In the process of treatment and trying to recover from the grab bag of mental health issues I have, I’ve made a serious effort to change many of my habits. Everyone knows that changing habits is hard: adding a meal where there was none requires a fair amount of effort and planning, adding in more socialization requires thought and energy, changing emotional habits is one of the hardest of all. Everyone knows that in order to change a habit you need to do something consciously for many months before it will begin to become ingrained (generally experts say 1-3 months).
And yet despite the amount of personal effort that I’ve put in to changing my habits, the thing that has actually been the most difficult has been the reaction of those people who are closest to me. People act confused, they tease, they joke, and often they make a big deal out of small changes. I’m going to take one example that’s a little bit trite, but sticks out to me as an example of how difficult it is for others to see you in a different light and how that can affect your ability to make changes long term.
I have a sweet tooth. I love chocolate, I love cake, I love ice cream. For most of my life I have never passed these things up. In the process of dealing with my eating disorder, I’ve made an attempt to make my eating more even and balanced: to pay attention to my hunger cues instead of simply eating if something tastes very good or if I force myself to, to stop when I’m full, to eat when I’m hungry. This means that I’ve also been trying to be more careful about not simply asking for ALL THE CHOCOLATE whenever it is offered to me. When I do that, I often feel guilty, unwell, or just angry at myself, and I often feel as if I’m binging if I eat sugar simply to eat sugar.
The other night I said no to a piece of cake at a family gathering. I got stares, exclamations of “Are you ok?”, people feeling my forward as if to imply that I were sick. Needless to say, this was not helpful in affirming my decision to listen to my body that it was full and didn’t want cake. Of course in this situation I didn’t feel I could explain my choice so I muttered something about not liking carrot cake and tried to make myself small.
Obviously it makes sense to comment on something that has changed, or to continue treating someone based on their past behavior if you don’t have an indication that they have changed. However over the top reactions really can make someone feel singled out and belittled for their changes, as if they’re weird or wrong for trying to make those changes.
In general, people don’t want to hear your negative comments about their changes. Not only do they have to be mindful of making the change, but they have to continue to justify it to themselves every time it’s pointed out, and even if they don’t it certainly feels as if they do. Ideally, changing a habit is about simply doing something different without even noticing that it’s different: it’s habit when you do it without thinking. Drawing attention to it makes it so much harder to have it become second nature.
People expect you to be the same always. When you change habits, you are changing your identity to some degree, and people don’t always take kindly to that. Other people also have to learn to see different things about you, and it’s easy to fall into the mold that others expect of you. You see this when you hang out with someone you haven’t seen in a long time and act in ways you haven’t for years. So if others continue to expect something of you, it requires extra resolve to do something different, to be clear that what you want now is not what you wanted in the past, and to communicate to those around you in a polite fashion that you are different now. Each time someone remembers the old version of you, you’re left grappling with that self as well.
An added difficulty is that oftentimes family and friends may not realize how difficult or serious a choice that you’re making is. They may joke or tease, when you feel you’re doing something important and hard. When that happens, it can feel like you’re stupid, oversensitive, or just wrong about the importance or difficulty of your choices. It feels like you’re going crazy, as if your reaction to things were totally irrational and you should be ok with joking or light-heartedness. Imagine if you made a choice to improve a serious physical health issue and people teased you about it: it certainly would not feel easier.
So this is a general plea: if you know someone in your life is in the process of making some big life changes, let the little changes slide too. It may be better to ask someone about a change when it’s not in the exact moment so that they don’t have to go through the momentary personal crisis that is reminding themselves why they’re not eating that piece of cake. A quiet comment or question when someone makes a decision out of the ordinary is one thing, but it is unnecessary to make a big deal, and can make the person feel as if they’ve been put on the spot or as if they have to defend their actions to you. And for those who are making changes, letting others know ahead of time can take the pressure off of you in the moment, even if you just tell one or two trusted people. It makes it easier for them to run defense and change the subject.