Your Friends Are Primed To Be Unsupportive of Your Health Goals. Here’s Why
Today’s guest post from fitness/health coach, Alex McBrairty, will no doubt resonate with many people who read this site.
If you’re even remotely health/fitness conscious chances are, at some point in time, you’ve been the recipient of some shade (or even backlash) from friends and family members during your journey toward a healthier lifestyle.
They’ll often judge you or even sabotage your efforts.
What’s up with that? Shouldn’t it be obvious they’d be your closest source of support?
Your Friends Are Primed To Be Unsupportive of Your Health Goals. Here’s Why
Imagine this common scenario: You’ve made the decision to start a fitness plan. You know it’s going to require changing your eating and exercise habits. You’ve stocked healthy food in the house, you’ve been keeping to a regular workout routine, and you’re seeing noticeable changes.
Then your friends invite you out to eat with them.
You’re hesitant because you know it’ll be tough to stay on track, but you agree to go anyway. Once you arrive and sit down, your friends begin ordering cocktails.
You stick with water.
Then it begins.
You hear one of the following phrases:
“Come on, it’s just one night. Have fun with us!”
“You’re not as much fun since you’ve started this diet.”
“Are you on one of your health kicks again?”
You roll your eyes because it’s hard enough to say no to your old habits, and they aren’t making it any easier. Your friends roll their eyes because you aren’t participating in your usual behaviors.
This is a common experience for anyone beginning to make healthy lifestyle changes, and yet it’s still surprising. What makes our friends and family, those people closest to us and who care about our wellbeing the most, the ones most likely to try and sabotage us?
Birds of a Feather
Humans are social creatures. We are drawn to be part of groups for our survival—whether our ancestors needed to join a village to ensure their safety against predators and enemies, or we, as teenagers, needed a group of friends to ensure surviving high school.
Being a part of a group is a hard-wired human trait.
Being part of a group also is more than just a mechanism for survival.
As it turns out, our social habits play a large role in shaping how we view ourselves and our place within the world. Our sense of self, or self-identity, is created based on all of the experiences, interests, and accomplishments we have throughout our lives.
What comes to mind when you describe yourself to others?
Or when others describe you to another person?
Those are likely the things that help craft your self-identity.
For example, a large part of my self-identity is fitness. I exercise every day and have built a career in the fitness industry as a coach. I take a lot of interest in fitness, and it’s become a core part of my identity. Having a clear self-identity is important to help us navigate our place in the world. It helps us decide what activities to participate in and who to associate with.
Another large part of this self-identity is formed based on the social groups we join. Most often, people decide to join a social group because they believe themselves to be similar to the other members of the group. The friends who make up your social circle tend to be interested in the same things you are.
As members of groups with specific interests, behaviors and values, we reinforce or adopt these same qualities within ourselves. Our social identity, the part of our self-identity that we form based on the groups we join, helps us establish a large piece of who we are.
When our self-identity gets wrapped up in our social groups, we will also display what psychology researchers call “in-group favoritism”: we put our group above other groups.
This creates the “us vs. them” mentality frequently seen in social contexts.
One obvious example can be seen between two competing sports rivals. The fans of each team display a very clear “us vs. them” mentality in how they interact with one another: trash talking, disparaging comments, and clear dislike of the other team’s fans. This “us vs. them” mentality creates a shared bond between group members, signaling to everyone in the group that “you belong here.”
By The Rules
Throughout our history of organizing into groups, we have always needed rules to ensure cooperation among members of the group. These rules reflect shared values and help establish a collective identity. Countries create formal rules by passing laws. We all have a sense of what it means to be American, just as citizens of Great Britain know what it means to be British.
These rules and shared values help us easily distinguish who are members of “our group” from those who are outsiders.
This isn’t just a quality of sovereign nations.
Groups of any size show evidence of this rule-setting behavior. Even your social network, your group of friends or your nuclear family, have established rules that group members are expected to follow.
In the case of your friend-group, you might have rules aimed at the types of clothes you wear or the types of activities you do together.
If my friends and I typically enjoy movies together, suggesting we go hiking would be wildly outside the boundary of what is expected. Similarly, during the holidays my family has a specific sequence of events that we follow. We eat dinner at a certain time, with much of the same traditional holiday food specific to my family.
Afterwards we open gifts, stopping halfway through for dessert. If I were to suggest we eat dessert immediately following dinner, or that we open gifts before dinner was ready, it would be violating the holiday rules my family has established.
Interestingly, within our social networks many of these group rules are implicit.
We don’t always consciously think about them. Usually, we adopt a certain way of behaving by observing how others act within the group. I don’t explicitly know that my friends don’t like hiking (maybe I do from prior experience), but I know not to ask because no one has shown interest in that before.
During the holidays, I don’t know how my family would react if I started opening gifts before dinner, because I’ve never seen anyone do it before. The absence of this behavior leads me to believe it’s probably not an appropriate thing to do.
