When’s the last time you changed your mind — and heart — about something really important?
Were you eager to tell your friends that you had been wrong before and you’d seen the light? Or were you hesitant to let people know? Were you sheepish about telling people that you had abandoned what you had believed was true? Did you struggle to explain how you could have believed one thing and then abandoned that faith or belief or person for something entirely different?
If you’re anything like me, you experience some internal discomfort — a sense of cognitive dissonance — about having to make major internal changes. There’s something in us that wants to be consistent with what we’ve said and done in the past.
And that ego-driven desire to be consistent with our past errors frequently keeps us stuck with our mistakes. It turns out that any serious positive growth in our lives is blocked until we can cast aside our old errors and admit our past choices were wrong. That is incredibly difficult for some people.
Earlier this week, I was listening to someone explain to several other people what another person’s actions meant. He had never even met the woman in question, but he was certain he knew how to interpret her actions and what expectations to superimpose on her. Why? Because he was thinking about what such actions would have meant if he had done them.
I happened to know enough about the woman’s personality to know he was wrong. Where he was assigning blame and bad intentions, I saw that her intentions were benign. She simply wasn’t anything like this man — but he couldn’t imagine that anybody could be that different from himself on the inside.
We walk around in the world thinking we know more than we actually know, but we’re making assumptions about other people based on what we are and what we believe — based on our culture and background.
Even worse, our own behaviors — which were the coping mechanisms that allowed us to survive in the immature part of our young lives — become the very things that stop us from getting what we need after we become more mature.
I was reminded of this Friday when I was listening to a therapist interviewing another therapist. One of them brought up a concept I’ve read a lot about and come to believe is true. Most of the things we consider to be our best qualities — our ability to succeed, our quick intelligence, our ability to out-talk others in arguments, whatever we’re proud of — were coping strategies we learned when we were young.
As we made our way through childhood and then our teen years, we struggled to stand out and fit in. We were desperate — whether we realized it or not — to be accepted and loved. Whatever things we found which got us applause and approval became our “go to” ways of coping with the world. We even came to believe we loved those things, when the truth was that we loved the effect of doing those things. We loved the fact that doing those things got us the kind of approval and even love that we craved.
But as we mature and change as adults, we need new ways of coping with the world. Instead, the natural tendency is to adapt whatever worked for us when we were scared and immature. We think we must be this thing, because it has become our identity.
Often, though, the things we learned as defense mechanisms — which worked so well when we were 10 or 14 or 17 — become ways of keeping people away from us when we get older and more mature. Our needs have changed, but the same old strategies — forged unconsciously as desperate children or teens — fail us.
If we developed ways of winning and getting our way when we were young, for instance, that would have been quite successful then. But that desire to win will lead us to terrible personal relationships. We will be good at relationships on a surface level — because we’ve learned how to manipulate people — but any deeper relationship is going to fail, because nobody wants to be manipulated in an allegedly equal relationship by someone who always tries to have his or her own way.
Until we do deep personal work on ourselves, we’re unlikely to see this. In fact, we’re likely to believe that everybody else is to blame. If people would simply do what we want them to, we might think, we wouldn’t be unhappy. It takes a lot of change for it to occur to someone that maybe he or she is the problem. Maybe it’s not everybody else.
Most of us don’t like to change ourselves. It doesn’t feel good. We like to be consistent with what we’ve done and said in the past. So we cling to things that don’t work — beliefs, strategies, people, relationships — instead of admitting we made wrong turns and we now need to correct them.
The 19th century Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said something brilliant about this, but it’s one of the least understood of his well-known quotations. In his essay on “Self-Reliance,” Emerson encourages people not to be consistent — if being consistent with the past makes you wrong.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” Emerson wrote in the essay. “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Emerson isn’t encouraging us to be randomly inconsistent. He’s encouraging us to be willing to break with our past every time we realize we’ve made a mistake. He wants us to avoid “foolish” inconsistency.
If you were wrong in your words and actions at one point — and you come to realize you were wrong — you then compound the problem when you refuse to change just because you want to be consistent with your past self. That’s what Emerson is talking about. He’s saying that we have to have the courage to say, “I made a mistake by bringing this person into my life — or believing in that philosophy or accepting that religion — but now that I know that, I’m going to make a change, even if the people who agreed with me in the past misunderstand.”
The psychologists I was listening to Friday agreed that we spend the first half of our lives building defense mechanisms — and believing those practices to be who we are — and then we spend the rest of our lives living with the consequences of what we built.
Most people continue living in exactly the same way — miserable but blaming everyone else for not following along with what worked for them as teens. A few people have the insight to realize that they have been clinging to failed strategies out of fear and out of a desire to be consistent with what they’ve said and done. A tiny fraction of that group have the courage to discard the old failed defense mechanisms — and to grow into something entirely different.
There are things about my old defense mechanisms that make me feel shame today. I can barely tell some old stories of things I did — things which felt perfectly reasonable at the time — but which make me cringe with embarrassment for my old self.
I have had to discard all sorts of ideas and beliefs and desires as I realized my old errors. I know I’ve confused people at times along the way when I’ve grown past something that we had both once believed (and which they continue to believe).
My ideas have changed. My personality has changed. My values have changed. Even the sort of woman I’m attracted to has changed.
I could have clung to my old ways. After all, those ways worked when I was immature. They even worked fairly well in the early part of adulthood. But as I realized who I really was, I had to make serious changes in order to be consistent with who I really am — not to be consistent with what other people expected of me.
If you know you need to change — but you refuse to get the help you need — you can be pretty certain that you’re going to be miserable until you do. You can paper over your feelings and experiences for awhile, but eventually, you will confront who you really are and you’ll be desperate to change.
If you’re not careful, though — if you cling too long to your failed old ways — it will be too late. And that is the path of ultimate regret.