Personal growth for social change: You can’t change people without changing yourself

A window is covered by venetian blinds. The closed blinds create an image of a young child with an open-mouthed smile, raising their loosely closed right hand to their mouth. The child's face is stylized to resemble four pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with the left half in color and the right half in black and white. The symbolism is that people are like puzzle pieces, their rigidity allowing them to only connect with certain other pieces but not others. Through personal growth, we can become more flexible, allowing us to forge the kinds of relationships needed to bring about social change.
Photo by Boudewijn Huysmans on Unsplash

Last week I wrote about how you can’t change the world without changing people. For those of you who were itching to start proselytizing about your vision for social change, today I’m taking the lesson one step further, into the realm of personal growth. You can’t change people without changing yourself.

It really is a shame that more people don’t learn psychology, and that “people skills” is something that very few people actually seem to have. Take me, for instance: I’ve been doing personal growth work for over a decade now, and I even went to grad school for psychology and have been working as a therapist for over four years. But even I am only starting to really internalize a very important truth about the human experience: people are like puzzle pieces. Our unique personalities fit very naturally with certain personalities, but not with others. In this way, our own level of personal development has a huge impact on the sorts of people who surround us, and on the quality of relationship we have with them.

You may already be familiar with the saying by motivational speaker Jim Rohn that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. What you may not have realized is that you are one of the five people who is influencing each of them as well. You are not just a product of your social environment: you are also its creator. Which means that if you are surrounded by people who are too tired, burned out, distracted, uninterested, ignorant, or cynical to be involved in social change, you are partially responsible for creating that just by being who you are.

This isn’t meant as blame or shame. This is just the truth. And when we accept this truth, we finally start seeing our ability to respond to the needs of the situation. As things currently stand, if we are to have any hope of creating a livable world in which true justice matters, we need to become the people who can create that world.

Everything that I’ve learned about human behavior change has taught me that love is a far more powerful and sustainable motivator than fear. Which means that the possible version of ourselves who is most likely to have success in influencing our friends and family to be the change that we want to see in the world is the one who leads from love. One aspect of love is acceptance and respect, which means meeting people where they are, rather than telling them how they ought to be. Now, if you’re like me, that’s a lot easier said than done. As soon as I start trying to accept people as they are, I am confronted by aspects of my ego that are controlled by fear. Parts of myself that want people to change in order to make me comfortable.

So if I truly believe in love, and if I truly wish to lead from love, then the first thing I’m going to have to learn to change as a part of my personal growth journey is the part of myself that fears that love isn’t capable of producing social change. Because right now, just like a puzzle piece, I’m rigid: there are only a small number of other puzzle pieces that I can easily connect with. But if I can learn to embody love, I can become a sort of wild card of a puzzle piece, capable of joining with any other piece, no matter how skewed away from love it may be. Through this connection, I can provide the initial spark that can ignite a chain reaction of heart-opening love that heals humanity and enables us to rise to the challenges that we currently face as a species. Long shot? Maybe. And maybe it’s just what we need.

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Are you distressed by all the division and conflict that exists between people today? Do you find yourself avoiding “touchy subjects” like COVID, systemic racism, and climate change with certain family members or friends? Does all this leave you feeling hopeless for humanity’s future? On May 1, 1992, Rodney King asked, “Can we all get along?” Today, 29 years later, it seems like the answer is no. But what if the solution to humanity’s problems were actually simpler than you thought? On May 20, 2021, join us for a six-week online course on how personal growth and healthy relationship skills can save the world. Befriend the Change. Click here for more info.

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Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds). To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy@gmail.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

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