Part 1 of a special 2-part series

Last summer, we were at breakfast in San Diego at one of our favorite restaurants – The Mission. While we did not indulge in their famous French toast on that trip, the table of four women next to us were sharing one large portion. All but one of the women were taking bites and pronouncing it delicious, but one was politely declining. (I stole a look at her plate – eggs, avocado, side of salsa, no toast. Mmm-hmm.)

Her casual “no, thanks” prompted a strong response from the group – everything from, “Oh, come on, you can have just one bite, can’t you?” to “This stupid diet you’re on is making you less fun.” Finally, the woman gave in and helped herself to a few forkfuls of the sweet stuff, and conversation and laughter carried on.

Now, why would her friends peer-pressure this woman to abandon her healthy pursuits and “treat” herself to something processed, sugary, and less healthy? You’d think friends would be the first to encourage her in her healthy eating efforts, right?

Think again.

Frenemies

This situation is, unfortunately, all too common. We’d assume that those closest to you—your friends and family—would be the most supportive of your health and fitness efforts. Often, however, it’s strangers on message boards, co-workers, or health and fitness bloggers who cheer your success, while your “friends” may remain staunchly tight-lipped, subtly disapproving, or even go so far as to sabotage your efforts.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

While their actions may confuse you (why wouldn’t your BFF want to see you lose weight and feel better?), there are emotional motivations behind your friends and family members’ actions. Today, we’ll explore five reasons why your friends and family may be reacting to your healthy pursuits in a less-than-graceful manner.

Concern For You 

First, those who appear to be trashing your new healthy pursuits may actually be coming from a genuinely good place—concern for your health and well-being. Maybe you’ve been on less healthy crash diets or exercise plans before, and your friends and family have watched you unhappily yo-yo for years. They may lump something health-focused and sustainable (like the Whole30) with the unhealthy programs they’ve seen you take on in the past, and feel the need to look out for your best interests.

Saying things like, “Cutting out entire food groups is unhealthy” or “Being that obsessed with the gym” may be their ways of saying, “I want to see you happy and healthy, and I’m worried about you.” Give people the benefit of the doubt, and assume they just don’t understand that this time, you’re building a new, healthy lifestyle. Patiently and carefully explain exactly what you’re doing, how it’s different from crash diets or “extreme” plans, and all of the ways in which this new lifestyle is benefiting you.

However, if that careful explanation (and your obviously positive results) aren’t enough to cut the criticism, you’ve got a different motivation to contend with. 

Feeling Left Behind

One reason your friend may not be so happy about your new healthy eating plan or your commitment to the gym is the fear of being left behind. See, the two of you were buddies. When one ordered dessert, the other was happy to share. When one wanted to watch a Lord of the Rings marathon, the other bought the popcorn and the peanut M&Ms. When one complained that their belly was getting bigger, the other was there to say, “No way. Look at my belly!”

Now, you’re passing on dessert. You’re bringing carrot sticks and jicama to the movies. Your belly is shrinking before their eyes. And this scares the beejeesus out of your friend, because what will happen to your friendship if you no longer have chocolate cake, lazy Saturdays, or muffin tops (the waistlines, not the baked good) to bond over?

So, they have two choices. Either join you in your health efforts and rise up right next to you (hard), or do their damndest to keep you down at their level (easy). Hence the constant encouragement to cheat, the eye roll when you call it an early night, the snide remarks about how you’re no fun since you started this new healthy lifestyle. It all comes down to fear that you’ll change, and they won’t, and then they’ll lose your friendship.

Jealousy 

This one is closely related to the above, and often follows on the heels of feeling left behind. In the beginning, the jealous friend may be super supportive of your efforts to lose weight, join the gym, improve your health. After all, you’ve said you’re going to do it before, and frankly, it’s never really gone anywhere, has it? It’s easy to be supportive if you believe the person won’t succeed—and your friend is counting on you not to succeed, for fear of being left behind.

But then you discover the Whole30. You really do it, by the book, 100%. And you start to see results right away. Your skin clears up, you lose some weight, you feel happier. People notice, too. They complement you, ask you what you’ve been doing, encourage you to keep it up. And this changes the game for your formerly supportive friend.

Suddenly, you’re getting all the attention, and it’s not so easy to be supportive. Your jealous friend thinks, “I want what you have, and thus until I have it, you shouldn’t have it either.” As with the “left behind” friend, the focus is not on moving forward together, but on holding you back.

Defensiveness

We have said this to Whole30 participants for years now—you have the ability to make people feel bad about what they are doing, simply by doing what you are doing. You don’t even have to make a big deal out of it—just rolling up to the lunch table at work and pulling out a giant salad (instead of your usual leftover pizza) is enough to start tongues wagging. Your healthy meal makes them re-evaluate their own lunches—and all too often, they know in their heart of hearts they could be doing better.

When people feel challenged or threatened by perceived criticism, their responses range from somewhat testy to downright hostile. And even though you are not actually criticizing their habits, the contrast between your new healthy efforts and their behaviors can feel like outright criticism. So they react negatively, go on the offensive—and now you feel attacked, just for quietly trying to do something that makes you feel better about yourself.

Feelings of Rejection 

This last motivation often comes from family members, but can also come from friends. Many of our relationships are forged (and held together) through food. You and your Mom relate best over a breakfast pastry and coffee. Your wife bakes your favorite cookies when you’ve had a fight. You share a pint of ice cream with your bestie when either of you has a bad day.

The trouble is, your passing up the pastry, cookies, or ice cream feels like a personal rejection to your Mom, wife, and best friend. These were ways that your friends and family showed you love, and they feel hurt when you no longer want to accept their love in that form. Perhaps without the lubricant of food, you’ll realize you don’t have much in common, or you’ll find it hard to communicate. Your new healthy lifestyle puts these relationship in jeopardy, in the eyes of your friend or family member. And their negative comments, unsupportive attitude, and efforts to sabotage your efforts is, in their eyes, simply an attempt to save your relationship.

It’s Not Me, It’s You 

Understanding the motivations behind your friends’ and family members’ criticism and lack of support for your new, healthy lifestyle is the first step in dealing with the situation. In Part 2 of this series, we share our best tips for responding to less-than-supportive frenemies in ways that (hopefully) will allow you to preserve the relationship.

Is there another reason friends and family may be less than supportive of your new, healthy habits? How do you manage to stay committed in the face of negative feedback and criticism? Sound off in comments.


Thanks to these two articles for inspiration on jealousy and defensiveness.