New Directions

Permission to Change

Change

A woman I knew in high school sent me an email recently to tell me how much she enjoys reading this blog. “I wish I’d known you better in the old days!” she wrote. “I feel like you were the kind of smart friend I needed back then.”

I thanked her for her kind words about She Dwells. But then I confessed, “I don’t know that I would have been such a great friend in high school. I was 18 too, back then.”

The kind of change that takes place in our lives over the course of a day or a year is less visible to us than the changes we go through over long periods of time–as we age from 18 to 53-almost-54, for example. But in spite of the fact that we might not notice it happening, change is constant. It’s taking place every single day. Every time we learn a lesson or have a tiny moment of revelation.

That’s why I’m always surprised by people who find change, big or small, so alarming that they meet it with resistance.

You know the people I’m talking about: the ones who simply cannot believe that you’re volunteering for a political campaign this year. “You’ve never been interested in politics before!” they insist. Or the ones who scoff at the news that you’ve started going to church. “Please. You don’t just suddenly become a Christian,” they claim. Or the ones who, seeing you’ve lost weight, predict it’s only a matter of time before you gain it all back.

Like a lot of women, I’ve struggled with weight issues all my life. For the last 10 years or so, though, I’ve managed to keep my weight in a healthy range. I’m also maintaining a pretty consistent exercise routine. And yet, any time I see a friend who lives in a faraway city–or any time she sees a photo of me–she expresses surprise. “I can’t believe you’re still so slim!” she’ll say, or something along that line. When I told her I’d taken up running some years ago, she asked my husband for verification. “She actually runs? You’ve seen her?”

At some point, most of us learn that we can’t change other people. But it often takes even longer to learn that we’re allowed to change anything we want to about ourselves. That’s true no matter how others choose to respond. But others’ resistance to the changes we make sometimes leave us questioning our decisions.  I know I’ve wondered whether I’m making “real” transformations–if it’s even possible to change our lives in meaningful, permanent ways.

Resistance to change is what the American author Ralph Waldo Emerson was talking about when he wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” in his essay “Self-Reliance.” He was talking about our tendency to view changes in ourselves as hypocrisy, not growth. Sometimes, for instance, we change our minds because we have new information, or new experience to draw from. We might hesitate to express a new opinion, though. We might fear that someone who knew us to be of a different mind will think we’re being dishonest now.

“Foolish consistency” shapes the way others see us, too. It’s at the heart of their resistance to the changes they see. If what they’re seeing isn’t consistent with what they already think they know–well, what they’re seeing can’t be real. It has to be a passing phase. Or, worse yet, a deception.

There are lots of reasons why people react negatively to the changes they see in us. For instance, they might have benefited from the person you’ve been in the past. If you’re the friend with whom someone eats pizza and watches movies on Friday nights, your new devotion to exercise and healthier eating has implications for their routine. On the other hand, they might be afraid that this change on your part suggests a judgement. If you’re not sitting around eating pizza anymore, maybe you think your friend shouldn’t be doing it, either. (Whether or not you actually think this is another matter. The implication that you might is enough to provoke some resistance.)

Then too, they might dislike what this change reveals: if you’ve made a change, that means they can as well. And maybe they really don’t want to. Maybe they’re afraid to even try. This makes your change all the more unwelcome, because it reveals their own behavior to be a choice. That makes it more difficult to say “This is just who I am.”

Any time a friend or family member responds to a change with disbelief–says, for instance, “You used to love chocolate!” when I remind them that I don’t like it all that much anymore–I try to have a sense of humor about it. I say something like, “Yeah, well, I used to love the Bay City Rollers, too.” They don’t usually mean the observation to be an insult, so I try not to treat it that way. It’s more difficult to maintain good humor when someone is clearly determined to prove that a change isn’t real–that you’re not committed to it or, worse yet, that it’s a lie.

Meaningful change is challenging in the best of circumstances. If you’re dealing with someone whose resistance is making it even more difficult, it’s worth considering the ways you can minimize the time you spend around them. At the very least, it’s worth a conversation about how you feel when someone devalues the changes you’re committed to making.

6 Comments

  • Reply Jennifer Ludwigsen March 1, 2016 at 3:00 pm

    It can be really hard to deal with people’s flippant comments – it’s almost a bit judgmental, you know? And I know they don’t mean it, they love you, but I definitely think the little green monster of jealousy comes into play here,…misery loves company and when someone sees you experiencing happiness without them, not only do they feel left out, they feel almost abandoned. NOT your issue, though….their issue. This is part of the reason why I like that most of my friends think I am completely insane – nothing shocks them anymore 🙂 And I like that 🙂

    • Reply Pam March 1, 2016 at 3:50 pm

      I definitely think jealousy has something to do with this resistance (at least sometimes.) But, as you’ve pointed out, that’s not the problem of the person who’s trying to grow. Even if it sometimes feels like it is.

  • Reply Nicole February 24, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    This is very helpful to hear – I have also struggled with weight issues and have pretty dramatically changed the way I eat… to eye rolls from my mother, complaints from my husband.. it’s hard when those closest to you don’t understand or embrace the way you are trying to change. I would get just as exasperated with them – I never thought to try a sense of humor approach. I’ll let you know how it works!

    • Reply Pam February 24, 2016 at 7:41 pm

      Well, I’m not always successful at maintaining a sense of humor at these moments. 😉 But it helps when the person in question is willing to laugh along with me.

  • Reply sjbraun February 24, 2016 at 11:11 am

    Such a thought-provoking read! I too have heard from people I used to know that “we could have been such good friends,” but yeah — I’m thinking, I wasn’t the same at 18 as at 50 🙂 I admire your openness to change. I find that the older I get, in many ways, the harder it is to change and the more nostalgic I become.

    • Reply Pam February 24, 2016 at 7:43 pm

      I think change is always challenging–but, perhaps because I know that, one thing I’m noticing as I get older is that I’m more willing to accept others’ attempts to grow in new directions. I really admire people who are willing to try something new at 50+!

    Go ahead, tell me what you think.