The New You: Handling Change-Back Attacks

Imagine this: You’re putting together a nifty jigsaw puzzle—say, your favorite Elvis montage painting on black velvet—when one of the pieces suddenly morphs into an entirely different shape. Aside from the unnerving quantum-mechanical implications of this event, you’ve got a problem—the surrounding pieces no longer fit. You could try to alter those pieces (a troubling prospect, since it will require distorting all the ones around them) or give up on the puzzle entirely—unless, of course, you could get the little sucker to resume its former shape and size.

This sort of situation arises in every human life. We live in social systems—families and neighborhoods, offices and nations—that call for continuous, complex interconnection. Any person who undergoes a dramatic shift creates a ripple effect, requiring change from others around her. The fact that you’re reading this suggests that you’re inclined toward personal growth. I’m guessing you’ve been this way for years, whether it’s a trait you celebrate every day or a dirty secret you ruminate over while churning butter with your Amish kinfolk. The problem, as you may have noticed, is that not everyone you know, love, or work with is overjoyed to tread the path of change along with you.

Because we are a species that fears the unknown, most people reject the continuous transformation that is human reality and try to lock others into predictable behavior. “Promise me that you’ll never change,” lovers whisper to one another, though only a model from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum could keep such an enormous promise. In short, anyone who thinks new thoughts or does new deeds is likely to garner disapproval and criticism from someone.

How to Handle a Change-Back Attack

Women who are undergoing changes are likely to experience “change back” messages from their nearest and dearest. The messages come in many forms: sabotage, cold silence, shouted insults, refusal to cooperate. But all convey just one idea: “I don’t like what you’ve done. Go back to being the way you were.” This might seem baffling in the face of positive achievements like losing weight, falling in love, or learning new ideas.

But change-back attackers aren’t really thinking about the person they’re pressuring. They’re fighting for their lives—or at least life as they know it. These people are motivated not only by their own fear of change but by the pressure of other “puzzle pieces” that surround them. The force of a change-back attack has the weight of all those relationships. Resist successfully, and you may end up affecting people you’ll never meet.

First, a basic attitude adjustment: Most people who are on the receiving end of change-back messages go into fits of guilt or defensiveness, then revert to familiar behaviors. This, of course, is exactly what the disgruntled party wants. Part of every personal evolution strategy should be a determination to greet these messages with pride and joy, as a sure sign you’re making progress. Call a friend, a therapist, a fellow self-improvement devotee, and report the good news: “Guess what? I just got six blowbacks in one conversation! I must really be making progress!” Once you’ve made this attitudinal shift, you’re ready for a systematic defense.

Begin Your Systematic Defense

Step 1: Pay respectful attention.
When someone launches a change-back attack against you, refrain from resisting or submitting; just pay attention. Remember that whether you realize it or not, your actions may be forcing this friend to either make personal alterations or give up on “fitting” with you. Noticing their fear may calm you, and this may go a long way toward calming them.

If someone comes at you with a direct, obstreperous argument, try these unexpected, attentive responses: “Tell me.” “I’m listening.” “I hear you.” “Say a little bit more on that.” Attentiveness is a mobile, fluid stance that allows you to observe and respond without sustaining much damage. As Mark Twain said about doing right, it will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

Step 2: Take time to find your truth.
So you’ve paid attention. You know that the bag of bacon cheeseburgers on the table is just evidence that your loving husband is afraid he’ll lose you. You’ve listened calmly as your angry teenager or judgmental parent lambasted you for your new achievements. Find a private moment for yourself. Now breathe and relax. Recall the chain of events that motivated your metamorphosis in the first place: the fat, the loneliness, the illumination. Honestly consider the feedback you’ve just received. Maybe it feels absolutely right; if so, reverse course. Maybe it’s partly right. Fine, alter your direction. Or maybe the complaint is just plain wrong. In that case, you must keep going, trusting that the best gift you can offer others is the resolute embrace of your own truth.

Step 3: State your position for the record.
If your change-back attacker is sober and in a reasonably receptive frame of mind, you may want to respond to her argument. Even when you’re dealing with a nasty, non-communicative person, stating your position may be a powerful step in your own development. It may not make the slightest impression on your unrelenting foes, but hearing the truth spoken in your own voice can clear your head and buoy your heart, at which point you’ll have won the battle.

Vanquish Your Change-Back Attackers

Step 4: Unconditional Love
There’s a secret weapon in the change wars, one that can fill the gaps and soften the edges of our constantly morphing identities—and I don’t mean leaving your whole social system or forcing others to conform to you at every moment in time. The answer is unconditional love, and I encourage you to use it with ruthless abandon.

You’ll know you’ve vanquished your change-back attackers when you can love them completely without agreeing with them at all. You can’t force this feeling—it will happen naturally when you’re ready—but when it strikes, express it, without acquiescing to others’ verbal jabs. Doing this cheerfully and unabashedly will confound your average saboteurs by giving them nothing to oppose.

At best, this approach will cause your adversaries to stop, ponder, and perhaps feel less scared of making their own improvements. At worst, it will render you flexible, able to fit in with many people and social systems without getting stuck in any one position. The more you claim your own destiny, the easier it will be to love unconditionally. The more you love, the more comfortably you’ll fit in with all sorts of people. Ultimately, situations that once brought on horrendous change-back attacks, that once appeared to you as utterly unworkable puzzles, may end up barely fazing you at all.

25 replies
  1. Ben
    Ben says:

    Really enjoyed this Martha — especially the concluding idea, which is pretty powerful but perhaps too rich to capture in a paragraph or two. This idea of a “change-back attack,” do you think it’s more common among female same-sex friends? Can you expound with an example?

