“You can’t change other people; you can only change yourself” is one of those lessons I’ve had to learn over and over again. And then sometimes I forget it and have to learn it again.
You don’t get very far in a family business, for example, without learning this lesson. I am very thankful that my siblings and I learned it early and often. Think about a sibling for a minute. Can you change even one of his or her possibly annoying behaviors? No. You can’t. Siblings are who they are, and you can only change your own reaction, response, and behavior. Some people do this by moving to other states, or even countries. Some people do this by never speaking to their siblings again. But in a family business that’s committed to staying a family business, you learn to change yourself. It does work!
Of course this truth applies to other relationships, as well. Sometimes no amount of effort to influence can create the change you want to see. In an intimate relationship, that can be heartbreaking. Whether it’s something big or something little (is anything really “little” in a relationship?), it’s the same: All you can do is change your own reaction, response, and behavior. If you truly, genuinely express your heart and someone doesn’t respond the way you’d like him or her to, and you try something different and it still doesn’t work, you have to face the honest truth that the only thing you can change is yourself. Sometimes that means staying in the relationship in a different way. Other times, it means leaving it.
So how does this truth impact those of us who desire to “change the world for the better?” It occurs to me this is the deeper meaning of the famous quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” All we can truly do is be change agents of ourselves, and act accordingly. For example, I have one very good friend who still, after all my encouragement, scientific facts, and continued efforts will not buy organic fruits and vegetables for his/her child—a child who exhibits all the signs of sensitivity to toxins, which wreaks havoc with his/her behavior and causes all sorts of stress for my friend. As frustrating as it is to watch and see that my efforts are ineffective, I also realize that I can’t “fix” someone who doesn’t really want to be fixed. There’s another famous saying for that: “You can’t help another who will not help him or herself.”
I’ve often coached employees on this same type of situation. I’ve said a couple of times to people, “If beating your head against a brick wall over and over doesn’t make a difference, at some point you have to realize you’re only damaging your own head.” What are the options? Try another tactic, go around the wall, or walk away from the wall. Sometimes a wall is a wall, and you can’t knock it down without explosives…but then that would be terrorism. So all you can do is change your own reaction, response, and behavior. Or, if you’re a manager, change the people you choose to work with.
Does all this mean we will never change the world? Does all this mean we will never change other people? No. It just means we can’t really control it and therefore cannot be attached to the outcome. All we can really do is control what we decide to do.
That is why we need to do what makes us feel healthy, happy, and fulfilled—do what makes us open to change. No one else can do that for us, or can make us do it, either. We can only do it for ourselves. And hopefully, by being our true, fulfilled selves we make the world a better place just by being in it.