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You Can Only Change Yourself

By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

You Can Only Change Yourself
One of life’s hardest lessons to learn is that you can only change yourself.

Some people spend inordinate amounts of time and energy upset, angry, or frustrated by other people’s thoughts and behaviors.

But to what end? You can …

40 Comments to
You Can Only Change Yourself

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  1. Piffle.

    You can change almost anyone’s thinking by controlling the information they have. What do you think politicians do all day?

    You can change almost anyone’s behaviour by applying simple reward and punishment techniques.

    You can change people in other ways, too, if you have some special relationship with them, like doctor, therapist, pastor, spouse, parent, friend…an endless list.

    The thing is, they can change you too, and they do!

  2. I was referring to change via free will, not manipulation. Of course other people’s behaviors (and arguably, thoughts) may be manipulated.

    But most people in their everyday family, friends and significant other relationships don’t want to have to resort to immature manipulation (as a parent might do to a child) to “get their way.” And no, sorry I wasn’t clear, I wasn’t referring to special relationships, such as that between a therapist and their client.

    Authentic change in a mature relationship takes free will.

  3. Nice article Dr. Grohol, I concur completely. :)

    The only problem is learning how to utilize the skills needed to cognitively work out situations that you automatically want to change or correct. I also agree that we do indeed have innate emotions that control the way we respond to things. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one area of psychotherapy that might help people with this.

    I have seen this very thing as a clinical psychology student while working with clients or observing others doing so. I have also seen this in my relationships with family and friends. My mother, for example, become extremely annoyed with my siblings rebellious behavior and it drives her up a wall. Since he was a teenager (and he is now 33) she has spoken to him for hours regarding nonsensical decisions or actions he’s made. Obviously those many years didn’t do anything to change his behavior and so her stress level as skyrocketed and she’s like a 67yr old woman in a 52yr old’s body.

    My point: there is wisdom to learning to control ourselves, our emotions, and thoughts while dealing with things that annoy or hurt us. Eventually these situations will backfire and cause problems in our cortisol levels or even cause physiological/psychological changes that can be damaging.

    IT IS NOT WORK IT! Believe me.

    This is an interesting review of how bad negative stress can be: http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=15647&cn=117

  4. Your advice is very good. I have basically been beating my head against a wall trying to “change” my husband. So, instead I put my energy to better use and started my own website… http://www.empathylessons.com. I’m hoping that maybe if I can “change” other people…. my husband will eventually “come around.”

    I want so badly to have a healthy relationship with the father of my children so my children can learn what a healthy relationship is; however, getting so frustrated when someone will not listen to you that you start yelling and screaming is defeating the whole purpose.

  5. I spent most of my life trying to fix my parents and only ending up wasting my life. Great article.

  6. Great article, I especially like the part about say it only once, possibly twice. I think that we all overestimate our ability to convince someone that our opinion is the right opinion. However, I have know this for a long time and still have a great bit of difficulty remembering to just accept what is not going to change.

  7. Yup, this is right on. You can’t change people, you can only change how you react to them. That latter is a choice, the former is not.

  8. There is the notion, not explored here, that attempting to change yourself is futile, and that you’re better off maximizing your strengths rather than trying to bring up your negatives.

    Admittedly, if you’re an alcoholic, then you can only get better by eliminating alcohol from your life. If you’re a spendthrift (like I am), keeping money out of your wallet won’t change your behavior, but it will keep you from spending. But changing yourself is very, very difficult, and in my experience, I wonder if it’s truly possible. At best, you can be aware of the fault, install coping mechanisms to override that fault, and — most important — remember to use them.

  9. Great comment, Tamra, and great post Dr. Grohol. I think you’re right on that “learning how to utilize the skills needed to cognitively work out situations that you automatically want to change or correct.”

    I’ve tried for a few years to stop getting upset at people’s thoughts, reactions, and feelings. It’s so hard to try…

    But you guys are right: once, maybe twice, otherwise it’s falling on deaf ears.

