Are We Really Just Trying to Get off the Hook?


The only person we can change is ourselves. Right?

The Typical Sell
I’ve read through a slew of books of all different types – fiction, improvement, success, biographies, and more. One of the types of books I most often read are success books.

It is not uncommon in these books to read about taking responsibility and realizing that the only person we can change is ourselves. There’s an important truth there. We can’t change other people.

After all, as I read one of these books, and I’m struggling with Suzy at work, I can’t change her, right? The only person I can change is me, correct?

A Different Perspective
Although it’s true that we can’t change other people, there are a couple of holes in this approach. The first is that there are a lot of things we already require Suzy to do in order to be employed at company XYZ.

She can’t physically harm people. She can’t break the law. She has to abide by company policy. If she normally grabs whatever food she wants in her fridge at home, but only touches her own food in the company fridge, we are already requiring her to do something differently than she normally would. It seems we have made Suzy comply with certain behaviors. And chances are, she has no concerns about doing so (although some might).

Following the mantra that we can only change ourselves seems like a shallow perspective; it doesn’t sound like the approach of the unselfish. If you told me that John struggles to concentrate at work because my music is too loud, I would realize that there are options I can employ to make both John and myself happy. I would be happy to comply with them, as would most people. To assume that I don’t want to change to help those around me be more content and successful paints a somewhat selfish picture of me.

Benevolent Intent
When we think about how others react, we have to start by assuming benevolent intent. Is Suzy really that difficult to get along with or are we just coming from different angles? Perhaps she wants to get along as well, but she simply never saw it from my perspective.

We often want the same things, we simply approach it different ways. Most of us want a great workplace and home life where everyone is happy, not just ourselves.

When we tell people they can only change themselves, perhaps we are simply looking for the easy solution.

The Trap of “Easy”
It might sound good to say “the only person you can change is yourself”. At the same time, when we begin to talk in sound bites, it’s a strong clue that we need to take a second look. Using a cliché means that we are using pre-packaged words without thinking them through. Is it really true, and, more importantly, is it the way we want to choose to live?

If my partner is doing something that causes me grief, it is better for me to say something and try to improve that relationship. If my coworker is doing something that makes it difficult to be productive, it is better for me to say something and try to improve our business relationship.

If someone tells me “you can only change yourself”, perhaps they could dig a little deeper and really see if there are some ways everyone can come to a better understanding of each other and perhaps they want to make that change.

Let’s Do This the Right Way
We don’t live in a vacuum. To say “you can only change yourself” has a strong whiff of egoism. There are billions of people on this planet. Yes, we can only change ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we don’t strive to work with people so everyone can improve. To say “you can only change yourself” focuses all attention on oneself. Perhaps there is a better way.

In this situation, you should ask, what’s the best solution? Is it for just you to change? If there are other options, wouldn’t it be better to talk with other people and gain their perspective as well? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone involved to come up with better solutions?

“You can only change yourself” is meant to show you to take personal responsibility. You should. But you should do it not by focusing only on yourself and your own stuff, but on everyone as a team. Discuss solutions with the team. Listen. Work together for a common good.

It’s better to focus on everyone involved. We aren’t the only people in the world. Let’s work together so we can all share the joy of improving our world and our situation.

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About the author

David is a father, speaker, blogger (obviously), and author of How to Create Amazing Presentations sharing the tools, tips, and techniques of the experts to make you an amazing presenter, 7 Steps to Better Relationships built on the stories and lessons on this blog with seven easy steps to help you maximize your interactions with the people you care about most, and The Man in the Pit to help you care for loved ones struggling with depression.

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