A few weeks back, a friend of mine was talking to me about the end of a relationship he had been in for a few years. As he was describing it from his standpoint, he said she “couldn’t just love him for who he was.”
That same week I had another conversation with someone who had lost his job, apparently because of his attitude and inability to get along with some of his colleagues. “I was just keeping it real and saying what’s on my mind,” he told me. “If they can’t respect that, I don’t know what else I could have done.”
There is a pervasive view that people need to accept other people unequivocally for who they are. To expect you to act in a way contrary to your nature or to change who you are as a person is a completely unreasonable demand.
I couldn’t disagree more, for four reasons:
- There are aspects of your character or life that aren’t awesome.
- You are not one person.
- You are not immutable – most of the traits that make up who you think you are? They’re changeable.
- It is appropriate for people to expect things of you, to want you to be better than what you are.
You aren’t that awesome.
The human condition is one of self-delusion.
- We think we’re more attractive than we really are (especially if we’re young).
- We think we’re more generous than we really are.
- We think we have more self control than we really do.
- We consistently justify our actions and beliefs to line up with our rosy self-narrative.
When your girlfriend tells you you’re too quick to anger or you don’t show her you love her enough, she’s probably right. When your boss tells you you are lazy and undisciplined, he or she is probably right. When your buddies tell you you’re arrogant or selfish, they’re probably right.
It’s hard to hear we’re not all we think we are. But it’s critical we have a feedback loop to call us out, because we’re simply incapable of seeing ourselves as we truly are.
The thing is you know this already. There’s a reason self improvement is one of the most popular sections in the bookstore. You’re willing to listen to some author tell you that you’re not all that hot – why can’t you listen to people who truly know you?
This need is magnified for people who are high achievers. It can be easy to get used to hearing about how talented and smart you are, which makes seeing your flaws even more difficult.
When Roman generals would return after a successful campaign, they were welcomed with a huge parade with thousands of Roman citizens cheering and showering them with gifts. To keep themselves in check, one of their servants rode in the chariot with them, whispering in their ears, “All glory is fleeting.”
There is certainly a need for discernment here – some people truly are toxic and make themselves feel better by ripping others apart. You shouldn’t listen to these people, and then probably remove them from your life.
But most people who are close to you don’t fit this description. It’s more likely the criticism is coming from people who love you and want you to be flourish.
You are multiple people.
When people argue others should love them for who they are, they’re ignoring the fact that there are a multitude of people living inside of them, battling for control.
When you take up a new exercise regime you a war rages between Fat You and Skinny You. Fat You says that it’s cold outside and it’s going to hurt and the blankets are nice and who cares if you miss a day? Skinny You says that you’ll be happier, have more energy, be a better lover and be more likely to play with your kids. Each day you have to decide whether Fat You or Skinny You is going to win.
You are a bundle of paradoxes. You’re excited and depressed. You’re organized and a slob. You hope and you fear. You’re a good person who fights with greed and arrogance and anger and pettiness on a daily basis.
So when you want someone to love you for who you are, which one of you are you talking about?
Most of who you are is changeable.
I’m not the person I was five years ago. Neither are you.
The argument that someone should just love you for who you are is foolish because who you are right now is different from who you used to be and who you will become in the future. You are constantly in flux.
This isn’t to say there aren’t non-negotiable or fundamental aspects to who were are as people, but there are far fewer than we think there are.
People love to hear anyone can be creative. They hate to hear anyone can be organized.
In my past I’ve had some terrible habits. I spent money foolishly. My life reflected a general state of disorder and chaos. I didn’t have goals or areas of priority. I procrastinated regularly.
None of those were fundamental parts of who I am, and I’ve managed to gain a degree of control over most of them. As a result, my life is more in control, more focused, more fulfilling and more peaceful than it was five years ago, in spite of the increase in activity and obligation.
I still have bad habits. I have yet to master the snooze button. I am too short with people when I disagree. I still dominate too many conversations, and I don’t listen nearly enough.
But I know those aren’t part of who I am. Those are bad habits that can be fixed, and I’m working to fix them the same way I fixed how I handled my money or time management challenges.
Lots of people tell others and themselves “I’m just a disorganized person” or “I get on edge when I get hungry – it just happens” or “I can’t help it if I’m blunt.”
Ten years ago I was obsessed about achievement. Being successful dominated my thoughts and was the governing force in my life.
Some people don’t find anything wrong with that, and back then I didn’t either. But my life had little balance because of it. I wasn’t a very good friend or a very good son because of it. And it reflected a lack of understanding about what actually matters in life.
These days I still work hard, but my values are much different. I work hard because God gave me certain gifts and put me in the richest country in the history of the world and I feel an obligation to make good use of the gifts and privileges I’ve been given. I work hard because I want to provide for my family. I work hard so my employees can have good, fulfilling jobs.
It’s possible your values are wrong. It’s almost certainly true your values are going to change.
I am a Christian and believe in the immutable nature of morality. But I don’t think that means I have consistently correct beliefs about morality. I have blind spots that I hope to remove over time.
Ten years ago I had much less compassion for the poor and issues of social justice than I do now. I had a warped view of the importance of money and achievement. I didn’t think that AIDS or the plight of people in Africa or the hatred of homosexuals was my problem. I’m not proud of any of that, but thankfully in each of those areas my beliefs have shifted.
For people who believe in objective morality like I do, this one is tough. It requires a willingness to simultaneously have strong convictions about your beliefs while maintaining the humility that you might be wrong and will probably understand certain things differently with time.
For everyone, it’s likely you don’t believe the same things you believed when you were a kid or when you were in college. The state of flux might decrease but won’t stop – you’re going to believe different things in 10 years than you do now.
People have a right to expect more from you.
Not everyone, of course. But I would argue the closer you are to someone in relationship, the more of an obligation you have to humbly listen to them and accept their feedback.
The irony of this is that we seem to be more sensitive to the opinions of people who don’t even know us. People aggressively monitor and manage their social reputations online, but bristle at the tiniest piece of feedback from those closest to them.
You can complain about your boss all you want. But you were hired to get a job done. You were hired by a company that has certain standards of performance and values it cares about.
There might be certain things you truly can’t change about yourself or things you find morally objectionable, in which case your best option is probably to leave. But in most cases, you should probably listen to your boss or colleagues with a humble spirit. A good boss wants to help you develop and grow into a more capable team member, and growth requires changing who you are now to become a better version of yourself.
Likewise, close friends and romantic partners should have your ear. If you’re dating someone who you think might be marriage or long term relationship material, you should stop bristling when they admonish you for bad behavior.
The best way I’ve found to create a spirit of humility in romantic relationships is to adopt a servant mentality. Instead of asking what she could be doing for me, I try to actively look for ways I can better show her I love her. With this mindset, it’s more likely I’ll want to change a bad habit she routinely complains about. I’m more likely to take a proactive role in becoming a better husband.
The best relationships I’ve observed have this spirit. Both partners mutually submit themselves to each other. They listen with loving hearts when the other tells them that a behavior or habit hurts them. They create a virtuous cycle where they’re continually looking to love the other one better.
The next time you find yourself wishing someone loved you for who you are, check yourself. It’s likely you’re trying to justify something about yourself that isn’t that great. Have the courage to examine yourself thoughtfully, to humbly receive feedback from those close to you, to recognize it’s most likely changeable, and to have the conviction to make change happen.