There’s an old Greek expression (Hey, what do you want….we’ve had 7 thousand years of civilization to perfect these sayings), that goes like this: “I want to be a saint, but the devils won’t let me”.

I was thinking about this expression today in the context of trying to effect personal change. We all have things about ourselves that we would like to change, be they bad habits, ways of interacting with others, or health and fitness objectives. I’ve noticed however that the minute you try to effect any type of personal change, everyone’s on your back trying to sabotage it. Change seems to unbalance people, even if it’s not they who are changing!

A case in point: My wife has often complained that I tend to dominate conversations with friends and that I occasionally ask inappropriate questions or make off-color jokes. I take these remarks seriously; there’s no better feedback than a loved one telling it to you straight. So on a number of occasions where we would be going out with friends, I’ve made the conscious decision to listen more and speak less, show a greater interest in what others are doing, and try to mitigate my admittedly strange sense of humor. Here’s a typical conversation that emerges within about the first five minutes of interacting with friends:

  • Friend #1: So, Steve, you’re very quiet tonight, what’s wrong?
  • Me: Nothing, I’m just listening to the conversation.
  • A minute later:
  • Friend #2: Are you sure you’re O.K. , you’re not saying much.
  • Me: No, no, I’m just enjoying the conversation
  • Another minute later:
  • Friend #1: Are you screwing with us or what? Stop playing Dr. Freud and get back to your old self!
  • Me: (after about 15 minutes of enduring this); To Hell with it…..let me tell you a new joke I heard! (Wife gives dirty look)

I’ve been trying to dramatically cut back on my salt intake these last three weeks as a matter of medical urgency, since my last visit to the cardiologist (BP 175/110 while on medication!). Clearly this is no whimsical effort, but a matter of life and death. The doctor gave me a second medication which, along with the drastic salt reduction, elimination of caffeine, and reduced alcohol consumption, have dropped my BP to near-normal levels…for now. As a side-benefit, I’ve lost 10 lbs without even trying (calories seem to really follow the salt).

Today we were invited to go out to dinner for Chinese food. I declined, explaining to my friend that I really couldn’t eat such high sodium food, much as I adore Asian cooking. His immediate retort was; “Sure, that will last all of three weeks”.

Clearly, I do accept some of the blame for that type of sarcasm. After all, I’m well known for getting on bandwagons and giving up after a few weeks of missionary zeal. Mea culpa. But I also suspect that change in others unbalances the natural order of things and we resent it. It triggers a knee-jerk effort to sabotage the other person, albeit not ill-intended; it’s just that change – even in others – makes us uncomfortable. I think there are at least three additional  reasons for this:

1. Change is threatening because it makes previously predictable relationships suddenly less predictable. Who will this new person be? Will I still like him and will he still like me? Will we still be able to do the same things together? For example, morbidly obese people who have lost massive weight are also well known to lose their friends, who can no longer relate to them in their new bodies.

2. Change in others is also threatening because it raises the bar of expectations on ourselves. A few years back, a close friend lost a tremendous amount of weight. He even gave me some great clothes that no longer fit him. Interestingly, my wife would often comment that if he could lose weight so successfully why couldn’t I? I actually felt both envious and ashamed at my own inability to drop some significant weight.

3. Weaknesses in others are very comforting because they make our own more tolerable – misery likes company.

Again, none of this is ill-intended, even the most loving and caring family members engage in this type of undermining. It’s a curious phenomenon. And I can’t say I haven’t done it myself (see comments).