When People Don't Notice You've Changed

This site is about interpersonal skills, but the problem this article is about has a broader reach. Often when you feel like you've changed it seems like no one else acknowledges it. You've done a lot of new things, you've put a lot of work into yourself, you feel like a different person. But everyone still treats you the same way. They still use the same annoying labels to describe you. You're still held back by your past reputation.

The need to have people acknowledge the new and improved you can be quite powerful. Sometimes this need is for a practical reason: In order to get what you want, you need people to shed their past opinions of you. For example, the way people see you may prevent you from making friends. At other times you want people to think you've changed more to heal your own ego. You want to feel like you're not the screw up you used to be, and are a little too emotionally invested in other people's feedback. If someone mentions offhand how outgoing you are it makes your day. But if an acquaintance casually tells you you're quiet, it totally deflates you. Some people even base their social changes around getting a different reaction from people.

If you're preoccupied with people seeing you a certain way, there are often a few individuals whose opinion you care about more than others. With these people you have a strong need to prove yourself to them. Maybe you respect their judgment ("If they acknowledge I've changed, then I officially have!") , or they've shunned you in the past and you feel you have to win them over out of principle ("They think I'm weird do they? Grrrr... I'll show them."). These people could be family members, people you look up to, people you see as belonging the group who used to not give you any credit, etc.

Here are my thoughts on the problem of people not noticing you've changed:

It's better if you just don't care about people noticing you've changed

And of course this is easier said than done. If you can do it though, it's so much easier if you're just not obsessed with people acknowledging how different you are now compared to before. It's better if your mark for success isn't based on outside validation. Change to be happier for yourself and to access better things in life, not so you can get approval from people so you can salve your self-esteem. That's not to say you should never care about people's feedback or opinions, but don't make it your sole reason for trying to change.

You may not have changed as much as you think

People sometimes vow to change, embark on a self-help quest, and after a few months feel like they're totally different people. Then they desperately want others to see them differently, and get peeved when nobody seems to appreciate how new and improved they are.

The reality is they haven't really changed as much as they feel they have. They've done a ton of reading and thinking about their problems. They feel like they've made huge mental breakthroughs. They've felt that mental high you get from making progress at something. But those internal feelings are out of proportion to how much they've actually fixed their problems.

Like I was saying, people are often really mentally invested in not being the person they used to be. They can fool themselves and think they've accomplished everything they need to in half a year. They can think that just because they put a lot time and of emotional effort into it, that it must have paid off. True changes are hard to make, and they don't come overnight.

Other people mostly only notice big, external changes

Although they can feel significant at the time, a lot of the changes you make are very subtle. You have to change in a specific trait quite a bit before it really starts to strike other people. That may take years. Another thing is that your internal changes aren't noticeable at all. Changing an attitude or outlook on life may feel really different to you, but if your external behaviors remain the same, it won't register with other people.

It sometimes takes a while for people to notice changes

If you've really changed, to a degree that other people will notice, they often don't pick up on it right away. Sometimes they do, but you can't count on it. Of course your ego wants them to notice instantly and give you the gratification of being told how much better you are now, but it usually takes your changes a while to sink in. Say you have a new way of acting in certain situations. If you give your new response once, other people will probably chalk it up as a one-time fluke. Do it a few more times over the next few weeks and they may get this vague inkling that something is different. Eventually it may all come together and they'll look back and notice you've actually been acting differently for the past little while.

People may also see some traits in either-or terms. Like they may divide people into sociable and withdrawn. If you're normally withdrawn, and become less so, you may still be inhibited enough to slot into the 'withdrawn' label in their mind.

A related idea is that if you've burned people in the past (perhaps by being very socially off-putting or insensitive), they may have noticed a change in you, but they're going to be understandably skeptical and wary. If you've made a bad-enough impression in the past, you may never win them over now. With other people, you have to really prove you're a different person through your actions over time before they warm up to you.

