Changing our lives is all the rage right now.
There’s never been a culture so obsessed with changing, so determined to access the next best version of our lives.
Looking back on history, it used to be that we couldn’t actually change much about our circumstances. Relationships were arranged for us. Socioeconomic status was predestined. We knew the cards we were dealt and we knew we had little choice but to make the best of them.
It’s easy to feel badly for those who endured such times and many of us thank goodness things have changed. But I think we underestimate the extent to which we’re just as, if not more, trapped in unhappiness nowadays as we imagine people must have been back in the old days.
Think about it: Many of us weren’t exactly taught to make the most of what we have. Unlike our ancestors, the common narrative of our culture today is that everyone has the power to create something better.
And because we’ve been trained to incessantly grasp for something better, we haven’t mastered the art of turning what we already have into gold.
In other words, we aren’t alchemists. We don’t know how to take uninspiring material and transform it into something valuable and beautiful. When we spend our lives striving for more, we don’t learn the basic skill of appreciating what we have. When we live this way, happiness always lies in the future and we are always waiting for it to be delivered through external means.
I’m a coach. My job is to have conversations with people that lead to positive changes in their lives. When I tell people what I do, the majority assume this means I’m good at finding solutions to people’s problems. They think maybe I have some of the answers they’ve been looking for. They tell me what they’re up against and expect our conversation to be a strategy session of sorts.
But it’s not. About 95 percent of what I’m actually doing in those conversations is getting my clients to look at what they can change in themselves in order to have a different experience than the one that’s making them unhappy. My aim is to have them stop arguing with things that have already happened, things outside themselves that they can’t change, and instead to identify what they actually do have the power to change (which usually starts with them).
I’m working to help them stop wasting their time waiting for their external lives to change first and instead work on changing how they show up for their lives. It’s not because I don’t think their external lives should change, but rather because I know the best way to affect that change is to start from within.
They throw all sorts of reasons at me why the power to improve their lives lies in the people and circumstances around them instead of in changing something internal first.
“But I can’t decide how I feel until he tells me what he’s feeling.”
“I can’t be vulnerable until I know she’ll be vulnerable back.”
“I can’t enjoy my job unless my boss changes how he treats me.”
“But what’s the point of doing all this personal work if my partner isn’t committed to growing, too?”
I’m like a broken record.
“For a minute, forget about those things you can’t actually control. Let’s start with you.”
Who do you want to be? How do you want to show up? How do you want to feel?
You’d think we would have learned by now. We keep trying to change others, or change the elements that make up our life circumstances. But this whole system—the nature of people and their relationships to the world around them—all of this seems designed to teach us that our best chance at finding happiness and peace is to accept that we are powerless to change anything but ourselves.
I know the temptation in pointing to something outside of us that needs to change in order for us to feel better. I still do it all the time. However, I learn more and more each day that it’s just not very effective.
We can’t directly change others. We can only change ourselves and through changing ourselves, we can alter the nature of our relationships to others. That is as far as our influence reaches. Sometimes when our relationship to someone changes, they change, too. Other times, not. But it’s up to them at that point, not us.
Now I don’t mean that we should all sit passively and watch our lives go by. We can do our best to create a good life. We can raise awareness about causes we believe in. We can educate those who want to learn. We can ask for what we need and be generous in return. But unless others decide to work toward changing themselves, our influence will fade and they’ll fall back into their old patterns.
And we’ll be right where we started, too. We’ll still be dependent on them changing in order for us to be okay. That is, until we are willing to be better, regardless of them.
The happiest people I know all understand that the most impactful changes they can make in the world are the changes they make in themselves. They know they can change how they respond to others. They know they can learn to be at peace regardless of their external circumstances. They know that these personal changes tend to have so much more of an effect on others than anything we do to try to convince others to change.
And that’s a relief, isn’t it? It means we really do own the power to be our best and to be happy because that power comes from within rather than from without.