Waiting for people to “change”

Going way back in my life, I remember waiting for people to change. Not usually arbitrary change. More typically it was change they told me they WANTED to make, were GOING to make, and so on. I was all ears. Great! They see the problem and they want to remedy it. They want to improve this issue. Make themselves better and — in either some or many instances — help our relationship in the doing.

It started, as many things do in childhood when my mother was always talking about “things changing.” The situation in our house wasn’t good, god knows, and there was plenty of room for improvement. She talked a good game. I believed her. I had a vision for a much better life myself. It was within reach, not the stuff of fluff and fantasy. We could do this as a family. Do I need to tell you nothing, ever, ever changed? Unless you count getting worse as change. No, I didn’t think so.

As I grew older and had relationships, I took this trait with me. Not to a one, but I came across my share of people who talked about change. Changing themselves. As I’d been with my mother, I was a gung ho cheerleader and sidekick. Things can be better! Won’t things be great WHEN…[insert “X”] happens. In my own way, much as it chagrins me, I was a True Believer. (I hesitate on that because I take a rather dim view of True Believers. When I say someone is one, I don’t typically mean “isn’t that a grand way to be.” No. It’s a way of explaining someone’s dogged pursuit. A single-minded vision that tends to overlook or block out anything that doesn’t really fit the picture. Cheerleading over iffy causes.)

Anyway, I know I was a key part of this dynamic. When people – some of them – became involved in relationships with me, started interacting with me, listening to my ideas and philosophies, they often started talking about “changing.” Again, I was all for it! This changing was invariably about eliminating a negative trait or behavior and improving themselves or their life in a meaningful way. Why, the solution was just around the bend! Things will sure be great when they – and by design, we – get there.

I must have been, consciously or not, directly or not, eliciting this response (to me). Which isn’t to necessarily say the people I’ve known weren’t ALSO talking to other people about changing, etcetera – I don’t know for certain – but I have to conclude I somehow prompted it in relating to me. It may have been a way to get or hold my attention. Sometimes people wanted my approval – telling me what they thought sounded good – which I saw or see only in retrospect.

Wanting people to improve themselves and/or to be happier, isn’t inherently a bad thing. So it’s not like a malicious intent. But misguided? Yes. It’s absolutely useless if the other person doesn’t genuinely want that – whatever “that” is in a particular instance – for themselves; if the idea doesn’t spring from something deep inside them. It’s not worth spit if you – i.e., *I* – am the only one really interested in the subject. If I’m the one propelling it, even indirectly.

It took me a long time to realize the above. That is, anything that’s going to have legs and last must be self-initiated. It’s all well and good (for me) to talk to other people, to introduce ideas, if only by example, but waiting for other people to change is a fool’s errand. Counting on it is a ticket to ride the Misery Moped – a comrade of the Bitter Bus – which you will ride alone.

My realization wasn’t sudden. It took years and evolved. I took all the maxims about the only changes that can be made are the ones you make for yourself, to heart. It wasn’t just about “them.” I took more of the energy I poured into other people and directed it my way. I became more conscious of how I affected people. My antennae went up whenever a person I knew or was getting to know started talking about “changing,” all the more so if it linked right back to me somehow.

Maybe a relatively benign story will help. I was seeing a man years back when I was becoming more conscious of this trait in myself (and wanting to CHANGE it). He was very smart, dry-humored, trustworthy. A basically good, if needy, man. However, decidedly into middle age, he wasn’t someone who took care of himself. He led a sedentary lifestyle, didn’t eat especially well, and was overweight. A big guy, not obese, but packing pounds. I, on the other hand, have for a long time, placed good health – exercise and eating right – at the front of my lifestyle.

His physical condition played a part in what we might do together – we certainly weren’t going for a run or rock climbing – but I never said a word to him about his weight or his eating habits. I didn’t talk about eating better or exercising more. It was a new day: I took him as I found him. I went on the idea that he was the way I saw him and anything I thought or decided in terms of our relationship would spring from that base.

Soon into our relationship though, he started talking about his weight. He volunteered that he’d lost a pound or two the previous week. (I don’t remember exactly what he attributed it to but it was an unreliable thing, not a lifestyle or philosophy change.) He made a point of announcing that if he kept up at this pace, he’d have lost 30 – or maybe it was 50 – pounds in such-and-so many weeks. Although I’d actively done nothing to incite it – other than to show up – I sensed that this talk was for my benefit.

