Terraforming: On Forcing Change, Rekindling Flames, and Self-Sabotage

Trying to change someone into the type of person you want them to be is a waste of time.  Aside from being an impossible feat, it’s one that’s damaging for both sides.  Ultimately, we can’t emotionally terraform another human being.  We can’t come at a fiery, gaseous-planet-version of a person and convert them into a lush green oasis at our whim.

“To break it down, terraforming is the process whereby a hostile environment (i.e. a planet that is too cold, too hot, and/or has an unbreathable atmosphere) is altered in order to be suitable for human life. This could involve modifying the temperature, atmosphere, surface topography, ecology – or all of the above – in order to make a planet or moon more ‘Earth-like’.”– Matt Williams.

This is a tartigrade, aside from having a similar face, I’m pretty different. This thing can be freeze-dried, burned, and shot into space and still survive. I can barely survive not getting a text back.

How do I know that you can’t change a person?  Because I tried. There was a time when I truly thought it would work, too, because I had what I like to call Broken Bird Syndrome.  It’s a condition in which when you latch onto someone for the purpose of trying to mend (what you perceive are) their flaws.  Maybe you take on their baggage and coach them on their potential, then love them more than they love themselves with the hope that it’ll rub off.  The worse part of this condition is, if you’re miraculously able to fix some of their mess, you expect a lifetime of devotion as repayment and are utterly devastated when they fly free.

I did it again and again.  And each time, it was a measure born of my own arrogance, parading as altruism.

But it’s not just a “me” thing.  It’s a woman thing.  Moreover, it’s a black woman thing, this urge to carry everything at once.  Maybe we like to test our mettle to see if we’re made of the same stuff our grandmothers were made of, or perhaps we do it because we’ve accepted media caricatures of ourselves as a self-fulfilling prophecies:

Pretty black siren character comes along and fixes white (married) male’s political shit.

Black, asexual mammy character comes in and fixes unappreciative family’s shit.

Chubby-yet-bubbly black friend comes in and (hilariously) fixes prettier friend’s shit.

It’s an exhausting narrative for black women to follow.


That’s why the concept of terraforming our surroundings remains one of intrigue for black women.  I mean, it’s 2017 and we’re still holding up placards that say “I Can’t Breathe” and “We Need Clean Water” as if we’re a colony on an exiled exoplanet, making pleas to the indifferent party who has violently seized control of our mother ship.

Living as a black woman is sometimes like walking across a floor covered in marbles while wearing high heels.  Yet, we manage.  Onlookers think it’s magic.  Skeptics think it’s merely a honed, adapted skill.  The wisest heads know that it’s actually both.


Throughout my life, I’ve observed that many successful black women in this country are typically duboisian— women able to fashion themselves into two, yin–yang pieces of a whole.  As a result, there’s a constant struggle to find balance, because we need the side of us that’s built for battle just as much as we need the side that’s able to nurture those we love.  So the split usually happens when we leave the familiarity of our homes to breach a world that looks cold and mysterious, but lucrative. We tip toe into it, barely able to breathe at first.  But we steady our gait because we see potential out there on the surface. We see pockets of success and instances of proof that we can thrive in alien spaces if we’re emotionally fortified against its elements.

We suit up, check our gauges, and soldier onto hazardous terrains to navigate career, love, motherhood and mental health as if they were mountains, water, and sand.


Expending that effort leaves us stronger and better, but constantly walking a path nuanced with so many unspoken rules about success is draining.  For me, all the battles I fought outside of my home Pavlov’s-dogged my subconscious into believing that if I desired someone enough I could strategically change the few things about them that I didn’t like.  In short, I brought the tactics used to navigate my outside spaces into my most intimate spaces.

I’ll offer an example–though it’s embarrassing for me to admit:

As soon as I felt I was in a better place after my last relationship, I did laziest possible thing.  I chose to revisit someone with whom I’d been mildly familiar with years before my marriage, and then tried to jam them into my life, thinking that we could simply pick up where we’d left off.

It did not end well, to say the least.


My intentions were good, but my methods and criteria were trash.

If he can survive my PMS, he’s my goddamn soul mate.

If I can get him to finish his degree, he might have potential.

If I can get him to watch this documentary, maybe he’ll at least stop eating red meat.

None of it worked, of course, because the irrational stipulations I placed on him weren’t about him; they were about me.  Perhaps I’m terrified of the unknown just as much as I’m drawn to it, so my natural inclination is to go back to someone familiar with the logic that because so much else has changed in my life, things have probably changed in theirs too, and that maybe we both evolved enough to give it another shot. I was wrong.

Again, terraforming is not a process meant to be applied to people.  If you force change, you’ll spend your youth watering sand.

If soil is dead, it’s dead.  I refuse to till it until my shoulders hurt, and I refuse to stay where nothing will grow.  If I ever find myself with someone who’s clearly a barren planet, I’ll just log the data and get the fuck back on my ship.

I’ve been through enough at this point to understand that I need to either accept someone’s bullshit in the same manner that they accept mine, or keep it pushing to the next.  Anything other than that is self-sabotage–as most futile acts are. The only other method I ascribe to–and aspire toward– is remembering to be soft when I find someone worthy of it.

Not weak, but soft.

When I do, I’ll remove my spacesuit once I’m safely through the airlock with them, and we’ll just float.
















2 thoughts on “Terraforming: On Forcing Change, Rekindling Flames, and Self-Sabotage

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