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It’s a tale as old as time:

Girl meets boy. Boy is kind of lame, or a bit of a jerk, or not super committed to the idea of a relationship. But ah, boy could be so much more! There’s a glimmer of ambition and wisdom and emotional availability under the surface, and girl is going to mine that for all it’s worth.

Until, inevitably, she’s gob-smacked by reality when boy fails to change, reciprocate her efforts, or become the partner she built up in her head. Not for the first, nor usually the last time, she has to learn that not all that glitters is gold.

And lest you think this is a stereotypical example (it is, and for good reason), keep in mind that people of all genders do this with everyone — bosses, coworkers, friends, family.

It’s a near-universal human compulsion to see potential in people. And that reflects nicely on humans, in general. But that tendency is also easy to take too far.

So, how do you stop torturing yourself with other people’s potential? And how do you know when someone actually does have the potential to change? When is it right to give up on someone, versus stick it out with them?

I’m diving into the answers to all of that in this month’s new blog! 


One of my close friends has a mom who’s somewhat of a narcissist (which is sadly not at all uncommon — a lot of my clients have been the children of narcissists, too).

It kills my friend that she can’t have a normal relationship with her mom. There are things she’d like to be able to share — feelings, thoughts, vulnerabilities — that her mom is simply incapable of receiving or responding well to.

After talking to her mom, she’d often feel dejected and sad because, once again, her mom was unable to give her the unconditional love and acceptance she craves.

Here’s what she came to realize: The expectation that her mom be someone she’s just not was causing her (my friend) more pain than anything else. The hope that her mom would magically become capable of having a great relationship meant she kept getting disappointed every time her mom couldn’t meet that expectation.

And, ironically enough, when my friend made peace with the fact that her mom wasn’t ever going to be capable of giving her what she wants, she felt a lot less disappointed and sad about their relationship.

And even more interestingly, when she stopped bringing those high expectations to the relationship, her mom actually did start responding a bit better. It wasn’t a miracle cure by any means, but it’s almost as if when my friend relaxed and gave her mom a bit of acceptance, her mom was able to respond a little bit in kind.

So, that’s my first big point: You have to make peace with who someone is, now. Accepting that they are who they are, and that your dynamic with them may never improve much, is critical. It sets you free from the prison of false expectations and constant disappointment.

Which doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to grieve what could have been. In my friend’s case, she definitely had to spend some time mourning the mother-daughter relationship that they’ll never have. But in the end, she feels better having the relationship that is possible for them, rather than spending a lifetime perpetually grieving the one that isn’t possible.

Oh, and, one more critical point: Accepting someone as they are now does not mean you condone bad behavior or allow them to treat you badly. In fact, accepting them as they are usually means you get better at setting boundaries and not tolerating bullshit, because you’re no longer seeing them through rose-colored glasses.


One of my former clients, Hannah, struggled to break the pattern of dating a series of emotionally unavailable men.

They were all a little bit different, but there were common threads. She tended to go after sensitive, artistic types who were very charming and deep in person, but who wouldn’t communicate with her after a date nor prioritize spending time with her.

From the outside, it’s easy to wonder why someone would struggle to kick a dude to the curb when he clearly isn’t emotionally available, but the view from inside the experience is different.

From Hannah’s perspective, these guys weren’t bad. They were thoughtful and interesting and curious about her and the world. They enjoyed many of the same things that she did and could talk for hours about shared interests. So, given that, it was easy to hope that that connection would lead to something more fruitful and long-term. But it never did.

Here’s the question I asked Hannah that started to turn this pattern around:

“Whose potential are you really seeing in these guys?”

For Hannah, the answer was (unsurprisingly) her dad.

Hannah’s parents split up when she was a kid, and she didn’t spend nearly as much time with her dad as she did with her mom. She knew her dad loved her, but he wasn’t very present physically or emotionally. He was often pursuing the next interesting work assignment instead of showing up for her.

So later, as an adult, the unconscious pattern became: “If I can get a deep, sensitive, interesting, charming guy to pay attention to me and prioritize me, then I’ll finally get the love and acceptance I’ve spent a lifetime craving from my dad.”

