By Kelly Theim Hurst, PhD
Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight and keep it off – especially through the holiday season or other ups and downs that life offers – knows that it can be quite a challenge. What can make this process even more difficult to manage, though, is when you don’t have enough (or the right types of) support for your efforts. Most people are lucky enough to have a few important people in their lives: perhaps a spouse or partner, family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc. But even when you have people around you, there’s no guarantee that you can or will get the support you need.
Of the people in your life, give some thought to which ones know about your weight management goals? Who would you expect to support you through this process? And equally importantly, how could they support you? Have you ever expected someone’s unwavering support only to realize that they disappointingly came up short in this department?
Everyone’s social network is different, but one common expectation you may have of people close to you is that of having their full support if and when you need it. In fact, often the people around you do want to do and say things that will be helpful to you, but they may not know how. This may have happened to you, too, anytime you know a loved one is in need and think, “I don’t know quite what to say” or “What can I do that would help?” This scenario is common, for a few reasons. One, there is often not a “perfect” or “right” thing to do or say. The important thing is, you want to help but may need some guidance on how best to do so. Further, people may not really know what they need others to do or say to best support them in their weight loss journey. Identifying what you need can be a difficult but very important step on the road to getting support.
To figure this out, set aside some time to think about those people who are close to you and what specifically they could do or say to help. This could be as simple as listening to you talk when you’re feeling frustrated or discouraged, or helping distract you with a movie or a walk to decrease stress. Or perhaps there are words you’d like to hear (e.g., “I’m really proud of you for keeping up with your plan this week!”) You may also know there are things you would like someone to stop doing or saying to you. For example, bringing tempting foods into the house, or asking “Are you sure you should be eating that?” at dinnertime.
Keep in mind you may need different support from different people in your life. For example, it might feel right to talk about your emotions with your partner, sibling, or close friend, whereas what you may need from your boss is practical help like supporting having healthier snacks in the breakroom or giving you flexibility to go to a doctor’s appointment during the workday. Remember, you have the right to ask for what you need!
So, say you’ve figured out the support you need… even for people who know you really well, they can’t be expected to read your mind! It is up to you to communicate to others how they can best help you. To help this process go as smoothly as possible, try to find a good time to talk, such as when neither you nor the other person is particularly tired, stressed, or upset (or hungry!) Having a calm and open conversation about how you’re feeling is the best environment to recruit extra support. Compromise is key as well. You may have ideas about the type and degree of support you would want in a perfect world, but then also be ready to willing to talk about what the other person feels is doable. For example, say you really want your best friend to also be your gym buddy for some extra fun and accountability. He or she may not be able to or wanting to do that – but if you keep an open mind, maybe there’s another idea you could offer (e.g., your friend could call you to see how you’re doing, or remind you of your goal each week while you’re starting a new habit). Setting realistic expectations of how much others realistically can be there for you will prevent extra disappointment or frustration down the road.
Sometimes, despite admirable efforts to identify what you need and clearly spell it out for others, there may still be people in your life who are less than helpful… or even downright sabotaging, whether purposefully or not. You probably know “sabotage” when you see it or feel it. For example, if a co-worker knows very well that you are trying to avoid sweets (you’ve even kindly reminded him/her), but continues to deliver special treats straight to your desk. Or when you’ve told your spouse or partner several times that you want to avoid a certain food but it appears on the kitchen counter each week anyway. Or when family members push more food on you at the dinner table even when you make it clear you’re full.
Although they’re only human, and may forget these requests even when they seem obvious, other times people may have mixed feelings about your weight goals and habits. They may even be struggling to manage their own weight, whether they talk about it or not. For example, a friend may be secretly (or not-so-secretly) unhappy with you if you want to cut back on your happy hour tradition so you have time to cook dinner at home or go for a walk, and even try to guilt you into changing your mind. Your health efforts might lead some people to feel badly about their own habits, even if that wasn’t your intention at all, or they may simply feel uncomfortable or inconvenienced by a change from the familiar. Change is hard and often happens slowly, with bumps in the road. Be patient, and stay firm in your original request (assuming it’s a realistic and reasonable request), such as saying “I still really want to see you, but it’s hard for me to go out to eat so often. Maybe there’s something else we could do together that day?”
Lastly, some people do not have enough support people in their network. Sometimes friends or family move away, or life paths seem to diverge and you may end up feeling like your social circle is limited. If this feels like your situation, then weight management can feel like a particularly lonely path. Remember to use email, Skype, or even the good old telephone to reach out to anyone who helps you feel loved and supported. Even if someone doesn’t know exactly how help you in your weight loss efforts, take advantage of the powerful mood boost that can come from reminding yourself that you do have people that care about you.
Although it’s always great to have someone in your corner, you can keep up with your weight management goals even if you just don’t have support people in your life right now. Try regularly talking to yourself in a positive way to remind yourself that, no matter what others do to help you or hold you back, you can do this! You likely have many tools and resources to help you manage your weight and health, and when you need an extra boost, call in reinforcements. Losing weight can be an opportunity to form new connections with supportive people, whether it’s a more organized weight management group, or even a non-weight related group that would be in line with your healthy lifestyle goals and interests like a yoga class, hiking group, or healthy cooking class. Surround yourself with like-minded people and you never know when you might strike up a new connection!