Loved ones may not support big life changes

  • Article by: HEIDI STEVENS , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: October 18, 2013 - 2:34 PM

If you’re making big changes in your life, don’t be surprised if friends or family members aren’t there to cheer you on.

Thirty-eight-year-old financial analyst Olivia Gomez was battling high cholesterol and a pre-diabetes diagnosis when she decided to make some changes.

She switched to an all-plant-based diet and upped her exercise frequency. Her weight, blood sugar and cholesterol all dropped to healthy levels, and she avoided having to take medication.

Her family’s response, she said, was less than positive.

“My mom would literally yell at me, ‘You’re getting too skinny!’ ” Gomez said.

That was three years ago. Today, she said, her family members approach her for advice on getting healthy.

But the early days of teasing and occasional hostility still sting a bit.

“I feel better, not only physically but spiritually and emotionally,” Gomez said. “So it was disappointing that they didn’t see that. I’m healthier all over.”

Gomez’s experience is a common one, experts say. You make a healthy change — lose weight, stop smoking, end a lousy relationship — and your inner circle responds with unease.

“It may be a complicated mix of envy triggered by their own regret: ‘Why am I stuck in a rut while you are seeking out a new and exciting path?’ ” said Terri Apter, an author and psychologist who specializes in family dynamics. “It also may express anxiety: ‘If you change, will you still be my friend?’ And, ‘If you are happier and more successful, will you still need me?’ ”

Lack of support

When speaker and consultant Liz Pryor, author of “What Did I Do Wrong? What to Do When You Don’t Know Why the Friendship Is Over” (Atria Books), beat out 15,000 contestants for a spot as “Good Morning America’s” “life advice guru” in 2011, she said she heard it all.

“ ‘Oh, Liz. What if you fail in front of the whole country?’ ” she recalled. “People would say to me, ‘We’re just worried about you!’ How do you debate that with someone you love?”

The pushback, after all, is often from the people we love. That’s because none of us is above envy, Apter said.

“There are some people who have an envious personality, so that any success of someone close to them is experienced as a kind of attack; they feel diminished by the achievement and happiness of others,” said Apter, who wrote “The Sister Knot: Why We Fight, Why We’re Jealous, and Why We’ll Love Each Other No Matter What” (W.W. Norton and Co.).

“But many of us feel envy occasionally. We may be generally enthusiastic about the successes of others, but something, perhaps transient disappointment in our own lives or a temporary setback or simply feeling low, can be part of a complicated context in which we resent our friend’s sense of freedom and new possibility. So we utter words of caution and warn about the possibility of failure.”

What you can do

Experts agree that using the negative reactions to launch a dialogue is key to steering the relationship away from a ditch.

“If it’s someone truly close to you, it’s important you address it,” Pryor said. “ ‘I know you love me and I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way, but I just have to tell you it’s hurtful and feels unsupportive when you say that.’ ”

Be willing to be the one who broaches the topic in a nonthreatening way, rather than waiting for your friend or relative to bring up your new life.

“The secret is to acknowledge the way you used to be and then ask for their support in helping you be the way you are now,” said Jay Carter, author of “Nasty People: How to Stop Being Hurt by Them Without Becoming One of Them” (McGraw-Hill).

“Let’s say you used to be smoking buddies or eating buddies,” Pryor said. “It’s wise to bring it up in a really natural way. ‘I just want to tell you that I’m exactly the same person I was before. I need you to know that this doesn’t change anything between us. I just had to do this for me.’ ”

And brace yourself for a range of outcomes. Part of forging a healthier path, Pryor said, is remembering that you can’t control other people’s emotions.

“We can’t change the doubters,” she said. “We can only change how we respond to them and how much impact we let them have.”

That means deciding how much negativity you’re willing to shoulder, Apter said.

“If we have faith in the friendship, then we can give our friend a chance to adjust to the change,” she said. “We can offer reassurance by showing continued interest in her or him. After all, new success or excitement can make us temporarily self-centered. But if a negative response to our new goals and achievements persists, we have to accept the limits of this friendship.”

A healthy relationship, on the other hand, will weather big and small changes in each person’s personality and habits.

“If you have an open heart, you can take yourself out of someone else’s success,” Pryor said. “Regardless of what you’ve been through, when you can celebrate someone’s better situation and look at their success as an inspiration rather than a threat, then that’s a wonderful thing.

“People who go through fairly big transformations will learn who their true supporters are.”

Help others accept your new attitude

Your relationships will benefit from a little extra self-awareness in the wake of big changes.

“Sometimes when you embark on this new life, you want to talk about it a lot,” Pryor said. “That’s great, but don’t judge others who haven’t made the same changes.”

“If you can’t sit with your friends when they’re eating cake, you’re not all the way there,” she says. “Don’t go out to dinner with your old friends and make demands on them about what they eat or make them uncomfortable about the personal choices you’ve made in your life.”

And remember that your old relationships are still give-and-take.

“You want your friend or sister to be able to say to you, ‘I’m really happy for you, but you’re really bugging me with the calorie counting,’ ” Pryor said.

The new you can handle a little ribbing.

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