I sent the letter below to my newsletter group and got flooded with multiple responses telling me how much this information helped them.  To make this information more accessible, I turned this into a blog post which you can share.  Clearly it hit a nerve since so many of us struggle to get our loved ones to do the right thing.  My intent is to help relieve some of the stress you feel in caring for others and to provide some tips and strategies that may help get your message across to loved ones in a more effective and compassionate manner.

My Letter

Dear Friends,

On a recent drive to Bakersfield to visit my mother, I started thinking about the frustration so many of us feel when family members or those close to us don’t listen to our health advice, even though we have the best of intentions.  This might be your spouse or significant other, it could be a parent, or perhaps your own child.  You are doing a ton of research and know what’s best for this person, but you have been labeled a “nagger.”  You can’t get him or her to eat healthier, exercise more, or see the doctor, the dentist, etc.

Then something magical happens.  Someone else (a doctor, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker, etc.) provides the exact same advice and all of a sudden your loved one listens.  Your loved one comes back to you and says, “hey I’m thinking of trying intermittent fasting,” even though you have recommended the same thing for the past 2 years.  You feel like hitting your head against a wall!  Sound familiar?

What is it about the delivery of health advice from a family member that creates so much resistance?  Our family members are not just a source of love.  Most of us have endured a complex mixture of love, pain, suffering, criticism and other emotions that are blended into these relationships and create highly sensitive areas.  I refer to relationships in a bullseye pattern like the one below:



The center red zone are the sensitivities and insecurities each of us carry with us that are due both to conscious past events and subconscious events we aren’t even aware of and haven’t been able to process.  Our immediate family often sits in the white circle closest to the target red zone.

Advice and words that seem harmless to you, can set off an emotional storm just given your proximity to the highly sensitive red zone.

The rings that are more distant from the red zone might be friends or coworkers and then the outer most rings are professional or objective observers like a physician, a therapist, or a spiritual leader.  They have the unique advantage of being able to communicate advice similar to yours, but they are a safe distance from the danger zone.  Similar words, but no emotional storm.

We also tend to not be so gentle with our approach because our family is too familiar.  I experience this during consults with couples where I see aggressive body language and harsh tones of criticism and frustration from spouses who can’t get their loved ones to change.  I often have to intervene and tell them to stay neutral or even better, take on a supportive tone to help the patient.

I’m not immune to this.  My wife Shally will often tell me to do things that I know objectively are good for me, but there are sometimes different sensations and emotions that arise in my body and mind that may make me feel more defensive than if a friend or a colleague told me the same thing.  This is not abnormal.  It’s a sign that we are extremely close and have gone through so much, that it’s inevitable that advice delivered in either direction can open up older wounds and sensitivities.

Speaking of sensitivities, one of the worst things you can say to a loved one is “you’re too sensitive.”  That rarely goes over well and sensitivity is just a side effect of the closeness and intimacy you have with your loved one.  I think this is an important way to positively reframe “sensitivity” and proximity to the red zone.  Being close to someone’s red zone is a privileged space, but it comes along with its challenges.

Those closest to our hearts are also closest to our wounds, and it’s impossible to delicately sidestep these emotional land mines with the ones we love and care about so deeply.

What’s the point of me discussing all of this?  The health of our loved ones can create a lot of stress for each of us, which in turn affects our own wellbeing.  I’m sharing these observations to let you know you are not alone and this is a universal problem.  A few tips that might help.

  • Find a change agent.  Do your research and find a doctor, a dietitian, a health coach, a therapist, a trainer, or some wellness provider who might be aligned with your message but has the advantage of not being a family member.  The bad news is that this may cost you money.  The good news is these health advocates are growing in number and can be accessed live or remotely from any part of the world.  Think of the cost of these services as an investment because the returns are improved physical and mental health for your loved one.  Most of us spend far more money on frivolous material items and services that don’t do anything to benefit our mental and physical health.
  • Change your tone.  Many of us are intrinsically harsh and critical when we give advice to family and aren’t even aware of it.  You might think you are using the right words, but your loved one has a mental filter that translates your words into messages like “he’s calling me fat, she’s calling me lazy, etc.”
  • Change yourself.  Optimal health is contagious.  I have many theories around this based on science, cell membrane signaling, and energetics which I can delve into later.  Right now I can tell you that when I am in mental and physical balance, it changes the energy of the entire household.  On the other hand, when I’m tense and stressed, it contaminates the atmosphere.  Some nights when I wake up at night with thoughts brewing in my head, I go to a separate room and breathe and meditate and calm myself.  One of my intentions is to quiet my mind and also transmit that peace through the walls to my family and beyond.  I can swear to you that after doing this for a long time, it inevitably does change things for not just me, but everyone around me.  This has motivated me to do it more often because what used to feel like an individual practice has collective benefit.
  • Never say these four words.  If you find a change agent or your loved ones make a change that was motivated by some outside change agent, do not say the following four words: “I Told You So.”  This never helps the situation and will only distance your loved one even more from future words of advice.  You are allowed to think those words, but instead show genuine love and support for the change they are taking on.  Yes, you’ve been trying to get them to eat healthier for years and a single friend or other change agent was able to shift their mind in one conversation, so you just want to rub it in and say “I’ve been telling you that already” or “see, I told you so.”  You’re just trying to satiate your ego and prove to your loved one that you were right and they were wrong all along.  Not a good move.  Let it go and cheer that person on!
  • Just let it go.  Acknowledge there are just so many things you can change about your loved one.  I know this is hard and it may feel like you’re giving up on that person, but you may actually be setting them free.  I know it’s hard to accept this, but our overzealous efforts to make a loved one healthier often results in the opposite effect.  Keep telling a couch potato spouse to exercise more and he/she may want to be even more sedentary.  Tell a teenager to spend less time on the screen and they will want to spend more time on it.  Toddlers, teenagers, and grown adults often have an inclination to defy authority, which in this case is you, and they may be doing exactly the opposite of what you are prescribing.  You taking on an attitude of detachment just might allow your loved one to have a little space and freedom to hopefully find their own unique road to wellness.  You might also feel lighter after taking some or all of this burden off your own shoulders.  Again, be an example and support them wholeheartedly with whatever progress they make, and PLEASE avoid the dreaded “four words” I just went over.

My late father was an ardent meditator.  He would ask me to sit in his study every Thursday morning before school to hear him recite the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit.  I would roll my eyes and listen reluctantly.  Now it has been nearly 14 years since his passing and I find myself hearing those same words while I sit and meditate.  His influence and impact on me was not through mere words, but through his actions.  One of the most famous (and overused) quotes from Mahatma Gandhi is “be the change you wish to see in the world.”  When it comes to our loved ones, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned, as a son and a parent, is to be the change we want to see in the ones you love.

Wishing you peace and good health,