Sometimes the potential you’re trying to mine in the present is the stuff you never succeeded (from no fault of your own) to mine in childhood.


Ever noticed how sometimes you’re drawn to a certain “type” of person? Not just romantically, but in your friendships and other relationships, too.

Kristen won’t mind if I throw her under the bus for a second, but she definitely has a type (that I 100% fall into, by the way): She’s always found herself drawn to friends, family, and boyfriends who are sort of loud and intense. Big personalities with a lot to say and no holds barred.

I’ve nagged her to death (and I think she’s almost accepted the fact) that the reason she finds herself perpetually drawn to those types of people is because they have qualities she’d like to develop more in herself.

For someone who’s naturally more quiet, less opinionated, and not nearly so “large and in charge,” there’s something admirable about people who seem really self-expressed and unapologetic about their right to exist. 

I’ve told her it’s OK that she has a type, so long as she acknowledges that merely being around people like that won’t cut it. She’s also got to be OK with stepping out of her comfort zone and becoming more self-expressed in her own right (which doesn’t mean she needs to, or should ever go to the other extreme and become a big personality. That wouldn’t be authentic, either).

So, take a pause and consider: What do I find myself drawn to in other people that might actually be a sign of my latent potential?


Obviously people can change. We know this to be true. But it would be a mistake to assume that everyone is capable of change. Or wants to change. That’s when we end up torturing ourselves.

So how do you tell the difference between someone who might actually, truly have potential, and someone who’s a lost cause?

Here’s what to look for in someone who’s capable of change and likely does have potential:

If someone can’t check these boxes, you’re likely dealing with a person who’s uninterested in or incapable of change. Doesn’t mean you have to cut them out of your life completely. But it does mean you’d be better off accepting them as-is, and stop trying to mine them for gold that they just don’t have.

One last point: Giving someone the benefit of the doubt — assuming that they have potential — should be earned, not given away for free.

I’m not suggesting that you assume the worst about everyone from the get-go. But I am saying that we get ourselves into trouble when we presume someone is capable of and interested in change before seeing any evidence of that.

Allow someone to prove, on their own merit, whether they can step up and change. Taking your hands off the wheel means, if someone does have potential, you’ll be gratified in knowing that they changed on their own, without any wheedling from you. Which means the change has a good chance of actually lasting.

If any change someone demonstrates is because you pushed and forced and micromanaged them into it, then in order to sustain that change you’ll feel compelled to manage them for the rest of time. And in no world is that the definition of a healthy relationship! You’ll never get real love, acceptance, and support from someone you feel you had to force to give it to you.

So, how have you been torturing yourself with other people’s potential? And are you willing to stop? Come share with me, in the comments!

Much Love,

Rachel (& Kristen)


Side Chat: When you want to fix someone, but can’t (March 2019)

Blog: Stop going to the hardware store for milk (November 2018)

Side Chat: The 4 attachment styles (October 2019)


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3 comments | add a comment | Share this > Tweet this > Email this >
  1. This. Article. Here. This deeply resonated with me, especially about the childhood issues piece and attracting emotionally unavailable people. But I’m confused about the AND SOMETIMES THE ONE WITH THE POTENTIAL IS … YOU section. Can you explain a bit more how this applies to Hannah? Like the example you give with Kristen, what was Hannah’s “latent potential” if she was attracting emotionally unavailable men?

    1. Hey Kay! Glad you liked this one. Hannah was more of an example of “trying to mine the potential you saw in someone in your past, with someone in your present,” which is why the dad thing was so relevant to her and her dating history. Though in romantic relationships you DO often see people attracted to potential partners for because that person has something they wish they had in themselves. It’s the classic example of, “I’m always attracted to musicians or artists, because I have a lot of untapped creative potential.” But in Hannah’s case, I don’t think she was attracted to these men because of her own latent potential. It was definitely about her daddy issues! 😉

      1. Makes total sense. Out of curiosity I wonder if she experienced that same dynamic within her other friendships. Perhaps another topic to broach during another session 😊. Thanks for your response!

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