Martha Beck
Photo: Thinkstock
Imagine this: You're putting together a nifty jigsaw puzzle—say, your favorite Elvis montage painting on black velvet—when one of the pieces suddenly morphs into an entirely different shape. Aside from the unnerving quantum-mechanical implications of this event, you've got a problem—the surrounding pieces no longer fit. You could try to alter those pieces (a troubling prospect, since it will require distorting all the ones around them) or give up on the puzzle entirely—unless, of course, you could get the little sucker to resume its former shape and size.

This sort of situation arises in every human life. We live in social systems—families and neighborhoods, offices and nations—that call for continuous, complex interconnection. Any person who undergoes a dramatic shift creates a ripple effect, requiring change from others around her. The fact that you're reading this suggests that you're inclined toward personal growth. I'm guessing you've been this way for years, whether it's a trait you celebrate every day or a dirty secret you ruminate over while churning butter with your Amish kinfolk. The problem, as you may have noticed, is that not everyone you know, love, or work with is overjoyed to tread the path of change along with you.

Because we are a species that fears the unknown, most people reject the continuous transformation that is human reality and try to lock others into predictable behavior. "Promise me that you'll never change," lovers whisper to one another, though only a model from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum could keep such an enormous promise. In short, anyone who thinks new thoughts or does new deeds is likely to garner disapproval and criticism from someone.

How to Handle a Change-Back Attack


Women who are undergoing changes are likely to experience "change back" messages from their nearest and dearest. The messages come in many forms: sabotage, cold silence, shouted insults, refusal to cooperate. But all convey just one idea: "I don't like what you've done. Go back to being the way you were." This might seem baffling in the face of positive achievements like losing weight, falling in love, or learning new ideas.

But change-back attackers aren't really thinking about the person they're pressuring. They're fighting for their lives—or at least life as they know it. These people are motivated not only by their own fear of change but by the pressure of other "puzzle pieces" that surround them. The force of a change-back attack has the weight of all those relationships. Resist successfully, and you may end up affecting people you'll never meet.

First, a basic attitude adjustment: Most people who are on the receiving end of change-back messages go into fits of guilt or defensiveness, then revert to familiar behaviors. This, of course, is exactly what the disgruntled party wants. Part of every personal evolution strategy should be a determination to greet these messages with pride and joy, as a sure sign you're making progress. Call a friend, a therapist, a fellow self-improvement devotee, and report the good news: "Guess what? I just got six blowbacks in one conversation! I must really be making progress!" Once you've made this attitudinal shift, you're ready for a systematic defense.

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