    Funny, actually… in the world-famous “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, Carnegie points out that nagging does no good. How true.

  10. If it were that easy do change, we’d be doing it already!

  11. Exactly Karl. We’ll learn sooner or later just how to keep ourselves out of harms way. Usually the love you have for someone causes you to go around in circles with them just trying to help them or “change them.” But ultimately, you are changing yourself into a more frantic human being.

    It’s so not worth it in the end because now you’re half out of your mind and the other person is floating around doing the same nonsensical things.

    I’m convinced that the only thing that can change this type of situation (or person) is life itself!

    Take care everyone!

  12. As simple as it sounds from the writing, it is never as easily done. One can BLOCK the feeling of being annoyed by certain things from another person or weather, whichever it is, but burying it inside is never a good idea. All it does is make one more and more frustrated and one day it will all come out: all the frustration and negativeness. “Dealing with it” is like a glaze on a vanilla ice-cream, saying it’s not vanilla any more. Not until you bite into it. In my opinion, best way to overcome such distress is to substitute it with something else, more important, and happier. You know how they say, ‘when a very special person, that does something that really irritates you, is once gone — what he/she did to irritate is what you miss most’. So if it’s weather that’s a bother, think about something exciting you are about to do today. If it’s a person — think about how much they mean to you and how grateful it makes you feel having them near. And if you care less for the individual, then move on. Don’t waste your precious time and nerves.

  13. You are right…as easy as it may sound to change the way you approach things or handle situations is not easy. It can be one of the most difficult things. For example, put yourself in the shoes of a single mother who has done all she could to protect and raise her children with good morals and concrete direction and the child turns 18 and decides to do everything unlike what he was taught. Of course as a mother this would almost kill you.

    So you are indeed right, it can be very hard. But what I find helpful is trying my hardest to protect myself, my mind, and feelings by being open to the reality that certain people just aren’t going to be changed.

    We must learn to find ways to “divorce” ourselves from a situation. Sometimes spiritual or religious guidance can help, that is, if you find the right person to lead you. Prayer is helpful and so is counseling.

    There is wisdom to “you can only change yourslef” because the way you intend to deal with something, most times determines the outcome of that situation.

  14. >>I was referring to change via free will, not manipulation.

  15. One suggestion-that you title the article “You Can Change Only Yourself”. I think that would get closer to the point you’re making.

    Of course, it’s totally up to you if you want to change it : )

  16. It’s not always easy to change something about ourselves, but we can pay less attention to it. In addition, “there they go again”, I try to add “There I go again.” After all, we’re only human ;)

  17. Sorry. Psychobabble. I am a master at blowing off the small stuff, reminding myself it’s not all about me, etc. etc. etc. I know who I am, I know what my triggers are and what works for me to manage them, I know how to keep my more disgruntled moods to myself, at least most of the time. But sometimes that doesn’t do it and I feel I’m being harmed by being so damned tolerant. A few more practical tips would be helpful. Such as: if you have a coworker–someone with the equivalent of tenure–who constantly bends the rules or makes poor judgements that affect you and other coworkers, how do you manage to work with that person? You can’t just blow off every situation–sometimes you have to deal with it. In theory, your ideas sound great, but in real life, not so helpful. Today was not a good day–which is why I checked this out to begin with–and I’m sorry you’re getting the brunt of my frustration, but I was hoping for something more here.

  18. What an awesome article! It took me almost 35 years to come to this conclusion. I finally grew to realize it was up to me and how I responded to certain situations that directly affected the outcome. When I learned to realize that I could not change the other persons thoughts or ideas, it was up to me to figure out how to work around them or just walk away. We are all different, that’s what makes the world so great – by trying to change others to make them more like you is detrimental to everyone involved.

    I agree with the above poster that it would be nice to have feedback on how to deal with people that we are forced to be around that may differ so greatly such as co-workers, parents of our children or bosses. We cannot change them and we are limited in how we can react to situations that we may get into with them, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how to deal with “difficult” people in these categories.

