I get it, family's tough. When we're on this journey to healthy eating and living, and especially as vegans, talking to family members can be even tougher. We've read so many books, watched so many documentaries, read blog posts and heard from the experts, and we want to quickly run to our loved ones and share what we've learned. That we've discovered the way to optimal health and that that way is through our plates. It's right when you start telling people they need to change their eating habits that the road gets rocky. Food is so personal and emotional to each and every one of us, that it's almost like asking someone to alter their entire life, move to another country or change their religion. Yes, it's that engrained, and it's so hard to try something different, especially if that something needs to be a permanent change, and not just a quick diet after the holidays.
It's especially hard if our loved ones have developed a somewhat unhealthy relationship to food, depend on it emotionally, and have started to become unhealthy. You would think that getting a scare or even just a recommendation at the doctor's office would inspire change, but sometimes it's just the opposite. Today we aren't going to talk about how to deal with a partner or family member who isn't vegan after you've already made this change (that's coming next week!), instead, I'm going to give you some tips for dealing with a parent, partner or other family members or friends who are unhealthy and very resistant to hearing you when it comes to changing their habits and their food.
We've all been there, we know all about how this life changing diet can boost our health to new heights. We know that so many of the chronic illnesses suffered by the people around us would be greatly improved by diet and lifestyle choices. We know that change is possible because we are going through this change ourselves, but what we don't realize is that we went through this process in our own terms, and did it in our very own way. I know if someone had tried to push me to go vegan before I had done the research and read all the books, I would have probably felt forced, pressured and I would have never found my own "why", or my own way of transitioning. I would have labelled vegans and veganism as pushy and difficult. Instead, I found my own way around it, and started changing my life one step at a time. The motivation and inspiration was in me, and trust me, there is no better way than having your own authentic reason why, to help push you to new places.
Family is also hard because they know us, they've known us for years, perhaps for our entire lives, they've seen us go through phases, temporary obsessions and trends, and they've heard us proclaim so many things as teenagers only to forget about them days later. If your family member is your mom or dad, or an uncle or aunt, it's even harder. To them, they are the ones who need to look after and advise you, there's so much resistance when it goes the other way around.
So what can we do when someone close to us is unhealthy and very resistant to looking at the information and making changes in their diet or lifestyle? Whether it's the fact that they need to exercise more, eat healthier, stay away from processed foods, quit smoking or drinking, it's all the same. Here's the secret, are you ready? The only sure thing you can do is work on yourself. Here are my favorite tips for (metaphorically) helping you put on your oxygen mask first, before you try to put it on your loved ones.
Here are my tips for effective communication when you're dealing with an unhealthy and resistant parent or partner:
1) Understand that their resistance is not about you, although it might feel this way.
We take so many things personally, and since we all have our own issues with food and making big changes in our diets, we tend to make it all about us. Trust me when I tell you that their resistance has nothing to do with you, they resist because it's hard! It's hard to make changes for good, and it's hard to accept that we have the power to change our health when every single cue around us gives us solutions after the fact, i.e. medication, doctor's visits to cure, instead of prevent.
2) In the case of your parents, understand that you're their baby!
They might not even believe that what you're saying is true if their doctor hasn't told them, and they might even fear letting you down since they've probably attempted many lifestyle changes before and failed.
3) In the case of your partner, understand that you are two different people.
No matter how much you would like them to see things in the same way you do, you each come from a completely different upbringing. You are two different people with different views of the world, and especially, different core and self beliefs. They will process things differently, information will sink in differently, and no matter how much they love you, they also still have a connection to their own family and the way they were raised. Food is a huge part of the identity we have as a family, and some of us will have a much harder time changing things around, and especially making a break to the way our parents do things. This is especially true when it comes to food.
4) Understand that there's a chance they might never be able to hear it from you.
You may have told them about the risks of meat consumption and dairy products like a broken record for years! Ten years from now they hear about it on the radio and they call you to say they're going vegan because they heard about it somewhere. That expression "you're too close to the project" comes to mind here. Our loved ones might have a strong resistance to hearing it from us, but this doesn't mean our actions aren't inspiring and preparing them for when they're ready.
