Recently I was looking at my kids’ baby pictures (nah, not my kid up top), and it got me thinking about growth and maturation.
It’s amazing how much children change in those early years.
In one year they went from toothless chubby little babies who did little more than sleep, eat and poop; to little people who started to expand their world, learning to walk on unsteady little legs and exploring everything around them (often by trying to eat whatever it is).
Their photo albums are a window in time, showing milestones and transitions as the years go by. They became toilet trained, learned to talk, went off to school, learned to ride a bike, gained friends and went on vacations.
With the turn of pages I saw them change, and grow.
Look at my kids, the changes in the past 10 years are significant and impossible to miss. They have gone from babies to pre-teens.
Thing is, it wasn’t just my kids that were changing during this time.
In the pictures there are others. I see myself, my wife, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, grandparents, etc. We’ve all changed, and some of those people are now even gone.
When I look at pictures of me, the changes aren’t as readily apparent as the changes in my kids. I’m definitely a bit older, with a bit more grey in my hair, and a few pounds heavier. But I look largely the same.
At a subconscious level, I think there is a notion that most of our growing is done in our early years. As children, we are in the process of becoming adults – with everything that means.
We finish high school, and probably go to university. These post high-school years are very important, as we are young adults and the world is a blank slate. We have a few years to figure out “who we want to be”, and decide on our future path.
By around our mid-twenties, we usually have this figured out. School is done and we are starting careers, and often families.
We’re adults now, and we’ve made it!!!
We’re on a path (whatever it may be); and we are a finished product – or at least pretty close. At this point who “we” are internally is seen as set. We have established our identity, and any changes from here on are incremental and largely superficial, more the result of age than of any real growth.
I’m not sure if most people have really thought through this idea that our identities are established by our mid-twenties, but I think at some level most of us believe this (I know I did).
And I think this idea is totally wrong.
Who Am I?
One of my recurring themes in these pages is identity, and the question “who am I?”
I think this is a really important question, with far reaching implications on our lives. But at the same time it’s a question for which there aren’t any easy answers.
What exactly are we? Are we just a collection of the different roles we play? Are we a combination of interests and hobbies? Of habits?
All of these things make up components of who we are, and if we strip those away then what is left?
Our personality? Our moral core?
Even these things don’t really seem “fixed”. Sometimes peoples personalities have dramatic changes due to traumatic experience.
While trying to understand what we are, it truly seems to me that much of what we are is learned. In fact I often think of people as the sum of their experiences. We are shaped by everything we go through, and if our experiences had been different we likely wouldn’t be the same person we are today.
And our experiences never stop, no matter what age we are. So although it may feel like we’ve stopped changing and growing when we became an adult, that’s not true.
We’re still changing all the time, sometimes in big ways and other times in small ones. The changes just aren’t as easy to see as when we are kids. We may no longer have noticeable physical changes, but the changes inside of us are always happening.
Relationships and Change
This idea of change as adults can have adverse impacts on relationships.
Sometimes couples get into a spot where they wake up one day and feel they no longer recognize the other person, and you hear things like “He/she isn’t the person I married.”
If you feel that way guess what, you’re right. And guess what, you aren’t either.
As the years go by, you each experience things that change you. Hopefully you are able to change and grow together, and hold onto the love and bond that brought you together. But it’s also possible for you to change in ways that pull you apart.
Change is going to happen.
To stay together you need to find ways to continue to learn each other, and continue to fall in love with each “new version” of your partner as the years go by. You may not like everything, and you don’t have to. But you need to accept that they are growing, not expect them to always be the exact same person they were when you first met.
Paradoxically, although we are always changing we have a tendency to get “stuck” in routines and patterns that are unhealthy for relationships. And once in these routines, it often feels like things are hopeless and things will never be able to change for the better. We get into these downward spirals where it can feel like the only choice left is to leave the relationship.
Often this is because we feel like the issues are due to fundamental differences between people. Things that are “just the way they are”, or “just the way WE are”.
Change is a funny thing, because it can threaten us if someone has changed too much or in ways we don’t like. But it can also restrict us, as we can feel stuck in situations where change doesn’t seem possible, and where there is no hope of improvement.
Part of us wants stability. We have visions on what we want things to look like, and we want it to be that way forever.
But really, the one constant in life is change so we need to accept it.
And when situations feel hopeless, we have to recognize that change CAN always happen.
Much of what we “are” is learned, and that means it can be unlearned and new paths can be found.
Change is hard though so often it won’t happen until we have real reason for it to happen, because someone has to WANT it to happen.
In relationships, much of how we act and interact is actually skills that we have developed subconsciously over time. But instead of thinking of them as skills, we think of them as personal characteristics or traits.
How we communicate, how we deal with conflict, how we cope with stress. These things aren’t inherent. They aren’t who we are. They are “part” of who we are, and they are part of who we have been. Additionally, after many years these learned behaviors can be difficult to change.
Is This REALLY Who I Am?
To anyone who says “this is just who/how I am,” I say no – this is who you are today. Tomorrow has yet to happen. It’s a blank slate, and it’s up to you to decide how you want it to look.
Anything can change, and anything can get better.
If we feel stuck, our relationships can improve, and we can also improve.
We shouldn’t have to change for someone else, but that shouldn’t be how we look at change. If we take a hard look at ourselves and are able to identify attitudes or aspects of our personality that are causing us problems, why would we want to improve?
Shouldn’t we always strive to be the best possible version of ourselves? And if those improvements also help reduce conflict in our relationships, all the better.
We aren’t a constant – we are always growing and always becoming. Being an adult doesn’t mean our growth and development is done. It never stops, it just slows down a bit and becomes harder to see.
So instead of saying “this is just who I am” ask yourself, who do you want to become?