The friend who complains constantly about their partner and children. Your cousin who seems to be avoiding their responsibilities. Your partner’s inability to show up for you emotionally. There can be dynamics we notice that are legitimately frustrating.
Our feelings may be valid, but when we start to feel like we have to “help” the person change, or that we are going to somehow say or do something that will lead to transformation—we’re being unrealistic and unhealthy. Here are a few reasons why you have to stop changing someone:
- It is exhausting.
If the person is not interested in or ready for the change, you are exerting a whole lot of emotional energy for no reason. Pretty much, unless the person has explicitly asked for your help, or told you what they would like you to do, you are out of line. It is challenging enough to work on our own behavior, where we have a whole lot of control. Putting our efforts into someone else’s change is akin to dumping our emotional energy down the drain.
- You can’t force someone to change.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, you’re not that powerful. None of us are the magical muse that we’ve seen in so many unrealistic movies. Whether someone changes their behavior is entirely in their hands. People will not change until they are ready. Everyone has a different path to ready. In my work as a therapist, I’ve seen it countless times. Until someone is tired, or ready to put something down, it is not likely to change.
Take what many of us go through after a break-up. Try talking to someone during that long period of denial where we’ve convinced ourselves that the relationship was the most special, the most meaningful, and clearly the symbol for all that’s good and possible in the world. There is no budging someone. We are more than capable of coming up with reasons and ways to sustain behavior that’s not good for us.
- You won’t understand them.
Someone wisely told me: “You can’t judge someone and understand them at the same time.” So much of trying to change someone relies on judgments and believing we know better than the person we’re trying to change. People’s behavior often starts and continues for a reason. It might not be a good, or healthy reason, but there is a reason.
I worked with a person who was frustrated with their partner’s spending. They made an excel sheet to show that if the person kept spending at their current pace, they’d end up with thousands of dollars in credit card debt. The excel sheet turned into a coaster. My client was infuriated. They were convinced putting the numbers on paper would force their partner to confront their behavior and change. It didn’t, and my client was not any closer to understanding what was happening for their partner.
- It creates resentment in your relationship.
If this person is close to you and feels pressure to change what you want, you may see many attempts to change, with little lasting effect. (And if you’re not that close, I’m wondering why you want to change them so much?)
Focusing on what you want to change in someone can lead to all kinds of unhealthy, unnecessary focus on their decisions. You may find yourself cutting and measuring what they are doing, and feeling exasperated.
- It avoids looking at your stuff.
It is normal to observe and experience things in other people that we may not like, or that we find harmful (to the person, us, other people involved). Finding yourself so invested in the necessity of someone else to change is an invitation…to look at yourself. Ask, why is this bothering me so much? Why am I focusing on their behaviors?
When we are fixated on someone else, we may be avoiding taking action on our end. Our own discomfort with setting boundaries or ending the relationship might be hiding behind betting on the other person. If we’re being overly critical, we may need to work on expanding our compassion.
What To Do Instead
(These are suggestions, of course. I’m not trying to change you.)
What to do will depend on what behavior we are talking about. The suggestions below come with a few assumptions. First, we’ll assume the behavior is causing harm. (If it’s not, why are you wanting to change it so badly?) Second, we will assume that you have a meaningful relationship with this person.
Now, just because we cannot force someone to change, doesn’t mean we have to condone their behavior.
Our responsibility in relationships is to be honest and direct about what we are experiencing and feeling. Here are ways we can make that known:
- Focus on the impact of their behavior, particularly on you. Try to use feeling words. Let them know if you are concerned, afraid, angry, hurt, etc. Refrain from accusatory language, and avoid hyperbole. (For example, don’t say “you always…!”)
- Remind them you care about them and make a genuine effort to understand what’s going on. Ask questions. Listen. If they express a desire to do something different, ask “What would you like me to do?” If they have an answer in the moment, be honest about whether or not you can honor their request.
- Create space for them to change. This means noticing and acknowledging when you see progress, no matter how small. It also means includes modeling it yourself. Share your own learnings and struggles in a way that doesn’t demand the attention be on you, or make it like you know the “right way.”
Let’s say someone in your family is engaging in bigoted behavior – you can say that you’ve learned a lot you didn’t know about (race/gender/sexual orientation/ability/class) and that while the change may not have been easy, it continues to be important for you to stay on that journey and unlearn the harmful things you were taught.
- Adjust your expectations and set boundaries as needed. Decide whether you will be able to accept that this person is not able to change right now. What would it mean for you to love them, be in relationship with them anyway? If it becomes clear that the issue is too big, too painful, affects too many areas of your relationship with this person, it is your responsibility to figure out how to change the parameters of your relationship.