    Jill Caren
    http://www.caring.com

  19. cbtish,

    Obviously you have never met a narcissist. My abusive husband claims he IS changing, but I’ve yet to see any evidence. Dr. Grohol is absolutely right; changing someone else is like expecting an answer from the wall you are talking to!

  20. And what happens when all you little tricks to change people fail? Do you just smile and walk away or do you find some fault with the person because they failed to do what you wanted them to do?
    Yes, lots of people get great thrills out of knowing they can change people’s behaviors; they are called “con-artists’ or at least “power freaks”.

  21. Hello everyone…
    I have read many very effective points and tips on keeping ones thoughts in check throughout this article and the comments!
    Not one of us was put on this earth to be judge and jury to start with. Where people even learn to be so arrogant to think they have any right to control another’s thoughts always amazes me.
    However…we can fill the entire world map with tips and strategies on how one can control their own thoughts….but if a person does not take action and apply this very effective information…we are all sweeping into the wind so to speak.
    I deal with more people wanting a so- called ‘quick fix’ and that is the real problem with so many issues. No one wants to do the work involved in reaching a certain goal.
    In order to change thought patterns/habits…it takes consistent & repetitive discipline or it just will not work.
    We are creatures of habit and we like our comfort zones…breaking these comfort zones is the first step toward changing those nasty habits that continue to keep us trapped in negative thinking.
    I have always applied this rule of thumb..”Do not sweep off someone else’s doorstep until you have finished sweeping off your own”.
    Stop..breath..think..then speak. It does give one time to not react through the old way of thinking!
    Positive lenses & keeping your glass half full also help support a person through changing those old habits.
    DorothyL

  22. For many situations, I think this approach is a pile of hooey. It excuses bad and abusive behavior. Don’t like it that your husband screams at you because the pot roast is overdone? That he berates you because you’re 10 pounds heavier than on your wedding day? Hey, just shrug it off. Your reaction is the problem, not his. It places the burden (and guilt) onto the party who is being mistreated. That is not healthy at all, in my view.

  23. Long ago growing up in the South we were told many folk stories. One featured a contraption called Tar Baby, basically a big ball of tar with button eyes, mittens and shoes. It was put in the main path by the tricky Fox where the hot-tempered Hare was sure to come along.

    The Hare did come along and asked the Tar Baby to please move aside. When the Tar Baby stood silently, the Hare got mad and madder, finally hitting the Tar Baby. The Hare got stuck. Each time he hit, the more he got stuck. Finally he was completely stuck and covered with tar.

    So when I find myself ready to get stuck to the Tar Babies in my life, I just tell myself “Don’t hit the Tar Baby! You’ll get stuck.”

    If only I could see the Tar Babies before they are blocking my way..

    The end of the story: The Fox came out to gloat and eat the Hare, but the Hare begged the Fox “Please don’t throw me in the Briar Patch” (the home of the Hare). The Fox fell for the ruse and threw Hare in the Patch where he eventually got unstuck.

    I agree that there is the potential to blame the victim for being abused by saying you can’t change them. This doesn’t excuse unacceptable behavior. It only gives the abuser more reasons to justify their behavior and demean the abused because the abused supposed has free will and can change.

    Mpst women will not abandon their children to save themselves. Most women with children and no work history cannot support their children. Some can, but that doesn’t mean it’s a reality for others. Most murders occur when the abused woman leaves the controlling man.

    The courts do not protect most women. The states don’t provide much financial support. Many men get cash jobs to avoid supporting their children. Many men remarry women with children so they are unable to provide adequate support. The average child support payment is $200 a month per child.

    You can quit a job if your boss is sadistic but you and your kids may end up living in a shelter. What parent is going to do that?

    So it may work if someone steals your parking space, but not if they steal your life.

