Thirty-eight-year-old financial analyst Olivia Gomez was battling high cholesterol and a pre-diabetes diagnosis when she decided to make some changes.
She switched to a plant-based diet and upped her exercise. Her weight, blood sugar and cholesterol all dropped to healthy levels, and she avoided having to take medication.
Her family’s response, she says, was less than positive.
“My mom would literally yell at me, ‘You’re getting too skinny!’ ” Gomez says. “My brother would call me when he mowed the lawn and say, ‘Hey, you want to come eat?’ ” (His grass clippings, that is.)
That was three years ago. Today, she says, her family members approach her for advice on getting healthy. But the early days of teasing and occasional hostility still sting a bit.
“I feel better, not only physically but spiritually and emotionally,” Gomez says. “So it was disappointing that they didn’t see that.”
Gomez’s experience is a common one, experts say. You make a healthy change – lose weight, stop smoking, end a lousy relationship – and your inner circle responds with unease.
“It may be a complicated mix of envy triggered by their own regret: ‘Why am I stuck in a rut while you are seeking out a new and exciting path?’” says Terri Apter, an author and psychologist who specializes in family dynamics. “It also may express anxiety: ‘If you change, will you still be my friend?’ And, ‘If you are happier and more successful, will you still need me?’ ”
When speaker and consultant Liz Pryor beat out 15,000 contestants for a spot as Good Morning America’s “life advice guru” in 2011, she says she heard it all.
“Oh, Liz. What if you fail in front of the whole country?” she recalls. “People would say to me, ‘We’re just worried about you!’ How do you debate that with someone you love?”
Experts agree that using the negative reactions to launch a dialogue is key to steering the relationship away from a ditch.
“If it’s someone truly close to you, it’s important you address it,” Pryor says. “ ‘I know you love me and I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way, but I just have to tell you it’s hurtful and feels unsupportive when you say that.’ ”
Be willing to be the one who broaches the topic in a nonthreatening way, rather than waiting for your friend or relative to bring up your new life.
“The secret is to acknowledge the way you used to be and then ask for their support in helping you be the way you are now,” says Jay Carter, author of Nasty People: How to Stop Being Hurt by Them Without Becoming One of Them (McGraw-Hill).
“Let’s say you used to be smoking buddies or eating buddies,” Pryor says. “It’s wise to bring it up in a really natural way. ‘I just want to tell you that I’m exactly the same person I was before. I need you to know that this doesn’t change anything between us. I just had to do this for me.’ ”
And brace yourself for a range of outcomes. Part of forging a healthier path, Pryor says, is remembering that you can’t control other people’s emotions.
“We can’t change the doubters,” she says. “We can only change how we respond to them and how much impact we let them have.”
A healthy relationship will weather big and small changes.
“If you have an open heart, you can take yourself out of someone else’s success,” Pryor says. “Regardless of what you’ve been through, when you can celebrate someone’s better situation and look at their success as an inspiration rather than a threat, then that’s a wonderful thing.
“People who go through fairly big transformations will learn who their true supporters are.”