Life Lesson #534: Stop Trying to Change Other People

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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30 Things to Remember When You’re Feeling Down

This a more personal post than I usually write, but something was telling me to share. I find it’s generally best to listen to your gut in such situations, even if your brain hasn’t figured out why yet. Who knows, maybe the universe is telling me someone else might need to see this.

Like everyone else, sometimes I feel down. As I get older, I think I’m getting better at putting these low moments into a healthy perspective, but some times are more difficult than others. I recently decided to write in my journal about all the things that are helpful to me when I’m feeling down, so that I could later refer to it, and maybe it would help me snap out of future ruts. Below is this journal entry:

  1. Remember to be tough. Stand up to life. You’re stronger than whatever is facing you.
  2. Remember the positives. Focus on your strengths, your blessings, your happy memories, and the things you have to look forward to.
  3. Remember to have a perspective of gratitude. Whenever you get upset about wanting more out of life, remember everything you already have to be thankful for. Focus on enjoying and appreciating what you do have, instead of focusing on how it could be better.
  4. Remember to meditate.
  5. Remember that only you can make yourself happy or sad/secure or insecure. Remember that when you are upset, it is only because you are choosing to focus and indulge in negative thoughts and get carried away by them.
  6. Remember to distract yourself until you are feeling more emotionally/mentally equipped.
  7. Remember that the people in your life can only be who they are. Don’t get caught up in wishing or hoping they would be someone or something other than who they are. They can only do the best with what they’ve got.
  8. Remember to exercise.
  9. Remember that most of the time you are pretty happy, but sometimes you’re just going to be sad – and that’s life. As humans, our moods will fluctuate regardless of our external circumstance.
  10. Remember that your mood has always fluctuated throughout various circumstances in life, and it will continue to do so no matter how your circumstance change. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
  11. Remember that allowing yourself to believe external factors are responsible for your mood/happiness only jeopardizes your external situation i.e. corrupting a relationship because you keep blaming the other person for how you feel or asking for more from the other person so you feel more secure, or convincing yourself your job is awful and keeping you from feeling happy.
  12. Remember to journal.
  13. Remember to get outside. Get fresh air. Get sunshine. And if at all possible, jump in the ocean.
  14. Remember to make yourself laugh. Watch a funny movie, or listen to stand up comedy.
  15. Remember to call a friend. Feeling low can make you want to isolate yourself… fight this urge. Put yourself around others, even if it’s sitting and reading in a crowded Starbucks.
  16. Remember to constantly ask yourself if you’re looking for a sense of security from someone or something else, and avoid doing this at all costs. The only sustainable sense of security comes from within, and the more you allow yourself to depend on outside sources of security (validation from others, financial prosperity, etc.) the more insecure you will feel in the long run.
  17. Remember that you’re lucky to have some amazing people in your life, but you also do just fine on your own.
  18. Remember to listen to music. Especially the kind that makes you want to dance.
  19. Remember to try something new that will help you grow.
  20. Remember that there’s no way to know how the future will turn out, but chances are you’re going to be just fine.
  21. Remember to continually invest in yourself above and before anyone else. Remember how doing this tends to attract positive things, and that doing this is the only way that you can offer the best version of yourself to those you love.
  22. Remember all the happiness you’ve been able to experience despite hard times in the past.
  23. Remember that those who make it through the hardest circumstances are the ones who can assign an important meaning/purpose to their struggle.
  24. Remember to put on an outfit you love. Even if it sounds superficial, remember that when you look good, you feel good, and when you look like a slob, you tend to feel like a slob.
  25. Remember that if you’re a generally happy person, you’ll probably continue to be generally happy even if things don’t work out the way you hoped.
  26. Remember to pray.
  27. Remember there’s a lot of people who think you’re hot shit.
  28. Remember you are hot shit.
  29. Remember that every struggle = growth. Every struggle is shaping you into the person you’re meant to be, bringing you closer to reaching your fullest potential. Remember to find the lesson, and look for the growth within yourself. Remember some of the darkest parts can be what will make the tapestry most beautiful when it’s complete.
  30. Remember that this too shall pass.

What helps you through the tough times???

4 Ways to Avoid Cheating in Relationships

When most people enter a committed relationship, they never expect that they would be unfaithful to the person they love. Yet research indicates that infidelity occurs in anywhere from 25-38% of relationships (Luo, Cartun, & Snider, 2010; Blow & Hartnett 2005).

The reasons why people cheat are complicated and varied. Personality characteristics, situational factors, and relationship issues can all contribute to infidelity. However, I think part of the problem is that people are generally pretty passive about remaining faithful. We make a commitment, but then hardly consider the type of effort needed to uphold that commitment. I don’t think people usually wake up one morning and decide they are going to cheat on their significant other. More likely, they simply don’t define boundaries for themselves. So they gradually approach the line of inappropriate with small, seemingly innocent steps that subtly chip away at the integrity of their relationship. Before they know it, cheating is just a matter of taking one more, small step.

One small step for man... one giant misstep for his relationship!

One small step for man… one giant misstep for his relationship!

