I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a high school classmate about a few months after graduating from college.
It had been a while since we’d spoken, and while we were friendly, I wouldn’t consider us that close, so I was pleasantly surprised when she called me out of the blue to see how I was doing.
I don’t remember all of our conversation, although the gist of what we talked about was what we were doing now that we’d graduated. I was working for a non-profit agency working with the elderly and she was also working with a non-profit agency as an educator in an inner-city school.
When she lamented on her struggles and disappointments with her current position, I offered what I thought was a hopeful and encouraging statement to ease some of her feelings. This was her reply:
“Wow! You’ve changed!”
To this day, I still think about this statement of hers. “You’ve changed.” Well, aren’t we supposed to as we get older, wiser, and mature?
In that moment, and to this day, I find myself thinking about the subliminal message behind her statement.
“You weren’t like this before. You were always complaining.” Or something to that effect.
And it could be true, that’s what she thought. Or not. I’ll never know unless I ask.
Yet it got me thinking: What’s so wrong with change? Why are we so resistant to others changing? What do we do when OTHERS won’t let us change?
As a therapist, I am in the business of change. I don’t work with individuals who don’t want to change, although maybe they feel like it’s hard and they struggle to make and sustain positive changes. But I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t believe people could, can, and choose, to change.
What I’ve seen to be one of the biggest hurdles to change isn’t actually ourselves. When we make a decision and commit to it, we’re unstoppable.
One of the biggest hurdles on our journey to self-improvement and change is OTHER PEOPLE IN OUR LIVES.
Think about it. How many times have you wanted to change up your hairstyle, or your look, do your makeup a little differently, or start eating healthier.
What has the response from family, friends, and co-workers been like?
“Wow! You look different!”
“You’ve lost a lot of weight!”
“That’s a new look!”
In my youth I went through a phase where I loved grunge and punk music, studded belts, plaid, and heavy eyeliner. This was in sharp contrast to what I was allowed to wear at school (button downs, little to no makeup, although the plaid was still prominent).
One time when getting together with friends outside of school I decided to go for it; layer on that eyeliner, get that studded belt out, channel your inner Avril Lavigne!
Can you guess what my friends said?
“Wow! You look different!” and “That’s a new look!”
And I don’t think I ever did my make-up like that or wore that type of outfit again until I went to college, away from my high school friends, and I could really change up my style without anyone noticing.
So, why are others standing in the way of our change?
- We can’t separate ourselves from our behavior
- We’re having difficulty owning our change
- Our change challenges them
We can’t separate ourselves from our behavior
We’re all human. We mess up, we make mistakes, we act and behave in ways we are embarrassed by and later regret.
And we hold onto that. We characterize ourselves by our behavior.
“I was a drunk.”
“I was a spoiled kid.”
“I was a terrible mother.”
And how we see ourselves is how others in our lives begin to see us too. Partially from our past behaviors and actions and partially from a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is especially a big concern when part of our past behavior involved drug or alcohol abuse.
Our friends and loved ones can start to question every change in our behavior, especially if it reminds them of how we acted when under the influence.
While it’s true we can’t change the past or what we did, we can forgive ourselves, ask others for forgiveness, and concentrate our efforts on changing our behavior daily.
In the Buddhist tradition, they offer a way to purify negative karma through the practice of meditating on regret for our negative actions, reliance on a higher power to guide us, remedying our negative actions with positive actions, and resolving to not repeat these same actions.
Whatever spiritual practice you choose to follow, looking at the Buddhist way of purifying karma offers a beautiful insight into our power and ability to change and release ourselves from our past behavior.
Being able to separate ourselves from our past behavior allows us to take the next step of owning our change.
We’re having difficulty owning our change
Change is a beautiful and scary thing. When we set out on the path to change we make new commitments and sacrifices to support this change.
Anyone who’s ever gone on a diet can attest to this. You make the commitment to lose weight, to exercise more than you eat, and watch your portions and indulgence in junk food.
What do you think happens when that person goes out with friends, to a bar, or a brewery, with a food truck?
Do they cheat on their diet? If they’re having difficulty owning their change, then yes.
When we own our change we can really stand strong in saying what we want, don’t want, what we will, or won’t do, and we won’t let anyone or anything pressure us into sliding back into our old ways.
This is hard to do when the people we’ve been surrounded by for most of your life see us one way, expect us to continue acting in a certain way, and test our boundaries when we act differently.
We may even be guilty of doing this to others in our lives, without even realizing it. We’ve come to know them as a certain way and expect them to continue behaving as such.
Maybe you have that one friend you can always go out to eat or drink with. Or that one friend you know you can always call to gossip about something.
Imagine how you might respond if one day you called them up to invite them out for your favorite shared activity, only to hear, “No thanks, I’ve changed.”
Or maybe something like this has already happened to you. How did you feel?
Sometimes the hardest part of change is not the sacrifices of sleep, or sweets, or even time that we make in order to achieve our goals. Sometimes, it’s the people we have to distance ourselves from because we know they no longer support our goals.
When we really own our change and know we’re doing it for a greater good (lowering our cholesterol, meditating to control our anger, etc.) we can lovingly look at those individuals in our lives who hold us back and begin the process of saying “Good-bye”.
Our Change Challenges Them
I’ll stick with the diet analogy because it’s the easiest to visualize and draw comparisons.
When you see someone who you once felt was at an undesirable weight is now at a weight you find attractive, how do you feel? Be honest.
If you’re comfortable with your appearance, you may not even give them a second glance! Or maybe you say, “Good for them for working on their goals!”
For some of us, our immediate emotional response is jealousy.
How did they do it? How did they do it so quickly? Why can they do it and I can’t?
We begin to compare ourselves to them and that’s something that never feels good, no matter what the comparison is about.
And sometimes, when we see someone achieve the things we’re hoping to achieve (weight loss, financial success, happiness, etc.) we can begin to heap loads of self-criticism on ourselves.
If they can do it, surely I must be able to. So, why haven’t I?
So, the next time someone confronts you about a change you’re trying to make, or have already made, before you react, stop to ask yourself what might be coming up for them as they face this new version of you.
Maybe they’re jealous of your change. Maybe they wish they could do what you’re doing. Maybe they’re worried about how this will impact your relationship. Whatever the reasons, chances are it has very little to do about you personally and much more about them.
It doesn’t excuse their behavior. It just helps you to approach the situation with a little more love and empathy. And when you can do that, the situation might turn out a little more positive than you anticipated.
Feel like you’re trying to change and grow and the people in your life just won’t let you? Or feel like feelings of shame over your past behavior are preventing you from really embracing the present and moving forward? Let’s see if I can help. Send me an EMail at [email protected] or call me at 561-331-1715.