Even when it’s a bad situation, people will grasp at straws, trying to find a way to stay. This person who is receiving abuse will wonder if the other person can be changed. The short answer is ‘No’. In this issue, Tony gives us a longer answer. So let’s understand change deeply, so we can engage ourselves in it, and yet free others find their own way to change.
With Love and Hope,
At least half of the letters I get are from people who want to change somebody else. These letters usually start by listing the other person’s faults. This is followed by a list of all the things the writer has done to try to make the person change. Then there are angry statements about how frustrating the whole process has been. And the letters usually close with something like this: “What else can I do, besides all I’ve already done, to make this person change?”
Sometimes I just want to write: “Give it up already! You can’t make someone else change!” But people who are so frustrated deserve a more complete answer.
HOW THEY GOT THE WAY THEY ARE
Let’s start with an example we can use for our discussion. Let’s talk about seventeen-year-old Sandra, who is extremely overweight. How did she get to be so heavy? She ate too much. This is about as far as most people go when they think someone should change. They look at the result and the one behavior they think caused it. And they insist that this one thing is all that needs to be changed.
NOT SO SIMPLE
In the real world there are many different causes for every effect. What Sandra puts into her mouth is the most significant single cause. But there are many, many other causes which, when added together, are far more important.
For example, all of the following might be reasons for Sandra being overweight:
- Physical causes: She eats too much. Her genes. Her health. Her current size.
- Emotional causes: She eats to avoid anger, sadness and fear. She eats when she’s bored. She eats when she’s lonely. She eats for the pain of feeling stuffed, to know she is “alive.”
- Relationship causes: Her boyfriend also eats too much. Her father always controlled her food. Her mother is ashamed of her. Siblings and friends make fun of her.
There are many causes for every effect and every cause can have many effects. Causation, especially when it comes to behavior, is always complex. Life just isn’t so simple. Sandra’s motivations are way too complicated for a few words or some clever strategy. Words and strategies won’t work no matter how they are delivered.
WHY CAN’T THEY JUST SEE?
Another kind of statement I often hear is: “But why can’t she just see that if she lost the weight everything would be so much better for her?” The answer is that she doesn’t have enough reasons to believe that! She may not even know yet what she does believe. But she knows that most of the time the pain of giving up her addiction seems to far outweigh the good results she knows she would get from the change. She may even feel the need for it so much that if she knew it was killing her she wouldn’t stop. (That’s as serious as a delusion can be!)
BUT I CARE ABOUT HER
You care about her as much as you possibly can but you don’t show it by trying to make her change. If you think she isn’t OK the way she is, she may not even be able to tell that you do care.
YOUR OWN SOLUTIONS
Think back to what you’ve done about your own biggest problems. If you are doing well these days, you didn’t get there by accepting the demands of the people closest to you or by allowing them to manipulate you into what they thought was best. You did it by finding a comfortable place to relax where you could have a calm conversation (maybe with yourself) in which you unraveled the complexities of your own motivation. And you knew, throughout the whole process, that what you did about it was entirely up to you. You knew you were in charge of your own life.
WHAT SHOULD OTHERS DO?
If they can accept the person the way they are, they should simply enjoy being with them. If they can’t accept the person, they should give them the distance they need.
SANDRA WAS ONLY AN EXAMPLE
Alcohol, approval, food, anxiety, depression, drugs, being verbally abusive… Whatever it is, we’ve all had our demons. So notice how this topic applies to you. And be kind to yourself. [Those letters I get are usually from people who are way too hard on themselves too.]
Reprinted With Permission
Tony Schirtzinger, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and a trainer of therapists and counselors. He has over 35 years experience working with depression, anxiety, adults who suffered abuse in childhood, delinquency and criminality, parenting, teenagers, and dissociation. He offers email advice and telephone counseling, as well as in-person appointments in Milwaukee, WI. More of his articles can be found at www.HelpYourselfTherapy.com