These implicit group rules help reinforce the shared identity among group members. It also reinforces the difference between “in-group” members and “out-group” members. When I bring my girlfriend home for the first holiday, she doesn’t know what rules to follow and this makes it easy to identify her as an outsider of the family.
Every group that we’re a member of—country, state, social, professional, sports teams, etc.—has a specific set of rules that we adhere to in order to maintain our membership status.
Why Positive Change Gets Backlash
So back to the original question: Why do our friends and family not support our healthy lifestyle changes in a manner we expect?
These changes are good for us, after all, and as the people who care about us most, shouldn’t they be on board?
In some cases, we even find they are the ones sabotaging our progress!
It’s bad enough when we feel like our friends don’t support our goals. What’s even more peculiar is that we can often catch our friends giving praise and admiration to some other stranger, usually a celebrity or an acquaintance, for doing the exact same thing they just gave us grief about! Why are they quick to give a total stranger praise for doing the same thing they’re hassling us about?
What’s happening is a unique psychological phenomenon called the “Black Sheep Effect.”
This refers to a group’s tendency to more favorably view unlikable outsiders than unlikable insiders.
Let’s think about this in the context of everything we’ve learned about groups so far.
We join groups (our friends) because it helps establish or reinforce a part of our identity. Then, we create rules within the group to reinforce and protect this identity, creating a clear distinction between people outside our group from those within. Then, as an individual we decide to make healthy lifestyle changes that ultimately change how we behave in social situations.
Now we’re likely violating the implicit group rules and threatening the identity of the group. This results in backlash from our friends because we’re changing our habits.
It should start to become clear why this is happening. Your social group doesn’t want you to fail or to remain unhealthy. Everyone in the group has been socially programmed to protect the identity of the group, and your new behaviors are threatening that.
This is where the backlash comes from.
To explain why your friends can give praise to a stranger for doing the exact thing you’re doing, look to the Black Sheep Effect. The stranger making healthy lifestyle changes is violating your group rules (as an outsider), while you’re also violating the group rules (as an insider).
Your friends favor the outsider who breaks the rules more than the insider because the outsider is expected to break the rules. Imagine having something stolen from you by a stranger. Now imagine having something stolen from you by a close friend.
This second scenario stings a little more.
Knowing why this is happening is the first step, but we ultimately want to be able to do something about it. It doesn’t feel good to be ridiculed like that. The changes themselves are hard enough to deal with, let alone subtle or not-so-subtle sabotage from people who should care about your well-being.
The first thing you should do is to make your goals clearly known to your group members.
If you want to go a step further, ask them to help keep you accountable.
By making it clearly known why the changes are happening, it gives your friends an explanation for why you’re deviating from the normal behaviors of the group. Additionally, by asking them for help in holding you accountable to these changes, you’re reinforcing the implicit group rule to help fellow group members.
Here’s how this Jedi-mind-trick works: we feel compelled to help our friends, but if we help them break the group rules then we’re also breaking the group rules. Now we have to justify to ourselves why it’s OK that we break the group rules.
This is cognitive dissonance in action.
Cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs and behaviors. We don’t feel good when our beliefs and our behaviors are misaligned. For example, if we eat junk food while believing that we shouldn’t be eating junk food, this creates an uncomfortable mental state.
To resolve this issue, we typically either reduce the importance of our belief or justify our actions. In the case of junk food, we might convince ourselves that we “earned” it as a reward for something. In the context of recruiting our friends to help us break group norms, if they believe that breaking the group rules are bad, but their actions are to help you break those very rules (because they’re following the rule of being a good friend), then they need to resolve this inconsistency.
The most likely way they’ll resolve this is to convince themselves that breaking the group rules for healthy changes isn’t all that bad.
Now you’re a modern-day Obi-Wan.
Pretty fly, for a Jedi.
Once you’ve recruited your friends to help you succeed in meeting your goals, the next step is to be very consistent in your new behaviors.
The reason you’re getting backlash is because your behaviors are new and different from what’s been established. However, the more you participate in these new behaviors, the more they become normalized.
When I first began my fitness journey, I got a lot of backlash for my new exercise habits and how I ordered food at restaurants. Now, however, my friends and family don’t even bat an eyelash when I disappear to work out or order a salad when we’re out to eat. It’s just become a normal part of who I am. The more you perform the new behaviors and make them visible to your friends, the more your friends will get used to this new version of you.
The more normal it all becomes.
Putting It All Together
We join groups out of human nature, we stay because they help define us, and we dislike when group rules are broken. Your friends give you a hard time because changing your lifestyle breaks the rules that probably contributed to connecting with these people in the first place.
Fortunately, this backlash isn’t a personal attack, but is the result of their identity being threatened by your new choices.
To overcome this backlash, recruit these friends to help you reach your goals and stay consistent in these new behaviors until they become your new normal. Then the backlash ends, your friends become more accepting, and your healthy behaviors become a part of your new identity.