There was once a sculptor named Pygmalion who lived on the island of Cyprus, according to a Greek myth. Pygmalion found the women of Cyprus to be quite flawed — and he couldn’t find one to accept as she really was.
So he sculpted the full-size figure of his perfect woman out of ivory. He shaped her carefully for months, making her everything that he wanted, but couldn’t find in other women. After months of work, she was finished.
Pygmalion quickly fell in love with his cold ivory figure, but no matter what he did, she remained dead stone. He had created the perfect woman, but she wasn’t alive. All he had done was to make himself miserable by falling for someone who couldn’t ever be real — while he was surrounded by flesh-and-blood women who could have loved him.
The story of Pygmalion has been through a number of versions. In Greek mythology, a Greek god brings the figure to life and Pygmalion was able marry her and have a child. But mythology always remains myth. Pygmalion’s love couldn’t really exist. We don’t have Greek gods to write impossibly happy endings to our efforts to do what he did.
Sadly, many of us — maybe most of us — have engaged in our own “Pygmalion project,” desperately trying to mold another person into a perfect person that he or she can’t be. It didn’t work for Pygmalion, and it doesn’t work for us.
If there were a 12-step group these days called Pygmalions Anonymous, I would have needed to join not too many years ago. What’s more, I suspect that a lot of people I know should have been there with me. It’s a very human thing to try to make other people like us, but for some of us, it’s more severe.
I grew up with a father who was very controlling. He insisted that everything be done his way. With many things, he flat out ordered things to be done his way. With other things, he manipulated us into doing what he wanted done. It was a very stifling atmosphere. I hated it.
After I got away from home, I was determined not to be like him. In some respects, I was pretty successful at that. In other ways, I failed — in ways that I didn’t even realize at the time.
The premise of this book is that, in our closest relationships, we all behave like Pygmalion to some extent. Many of us seem attracted at first to creatures quite different from ourselves, and seem to take pleasure in the contrast. But as we become more involved and start to vie for control of our relationships, we begin to see these differences as flaws. No longer satisfied with our loved ones as they are, we set about to change them, to transform them into our conception of what they should be. No longer able to appreciate our loved ones’ distinctive ways of living, we try to shape them according to our own values or agendas. Like Pygmalion, in short, we take up the project of sculpting them little by little to suit ourselves. We snipe and criticize, brow-beat and bully, we sculpt with guilt and with praise, with logic and with tears — whatever methods are most natural to us. Not that we do this ceaselessly, nor always maliciously, but all too often, almost without thinking, we fall into this pattern of coercive behavior.
It was from Dr. David Keirsey that I first heard of the concept of a “Pygmalion project.” In his classic book, “Please Understand Me,” he urged readers to learn to understand the strengths of differing personality types instead of trying to force other people to be like them. He said we’re going to be attracted to people who are very different from ourselves in some ways, because we’re going to like the strengths they have that we don’t. The downside, he said, is that we frequently try to force them to be like us when we find things about them that we don’t like. So we’re paradoxically going to want people to be that “different” thing that attracted us, but also the “non-different” things that we approve of — just like ourselves. Is it any wonder that most relationships fail?
I had read Keirsey’s book a dozen times — and used it as a reference about personality types many more times — but I never realized that I was doing the same thing that he warned his readers not to do. I didn’t realize that I had learned my lessons from my father so well. When I was 16 or 18, maybe it was his fault. By the time it was years and years later, I had no one but myself to blame.
Several times, I’ve written here about a relationship with a woman who I should have married four years ago. Every relationship has issues from time to time, but when I look back on mine with her, I know that this tendency — to try to make someone more like me — caused tremendous problems. It caused problems for the relationship and it caused pain for her.
I’ve also written several times about the amount of growth I had to go through — painful growth that grew out of losing her — several years ago. I’m not going to repeat all I’ve said before, but I had to get really honest with myself and figure out why I’d done some of the things I’d done. And then once I understood it, I had to go through a gut-wrenching period of tearing down some parts of me and building new things to take their place.
I’ve told you before that I used to have a terrible time just letting people disagree with me without getting angry. I made a habit out of getting into online arguments with people. I needed to make people agree with me, because … well … I was right. Or so I thought.
I’ve learned now that it doesn’t matter whether people agree with me or not. I appreciate people who agree, but I’m not the least bit bothered by those who disagree. I have no problem simply disagreeing with someone and still being friendly, as long as the other person is willing to do the same. And if he’s not willing to disagree peacefully, I really don’t have much time for him. It’s been a much healthier thing for me, and it led to one of the important things I learned that I’ve written about here before: I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind. I’m only looking for the people who happen to agree with me or are interested in what I have to say. I have no interest in fighting with anyone. If you agree, stick around and let’s talk. If you don’t agree, you can read if you’d like, but I have better things to do than argue.
I had a chance to see how that would play out in my personal life this week. I was dealing with the woman I wish I’d married and it was related to something that used to cause trouble between us. The specifics don’t matter. It’s just something about normal, routine life that she and I handle very differently. Her reactions to things in that area used to anger me and I’d let her know in no uncertain terms that she should act differently — more like me — in this regard. But she’s never going to be like me about that area. She’s just “wired up” differently. So my anger, condescension and manipulation just left her hurt and left me frustrated at not getting the perfection that I seemingly expected of her.
So when this issue came up — just because of something practical that had happened — it was a perfect opportunity to slip back into old patterns. I suggested something that I thought would be useful for her in the situation. She rejected my suggestion in no uncertain terms, letting me know she wasn’t interested in even hearing the details.
For me, it was one of those moments when I find out just how honest I’ve been with myself. When I realized what she had said in response — her rejection of my suggestion — I had a strangely surreal moment when time stopped. In my mind, I saw something that was sort of like a fork in the road. I could turn down the old road that I’d taken with her (and others) so many times. Or I could take a road she had never seen me take.
I smiled to myself and thought, “This is just her. It’s the way she is. It’s not what I would choose in her place, but I don’t need her to be like me.”
And just like that, it was over. It was no big deal. I had no urge to force her to make my choice. And I was happy to know — from actual testing — that I would act as I’d thought I’d act in that situation.
I’m no longer Pygmalion. I don’t have a need to mold anyone to be like me. I can accept people being who they are, even if it’s not always what I would be. It doesn’t mean I don’t have standards or limits. It doesn’t mean there aren’t some areas in which I’d argue my point of view if I felt that it truly mattered. But for the sorts of things that normal, honest people are going to simply be different about, I realized that I’ve truly changed, as I’d thought I had.
I spent years trying to mold someone into something a bit more like me, sometimes in ways I never meant to. I hate to confess that it was true. I’m happy to profess that the Pygmalion who once lived inside me is gone.