One of the biggest struggles I’ve faced so far, is to stop trying to change others. I hate to even admit it, but I’ve struggled with this in romantic relationships, in friendships, with family, and professionally.
I’ve stayed in unhealthy relationships hoping that the other person would change.
I’ve caused problems in relationships by pressuring the other person to change.
I’ve argued with family members because I thought they should be different.
I’ve been disappointed by expecting someone to act differently than they always do.
I’ve been frustrated with friends who weren’t doing what I thought they should.
I’ve felt exasperated by clients who seemed stuck in bad habits.
This probably makes me sound like a controlling narcissist, but most of the time I’m completely unaware that the problem is rooted in an underlying desire for another person to change. I think most of us often make the mistake of trying to change another person, or even just hoping another person will change, and I think it’s the underlying cause of a lot of interpersonal conflicts.
Why Do We Want to Change Others?
Because we think we’re helping.
Often, I want people to change when I feel they are unhappy, or that they could be happier. I might try to get a client to change their habits, when I feel they are self-destructive. I might try to get a friend to change their perspective, when I feel it’s holding them back. Hell, even this post is an attempt to get you to change the way you think about relating to others, because I hope it might be helpful!
So often we size up other people, try to identify what their “problem” is, and offer solutions. While this process feels altruistic, it’s really just self-serving. It makes me feel better to believe I can help, but what am I really doing for the other person? Most likely, I’m belittling their experience by suggesting there’s a simple solution, and insulting their intelligence by assuming I could solve problems they couldn’t. Most people can figure out for themselves what they should do, but it’s the doing it that’s difficult, and no one can do it for them but themselves. Even if someone takes our advice and benefits from it, we’ve robbed from them the process of figuring it out themselves, and the ability to take full ownership of their own success.
Because who they are feels threatening.
We like to feel “right”. Other people’s differences from us can make us feel uncertain about ourselves, and the way we live life. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, so we maintain our sense of security by judging/critiquing/finding fault with people who are different. Essentially asserting that they should be more like us, because we’re just so damn “right”. It can span from something as superficial as fashion choice, to something as intimate as personality, or spiritual beliefs. In reality, it’s a reflection of our own weakness, our own insecurity. Instead of tolerating the possibility that we’re wrong (or at least no more right than someone else) we rationalize why someone else is wrong and should change. The more we tear them down, the more secure we feel. Only it’s not a sustainable way of gaining security, because it’s just a matter of time before we find something else that challenges our beliefs, behaviors, perspectives, etc.
Because they are difficult to exist with.
There are people who are just difficult to deal with. Our first reaction to such people is generally to think of all the reasons why they are difficult, and how much easier life would be if they would just change. Unfortunately, this is usually just a waste our energy, because the only people we have control over is ourselves. We can set ourselves up for repeated disappointment by continuing to hope someone will act differently than they always do, or we can ask how we can change so that it affects us less. Focusing on other people’s flaws distracts us from facing our own deficiencies, like maybe our low frustration tolerance, or our inability to fulfill our own needs.
Why Trying to Change Others is a Mistake
Because it doesn’t work.
Research suggests you may be able to get a person to change their habits, but our personalities are pretty stable throughout life. When trying to get a person to change in any way, we need to remember that their sense of security is just as dependent on feeling “right” as ours is. For the most part, trying to get another person to change will only heighten their defenses and motivate them to think of all the reasons they’re right and you should change. Genuine change has to come from within. Generally the more it’s forced on someone, the more they will resist it.
“When a person gets insecure, he retreats to his conditioned personality, a coat of armor made of bad habits and pretenses”
– Dr. George Pransky, The Relationship Handbook
Because we have nothing to learn from someone exactly like us.
Trying to change someone else robs you of the value that they provide by being exactly who they are. I believe people come into your life exactly how they are, because of who they are – and that’s the only way they are of value to us. Maybe because they challenge us to grow, to look at the world a in a different way, to learn from their struggles. By trying to get people to fit into the little box that is easiest for us to accept them, we truly limit ourselves so much.
Because it keeps us from truly connecting with another person.
Worst case scenario: another person starts acting in such a way as to please us, and in the process they lose their authentic self. Often times they end up losing their unique spark that drew us to them in the first place. Even though their behavior may be more acceptable to us, their soul is less accessible to us. You cannot have true intimacy with someone who is not being authentic – in fact intimacy is contingent upon feeling secure enough to be your authentic self. If you make someone feel that like isn’t safe for them to be themselves – that being themselves might be met with criticism and reprimand, then you can never truly connect with that person. Connection to other humans is the most important part of life, and not an area to make concessions.
Because the greatest thing you can do for anyone, is accept them.
Our relationship is the best thing we can offer someone. Our love. Our acceptance. This far exceeds any value of advice, or influence. Every person has everything they need to reach their fullest potential already inside them, but we are all held back by fear and insecurity. The best thing we can do for another person, is to support who they are completely, so that everything they have inside can find its way out. This is what truly allows people to grow and transform into the best version of themselves, whoever they are supposed to be. Trying to force change on someone makes them fight it, but accepting someone unconditionally frees them to explore new possibilities.
“Self-esteem, confidence, wisdom and understanding are what allow people to drop destructive habits and make sound decisions in life. All of these qualities are brought out by goodwill, not by pressure and humiliation”
– Dr. George Pransky, The Relationship Handbook
Accepting People for Who They Are
When I say that you should accept people for who they are, I’m not suggesting that in extreme situations you should tolerate hurtful, disrespectful, etc. behaviors. Although I would still suggest you shouldn’t waste energy waiting for that person’s personality to change. Instead our energy should be directed towards what we can change. It might be working on our own communication skills to get along with others better, or our own coping skills to better tolerate difficult people, or it might be gathering the strength to cut an infectious person out of our life.
I’m also not suggesting that you shouldn’t try to work through differences with people. As mentioned, people can change their habits with awareness and motivation. If it drives you crazy that your husband leaves his dirty socks on the floor, he might be able to change this habit. Try bringing it to his awareness in a way that isn’t attacking him as a person, and that communicates you still accept him socks or no socks. In other words, we can resolve issues with other people, without asking or expecting them to change fundamental aspects of themselves.
Not only do I believe that accepting another person is the greatest gift you can give them, I believe it’s the greatest gift you can give yourself. Personally, letting go of any expectations for another person to be anything other than what they are has been one of the most liberating experiences.
“Happiness lies in accepting everyone in our lives EXACTLY as they are.
We cause ourselves untold misery whenever we believe others to be imperfect and try to change them.
This is the number one rule for a happy relationship.”
~Jonathan Lockwood Huie
It’s achieved by, and contributes to, a change in perspective from focusing on what more I want from a person, to appreciating what they already offer. Appreciating a person for their strengths and weaknesses, their nooks and crannies. Not evaluating and judging each aspect of them in isolation, and approving or disapproving. Instead, taking a step back and taking in the entire person, like a piece of art in which the darkest parts accentuate the brightest and beautiful parts in an essential way – such that if you took away any aspect of the piece, the whole would lose its’ meaning.