How to Ignore Pessimistic Family and Friends

[Every Tuesday I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun. This week’s question is from Gord, with 39 votes]

How can dreamers and young entrepreneurs ignore pessimistic family and friends? Many dreams get snuffed when friends and family are wildly unsupportive. The awkward dinner chats are anything but helpful when your life’s vision means not becoming a dutiful employee.

Negative voices don’t sound as loud if they are not the only ones you listen to. Of the people you know, one will be more supportive than the others and it’s your job to figure out who that is and reach out to them to get the support you need.

It’s important to remember that change is scary for most people. When your family hears you talk about making a change they subconsciously experience their own fears. And since they care about you they naturally project their fears in your direction. It’s partially out of love that they’re not being as supportive as you’d like. From Changing Your Life Is Not A Midlife Crisis:

To see a friend change is scary because it challenges the assumptions we have about ourselves. To watch a friend find a new career, partner or city forces us to question why we’re not doing the same, questions we spend most days trying not to ask.

You will need to do something to wake them up out of their default answers. It will take work for them to see that their own fears, and dreams, aren’t necessarily yours. And it will take work for you to see that despite your dreams, some of their concerns might be valid enough to consider. You likely have your own defensive habits that you fall back into when challenged, which helps your family see you as the person you were, not the person you’re trying to become.

To shake people out of their habitual thoughts, try communicating in a different medium. The family dinner table is a poor place to get people to understand your deepest feelings. Instead of being cornered during a meal, take the initiative. Make an appointment with your mother, father or friend to talk privately. Have the discussion on your terms: “Dad, I know you want the best for me. But I’ve thought hard about this. This is something I want to do with my life. I want your support but will do it without it if I have to.”

Change the conversation to be about what good support means to you and explicitly request it. You’ll be surprised how a change in how the conversation happens changes people’s responses. Often people respond to tough conversations better in other mediums. Trying writing a personal letter that explains how you feel. No one can interrupt a letter. You’ll also be forced to think more clearly about what you feel and what you want to say by writing it down. If you don’t like writing, make a video message. Unlike dinner conversation, you can practice making a video until you’re satisfied with how you express yourself.

Sometimes people need to see how fully committed you are before they’ll see you and your dreams differently. You might need to start working on your dream before anyone else will take your seriously. Talk is just talk, but if you start taking steps towards your dream, reducing your expenses, moving to a more affordable apartment, going back to school, or even quitting your job, it will be harder to dismiss you and your dream.

But don’t see your goal as simply learning to ignore your friends and family. Knowing who your Doubting Thomas is can be an asset. There will be good questions and critical feedback you will need to hear to be successful, but if everyone around you is pathologically supportive you won’t hear those things. You want to have a balance of support, some emotional, some logical, some supportive, some doubting, that combined helps you both emotionally and practically. A wise critic is an asset provided they are not your primary source of encouragement.

Don’t see friends and family as confining your life. If you are an adult you have the power to redefine any relationship you have. You can work to make any relationship healthier, deeper, narrower or wider. But it is work (Start with books like Difficult Conversations). You can also commit yourself to making new friends who have more respect for your ambitions. From Should I Quit My Job Now:

Find your support team. Ask your friends, your spouse, your colleagues, and find a small group of people who will support you and help you out as you start this new thing. You will need to know who can help when need it, who will encourage you and who will give you tough feedback you need to hear. Line up your support team before you make the leap.  It might surprise you how people react to your decision, so sort it out early. You may be surprised by who commits to helping you and who only resists.

Redefining your relationships is a good first step towards an independent life: you will face many situations where your ability to relate to people will be tested. You will have to make decisions without enough information, money or time. You will need to decide who to trust, and when, and how to earn the trust of others. If you’re blocked on what your mother thinks of your decisions, how will you handle the relationship challenges of running a company? The sooner you learn how to make your own choices, and take responsibility for the consequences, the better your life will be.


10 Responses to “How to Ignore Pessimistic Family and Friends”

  1. Tyler

    Awesome piece Scott. Its difficult for many people to communicate their dreams to others in a way that seems logical. Changing the setting for the conversation is a huge one I would certainly have overlooked. Taking the actions to achieve that dream would be (to me at least) furthering my belief in myself before convincing others. Allot of good stuff in there.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Tyler. It’s hard for me to remember sometimes, but if I’m not feeling heard it might be the way I’m saying it, or when and how I’m saying it that’s the problem, rather than the other person.

  2. Greg

    Loved this. I wish i had known this as a young adult. Its still an incredibly useful reminder. Thank you and i shall remind others of this.

  3. Alex.

    Great article, has made me question if I’m making assumptions about peoples motivations around me.

  4. John

    This is so damn relevant and way bigger than most people realize. As a quick personal story, coincidentally my book just came out. It’s a highly secular look at the world and my in-laws are literally more Catholic than the Pope. I kept it away from them for many years and they just now found out about it. They are the sweetest people you could imagine, but they were shocked and upset. I saw this coming from day one. I think this is also an approach to just do your thing and not tell anyone. My very supportive aunt, who also had no idea, asked me why I didn’t tell her. And my answer is that you have nothing until you have something. In my experience I don’t like talking about my activities until I have something interesting to show for my efforts. And at that point, it is hard for anyone to dismiss them.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks John. Interesting that being an author has put you in this position. My book about my family didn’t change very much – they knew about it, or at least enough, but then again my family had enough problems on its own that a book perhaps couldn’t land that hard anyway.

      I’m inspired by your story. I’m not sure I could publish a book if I knew for certain people I cared about would be upset by in. I’m not saying I couldn’t do it, but as I haven’t put myself there I don’t know.

      1. John

        Scott, your book is way more ballsy than mine. I don’t talk about my in-laws, I only talk about things they would rather not hear. In The Ghost of My Father, you’re talking quote openly about your family members. So, that’s on another level. I wouldn’t have the guts to do that.

  5. Sean Crawford

    Like John, I keep things close to my chest.

    I feel dumb talking about what “I’m gonna do” and I feel quite alright talking about what I have just done. This applies to all areas of my life. While I am super reliable to others, including socially (not just business) I don’t want to be publicly accountable to what I’ve said to myself, and my own dreams. You never know what can go unexpected.

    Working since last Easter, I am on track to have a manuscript submitted mid summer, it will be a delightful topic to tell everyone about, I enjoy the thought of telling, but almost no one knows my topic just now. It will keep.

    As for relatives at supper, I think I would only tell my concrete successes and compliments of, say, just the last season. I said “I think,” I don’t really know. My relatives, in general, would show themselves uninterested in my little wins, let alone my big plans or big dreams.

    In my journal I can put all the little concrete victories that, in an alternate universe, I would be able to go home and happily tell my mom and Dad. In this universe, I can’t.

  6. Vannak Eng

    I hope some people who are caring much about pessimistic comment from their friends see this post so that they will make their lives happier.


  7. John

    I try to rid myself of negative people as much as possible, to the point that now I’ll just do it automatically. The way I see it, there’s no way having someone negative in your life can be a good thing.


Leave a Reply

* Required