That was confirmed in a follow-up conversation where he accused me of not being sufficiently encouraging of his weight loss plan. If I know me – and I think I do – I probably explained about the weight loss idea not really seeming like a goal of his and further, that I’d never said anything to him about his weight, so although it was presented as an offering of sorts, he wasn’t doing it for “me.” (I am reminded here of another man, who, soon after meeting me, announced he was going to “start working out.” I heard that proclamation from him a few more times until it dried up and was said no more.) And just to wrap up the story – so long as I knew him he never lost any weight or changed anything about his diet or lifestyle. And if he ever did after that, I surely don’t believe it would have anything to do with me.

I’d finally gotten it. The people I know and meet are usually in the vicinity of middle-age. I’ve stopped approaching people on the premise they will or may change. I assume they WON’T. This feels healthier and smarter. I don’t even want to hear talk about changing and I’m skeptical of it if I do. If someone changes, I’ll see it. In fact, the less talk – if it’s for my theoretical benefit – the better.

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14 thoughts on “Waiting for people to “change”

  1. Kate Crimmins

    I am so with you on this one. I am thin and fit. One of my good friends is not (and that’s being kind). I don’t care. Thin and fit isn’t a criteria for friendship. The first 5 years I knew her she would talk about the current diet she was on. I was her cheerleader only to see her fail every single time. I never mentioned it when she did. I don’t know to what degree I was a factor in all this. Now I just don’t want to hear about it and when I have a group of people over I am not obsessed about having food that fits her current diet. I serve what I serve. She has to work with it and is always invited to bring any specialty food she needs. I also had a male friend who for years was going to make changes in his work life. Eventually we didn’t connect anymore. Now the hairs in the back of my neck stick up if anyone talks to me about changing.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I really appreciate your comment, you get it. And you’re right – it’s difficult to know exactly how much of a factor we are when people talk (to us)about changing, but I think you always kind of know when it’s at least some, if not a lot. I like how you’re handling it with your dieting friend. When the shoe is on the other foot, I keep my mouth shut about any changes I’m attempting until they are successful or well under way….

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  2. vanbytheriver

    If you have qualities/ attributes that others admire, it might be natural for them to talk about how they could be better, to live up to your standards. They might even think it’s a condition of your friendship. But they might be fooling themselves, if they have not internalized the need for that very improvement. So…much talk, little real change. A vicious cycle. I’ve seen it all the time. 💕

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Van, I think people can do worlds of good for each other almost more by osmosis – just subtly influencing one another in positive ways IF they let it happen naturally. You are so right on the fooling themselves part though, when it’s forced and quite unnatural, nobody ends up happy…

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  3. C.E.Robinson

    Yep, agree with all in your post! Not exactly my own history with people, but the same change theme. I no longer expect people to change, and don’t give advise or suggestions. Probably have said, “Good for you, hope it works out” when people pronounce changing something in their lives. No expectations at all. Don’t even want to hear about it! Harsh, I know! Elizabeth

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      No, that doesn’t sound harsh to me; it sounds like it was borne out of experience. It’s been hard for me to let go of expectations, particularly when people have so often told me they’re going to this, that or the other, but I understand now it’s essential. You are wise not to give advice or suggestions! I’m working on that. –Colette

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  4. jan

    Two things I never harp to my friends about are diets or smoking. They’re smart enough to know the dangers of what they are or aren’t doing. Sometimes they come around on their own. (not that I’m the model of health and fitness – far from it)

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I actually find that a lot of adults don’t know too much about nutrition but I never suggest somebody should do what I’m doing. In fact, I tell them they probably wouldn’t like it!

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  5. John Callaghan

    Oh, I like this very much. I agree with you, if I’m going to change something about myself then I just go ahead and do that. Very little talk. And when it comes to exercise or running or working out people love to talk about doing. Like the talking IS the doing. The only workout they get though is their mouth.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thanks John. I wouldn’t expect differently from you. I’m okay with people talking about wanting to change but not when I think it’s a ploy or insincere. And if I would like to have traits more like someone else’s, I am far more likely to watch quietly to see “how it’s done” and maybe incorporate whatever I see.

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  6. battlewagon13

    As a manager of many years, I’ve had to come to the same result many times. No matter what you put in performance reviews, the vast majority of people are what they are. And by vast, I mean 99.9%.

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  7. Rodney Atkins

    A friend of mine used to say “An organism will not change until it has no choice, until it is more painful not to change than to change.”

    (I found your blog by way of the Facebook group for our neighborhood [I’m being purposely obscure in case you’d prefer not to have the name of your neighborhood here.]).

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Yes, I don’t specify where I live in the blog but do try, unaggressively, to bring in local readers.

      Your friend’s saying has the ring of (dismal) truth. Then again, you have to wonder if people wouldn’t rather cling to the pain they know rather than risk one they don’t.

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