The Only Thing You Can Really Change Is Yourself


“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.


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7 Responses to The Only Thing You Can Really Change Is Yourself

  1. Alice Green October 6, 2014 at 10:55 am #

    Very good advice. I’ve found, after beating my head against that wall, that by changing how I react (especially to a sibling) not only helps my own blood pressure go down, but actually makes our relationship better. They stay the same, but I don’t get irritated and they become more agreeable. Or so it seems to me, and as long as I enjoy their company more than I used to it feels like we all are better people. Plus, I try to keep in mind that there are probably a dozen different things I do that irritate others just as much as they irritate me. And because I sure don’t want them changing me, then I have no right to change them. The only one I have any right to change is me, or my reaction, my judgment, my feelings. I have enough work to do on myself, so that alone will keep me busy and out of other people’s business! Thanks, Maria for another great reminder!

  2. Beth Adair October 6, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    Missy!!!! Love it!! So true, and I’m reminded of this lesson all the time working with the public.

    I do remember as a kid getting into an argument with my mother. Later that day my Dad said, “well Beth, you can’t change your Mom”. I was foolish enough to think I could, even spent the day thinking maybe he was wrong, only later to realize he was right. (This usually didn’t go admitted as a teenager). I had to change, but keeping a clean room was easier than moving out or listening to my mom harp on me to do it right. I’m glad I was familiar with the term she used to use, “halfass”. It’s funny to me now, she’d say, “I don’t want it done halfass”. She didn’t want a room cleaned halfway, she wanted it clean right. That meant dusting, vacuuming, bed made, and closet organized (omission of any of the mentioned tasked qualified a “halfassed” cleaning.

    It was always easier to avoid the argument or anything else just to do it right the first time.

    Looking forward to the RW festival just around the corner:) Can’t wait to meet you and Maya, I hope y’all will be able to attend:)

  3. Laura Jo K October 6, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    Great post.

    Just spent the last 30 minutes with students and felt like I was beating my head against the wall. Can’t change them. Just the way I approach their issues.


  4. Donna in Delaware October 6, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

    I learnt this a long time ago. That’s why I am a calmer person. I don’t get too upset over other people’s actions, just try to deal with my own. Excellent post as usual.

  5. June October 8, 2014 at 6:59 am #

    This is amazing – I was just talking with a friend last night (Oct 7) about how I wanted
    to “change the world” back when I was in high school, and how I’ve come to realize
    that you really can’t change the whole world, but you CAN change yourself, and that’s
    the most important thing.

    I quit smoking cigarettes and drinking tea etc. with caffeine; I became vegan, stopped
    wearing or using any animal products, and changed all kinds of other stuff that I used
    to do, that I realized were either harmful or counter-productive. I’m trying to go 100%
    organic, but my budget doesn’t always allow it. I do not consume any GMO foods, and
    I’ve eliminated high fructose corn syrup completely from my diet.

    Anyway, none of these things are a huge deal in the grand cosmic scope of things,
    but this is what I CAN do, what I CAN change – I can change myself, what I do, and
    how I live. 🙂

  6. elizabeth October 8, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    Thank you for all your insight and empowerment through your recent “action” articles, really helps when youve had to as Joseph Pilates would say “return to life” ! Im so grateful

  7. Donna in Delaware October 9, 2014 at 8:34 am #

    BETH ADAIR: I had to chuckle reading your response. My grandmother used to say that to us too! If you are going to do something, then don’t do it ” half-assed!” Yep, that was granny’s favorite saying!

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