Why People Don't Like It When You Try to Change for the Better

October 18, 2018 12:00 pm

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None of us are supposed to be static beings. We’re supposed to learn, to sweeten like wine over time into something better than we were yesterday. We constantly laud that idea. When we finally go to practice self-improvement, though, something quirky happens–people who once promised their support withdraw to the background or seem grumpier than a woodchuck with a toothache.

Why does this happen? Research led by Lydia Emery from Northwestern University might offer a clue, as summarized by Ashley Lyles in Psychology Today. Over several studies, individuals thought about how their partners had changed. They indicated how much previous or anticipated support or resistance they had to those changes. Researchers had the individuals self-assess how clear they were about their self-concept, as well.

The researchers found that, when people had lower clarity about their self-concept, they generally were not as supportive of their partner changing. The team concluded that this was because the individuals worried that changes in their partner meant they would have to change, too. Without a solid idea of who they were on their own, they were unsettled not knowing how the partners would redefine them.

While this work focused on more intimate, romantic relationships, it’s reasonable to believe that the same results could happen with anybody we feel deeply connected to. This includes family members who help with entrepreneurial efforts, mentors or team members you’ve bonded with. It’s human nature to cling to familiarity to some degree, and because we use external validation to form and confirm our perception of ourselves, it can be scary to see those we see as our foundation become willing to shift. We have to face the question of whether the changes we see somehow will alter our future or, worse, break the connection with the person who means so much to us.

So it’s not that people don’t care about what you want to do. In fact, they probably really want you to achieve and reach your goals. It’s just that they need to know who they are without you. You can help them figure that out by

  • Encouraging them to try new things
  • Asking for their opinion
  • Inquiring about what they want or value
  • Getting them more information or resources to explore their hobbies and interests
  • Tactfully pointing out both strengths and weaknesses in a positive way
  • Connecting them with new people
  • Stepping back so they can take more control
  • Encouraging them to try again after mistakes
  • Taking time to listen about deeper experiences that can fuel fear and timidity

The more you build the other person up through these strategies, the more they’ll be able to stand on their own. And once that happens, you should see their support of your self-improvement go up, too.

Published on: Oct 18, 2018

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