I often notice when people have goals that revolve around changing another grown-up individual, either a partner, parent, friend, or another significant person who is behaving in an annoying, careless, rigid, or even harmful way. People want all kinds of change in relationships. They want their adult daughter to be more appreciative, a husband to be more considerate with the in-laws, a dad to stop smoking, a partner to be honest… Most of us have someone we would like to change in some way and chances are we have already tried. From the observer’s perspective, it is easy to see how this is more likely to lead to exhaustion, frustration, and disappointment, than actual change.
What I find harder to see is when I fall into that same trap. I have caught myself so many times feeling invested in someone else changing and I have voluntarily entered a field of work that is all about facilitating some form of change. Some of my best supervisors and mentors along the way have at times caught this for me and gently pointed out when I was getting far ahead of myself, being a bit too enthusiastic and ready to make progress in someone else’s life, when I could have been more helpful by simply joining the person exactly where they were at. I have also had to sit myself down more than once and remember that while I can work with people to make change in their lives, I cannot make that change for them. It sure is tempting though… Outside the office it can get even harder. The more invested we are personally in a particular relationship and the more other people’s actions influence our wellbeing and goals, the trickier it gets to accept that we are really only in charge of our own selves.
Although William Glasser’s reality therapy is not one of my main approaches to counseling, I appreciate the emphasis it places on being in charge of our own behavior – and acknowledging that we cannot control anyone else. Accepting that we cannot change other people does not mean that we must accept the status quo in every aspect of life. Some things really do need to change. Social change, for example, does not happen without efforts and energy spent influencing large groups of people. In interpersonal relationships, however, we can easily get stuck for a long time waiting, hoping, and pushing for change, when the object of change does not share our agenda.
So what can we do, when the people in our lives are out of bounds? Sometimes there are no simple answers, such as when a person is trapped in an abusive relationship with no easy way out. At other times, there are things we can do to re-channel our energy. For example, we can communicate directly what we want and what we do not find acceptable, seek and accept support, and take steps to protect our own wellbeing – perhaps by stepping away from toxic interactions or exiting unhealthy relationships.
And sometimes we may want to sit back, breathe for a minute, and ask ourselves: