When Others Think Your Growth is a Step Backward


Last summer, I chose to step down from leading a discussion group. I was no longer sure I fully agreed with some aspects of the beliefs and teachings held by the organization. For a time, I’d tried to avoid showing how I had changed. I didn’t want to risk losing relationships. I didn’t want them to think less of me. So I pretended. I played my role .

After a while, however, I couldn’t stand the difference between who I was and who I was pretending to be. In my attempts to fit in, I was reinforcing to myself that I didn’t belong. I was feeling increasingly resentful and cynical and lonely, while externally pretending everything was fine.

When I shared my decision with the woman who would need to find my replacement, I think we both agreed I had changed. The way she saw that change, however, was very different from the way I saw it.

To her, I was floundering and needed rest, encouragement, challenge, and guidance to get back to where I was supposed to be. According to what she believed was right and true, my growth looked like a step backward. She tried to support me in getting back to the way things were.

To me, I was stepping into something new while grieving a way of being that I’d outgrown and fearing I might lose people I love along with it. I needed strength, courage, and resilience to keep moving into a life that felt less certain but more full of possibility, hope, and truth instead of retreating back to a version of myself I knew would be accepted. My understanding had expanded. I’d have to wall off a part of myself in order to go back to the way things were.

We’ve talked about how growth and change can be uncomfortable . It’s important to remember that the ways we change can also be uncomfortable for those around us. As we grow, some of the people around us will be excited and encouraging. Others, unfortunately, may try to change us back to the way we were for any number of reasons.

People get used to us being a certain way. It can feel scary when we begin to speak and act in ways they don’t expect. Sometimes our growth changes the power dynamic in a relationship. The people around us might lose a sense of control when our interactions no longer go the way they’ve always gone.

Our growth can highlight that they haven’t grown in the same way. A change in us can feel like a criticism of them. Just as we may fear losing relationships if we let people see how we’ve changed, others may worry that the changes in us mean we’re leaving them behind.

Anything new has the potential to feel scary. Whether outright or more subtly, intentionally or unconsciously, the people around us sometimes demand we change back. They want us to change back to someone who feels predictable and safe. They want us to change back in order to protect us or to ease their own discomfort.

The problem is, when we oblige, we give them power to tell us who we are and we reinforce to ourselves that their approval is more important than our growth . If we establish a pattern that we will go back to the way we were anytime someone raises an objection, we likely won’t grow very much. We’re actually teaching people to push back anytime we change because we’re showing them that it will work.

So what do we do?

One of the most important things we can do is to stand firm. It’s so tempting to go back to the way things were to ease the tension in the relationship. It’s easy to second guess ourselves when those around us tell us our growth is actually a step backwards. While push back can be frustrating and painful, it becomes a little easier to navigate if we know to expect it.

We take the risk to grow because the way things were wasn’t ideal. Even if we were fairly content, there’s always room for more growth. Once we’ve grown and expanded ourselves in some way, we can no longer fit where we used to be without losing part of ourselves. If we try, we’re likely to end up feeling resentful, stuck, and unseen.

The thing is, change feels uncomfortable at first, but over time our new way of being will become more normal —for us and for those around us. The only way to build those new habits and ways of interacting is to stick with it through the discomfort.

It can be hard to see our growth making someone we care about uncomfortable. We might criticize ourselves for not being able to help them understand or for not being able to find a way to protect them. We might start to believe we’re selfish for choosing to grow.

Likewise, we may feel anger, disappointment, or resentment when we are not shown the encouragement and support we long for. We may grow impatient when others can’t seem to understand what has become so clear to us. We may fear losing the relationship if we don’t meet their demand to change back.

A lot of advice would tell you to just not care what anyone thinks . That doesn’t work for me. I do care. I have to admit that I want to be liked. Also, it matters to me how my choices impact those around me. One of my top core values is connection, which doesn’t coexist well with refusing to care what anyone else thinks. Caring, however, isn’t the same as giving in.

Standing our ground doesn’t mean we have to be unkind. Dismissal, criticism, or harsh words are likely to do more to deepen the division between us than to bridge it. We can be kind to ourselves and to those affected by our growth. We can listen to what the other person is saying to us and even to the voices in our heads without taking everything we hear as truth.

Kindness doesn’t mean backing down. Kindness often means standing firm to do what we believe is best while treating each person, including ourselves, with dignity.

Showing kindness when others push back against our growth can take many forms. There isn’t a formula that tells us how to speak and act in every situation. These times of transitions can feel tricky to navigate, but sometimes kindness can be as simple as acknowledging that change is hard .

I’d love to know…when has someone pushed back against your growth? How did you respond? What helps you stand your ground without being unkind?