The question of change in relationships is complex. In relationships I’ve often heard one half accuse the other, saying “Don’t try to change me!” The topic of change is a challenging one, mainly because we all want and deserve to be seen, loved, and accepted for who we are as a person. The real question to explore here is the following: is it change that we want or is it personal growth? So let’s explore the difference!
Wanting Change vs. Personal Growth:
When we experience distress or unhappiness in our relationship we tend to look at all that we dislike in what our partner brings to the relationship. We may have been hurt or are feeling frustrated, and we are feeling many differing emotions. We know that we want change, but the question is: is asking for change a fair and legitimate request? Some people express the following during our couples work: “I am who I am”! This is a response that comes from a place of hurt and fear. Let me explain.
First, let’s break this down into the difference between change and personal growth. Personal growth is vast: it is basically having self-awareness, insight, and understanding how we affect others and therefore evolving to be the best person that we can be.
There are times when the core of who we are as a person can cross over into personal growth. For example, I was born with a sensitive temperament and that will never change. It is part of who I am as a person. However, being a sensitive person means that I also have strong emotions, and I feel my emotions intensely. Personal growth means that I have had to learn to manage my emotional reactions.
If you were to take a personality test, such as the myers briggs, you would discover personality traits that stay the same over the course of your life for the most part! For example, you may have been born an extrovert, but over the course of your lifetime you will discover that you have become a bit more quiet and reflective, somewhere between an introvert and extrovert. However, for the most part, personality traits that we are born with do not change.
An example of what will not change:
Once a client expressed to me: “my husband is such a hermit! I wish he were more outgoing. If I spontaneously visit a neighbor and we are having a good time and I call to invite him to join in the fun with us, he won’t come over!” And her husband responded with, “It hurts me that she doesn’t accept me for who I am as a person”. In this example, the wife is an extrovert: she enjoys talking to anyone and everyone. She enjoys making friends with all of her neighbors and would prefer to live a more community-minded life. On the other hand, her husband is an introvert, he enjoys alone time, quiet time. He finds it draining to be with other people. These traits about each of them will never change. They can learn to work with who they are, such as, the wife can learn to enjoy a bit more quiet time at home with her husband, and he can learn to engage a bit more socially. All of this being said, in therapy they have learned to not only accept each other as they are in this area, but they have also learned to value the differences in each other. The husband enjoys watching his wife being socially engaged, and his wife appreciates the value that her husband brings to their relationship in being a quietly reflective person!
Personal growth on the other hand is change. It is also a gift to give to yourself and to your relationship. For example, knowing your emotional triggers provides you with the necessary tools to experience a more peaceful existence for you and your relationship. If you find that you or your partner lash out in anger or withdraw from your relationship you need to ask yourself why. Where is this reaction coming from? Fear? Hurt? Shame? Do you avoid conflict? Or do you invite unnecessary conflict? What wounds from childhood affect you and/or your relationship? Do you fear intimacy? Do you find it challenging to trust others? Are you hard on yourself? Do you expect perfection from yourself and others? All of these questions (and many more) are areas where we can experience personal growth.
The challenge of personal growth:
Although I wish it were not true, our resistance regarding personal growth is often due to fear of looking within ourselves. Fear of what we will find there. We fear feeling shame in the discovery of who we are or what lies within us. This is why I am passionate about self-compassion. I work with the most wonderful people and yet, they can be brutal towards themselves when doing the challenging work towards gaining self-awareness and insight. On the bright side however, the reward in doing this challenging work is to live a more peaceful existence in self-compassion, understanding and acceptance of oneself.
The journey of self-discovery does not always have to be painful. I was talking to a friend recently and shared with her that I saw her as a visionary. I assumed that she saw herself that way as well because it was so obvious to me. However, she did not see herself as a visionary. I was able to go further and describe why I see her this way – and she ultimately agreed. The newly gained self-awareness for my friend is personal growth!
However, it is also true that we see ourselves in ways on which others have imposed unfair negativity, especially in our youth. More often than not these views of ourselves are inaccurate despite how we have internalized beliefs imposed on us by others! For example, you may have been told that you were not good enough. Or you were viewed in a negative way as the quiet kid in class (as if this is a bad thing, it’s not!) or the disorganized kid (usually means creative kid, by the way!). As a child, I was told that I was nosy which felt awful. I later realized that I am simply a very curious person about many things in life. It’s how I learn and grow.
All of this means that personal growth is sometimes a change in our perspective. For example, my client was working through issues of self-worth. She shared with me that her mother hated her when she was young and continues to even now as an adult. My client internalized this as low self-worth, meaning that there must be something wrong with her if her own mother didn’t like her. However, during our work together it became clear that her mother did not like herself and everyone loved her daughter (my client), who was a very loving, sweet little girl (and adult) despite the abuse she endured from her mom. She has now has gained a much-needed perspective – this is the value of personal growth.
The Benefits of Personal Growth:
I’ll be honest with you (well I’m always honest), as much as the benefits of personal growth are vast, I have often found myself wishing that I could stop growing now, simply because the process of personal growth is challenging, and often painful. And yet, the rewards of experiencing personal growth are ultimately liberating.
As I shared with you in my example of the woman whose mom had such strong negative feelings towards her, gaining perspective is liberating. It allows you to be free of what has unfairly been imposed upon you. And you can learn to be an advocate for yourself, meaning that if my client were speaking with her mom and her mom were to refer to her as being selfish – she now knows that this is not the case and she can voice who she really is and not how she is seen by her mom.
Personal growth provides you with choice rather than not being in control of your actions. For example, you might be prone to react to your emotions by hurting others with harsh words (which ultimately hurts you too) rather than reflecting on and understanding your emotions, and then choosing how you are going to respond. Learning how to respond is empowering, as opposed to living with regret for hurting those you love and who love you.
One last thought:
If you find that people in your life are asking for change in you, this might help. First, after reading this blog, determine whether it is a request for change in who you are as a person that they want or, instead, are they asking for personal growth. If you determine that it is a request for change in who you are – you can be an advocate for yourself by voicing whom you are as a person, such as in my example of the introverted husband. If you find that your partner is asking for personal growth, try not to view this as a negative thing being said about you.
Personal growth is the greatest gift that you can give yourself and then ultimately your partner and your relationship. But remember: always, always do this work with self-compassion. I can’t say that enough!
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If you want to learn more about relationships – I wrote this for you “Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships” I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know!
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Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
Photo Credit: Deveion Acher@flicker.comShare