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People won't always say you've changed out loud

When you want people to acknowledge you've changed, what that means is you want them to say it out loud in front of you. But if someone notices you've changed they may not feel the need to say anything. How often do you hear people suddenly go, "Wow man, you've totally changed! And you're so much more likable and worthy now!!!"? For some people it just isn't their style to say things like that. They mention it to someone else, but not to you. They may even purposely not want to complement you or give you the satisfaction of having you know they think you've improved.

People often tend not to notice when someone changes

Our minds function in a way that can put up barriers to us noticing others have changed. If someone has a preconception that you're shy and uptight, they may ignore any behaviors of yours that are more outgoing. Naturally, as soon as you seem quiet for a second, they can say to themselves, "See? What a shy person."

Someone may also be invested in seeing you a certain way and be resistant to your changing. For example they may like a dynamic where you fall into the role of their goofy, harmless sidekick. They may feel threatened if you start being more fun and sociable. Or if you were always unassertive, a pushy person who's used to getting what they want from you may react negatively if you suddenly start to stand up for yourself. If someone else is a loser, they want to keep you down with them. More simply, someone may just feel vaguely off-balance and like they want things to be the way they've always been if you suddenly start acting differently. They could even have a worldview that "people don't change", and resist any evidence that suggests otherwise. If someone perceives you've changed in a way they don't like, the classic response is to try to force you back into your old role.

People are also, on the whole, mentally lazy. They don't have the energy to keep an eye out for every little change in how you interact with them. When they talk to you, they're often not really interacting with the real you. They're more responding to a rough impression they formed of you a while ago. Reacting to you this way may suit their purposes just fine, and they may not get anything out of scrutinizing your every action for signs you've become a new person.

You may not be interacting with people in a situation where your changes show up

Say you've spent a lot of time trying to become more comfortable talking to strangers. If you're hanging around your family or old friends, why would they notice that? Being confident with new people has nothing to do with being around people you know, so any progress you've made in that area won't be apparent to them.

You come across to every person in a different way

Depending on the context you interact with them in, and how your personalities and interests mesh up, everyone will see you a different way. Your supervisor, who you don't have a lot to talk about with, may think the "real you" is serious and reserved. Your friend, who you feel really comfortable with, and who loves your sense of humor, may see the "real you" as lively and gregarious. You can change, but if you have a relationship with someone that tends to emphasize certain traits, that person may never see the new you.

Some people may never change their opinion of you

For all the reasons mentioned above, some people may never come to see you differently from how they've always thought of you. Like a family member's view of you may be too entrenched, because they've known you too long, to ever think you could act another way. You can't win them all, and not everyone is going to like you. It can take a burden off your shoulders to accept this. Again, it's easier just not to care about this stuff, but that attitude's not always something you can switch on or off just like that.

You're more likely to get positive feedback from new people

When you're around people you've known for a while, they tend to treat you like they've always treated you. If they think you've changed they often don't show it. People you've just met are more likely to respond to the 'new you'. They don't have preconceptions about what type of person you are and can see you with fresh eyes. With people you know, their view of you is obscured through layers of baggage and notions they've already formed. So if you want that validation of people saying how great you are, new people are more likely to give it to you.

Don't be too selective in what feedback you hear

Negative comments have a tendency to stick out in our minds. But if you care about having your changes validated by other people, it can help to pay attention to the larger pattern. If three people say you're more fun than you used to be, and one says you're boring, it's easy to latch on to the one harsh remark as evidence you're still the loser you always were. Of course, the majority of people did say you're more fun now.

If your past reputation is really holding you back, you may just have to change your environment

Sometimes no matter what you do, you can't shake your old reputation, and that prevents you from accessing the things you want (friends, respect, etc.). No matter how much you try to convince people you're different, it falls on deaf ears and you keep getting the same poor results you always have. At times the right decision is to cut your losses and move on to a new environment, where the people you meet will be able to see you objectively.