5) Understand that this need to help them might be emotionally linked to the fact that you're seeking approval for them.
Not only approval of your vegan diet or your healthy lifestyle, but approval for many other life choices. It's very hard to be effective when we're trying to help AND at the same time have a deep desire and investment in another person's result. An investment in something that is really not in our control. One of the biggest and toughest lessons I've had to learn in my life has been to find acceptance and approval within myself. When we place this responsibility on others we're setting a slight trap for ourselves, because our self worth is in that mix, and so is the way we see ourselves and our precious self-esteem. If you feel this rings true to you, try to let go of the need for their approval first, and see how your outlook on their situation changes dramatically.
6) Be a glowing example.
Not with your words but with your actions, outlook on life, and especially your understanding of others. Show them through your actions and habits how amazing this lifestyle is. Nothing is more profound than just looking at how another person is living as opposed to what they're preaching.
7) Talk about how you feel, not about how they might feel.
This is one of my favorite strategies in communication, all we can really do is be an example, and yes, many conversations on these topics will arise, and when they do, tell them how your life has changed, how you feel when you wake up in the morning, how your blood work has improved. No matter how long it takes, you can trust me that you are slowly but surely planting seeds, and you're also creating an environment of full acceptance and understanding so that if they do someday decide to get help, you're the first one they'll turn to.
8) When things are serious...
Let's face it, your loved one might be in a situation with their health that is serious, where there isn't a lot of time to take the patient road of planting seeds. I do believe sometimes we need to have big conversations when it comes to someone we love. When this happens, talking with more emotion than facts really tends to help. Chances are they've heard the stats, they know fast food clogs arteries and that smoking causes cancer. What they might not have heard is how scared you are of losing them, or how it frightens you that they might get really sick. Sit down and speak honestly and from the heart, and without overwhelming them, say that you can offer some ideas that can help. That you are willing to do this as a family and that you won't judge them if they aren't perfect. Leave some books or things they can read or watch when you're not there and there's no pressure, and let the pieces fall into place. We've got a ton of great videos, books and movie recommendations in our online vegan resource library which you can access through the pink button at the end of this post.
9) Listen more, react less.
We tend to be so reactive with the people who are closest to us. They give us an excuse as to why they can't make a particular change and we jump out of our chair, put our fists down and recite some statistics. I know it's hard, but try to just listen. Listen to what they're saying and what they're not saying. Try to think of where their excuse is coming from, is it fear, insecurity, sadness, anxiety regarding change? Just listen. A great step in this direction when your instinct is to react or defend your position is to simply ask questions. Not obvious questions seeking the answer you want (a.k.a "So you'd rather get cancer by keeping this up?"), but genuine questions about how they're feeling. It is so important for good communication to understand that you're never better than the other person. You are not right and he or she is wrong (even though in some tangible ways it might be so). It's about leveling the playing field, feeling empathy, and putting yourself in their shoes while you just listen.
10) Remember that all we can do is shine a light through the tunnel, but we can't carry everyone on our shoulder and take them to the other end just in case they might trip.
Motivation needs to come from within, otherwise results are transitory and we leave them behind the second the road gets rocky. Inspiration however is free and so powerful. Inspire others through the way you live your life, and always be there to really listen and help when you can, even if their goal is not the same as yours.
Next week we're going to take this up a notch and not only talk about health, but all other aspects surrounding our vegan lifestyle. We're going to be talking specifically about our partners in love and life, and what happens when you find yourself at different ends of the road when it comes to your food choices.
Are you struggling with helping someone in your life who is very resistant to change? In the comments below I want you to tell me which one of these tips is the one you're currently struggling with the most, and don't forget to share this post with anyone who is dealing with these issues with a loved one.
As promised, click the button below to access our vegan resource library filled with practical tips and health information you can share with loved ones.