Whether we’re trying to quit smoking, drinking or drugging, eat healthier, lose weight, exercise more or argue less, there is often the tendency to embark on these projects “with” others. We are fortunate to have programs like AA and Weight Watchers, gyms, yoga classes and group therapy, where we can go to work on our personal goals among likeminded individuals. Similarly, sometimes members of a couple try to help each other work on self-improvement projects “together.”

We vs I

“Let’s try to lose weight this summer, OK?” “We should really cut back on our drinking, don’t you think?” “I think we should stop smoking weed after we get married.” “We need to work on our communication.” These sound like healthy statements made by people who are serious about making a change. While the support of others can be invaluable as we strive for a healthier lifestyle, there are also some risks inherent in trying to work on a self-improvement project “with” others.

The red flag is that the subjects of the sentences are plural rather then singular. The problem is the use of “we” instead of “I.” This is not a grammatical problem, but one of true ownership and intention.

With or without you

It’s one thing to say “Let’s stop eating fast food and start cooking more” and an entirely different thing to say “I decided to stop eating fast food and cook more and if you want to do join me, that would be great.” The couple who says “We’ve decided to stop smoking the first of the month” may have less success than the individual who says “I’ve decided to quit smoking the first of the month.”

It can be extremely beneficial to work on these projects along side others who are working on the same. But it is crucial that each individual own the project one hundred percent. Even though you may benefit from working on this project in the presence of others, on some level, it must ultimately be a solo project, not a group project. Indeed there is a certain kind of togetherness going on, but more important, there is a necessary separateness happening at the same time.

Stay the course

Without the separateness and full ownership of the solo project, you are more likely to cave when you buddy caves. “You’re having ice cream?! I thought we said we weren’t having ice cream anymore! OK, I’ll have a cone.” But with the clear understanding that this was never a joint project in the first place, you have the option to say, “If you want to, go ahead and have your ice cream (or drink, cigarette, joint or tantrum) but I’m sticking with the program.”

The trick is to use the support of the group energy when it is positive and uplifting, but to be able to ignore members of the group who may begin to stray, and have the inner resolve to keep yourself on track. This is not at all easy. There may be moments of darkness, doubt and utter aloneness when you may be in the presence of others, but face to face with only yourself. With the awareness of the difference between a solo project and a joint project, you can choose to embrace the former and increase your chances of success.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

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