Don't Let Friends Sabotage Your Self-Improvement Project
People who care about you may subvert your goals, intentionally or unwittingly. Learn why, and what to do about it.
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When you set any new challenging personal goal to make positive change — perhaps fix a relationship, start a difficult medical treatment, change careers, or maybe pursue a long-lost passion for art — support from family and friends can make all the difference. Unfortunately, loved ones too often undermine those efforts, on purpose or otherwise.
Research highlights several ways in which people you’d expect to count on for support could try to thwart your effort to lose weight, as but one example:
Intentionally undermining your efforts, perhaps by offering you food when you don’t want any, discouraging the whole idea of healthy eating, or highlighting the cost of a gym membership.
Colluding with you to share that pint of ice cream in your moment of weakness.
Reacting with ostensibly positive comments like, “You look fine, you don’t need to change!”
Turns out these kinds of sabotage are common, regardless of what sort of major self-improvement project an individual might undertake. So I reached out to some experts to understand why our loved ones might be so unsupportive, what to look for in a helpful support team, and how to achieve big new goals even when your peeps might try to drag you down.
Q. First, how important is support from family and friends in helping me with big life changes?
In a word: huge, the experts say.
“Having support can lighten the perceived load and give a boost by reinforcing efforts along the way,” said Simon Rego, PsyD, chief of the Montefiore Health System’s psychology department and director of psychology training at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “It’s like a marathon runner who sees people cheering and gets an emotional boost, which keeps them focused towards the finish line.”
Support involves three core aspects:
Validation: Acknowledgement of your goal’s personal meaning and importance.
Encouragement: Reacting positively and offering reinforcement along the way.
Accountability: Helping you stay on track when the going gets tough.
“Support from family and friends is consistently the most important factor predicting resilience and emotional well-being, especially after difficult events or when making difficult changes,” said Jessica Rohr, PhD, a clinical psychologist with Houston Methodist Behavioral Health. Good social support offers psychological and behavioral boosts and can even bolster your immune system. “These factors all impact each other, as well,” Rohr said.
Not everyone necessarily needs the same amount of social support to tackle big life changes, Rohr said. Needs might vary based on health overall and well-being, any possible neurodivergence, and whether the available support is the good kind or the bad.
Q. Will friends and loved ones really try to torpedo my self-improvement projects?
Yes, absolutely. The research only confirms what much other research has already shown, the experts said.
I was most intrigued by the notion of unintentional sabotage by someone who is just trying to be kind. To return to our previous example, say you’re trying to lose weight to improve your health, and a friend says something like, “You look fine, you don’t need to lose weight, don’t waste your time with that (or don’t be bullied into thinking that way).”
“This is definitely a thing,” Rohr said.
Why would an ally do that? Three possibilities:
Healthy behavior changes are sometimes inextricably linked with cultural issues. “Friends may be attempting to point out that there are some societal pressures that may not be consistent with health,” Rohr said.
“Some friends and family are having a difficult time with their own behavior change and find it distressing that you are making changes,” she said. “This can be one response to that distress rather than exploring those feelings internally.”
Your friend might simply not know what to say and is trying to be polite.
“There is a push-and-pull, especially among women, between lifting up others as they are and encouraging them as they work,” Rohr explained. “For example, if somebody tells you they’re on a diet, it can feel really strange to agree that they need to be on one and tell them good job!”
Q. How can I cultivate the support I want and need?
Before anyone can support you, they need to know about your new goal and what sort of help you’re seeking.
“It’s important to make clear to family and friends your goals and ask for their support,” Rego said. “Clarify what type of support works best for you. Some people prefer emotional support, while others like help with problem-solving. Some appreciate gentle reminders when they are veering from their goal. Each of these different types of support strategies may be called for at different points along the way.”
Also, consider the skill sets of your prospective support team. Some people may be good at one aspect and not another, Rego said. Others may not have any positivity to offer, so don’t involve them.
It can also help to go public, Rego suggested. I do this sometimes, announcing a new fitness goal to close friends and family but also on social media. The goal becomes not just a personal quest but a promise, to scores of old and new friends and colleagues, that I don’t want to break.
But above all else, seek support from people who make you feel safe, people around whom you can be your honest, imperfect self and leave a conversation better off than when you started, said Eileen Anderson, EdD, an associate professor of bioethics and medical humanities at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine.
Finally, let’s look at what you can do about this problem…
Q. If someone tries to sabotage my goals, on purpose or subconsciously, what should I do?
Start by understanding that negativity is part of any relationship. While it can suck when someone close to you invalidates your feelings or disagrees with your goals, it’s vital to filter out this input, or filter out the people.
“Many people have a hard time setting boundaries for themselves,” Anderson said. “They need to look inward first and decide what is and is not acceptable behavior. Then, they have to signal to those around them when a boundary is crossed, and that it is no longer okay.”
If you’re not good at setting interpersonal boundaries, a therapist can help you make them clearer and stronger, Anderson suggested.
For clients who struggle with this, Rohr recommends a form of dialectical behavior therapy developed by University of Washington Professor Emeritus Marsha Linehan. The short version:
D: Describe the situation.
E: Express your emotional response.
A: Ask for what you want.
R: Reinforce them for giving it to you.
Rohr offered this example: If a friend says they don’t support you starting antidepressants for your depression, you could say: “You’ve mentioned multiple times that you think antidepressants are a bad idea. This feels hurtful and unsupportive. Can you stop making these comments? It would be really helpful for me and I would appreciate it.”
Finally, acknowledge that change is hard. Hell, life is hard. But you are almost surely more resilient than you think, science has shown. The trick is to get started, and the very first step in any major life change is to recognize your own value.
“The core of any successful behavioral change is self-worth,” Anderson said. “People have to truly love and value themselves — rather than say, want to punish themselves — for true and sustained change.”