What if we stopped spending time trying to change people, “rescue” them, or make them see that we are “right?” How different would our lives and our relationships look? How much happier would we be?
As a psychotherapist, I work with individuals, couples, and families and, if I could summarize the central challenge for ALL those that I see (no matter what brings them in), it would be the following: we are too busy trying to change others. Sure, there things that are inherently hurtful – like abuse, addiction, or medical disabilities. However, when we spend our time attempting to just “make people see” how important it is to treat their Diabetes, leave their abusive partner, spend money differently, exercise, communicate more, or stop using that drug, what are we really doing? Are we really helping or are we simply attempting to have someone else molded to what we feel that they “should” be doing?
Watching a loved one not actively address medical symptoms, causing an early death that could have easily been prevented is horribly painful. Being involved in the back-and-forth of addiction makes it very hard to identify healthy boundaries that do not involve enabling. Seeing someone lose their car, home, and other aspects of their stability due to patterns of reckless spending is heartbreaking. It is not about denying that these things are difficult. But, what if, instead of attempting instruction, we practiced acceptance and compassion?
More than “Unconditional Love”
One may call this “unconditional love” but I mean something more. So much of the time in my work with others the greatest emotional pain comes from when we try to make others like ourselves. For example: our partner does not “keep house” the same way we do, have our same interests, or has the family dynamics as we do. Our child is not putting away any money for retirement. A doctor is not listening to us in the way that we want. None of these things are inherently bad things. We all have our own stories, motivations, and responsibilities. And, such experiences only causes pain when we are comparing what others do to the way we happen to do things or the way that we want things done.
To illustrate this further: if your partner does not like to read, you can try to push, poke, and prod all you want but taking them to a couple’s book club is not likely going to be a very fulfilling experience. Similarly, if you have a mother who just cannot seem to remember your birthday, holding resentment about this is not likely going to help you better interact with her. Hold space for your grief. Those things are difficult. But, how much more can we free our relationships and ourselves if we simply practice recognition and acceptance that relationships are not about changing the other person? Instead, what if we remind ourselves that relationships that function at their best include acknowledgement of the other’s true Self and working to share supportive, loving space with them, inclusive of differences?
What if we stopped wrestling with the idea of who the person is versus who we want them to be and simply chose to love them, flaws and all, for who they are? How much time do we waste trying to “get someone to” do something that may not be on their radar or they may really care nothing about? (And, newsflash, we cannot “get people to” do anything, anyway!)
This is not to say that we should be mistreated or actively walk into or stay in relationships that are not healthy for us. We deserve to have our needs met, too. But, when is the last time that pushing or relentlessly bringing up something that you think needed to be changed helped? Or, did it, in fact, push that person farther away?
What To Do
This is what sitcoms are made of, people! From the outside looking in, we cannot make the messy person neat and the clean freak untidy. This is so impossible that it is comical if we watch this relational dance from a distance. (Think “The Odd Couple” television show – a comedy!)
So, what if we no longer spent our time trying to change people? What if, when we get all hot and bothered about why that person did not take the job that is “best for them,” does not clean the sink the way it “should be cleaned,” or continues to be the most insensitive co-worker on the planet, we take a deep breath and remind ourselves that they are not us? Hopefully, in the end, this is not about consistently “letting things slide” or ignoring your needs, but about working to create dialogue within ourselves and with others about differences and ways to navigate those.
Because we cannot be perfect, we also cannot expect others to be. (And, I don’t know about you, but I would go crazy if I had to co-exist with someone just like myself!) There has been, is, and will never be another “us” on this planet. So, instead of unhappiness being created by our efforts to try and make others like us, what if we took a risk and simply honored their differences, finding a compromise in the beauty of the space between expectations and reality? I daresay this is the secret to happiness.
“Ashley Carter Youngblood is both a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist who practices in Kalamazoo. Her specialties include a holistic approach to women’s issues, anxiety/trauma, mindfulness, and couples counseling. Find out much more about her at her website, Kalamazoo-counseling.com”