  24. i dont think one should put up with abuse, being mistreated or the like. but.. there are useful and unuseful ways we can deal with it. to abuse back.. usually pointless. i agree it is very difficult for many to leave bad situations and that is understandable. but negative reactions likely won’t improve the situation. they will not change. people are usually more happy to try to change if its a positive push. i really do think fcussing on where you would like to be is more effective than focussing on how where you are now sucks. don’t want someone to believe their awful and feel hpoeless to ever change. they need to want to be different and empowered to achieve it. i hit my head n a brick wall with a psychpathic ex for years. all it did was waste time.

  25. Nice Article.. just one doubt.. wont it be like changing yourself for someone else ???

  26. Yes – One needs to change oneself in order to get out of a coercive situation… when you have been let yourself be the ‘Object’ to others in the sense of pbject of complaint. object of ridicule. object of censuring etc… all in the name of ‘ignoring them’… IT takes the courage to ‘stop being anything to do with those folks’ ,,, In othr words you will have ‘got subjective’… and that is the only solution.

    The change in you might bring about a change in others as towards you.

  27. Thanks for a great post!

  28. ya,i rather change my self than other,cuz that would be better.. :)

  29. This is a very nice thought but what it encourages is apathetic behavior. Don’t try to change the world. Don’t try to change other people. If a company insists on dumping dangerous chemicals into your towns drinking water, don’t try to change them. This is ridiculous. While it may be an appropriate philosophy to combine with the idea of picking your battles, the idea of only changing yourself and believing that others can never be changed is depressing. Someone out there has to fight for people’s rights and that someone better not believe that they can only change themselves. Otherwise, they will not get very far.

  30. I would say one cannot change oneself, one can only change others. Because youu know everything about yourself and cannot give yourself information critical enough to change yourself. It is rather more likely that you will be changed by others. If you would so called change yourself it only means you let the side that has always been in you to take the wheel but to be truly changed, someone else has to step in.

  31. i think, the first thing to change the world is start with yourself, and your way to think about something, such trying to change others. in my own changinf yourself is the first step …

  32. If you want to change yourself, I would suggest Cognitive Behavior Therapy. CPT is a way to control your thinking so you don’t get stuck (or can get unstuck). CBT also has hard scientific evidence that it can and does work. The book ‘Feeling Good’ by David Burns is a great place to start.

  33. Nice post! How do I react if it’s my father that is mistreating me? Do I get up and leave? Or do I ignore the situation?

  34. The sadistic boss descriptive caught my eye. This is my personal experience. I tried to approach her professionally, I tried to get her boss to resuce me, then his boss then HR. At each turn I was disciplined, to the point of nearly getting fired on 3 occasions. She wanted me gone, not just out the door but she tried to destroy my professional reputation, my personal life, my financial solvency, it was bad! She is a bully with a history of trying to destroy a long list of employees. I was seroulsly stressed and I thought I was controlling my anger and stress and frustration by wrting out how I felt about these people. Unfortunatly I tossed them in the garbage at work and the boss had her cronies fish them out and replant them in my work space. Then they “found” them and now I am considered the “person with the problem”. In therapy with a therapist of their choosing. How is it that it is my ego and not hers, how is it that she can bully me and it is okay but if I try to express my anger in an inert way it is considered inappropriate.

    • Since you can’t change her digging and she is your boss, You have to make the decision if the job is worth the punishment. You can only control where you go to work. If the environment is not pleasant, You need to find a different job. It is a harsh reality but have you read your repply. Mentioning her point of view. Go back and read your repply then take action and change you not others.

  35. While I agree that you cannot (and should not try to) change another person’s behaviour, this article is basically useless because it gives no advice whatsoever regarding stopping pernicious, bullying, even dangerous behaviours that others may foist upon us.

    From schoolyard bullies to aggressive siblings to narcissistic parents to irrational bosses to stalking co-workers, the world is FULL of people whose behaviours not only annoy others but pose threats either physically or psychologically. To tell us to shut up about speaking out against those behaviours is tantamount to saying “be a good little victim,” a totally WRONG way to handle cheating spouses, out-of-control teenss predatory neighbours, and a host of others whose behaviours will only escalate if not firmly and regularly objected to.

