QUESTION: “Hi there, I have a question. My brother is 3 years older than I am. He currently weighs 160 kg (~350 lbs.) and has very high blood pressure and is a potential diabetes candidate. He has been overweight pretty much his entire life. As a family, we have tried to support him and we have tried to help him change his mindset about his body and his health. He has resisted any support or outside help and is on a very dangerous path, especially now during Covid-19 . My question to you is: what can we do to help him? What can we do to get him to feel that the weight loss journey and living a healthier life is his idea and to help him commit to a long-term goal?”
DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question. It sounds like you really care about your brother’s health and that is so admirable. It can get frustrating to try and help someone that may not share the same enthusiasm that you have for their own health and wellness. It’s taken me a while to realize this but sometimes, as someone that’s close to them, you may feel more invested in their health than they do! Again, that’s ok because it means you care.
And, even though your brother may not share the same enthusiasm for their own health that you do, that’s ok, too! It’s because their priorities are different. And that just means they’re human. But don’t give up on him.
Taking Other People's Advice
So, let’s take a step back and think about it this way. It takes a lot for someone to actually take someone else’s advice.
Think about the last time someone took your advice – not just health advice – ANY advice. Maybe you were asked by a friend about the relationship with their partner, or where and how to invest their money, whether they should apply to a new job, whatever. Really think about it.
Did they make eye contact with you while you were giving advice to them? Did they actually listen… or just argue with you the whole time? Most importantly, by the end of the conversation, did they actually follow your advice?
Ok, now think of it this way: when was the last time you acted on someone else’s advice? When you did act on their advice, what was it about their message that convinced you to actually follow their advice? And again, I’m talking ANY behavior – not just a health behavior.
Feeling Less Than and Flawed
The simple act of listening to someone else tell you what to do automatically makes us feel as if we are less than. We have to admit that we are flawed and need to improve. That’s not easy to admit.
Then, if you have their attention and they listen to your arguments as to why they should be following a healthier lifestyle, they may say things in response like, “Oh, it’s easier for you to follow a healthy lifestyle because you enjoy working out,” or “You’re younger than me,” or “You don’t suffer from such and such ailment,” or “You have more time”… I have heard all of these reasons.
Try Not to Get Defensive
But, the trick is this: when having this conversation with them, try not to get defensive. Don’t engage in and say things like, “Hey bro, I understand, I’m busy, too…” Instead, let them vent. Listen to them. Ask follow-up questions.
If they say, “Well, of course you see results because you actually enjoy all of this healthy stuff”… you can respond with, “You’re right, I do enjoy this. But what can I do to help you enjoy this, too?”
So, instead of trying to get them to understand, you listen and understand them first. Ask them about their goals in life. They might have a witty response and say something like, “Well, my goal is to be able sit in a hammock all day drinking martinis”… Of course, you can chuckle at this cheesy joke, but then bring them back to reality and ask, “How will you spend the rest of your day?”
Here’s why this approach is so important – you’re giving them a choice. By giving them a choice, you’re making it clear that you care about them as a person, you care about their goals and understand their needs before giving advice.
Breaking Down Resistance
This starts to break down any resistance they may be feeling. Even after all this, they still seem uninterested, you could say something like, “I understand that a lifestyle change doesn’t sound all that great, but may I share something with you?” Notice, you don’t go right into all the reasons why they have to start a diet and lose weight right this very second.
Instead, you ask permission to share your thoughts. It empowers them and makes them feel like you really care about them. So, after they give you permission to share your thoughts (and they will almost always say, “Yes”), you can express how much you care about them.
Think about how this message differs from what your brother is likely to hear from everyone else. In my experience, individuals like your brother have probably heard the same lecture from others, their healthcare providers especially, about how they need to change their lifestyle as soon as possible or face the consequences. But if you ask them about their motivations and how they feel about the process – now, they’re not just taking orders from you, they’re involved in the process. You show that you really care and aren’t just going to be one more person that tells them what to do and how to live.
Helping Someone Who's Overweight: Conclusion
The last thing I’ll mention is that, the reason many are hesitant to incorporate healthier habits is because they fear they will lose something. They may be afraid that they will have to give up all of their favorite foods and eat foods that don’t taste good. They have to give up some of their precious time to do something really uncomfortable, like exercise. It feels like a lot of sacrifices.
To get past this, encourage your brother to make a pros and cons list – don’t call it a pros and cons list – maybe come up with a catchier name. But basically, ask him to first write down the reasons why following his old habits is beneficial in the short-term, like over the next 6 months.
Ask him why following his old habits is beneficial over the long-term, like the next 5 years.
Then, have him write down why following a healthier lifestyle would be beneficial in the short-term.
Then, you guessed it, why following a healthier lifestyle would be beneficial over the long-term. Notice how we ended on the positive.
The bottom line is this: show your brother that you are there for them and that you care. Turn the traditional discussion on its head. By asking your brother to express their motivations and what they hope to achieve will motivate and empower them. And, even if you get resistance and they don’t seem interested in your help, don’t give up on them.