    • Dianna Lindsay
      Dianna Lindsay says:

      I’m not Martha but I definitely do not believe the “change-back attack” action is more common among female same-sex friends. I actually think it’s more common between husband and wife. People grow and change at different rates and major changes can threaten the relationship. So this is great advice from Martha to help us all work through this in a way to save our relationships, male and female.

      • Mindy
        Mindy says:

        I could not agree more Dianna. I am in the middle of this myself and am so grateful for Martha’s words of validation. So much change has happened in my life over the last year or so that it is resulting in situations as Martha mentions above. And ultimately the best response is the unconditionally love. I am not sure I am totally there yet but getting closer. My responses are far calmer and many times I just don’t engage and and give my husband space to sort out. Quite a journey!

  2. Alice
    Alice says:

    LOVE this. As a life coach whose reinvented herself… your words are both reassuring and a great tool kit for anyone in the process.

    Reinventing our relationships is equally complicated as tranforming any area of our life.

    Bravo Martha for breaking it down and showing everyone how to win through the process.

  3. Catherine
    Catherine says:

    Step-4 ::: Oh, how I hope to get there soon, although I know it will come when it’s right to.

    Thanks for continuing to work on your great gift of insight, Martha!

  4. Tammy Miller
    Tammy Miller says:

    Dearest Martha,
    I find that the hardest part of living my life right now is how much it goes against the grain of normalcy. I love the focus of using unconditional love with ruthless abandon. That and acceptance will keep me going when at times I feel like I’m climbing a mountain looking for MY path. Keep going!! Thanks for what you do!!

  5. Beth
    Beth says:

    Thank you for that piece. I think I am most appreciative that you create a language and framework for talking about what is happening. I find that sometimes I’m experiencing something, but there hasn’t been language or vocabulary to describe it. I’ve read weight loss theory books that talk about having a saboteur, but not about why that is happening or how to talk about it.

    The other piece to this I think is related to how people “re-enter” when they’ve had a big experience that will likely begin them on the road to change. Such as attending a multi-day retreat. And they (me) enter back into my home, family, work, friends with a new found enthusiasm and zest that they were not part of because they were continuing on with laundry, homework, reports, and day-to-day. I’ve found that in those situations, sharing my experience and insights can sometimes suck some of the power and energy out of the experience and leave me insecure about continuing. Another type of “change back” situation but with similar results. I had a facilitator talk a lot about “planning for re-entry” and now I do the same in all my facilitation and coaching.

    Any thoughts on that?

  6. Maria
    Maria says:

    Dear Martha,
    Thanks so much for this beautifully written essay. And everything else you’ve written. Your writing and wisdom is such a gift to others. I’m already well on the other side of a major life transformation/evolution for the better, but it’s wonderful to read these words of reassurance, guidance, and comfort. I left the Catholic church and married a divorced Methodist and finally spoke my own truth to my conservative mean family. They stopped speaking to me, but I stayed civil and loving toward them and continue to be here for them and send them messages of love. I still have great relationships with my nieces and nephews who are in my tribe. I’ve finally stopped trying to get them to lighten up, so now I’m free from anger and anxiety. Going through my grief and acceptance and love of myself and them has been the only way to go. I’m now working on extending my new attitude to friends and complete strangers which I’ve noticed blows back a lot when I speak my truth. Thank you so much! for all of your writing and support to those of us who are trying to live from our heart of hearts.
    Lots of Love and Peace,
    Maria Louise Smith Kilmer,
    Bham, AL.
    My usual email salutation to all:
    Please support education and health care for all.

  7. Terrie
    Terrie says:

    The following quote really resonated with me: “The more you claim your own destiny, the easier it will be to love unconditionally.” (Martha Beck)

    Inspirational!! Thank you

  8. Colleen Wiebe
    Colleen Wiebe says:

    Oh Martha, I am just so grateful to have this place to go. I am experiencing this exact thing with my husband and have been pushing forward just because I have to, I simply have to. That is how it feels anyway. Thank you

  9. Kathy Whitham
    Kathy Whitham says:

    I loved “take time to find your truth” So often in my quest for self- growth I have taken every message as if it;s about me and how I still need to change myself…it’s subtle but what opened up to me in your post was the possibility of shades of grey and curiosity about what I need to let go of/feel safe about in order ot admit these shades of grey. Thank you…perfect timing!

  10. Marcia
    Marcia says:

    Thank you Martha for once again explaining what is hard to explain. I have been working on myself most of my adult life and I have come across this many times with my family. It’s really nice to hear from you how to manage these negative comments, and to see I was doing it right by not attacking them back. I loved your ending comments too. Have a awesome day Martha!

  11. Argery
    Argery says:

    Well stated. And, I agree. What about extereme personalities who just don’t or won’t get it–who are resistant to the point of being demeaning, verbally or emotionally abusive? Isn’t it sometimes necessary to take a hard stance for yourself and cut ties altogether in those circumstaces?

  12. Sapphire
    Sapphire says:


    Thanks so much Martha, your beautiful writings have been, and are, an enormous support, for me on my adventures ..

    Arohanui, much love, Sapphire


  13. Lisa Landry
    Lisa Landry says:

    I love Martha Beck’s words. This is a great article, as it helps you to realize others wiggle while we change, and that is okay. Acceptance, surrender, letting go!

  14. Elise
    Elise says:

    Merci beaucoup pour votre article. Cela tombe à point avec ce que je vis présentement. Vous m’aidez à mieux comprendre ce qui m’arrive et comment agir avec mon entourage. J’aime beaucoup votre style d’écriture et votre humour également. Continuez votre bon travail! 🙂

  15. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I love this. I get the most tripped up during – Find Your Truth. I get stuck in what I think is right, and it gets mashed up with my guilt/love for this person who isn’t happy with me.


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