Peer Pressure

How can I buck my colleagues’ efforts to discourage me from losing weight?

Q. In my workplace most people are complacent about being overweight. They are discouraging my efforts to lose weight and even trying to sabotage my diet. What can I do?

A. The phenomenon you describe is remarkably common. Very often a person who wants to improve is ridiculed by others. They may claim that he sees himself as better than others, or that he is displaying disdain for their customs.

Of course these claims may sometimes be true. It is important to act in a non-judgmental way in order not to alienate ourselves from our peers. Even in the case of genuinely unethical behavior, a judgmental attitude is almost always counterproductive. In the case of imprudent habits, such an attitude is belittling and really improper.

But it is also common for peers to sabotage even completely private attempts at self-improvement. A lot of people are aware that that they could be doing more to improve themselves, but they don’t want to be reminded of it. They prefer to keep challenges “out of sight and out of mind.”

The first step is to remain firm in your commitment to self-improvement, and to ignore the taunts of your colleagues without creating conflict.

The authoritative Code of Jewish law, written by Rabbi Yosef Karo with glosses by Rabbi Moshe Isserles, is called the Shulchan Arukh. In the very first paragraph of this work, Rabbi Isserles writes: “A person shouldn’t be ashamed of others who mock him in his service of God.” And Rabbi Karo (in another work) adds: “Even so he shouldn’t argue with them, because insolence is a blameworthy trait and unsuitable for use in God’s service.”

While you must strive to avoid conflict, you don’t need to condone any kind of improper behavior. Jewish tradition condemns such condoning as a kind of flattery. Just don’t make a fuss and don’t set yourself up as a judge of others’ behavior, for good or for bad.

A second step you should try to make is to find even one other person in your workplace who will identify with your plight. Perhaps there is someone who has tried to lose weight in the past, or to advance his or her education, etc. A famous 1950’s research study by psychologist Solomon Asch showed that having even one ally can enormously improve a person’s ability to stand up to peer pressure.

This insight is found in the Scripture: “Two are better than one, as they have a good reward for their efforts. For if they should fall, the one can pick up his fellow; but if one falls down alone, there is no one to pick him up. . . And if one person can overcome him, two can stand against him; and the threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9,11).

You should be determined to continue in your efforts at self-improvement despite the taunts of your co-workers. At the same time, you must convince yourself and them that your efforts are not a way of judging them, but only your own way of moving forward in life.

If you can get even one other co-worker to demonstrate a commitment or at least an encouraging attitude towards facing life’s challenges, instead of shirking them, you will find your own efforts much easier and will have a much better chance of slowly convincing your other colleagues that with a little effort, personal growth is possible for all of us.