When I think of my life just a few years ago, the answer is a definite yes. Unlike today, I was depressed and miserable, drinking and smoking a lot, and acted in ways that were needy, unpleasant, and often outright hostile.
Just looking at my old photos you can see there was something wrong.
Some folks might have called me toxic back then, and for good reasons. I certainly did behave in at least a few toxic ways. I felt like a fraud studying computer science and not being effortlessly great at this, and would respond with a litany of insults to anyone who reminded me of it. I’d have an open war with my roommate, and spent a lot of time planning the perfect revenge.
It’s hard for me to relate to who I used to be
I cringe whenever Facebook reminds me of an old post. With a few notable exceptions, I’m almost always complaining about insignificant things.
I like to think about myself as a reasonable grownup person who behaves in mature and compassionate ways. I like to think I’ve always been this way, and any proof to the contrary makes me panic a little bit, even after all these years. A part of me still worries everyone would instantly abandon me if they found out how horrible I was.
You know what didn’t help me become a better person? The thing that people tried the most. Moralizing.
Every time someone called me a bad person or delivered a sermon about how I should behave, I would push back with at least equal force hoping they would fuck off. I was already painfully aware of my flaws and hated myself for them. Why would I need another person hating me for these too?
I’ve only started acting differently once someone gave me the benefit of doubt, and treated me like I was already reasonable and trustworthy before I “deserved” it. Like my boss giving me promotion and trusting I’d earn the qualifications required for it, they appealed to the responsible side of me I hadn’t known before, and I wanted to go above and beyond and prove I can live up to their expectations.
If you want to change someone, treat them like they’ve already changed
This means no moralizing, no complaining about their bad behavior, no gossip behind their backs.
But it also means keeping them accountable for their action rather than swiping problems under the rug. It’s treating them like the grownup adult they are, fully capable of taking responsibility of their lives with your love and support. It’s setting up the whole environment for success, and then giving honest, critical feedback because you know they can do better.
I was lucky I got this kind of support
Many people have gone through their whole lives without someone taking a chance on them. Many people saw someone taking a chance on them, and ran away panicked. After a lifetime of believing you’re a useless piece of crap, it’s challenging to think you might actually be able to live up to someone’s expectations. Sometimes you’re so afraid of screwing it up, that you screw it up almost on purpose.
Only now that I don’t fear anymore that I might come back to terrible behaviors if I let myself loose, I have the space to acknowledge the desperate place I was in. By doing so, I can hold that space for people who are currently on a similar journey.
When I see someone lashing out for no reason at all, I don’t have to assume they are toxic. I know people usually do that when they feel like they’re drowning, and are trying to hold onto anything that would keep them afloat.
When I see someone make choices I wouldn’t approve of, I can respect their decision without taking responsibility for it, knowing that you can’t change anyone against their own will.
When I see someone depressed and miserable, I don’t have to try to “fix” them. I can let them know I too have been in a similar hell, and found my way out of it, but most importantly just be with them right in this miserable state.
People do change sometimes. But it’s not my job to make them.
All I can do is to imagine that a better version of them is possible, and treat them as if they’ve already become the person who embodies it. I’ll be delighted if they choose to join me and start working towards that vision, but I’ll respect their choice either way.
This is of course easier said than done. I still often get upset about people’s decisions, and then complain about them to anyone who is still willing to listen. I know it changes nothing, but the urge is too strong.
So if you hear me complaining about anyone or anything at all, feel free to remind me what a useless thing it is. I don’t want to waste any more of my time or attention on the things I don’t want. There is enough of things I do want to keep me busy for the rest of my life.
You know what happened to the girl from that photo? This is her, 10 years later. This smile is the surest proof that people do change sometimes.