Starting a new habit is exciting. You’ve found something new to try, and look forward to the life changes ahead. But it can be scary explaining new behaviors to your friends and family. Friends might expect you to meet them at the bar after work for some drinks. Grandma might expect you to love her famous pernil (a Puerto Rican pork dish). Or your best friend from college may eagerly await your daily Dogstagram finds. But if you’re trying to give up alcohol, eat less meat, or get off social media, explaining these changes to people around you might be a source of anxiety. Let's think about how to deal with such situations and form a team to support your habit journey.
We spoke with Linda from upstate New York, who grew up in a big Puerto Rican family. Linda is training for a marathon, and is trying to eat less meat to support her fitness goal. She was afraid of going to a big party the family had planned. She knew that her grandmother would make her world-famous pernil, and that everyone would say something if she didn’t have any. She admitted it would be easier to give up her no-meat commitment for that day so she didn’t upset her grandmother.
How often does this happen on your habit journeys? Have you ever tried a dry-holidays challenge and then fretted over your friend’s holiday party, where you know they would ask why you aren’t drinking? Or maybe you’re trying to check email less before bed, but you’re afraid your boss just sent you an important email and is waiting for your reply. Your brain spends a ton of energy going through every possible terrible scenario. What if your friend calls you out—what will you say to the whole party? Or if you miss an email, will your boss yell at you the next day? Welcome to anxiety: the natural, normal process of imagining and solving bad-case scenarios.
Instead of worrying if a bad conversation will happen, choose to lead it. We advised Linda to call her grandma and tell her about her new meatless habit before the party. There are a few reasons why this is helpful:
- Environment. By calling ahead of time, you control the environment of the conversation. Linda and her grandma can talk without the distraction of other people around or the time pressures of managing an ongoing party.
- Prepare. Preparing for the conversation means you will know what to say and how you want to say it. Linda could write down some of the reasons she was giving up meat. Writing them ahead of time helps her think of all the reasons and explain them thoughtfully instead of being spur of the moment.
- Alternatives. There is a chance Linda’s grandma may react defensively to Linda’s new meat-free habit. But Linda can prepare a few "what if" scenarios just in case and feel more confident about how to respond.
By putting your nervous energy into action, you can move beyond anxiety and set yourself up for a positive conversation. But we know that planning isn’t enough. Sometimes the people around us react emotionally when we tell them we’re changing some of our behaviors.
As humans, we infuse everything around us with meaning. That teacup that’s chipped and you should probably throw out is more than just a piece of clay to you. You bought it on a trip to China a few years ago, and it reminds you of going to a new country where you didn’t know the language, meandering into a small tea shop, finding a friendly store owner, and buying a cup to remember the lovely afternoon. To you, throwing out the tea cup means more than disposing of something damaged; it means forgetting that special afternoon. If you watch carefully, you’ll recognize meaning in our habitual interactions with our friends as well.
For me, spending time with my friends in a bar was filled with meaning: that I enjoyed their company, wanted to do things with them, and saw them as friends I could trust. So when I decided to pause my drinking to work on my sleep, one of them interpreted my teetotaling as not wanting to spend time with him. Alcohol had become such a regular part of spending time together that he thought I was upset with him. Our emotions may not always make sense, but they are real to us.
Part of these difficult conversations is watching for and acknowledging those feelings. My friends thought I was rejecting them by not drinking. Linda’s grandmother may see her famous pernil as a symbol of nourishing her family, and Linda’s rejection of it a rejection of her. What would happen if you took a break from social media? Would some of your friends suddenly wonder why you weren’t commenting on their posts, and see that as a negative sign of their own self worth?
In these cases, it’s best to call out the emotion and remind your loved one that changing your habits is not a rejection of their affections. In fact, you can redirect their emotional energy into support from your friends and family to help you achieve your habit transformation.
Change is difficult for anyone to handle. But once you bring up the topic and navigate any misunderstandings, your detractors can be recruited to be on your habit-changing support team. By discussing your habit change with people close to you, you’ve communicated how important they are to you. And it’s likely they’re energized to help.
Be ready to use that energy. When you prepare for these difficult conversations, generate some ideas about how those folks can help you. What does support for this new healthy habit look like? While you know best what works for you, a few supportive actions to ask for in our drinking scenario might include:
- Asking your friend not to ask probing questions about why you aren’t drinking at the bar.
- Asking your friend to have a few mocktail options ready for you when you come over for dinner.
- Asking your friend to propose a new activity you can share where drinking would be less expected, instead of going to a bar every Thursday.
Linda was able to ask her grandma to make some changes to her red beans and rice recipe to help fuel her for the marathon training. When Linda crosses that finish line, her grandma will know that she was part of Linda’s habit journey, not an obstacle to it.
So the next time you hear yourself dreading an interaction with someone about your new habit, direct that energy into planning a conversation. Write a plan to call or talk to this person before an event. Listen to the feelings they have when you tell them about your new habit goals. And finally, think of some ways they can help you complete your journey. Habit change is difficult enough without viewing your loved ones as obstacles. Take some steps to help them be the cheerleaders they want to be and you know they can become.