On Friday, I received an email from a reader asking what the hardest part of the One Week With/out challenges has been.
I put some thought into it over the weekend, and realized that the greatest roadblock I’ve faced has been how to negotiate friendships, many founded on the bedrock of old bad habits, without abandoning them altogether.
It’s a tenuous process at best, and there’s no science to it, but here’s a couple of tips based on what I’ve learned thus far.
1. Find new things to do with old friends
When I graduated I stayed in the same city, moved in with the same friends, and continued frequenting the same smoke-addled dart bars. When I gave up drinking for a week, I found myself going along to the bars with my friends like always, but without any alcohol in my blood I found myself bored before long. I saw that if I kept this up unchanged I would slowly stop hanging out with them in these same haunts, and our friendship would begin to fade.
The answer instead is to open up your friends to new experiences, not at the behest of your change in habits, but for the adventure of it and betterment of each of you. Habits are not isolated to the realm of the individual; groups have habits that supersede each of their individual members. By introducing the same group to a different setting you’ll make some of the group’s normative rules more flexible, even giving the other members the freedom to change themselves, if they see fit.
2. Include your friends in your improvement
There’s a very thin line between inviting others to help you change, and rubbing their nose in your own self-importance, so listen up. When most people hear that somebody has bettered himself in one-way or another they offer an insincere “How nice” and root very quietly against him. The assumption here is that said person thinks he’s now better than the rest, and there’s no quicker way to lose friends than to walk around with your nose in the air.
Instead, the goal is to show others how you’ve changed for the better by using the fruits of your self-improvement towards your relationship with them. If you give up time-wasting activities, spend more time with the people you care about. If you give up drinking, make dinner with a friend instead. Whatever’s appropriate to that friend or friend group. The key is, be better to the people around you, and they will notice the change.
Some of my friends have even done the challenges partway with me, or pursued one of their other dreams instead. People want to know, unpretentiously, that change is possible, and if you introduce the concept and are willing to help and listen to others, your friends will be grateful. Take heed however, as its easy to confuse this approach with the following.
3. Don’t push change on others
If you truly live as a humble example of how people can change for the better, some of your friends will follow suit, and others will cajole you a bit and continue on living the way they have been. That’s fine. By enacting change, you’re opening yourself up to a certain amount of ridicule, even if it’s goodhearted. If change were easy, everyone would do it.
I find it helpful to remind myself that I’m the one who needed to change. Not everyone has to, and if they do the timing is entirely up to them. If you press people or accuse them you’ll only push them further away. Instead, love them even more regardless of their imperfections, remembering your own as often as you need. If they do decide to change and need someone to talk to, chances are you’ll hear from them.
4. Take a break every once in awhile
Whether you’re trying to go vegetarian, lose fifty pounds, be more productive, or live more frugally, there’s no reason to be uptight about it. Remember that you’re making this choice voluntarily in order to enjoy your life more, or more of your life. Act like it already! Part of the preconceived notion that change in friends is a bad thing comes from the snooty, cantankerous people who can’t miss a workout to have dinner with friends, or have a beer on a Saturday because of the carbs.
Instead, have the self-control to enjoy yourself every now and again without going overboard. The reality that you only live in this body once is neither an excuse to be a glutton, nor cause to miss out on the simple pleasures of life.
5. Finally, accept that sometimes friendships will fade
People bond with one another because of shared experience and mutual circumstance. That’s why you can make friends with someone with whom you have very little in common, only because you’re the two basketball fans on the chess team. Sometimes, as we grow older and our circumstances change, we have less in common with certain people than we once did. This is healthy.
People change in all different sorts of ways and they don’t always run parallel to one another. If none of these tactics has worked and things seem hopeless, it might be a sign that you’re both growing apart. If possible, let things run their course on good terms, but if not, accept it as one of the many inconvenient realities of life in the 21st century. And get on living out life to its fullest.