super high-quality coffee and beer and ride bikes and have beards, etc. And every tribe (family, friend group, clique of coworkers, etc.) has unspoken rules about how to act, what to wear, what to believe about yourself, what topics are okay to talk about, who we associate with, and even what we eat and how health conscious we can be. Don’t believe me? Try breaking one of those rules around them and watch what happens.
Every person’s habits and beliefs have been heavily influenced by their tribe since even before they were born. Did you know that the amniotic fluid you grew in took on the flavor of what your mom ate, and you could distinguish between languages at least a month before birth? That’s how deep these tribal “rules” can be. When you begin to do something different from the tribal norm, they may feel as though they are losing you, like you don’t “fit in” anymore. They don’t want you to change because this threatens their comfortable paradigm and makes you “not like us.” We are very sensitive to these feelings of suspicion and potential abandonment by our tribe, so we will subconsciously adjust our behavior to get rid of those feelings. The problem with that is that it keeps us stuck where we don’t want to be.
So how do we create lasting change without isolating ourselves?
- Recognize what is happening (and perhaps even expect it)
When embarking on any new journeys of self-improvement, there will probably be people you love who might not support you. There will also be people who feel threatened by your healthy lifestyle or increasing self-worth, and it will change how they relate to you. However, it doesn’t mean that they are bad or negative people; It’s just never comfortable for anyone to realize that the limits that you think you have (that have been set for you by either yourself or your tribe) are just illusions that can be risen above. And if I’ve learned one thing from reading comments on parenting websites, it’s that people kind of hate it when you make different choices than them (because it doesn’t affirm theirs). You will feel the weirdness, but just acknowledge it, remember why you’re making this change, lean into it, and keep it up.
- Be humble, kind, and loving.
If you want to preserve your relationships, you can’t have a “better than you” attitude. You are not better than anyone else. We are all just on different journeys and struggle with different challenges. Looking down at your peers as if they’re inferior is one of the quickest ways to isolate yourself from ALL tribes, present or future. Basically, work to improve yourself, but don’t be a butthole about it.
- Stay focused and prepared
When you’re dealing with an unsupportive tribe, you will need to up your focus and be prepared. If you’re trying to eat healthier, for example, you might need to plan ahead for get-togethers and bring a healthy side dish that you know everyone will like, but you can also eat (my favorite thing to bring is fresh guacamole!). This will help you stick to your goals while also not making a big deal over the whole thing. If your work environment is unhealthy, with candy or junk food everywhere, you have to make sure you are clear on the deeply personal reason behind your health goals, or you will succumb to temptation much easier.
- Cultivate a supportive tribe
Find people who are on the same path as you and challenge you. Yes, in person is ideal, but realistically, it will probably be people you find online (and then hopefully meet in person!) In this age of Facebook groups and Instagram, it’s easier than ever to cultivate a tribe for yourself. There are countless groups on innumerable topics, and they can be incredibly helpful in supporting you. Follow people who truly inspire you and display values you want to have. Unfollow people who either glorify unhealthy lifestyles or promote completely unrealistic ones (yes, this includes “inspirational” fitness models who seem to spend all day every day on the beach with their booty out, and certain celebrities). Be brutal! Most popular podcasts have corresponding Facebook communities to join. If there is a person you know or follow who inspires you, don’t be afraid to reach out! Almost everyone appreciates genuine connection. Just have fun and make new friends!
Your vibe attracts your tribe
Changing your lifestyle for the better isn’t always easy, and trying to go “beyond the pale” of your tribe definitely adds an extra challenge. It might not always be pretty. You may lose some friendships that you’ve had for a long time (but that’s not necessarily always a bad thing, depending on the friend). You may have to negotiate new relationships with certain family members. You might find yourself a little lonely sometimes.
You may also find yourself surrounded by an amazing new tribe who makes you feel alive and challenged and accepted as though you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. I know this can happen for you because as the kids say, your vibe attracts your tribe! It’s incredibly important for us to find one. In my opinion, having a group of people who support you is one of the most important keys to making life long positive changes. If you keep charging towards these positive changes, the right people will come into your life and help support you. The other people in your life will start to see the changes in you, and as you learn to get comfortable with your new habits and relationships, the resistance you faced in the beginning will start to melt away.
Have you ever felt isolated by your life choices? I’d love to hear from you and I hope you were encouraged by this!