May 17, 2012

Don’t Change or Grow, You’re Making Me Uncomfortable.

photo by J. Gaddis

As many of you know, once you start engaging in personal development work, be it yoga, getting some coaching, going to therapy, or diving into a spiritual path, many of your closest friends and family members might feel very uncomfortable with the “new you.” Some might even try to fix you and paradoxically, change you.

This is a common experience for many of us and it can be painful.

Here’s a great example, emailed to me by one of my clients, that some of you might appreciate, followed up with some useful suggestions.

Last night I had dinner with my bro.  We got on the topic of “what the f*ck am I doing?” with all my time, going to spiritual talks etc.

My bro gave me a piece about, “You need to be clear with your friends what you’re doing since you are so out of touch, you need to be clear with Mom and Dad. People need you/ want you back. No one understands what is going on with you.” I was patient for a while, and then I got angry and heated. I started defending myself, fired up

How have you dealt with friends and family who didn’t understand what you were doing during personal development work?  I offered my bro an answer from one of your blogs—“it may look selfish, but I’m trying to work on myself to be a better person.” My bro said “what problems do you have—we were blessed growing up.  What are you angry about?  You shouldn’t be so angry.  Don’t feel bad”  Of course, this only stoked the flames even higher.

I’m feeling angry, pissed, locked up and helpless. If you have any thoughts to share I’d appreciate.

So what is going on here?

This is textbook systems theory. When one person begins to change, it disrupts the homeostasis of the entire system. This person becomes a threat to the rest of the system.

I remember this process vividly for myself. As I dove deep into my own personal development work and spiritual practice I heard comments like this: “We like the old Jay better than the new Jay.” or “Yeah bro, we were thinking about having an intervention with you,” as if I was addicted to heroin or something.

As we change and evolve, the system, which is our “old” friends and family members, feels a threat and does its best to keep us in our old role. This happens largely unconsciously on their end. This can be one painful aspect of differentiating from our family of origin. And, for many of us, we just don’t know how to navigate the changes relationally.

If they were able to talk about it and had some skills, they might say things such as, “When you change and grow, I get scared because I no longer know how to be with you or relate to you.” or “When I can’t place you into the role I’ve always known you in, I feel threatened, scared, and uncomfortable.” or “I feel safe and secure knowing who I think you are and when you show me signs of something different, I feel very uncomfortable and I start to question myself.”

What to do?

Whether or not we understand them and their process is irrelevant.

We must make staying with ourselves and our experience a much higher priority than getting their approval or having them understand us. It can be really tempting to try and change them or make them get it. But chances are they will never get it, or get us.

And, if we are the only person growing (emotionally and spiritually) in our family system, we are likely the most mature person in that system. In that case, let’s stop looking to them, even if they are older and wiser, to set the ground rules for how the relationship goes. It is up to us to be the parent or adult in that system.

If this is true, it’s our job to communicate and set boundaries.

Here are a few more suggestions:

1.  Let go. Let go of wanting them to understand you (i.e. wanting them to change) and accept that they won’t. If you get lucky and they do, celebrate it.

2.  Feel your Feelings. Feel what arises in you around your family/friends not understanding or getting you. There may be a lot of anger, resentment, or deep grief and loss knowing that those whom love you the most understand and support you the least.

3.  Feel your feelings some more. Feel your aloneness and the pain around that.

4.  Notice your co-dependence. Notice the part of you that still wants to be liked, not judged, or not rejected. Meet that need yourself and watch the seduction of looking outside yourself for validation. Read more on co-dependency and how to deal with it here.

5. Seek inspiration from your gay friends. Generally speaking, gay people know this landscape well. Fearless gay people who have already faced the gauntlet of judgments/ridicule from others in their coming-out process have a lot to teach us about individuation.

6.  Get a new community. Surround yourself with folks that do support you, understand you, and are okay your evolution. If I wanted to stay in the old me, I would hang around old friends that continue to box me in to who I used to be. If however, I want to grow, I must find folks who are growing also. Group support can assist in this process.

7.  Set a boundary. Take some space away from those old friends/family members while you sort things out. Be direct with them and let them know you are going away for a while. Do this as consciously as possible. If you need to stop returning phone calls because it feels too hard, give yourself permission to do that for while until you get clear on how to communicate with them.

8. Watch your temptation to change them. Just because you are fired up to wake up and grow doesn’t mean they should, nor should they care. Stay with your own journey and watch the trap of trying to change them, otherwise, you are doing to them what is upsetting you. (Note: this one was a hard one for me. I spend years trying to change my parents. Conclusion: it didn’t work and only made things worse).

9.  Be direct and tell them how you feel. Stay with yourself without judging them. For example, my client could say, “I’m feeling angry, pissed, locked up and helpless. I feel completely unseen and unsupported by you right now.” Then move on and don’t get seduced into being a victim.

10.  Set another boundary. If your family/partner/friends continue to invalidate you because you lack the skills to dive into what is really going on for them, you can let them know that you are no longer willing to be spoken to that way and you need a break from the relationship for a while. Put a time frame on it, then return.

11. Own your shame. If you feel guilt or shame or embarrassed by your new growth kick, own that. It’s normal. Personal transformation might be hip in the new age, spiritual circles, but in mainstream culture, it’s weird, strange, and threatening, and you might even be made fun of.

12. Be fearless. If all else fails, be true to yourself and your path. It’s time to stop caring so much what others think of you. We don’t have time to “convince” anyone of what we are up to.

When you work on yourself in a genuine way, plan on upsetting others. Plan on losing friends. Plan on the worst. And, if you get support, welcome it and feel that kind of love!

Instead of our growth being a problem for others, let’s take on the view that our growth is a gift to those around us, even when they contract, react, and try to stop us. In this way, our growth becomes their opportunity that they can take or leave.

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Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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