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Transformation Backlash

by Deah Curry, PhD

It’s often seen in family, work and friendship systems that when one member starts to change, there is impact on other members of the system. Although the personal rewards of self-improvement include becoming more emotionally healthy, gaining greater self-empowerment, and developing deeper spiritual consciousness, the risks can show up as transformation backlash, or resistance.

Your family, work and friendship systems are used to how you were, and they aren’t sure how to react to this new person you are becoming. You may not be quite sure just how to put your inner transformation into outer actions and responses as well.

Systems—especially families—resist in a number of ways. They protest by complaining to you or about you. They argue about your right to change or your view of what’s in your best interest. They may sabotage your progress in open or hidden ways. Or, they might ignore you for a while, hoping you’ll change back to being the way that is comfortable for them. After all you aren’t the person they’ve known, and confusion is likely for everyone.

In the workplace, institutionalized resistance can take the form of indirect complaints to the boss, poor performance reviews, reprimands, probations, and even termination. In some peer relationships, your growth process can stimulate concern. Casual acquaintances may simply withdraw from interacting as frequently as usual. But positive secondary transformations are possible in closer relationships, as true friends seek ways to adjust to the shifts in you by making beneficial changes in themselves. Mutual changes can be fun and rewarding as both of you grow stronger in your new identities.

Transformation backlash may be especially noticeable when changes involve becoming more assertive or open if you’ve formerly been timid, introverted, non-disclosing, or overly laid back. In such cases, part of the growth process entails learning how to maintain your new skills in the face of opposition, and realizing that your hard-won ability to engage in authentic self-expression is not received with as much welcomed delight as you would like.

Mother-Daughter Personal Growth Clash

Janet and her mom have never seen eye to eye. As a child Janet felt that expressing herself was met with criticism and disapproval. As a result Janet developed a relationship style in which she found it unsafe to voice her opinions. Becoming unafraid of expressing her thoughts was an early goal when she started her personal growth journey.

As Janet practiced speaking up for her preferences, this verbal risk-taking brought some anticipated backlash. For example, when she relayed her need to keep phone calls short, Janet’s mom responded with a critical tone, “You’re always thinking just of yourself.”

But Janet had also learned new communication skills that helped her hear the insecurity and loneliness behind her mother’s negativity. By reassuring her mom that shorter calls would help her want to call more often, her mother was able to feel valued, and thereby relax her defensive fears. Eventually, as Janet exercised this new sensitivity muscle, their relationship improved.

Being a New You at an Old Job

Many of us present a version of ourselves on the job that isn’t our whole self, particularly if we have learned in our families that being fully visible leads to painful rejections. Self-improvement work that changes how we interact with others in the workplace can cause some unpleasant instances of backlash.

For example, Helen engaged in personal growth to increase her self-confidence and ability to set good boundaries. As she improved her skills and gained better self-assurance, she began letting her boss know when his demands for her to work extra hours without extra pay and doing tasks that were beneath her job description were unacceptable.

Not surprisingly, he didn’t like this new Helen who was more assertive, and her next performance review reflected the backlash. But Helen, feeling better about herself and having a more accurate picture of her true career goals than she’d ever had before, saw this as a sign that she really needed a job where she would have more decision-making authority, and could exercise all of her impressive knowledge instead of the small bits she was able to use in that position. She started a job search, and soon landed much more satisfying employment.

Friendship Maintenance

One notorious TV psychologist likes to say that we teach others how to treat us. We do that by how we keep boundaries, and speak up for ourselves — two common needs for people entering personal growth work. We do it also by how we nurture and encourage, and by the type of emotional energy used in each interaction.

It can be easier with friends than with family or co-workers to exercise newly developed self-improvement skills, although not everyone will automatically adjust with patience and understanding. How we negotiate getting mutual needs met can turn risks into rewards, and minimize transformation backlash. Explicitly exploring those needs may feel scary at first, but with a little practice it can lead to more satisfying relationships and personal empowerment.

Expressing oneself differently is a big topic that can’t be fully outlined here, but these “conversation starters” might help:

"I’m trying hard to change X and I’d like your help; is this a good time to hear me out?"

"I’ve been feeling A about B, and I’m needing to talk about it; is that okay with you?"

"I’m aware I’ve been acting differently lately, and I appreciate your patience; can I tell you more about what’s going on with me?"

"I’ve been thinking what I really need from you right now is Z; would you be willing to do that for me?"

Fearing transformation backlash often sabotages our own growth efforts — it’s easy and comfortable to remain at our established levels of dealing with life. But anticipating backlash and learning new skills to deal with it contribute to becoming more self-empowered — the fundamental reward of all self-improvement journeys.

If you struggle with becoming self-assertive, or suffer from self-improvement backlash, I’d like to help. Further details are available in a free report through my websites. With 17 years as a psychotherapist and the perspective of a life coach, I’ve helped many people achieve personal growth and transformation. For appointments and Kirkland WA office location call 425-814-9083 or send email to DrDeah@ deahcurry.net. For more details see www.InnerJourney Work.com and www.DeahCurry.net

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