I hate to pull a bait and switch on you, but the reality is you can’t make other people change. However, you can change how you approach others. When you do this you’ll either wind up feeling better about their lack of change, or you’ll provide a safe space for them to have room to change. I’m a firm believer in the Yin and Yang of life, or the idea that nothing exists without it’s opposite. For example, you can’t experience joy unless you also know sadness. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is all about balancing the opposites in life. One of it’s main premises is that you can’t have change without acceptance.
By its definition, change implies that we have some imperfection or flaw we need to fix. No one likes to look their flaws square in the face. That’s why the make-up industry is so successful. It is much easier to ignore or cover up our flaws. The first step in accepting others is understanding the questions and fears underlying their resistance to change.
Am I unloveable as I am?
Problem: When we hope for others to change, we are sending the message that they have flaws we want them to correct. We usually communicate this desire through criticism. As years of criticism pile up it is difficult not to internalize those messages. It doesn’t take long before others start to question their worth. Others may start to wonder if they are good enough as they are. Change is difficult, and it requires some confidence and support to get started. When we feel down about ourselves and don’t have a safe support network, change feels impossible. Criticism undermines the foundation of your relationship which could be the greatest spring board for supporting change. Don’t eat away at your relationship spring board with criticism termites. Build it up instead.
Solution: You need to communicate to others that the way they are right now is enough. Replace criticism with encouragement. Look for the good in them now. It is so easy to get bogged down by negativity and soon that is all we see. Have you ever heard the expression “give a dog a good name?” The idea behind this expression is that people tend to rise to meet their expectations. If you are constantly sending the message that others around you are lazy, emotionally unavailable, crazy, needy, anxious, or whatever else it is that bothers you about them, what kind of expectations are you communicating to them? When others are expected to have these bad qualities, then they will act accordingly. On the other hand, if you look for the goodness in others and consistently point out those qualities, you will probably see them do more of those good things. Research indicates that our ratio of positive to negative interactions should be 5 to 1. Every time you lodge a complaint to someone, try building them up with 5 encouragements or complements.
What happens if I don’t succeed?
Problem: It is incredibly hard to change and people don’t like to fail. It is universally true that people would rather not try and be comfortable with how they are, than to put themselves out there and fail. When someone tries to overcome their bad habits or addictions, they are putting their ego at huge risk because failing feels terrible. Accepting others boosts their ego. Criticism hurts it. When we criticize others we hurt their ego before they even have a chance to make a slip up. That’s like asking someone to run a marathon with an injury. Even something as small as a blister could set someone back during a marathon. I have seen so many couples start the change process with blisters on their heels. Some are able to overcome that setback and continue to make significant improvements. However, slip ups are inevitable. Are you going to meet someone’s setback with a first aid kit and encouragement? Or are you going to further sabotage their efforts by spraining their ankle? This is what it feels like when we our met with criticism during our setbacks. It becomes to easy to say is it worth even trying when I am punished for my mistakes?
Solution: Be the figurative first aid kit for those you care about. Love them as they are. Apply compassion liberally and don’t salt their wounds. Anticipate slip ups, and be grateful that you have someone who is willing to try. Practice behaving this way before the change process even begins so that others will know they can rely on you to be their support person. Change is so much easier when others are alongside us cheering us along. Better yet, jump in that marathon and run it with them. Identify your own flaws and try correcting those. You will probably develop more understanding when you see for yourself how hard it is to change.
If I do change, will it be worth it?
Problem: When those we care about become so accustomed to our criticism, they soon begin to wonder if that is all we are capable of. Others might be thinking to themselves, I’ll go through all this effort and then I’ll get criticized anyway, so why start? These thoughts are not unreasonable to have. Have you ever noticed that when you start cleaning your house, you start to find more and more things that you want to clean that you might not have seen before? Sometimes we get carried away with excitement when we see others start to make changes. We say to them, “while you’re at it will you fix this too?” How overwhelming would that feel to the person who is already working so hard to change? This kind of behavior is called moving the goal post. Enough is never enough. Can you imagine if you signed up to run a marathon (26.2 miles), but then on mile 25 they told you that you actually had to run 30 miles in order to get your medal and participant t-shirt? Even worse, imagine you got to mile 29 and they told you to run 35 miles. When others we love figuratively sign up for the marathon of change, we should be encouraging and praising them every step of the way. Even just recognizing that change needs to be made and signing up for it is a huge accomplishment. Stop moving the goal post, and learn to be happy with even the smallest victories.
Solution: Celebrate the goodness in others during every step of their lifelong marathon. Show them that you are grateful to have them in your life as they are, for all their weaknesses and strengths. Demonstrate that they are enough by praising how brave it was just to sign up for their change marathon. Be patient through its ups and downs. If you cannot accept them as they are, consider going through your own change marathon to become more patient and understanding.
Change is scary. It takes a lot of work, sometimes years. Sometimes we change and there are unintended consequences. Sometimes you change and people still don’t appreciate you. Can you understand why people are reluctant to change? When you come to accept people as they are you will find more peace in your family relationships. You might find that your newfound encouragement was the catalyst someone needed to begin the change process. Or you might find that nothing changes, but you feel a whole lot better about it. Either way you wind up feeling better. You have nothing to lose when you decide to accept those around you as they are right now.
Disclaimer: These thoughts are not applicable to someone in an abusive relationship. You cannot change an abuser. Trying to become more patient or understanding will not make the abuse go away. If you are in this situation, get help. Surround yourself with supportive people that can empower you to make changes in your life and feel safe again.