I think it’s a shame that more people don’t actively work on honoring their commitment to their partner. I would guess few people even think about how they might do that. So here are some tips on how to take responsibility for remaining faithful in a relationship, based off of what research tells us about people who cheat vs. people who don’t.

#1 Idealize Your Partner

One theory about relationships suggests that we are as committed to our current partner as we are convinced they are the best option for us. Basically, we all want the highest quality mate we can get, so if we think we can do better we won’t be that committed to our current partner. Our perception is important here though. Even if you can’t actually do any better, as long as you’re convinced you can you’re not going to be very committed. On the flip side, you might be with a blubbering idiot but if see them as the best thing since sliced bread, you’re going to be very committed.

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So it makes sense that research has found people highly committed to their relationships tend to idealize their partners (Murray, 1999).

The take home point here is that if you want to protect your commitment, remind yourself often of all the qualities you admire about your partner and all the things they offer that would be hard to find elsewhere. Be conscious of your self-talk regarding your partner. Are your thoughts critical, focusing on their shortcomings, or unfairly comparing them to others? When you notice yourself thinking this way try to redirect yourself back to a place of admiration and appreciation for your partner. Do your best to put them up on a pedestal. It’s not always easy but it will have positive effects beyond protecting the fidelity of your relationship.

#2 Degrade Alternatives

Not only do people highly committed to their relationships idealize their partners, but they are also more likely to derogate their alternatives (Johnson & Rusbult, 1989). In other words, they are more critical in their judgements of other potential mates who might threaten their relationship. To protect our belief that we are with the best possible person for us (and thus maintain our commitment)– we need to tell our selves how wonderful that person is, as well as how icky everyone else is by comparison. I think self-awareness is crucial here, because it can be so much easier to idealize an alternative than our current mate.

You know all the weird things about your significant other. You’ve seen how they look first thing in the morning, you’ve heard them fart, and discovered all their quirks that drive you crazy. On the other hand, it’s easy to let our minds get carried away with fantasies about how perfect that cute guy in office seems. He’s probably the type of guy to get you flowers for no reason, hide love notes for you to discover, and call you just to see how your day’s going….

ryanSure these fantasies seem harmless enough, but we need to be careful. Our thoughts build the reality we live in, and ultimately determine our behavior. The take home point here is that if you want to protect your commitment to your partner, you will look for reasons why other potential mates don’t measure up.

#3 Avoid Temptation

One of the top reasons for cheating (particularly among men) is opportunity (Brand, Markey, Mills, & Hodges, 2007). So if you’ve made a commitment to stay monogamous, you have a responsibility to be on the look out for situations that might lead to the opportunity/temptation to cheat, and avoid those situations. Again, these situations are usually the result of several more innocent occurrences. It’s not like you’re likely to walk into a room and find a beautiful woman asking if you would like to commit adultery with her (unless maybe you’re Tiger Woods). Rather, a coworker you’ve exchanged innocent flirtations with might invite you to happy hour… which turns into late night drinks… which turns into less innocent flirtations… and so on. Therefore to protect your relationship, you need to have foresight into what can lead down a dangerous path.

If you’re trying to stay sober, it requires more than turning down a drink that’s offered. It might mean staying away from bars altogether, being careful about how you spend your time with friends who like to drink, and avoiding certain activities that you associate with drinking. If you need to save money, you might have to avoid your favorite stores, or throw out any catalogs you get in the mail. If you’re committed to losing weight, you don’t go into a Dunkin Donuts, and you don’t even look at those delicious looking brownies in bakery window.

Staying faithful to your partner requires similar preventative measures, as well as insight into your own capacity for self-control. If don’t want to cheat, nip temptation in the bud!

#4 Keep It Interesting

Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 9.29.15 PMAnother common reason for cheating is boredom (Brand, Markey, Mills, & Hodges, 2007). In previous posts about relationships, I’ve discussed self-expansion theory, which suggests that we are innately motivated towards growth and expanding of our sense of self, and relationships with others is one of our main methods of achieving this (Aron, & Aron, 1997). Research suggests that our satisfaction with our current relationship is related to how much it contributes to our self-expansion. Research also suggests that when we don’t feel like our partner is helping us grow, we pay more attention to alternatives, i.e. other dating partners who represent an opportunity for growth (VanderDrift, Lewandowski, & Agnew, 2011). This is a risky place to be in terms of commitment, because almost anyone new provides the potential for self-expansion just by being someone new and different.

The way to prevent falling into this trap is to put a conscious effort into making your current relationship continuously self-expanding. This can be accomplished by doing new and exciting activities with your partner that help you both grow as individuals together. Travel some place new together, sit in on a lecture, or take a dance class!

Bonus!

All of the aforementioned advice is to help you take responsibility for being a faithful partner, but the benefits don’t stop there. Each of these tips are likely to also improve your satisfaction with your relationship, and the over-all quality of your relationship – which makes it even less likely that you’ll want to stray from your partner. Not to mention, improving the quality of your relationship will also make it less likely that your partner will be tempted to stray. So stop being passive about your commitment to your relationship – and life in general for that matter! Take responsibility, take action, and reap the benefits!!!