You've lost weight. Or you're marrying the man of your dreams. Or you're studying Chinese and planning a trip to Beijing. Why is everybody in your life acting so weird? Martha Beck tells how to deal with the people who just can't let go of the old you.
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.
Begin Your Systematic Defense
Step 1: Pay respectful attention. When someone launches a change-back attack against you, refrain from resisting or submitting; just pay attention. Remember that whether you realize it or not, your actions may be forcing this friend to either make personal alterations or give up on "fitting" with you. Noticing their fear may calm you, and this may go a long way toward calming them.
If someone comes at you with a direct, obstreperous argument, try these unexpected, attentive responses: "Tell me." "I'm listening." "I hear you." "Say a little bit more on that." Attentiveness is a mobile, fluid stance that allows you to observe and respond without sustaining much damage. As Mark Twain said about doing right, it will gratify some people and astonish the rest.
Step 2: Take time to find your truth.
So you've paid attention. You know that the bag of bacon cheeseburgers on the table is just evidence that your loving husband is afraid he'll lose you. You've listened calmly as your angry teenager or judgmental parent lambasted you for your new achievements. Find a private moment for yourself. Now breathe and relax. Recall the chain of events that motivated your metamorphosis in the first place: the fat, the loneliness, the illumination. Honestly consider the feedback you've just received. Maybe it feels absolutely right; if so, reverse course. Maybe it's partly right. Fine, alter your direction. Or maybe the complaint is just plain wrong. In that case, you must keep going, trusting that the best gift you can offer others is the resolute embrace of your own truth.
Step 3: State your position for the record.
If your change-back attacker is sober and in a reasonably receptive frame of mind, you may want to respond to her argument. Even when you're dealing with a nasty, non-communicative person, stating your position may be a powerful step in your own development. It may not make the slightest impression on your unrelenting foes, but hearing the truth spoken in your own voice can clear your head and buoy your heart, at which point you'll have won the battle.
Vanquish Your Change-Back Attackers
Step 4: Unconditional Love There's a secret weapon in the change wars, one that can fill the gaps and soften the edges of our constantly morphing identities—and I don't mean leaving your whole social system or forcing others to conform to you at every moment in time. The answer is unconditional love, and I encourage you to use it with ruthless abandon.
You'll know you've vanquished your change-back attackers when you can love them completely without agreeing with them at all. You can't force this feeling—it will happen naturally when you're ready—but when it strikes, express it, without acquiescing to others' verbal jabs. Doing this cheerfully and unabashedly will confound your average saboteurs by giving them nothing to oppose.
At best, this approach will cause your adversaries to stop, ponder, and perhaps feel less scared of making their own improvements. At worst, it will render you flexible, able to fit in with many people and social systems without getting stuck in any one position. The more you claim your own destiny, the easier it will be to love unconditionally. The more you love, the more comfortably you'll fit in with all sorts of people. Ultimately, situations that once brought on horrendous change-back attacks, that once appeared to you as utterly unworkable puzzles, may end up barely fazing you at all.