    DO NOT shut up in the face of people abusing you, not even at the risk of becoming a nag. Better a nag than an acquiescent victim.

    • I didn’t get that from the article at all. A bully is going to bully, and a cheating spouse is going to cheat sooner or later. What I got from this article is that even the most brilliant psychologist in the world is not going to change people like this unless they want to change. So I agree with you. If it’s an isolated case of a bully, I say punch his lights out. If you’ve always had successful relationships in the past but this one person cheats, dump their a$$. But if you find yourself being bullied a lot, or never had a partner who didn’t cheat, or every boss you’ve had takes advantage of you, it’s probably time to start looking inward, and ask yourself why. You can’t change them you can only change you.

  36. I have found a rock. The rock is in me and not in others opinions. I am not the popular guy nor the one sought out. I am broken but “they” don’t give a rip. That is fine. I will live in my bubble and be happy I have a bubble. I don’t try to impart my views to others but seek others with similar views. I haven’t found any willing to be open with who they are so I will remain bubbled. Bubbled is not a bad thing, you don’t fight and are able to choose who to let in. I let in my dog.

  37. I am not sure but i think this post was only trying to bring to your attention that most of us neglect trying to change ourselves as it is easier to blame others as opposed to how to deal with bully’s. Blaming others and only reacting offensively to problems is another possible way of playing the victim by the way. Just taking the punishment is only one way of being a victim. There are many. Some situations require drastic action and some don’t. some are worth it and some are not.The two important questions is 1. what is easier and more realistic to change , someone elses actions,thoughts and beliefs or your own actions and beliefs?2. what are you trying to accomplish? Will screaming/talking to/at your boss give you what result exactly?get them to stop or get you fired. then maybe quitting and moving jobs is a better and equally drastic option as screaming at your boss but the outcome of not having a boss abusing without being fired is a better result.Whenever you want to stand up for yourself just ask what am i trying to accomplish and realistically what will the results be?Dont be a victim but pick your battles carefully and you will find changing yourself or your reactions often has far better and easier results.my cubicle mate at work is annoying , ok i tell him to stop nicely and look at results. no results ok i ask my boss if i can move because i feel it can help. screaming at him probably wont work so why bother?Or why not learn a little patients and just ignore it? The point is you can change how you feel and think about things and sometimes taking a drastic action like quitting , putting up with it or accepting it may yield better results than expecting the other person to do any of those things and then being frustrated when they don’t care. lets face it. technically anybody can do whatever they like , fair has nothing to do with it but they will bear the consequences of their actions ………the sad thing is some don’t.But you are wasting your energy being the bringer of justice all the time. Its like arguing with a irrational person , ask yourself whats the point and why are you wasting your energy?its not like they are going to change their point of view regardless of how rational your argument is. they dont care. their irrational. so your wasting your energy shouting at them and walking away may just be a better option.

  38. There is only one person I can change: myself. And as it turns out, even that is hard.

    I’ve become very cautious in giving advice to others; even when someone solicits it, they almost never follow it. What more if it isn’t solicited?

  39. it is a nice article it help me much thanks for posting this

  40. Having readyou article I have decided to act on it…
    and hopefully it can work for me…
    My son is a peson that takes Drugs and I did feel guilty over his sister traceys death…13 years ago now…
    Yes it is time for me to move on and make a few steps to ensure myself of a healthy life and also to take on a responable attitude to myself..and well being…I have been stuck in a hole for some time now and today I have started to make some choices that are to do with mne..
    I know I am not being selfish to do this and I realize I can not change the way people make their own choices.Yet I can change my own and the out come on my life…
    I need to be happy as i ahve not been for a long time.Some where along the way of life I lost my happiness and became a angry tired person…
    I have the oputunity to make a choice about that and I..Will be doing that …
    You have encouraged me to move forward…
    Today will be a new start for me…Thank you …karen

  41. So true. My husband continues to be a complete A-hole and I can’t change him. So according to this article I guess my only options are to put up with the BS or just leave and neither of those things are simple as there are two young children involved.

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