We’ve all been there. Someone we love is in trouble. The solution seems obvious and yet paradoxically unreachable. How do you help someone change without making them feel judged, disparaged or criticized?
Accept and honor the agency of the person you love. Ultimately, the decision to change rests in their hands, not yours. You can open the door, but you cannot force anyone to walk through it.
Resist the urge to ignore or deny your loved one’s human frailties. You may not be able to condone specific choices that they’ve made, but you can learn to talk about those choices in a matter-of-fact way, as events that have happened.
If your loved one expresses the conviction that they are broken, damaged, or that something is otherwise wrong with them, don’t respond by insisting that everything is fine. Acknowledging that there is a problem creates the possibility that, someday, perhaps it can be fixed.
When we feel the expectations of others too keenly, they sometimes drown out our own impulses. A person on the crux of change requires enough emotional space to consider his options – without being weighed down by the shock, sorrow, and anger of the people who love him.
Create the opportunity for change by removing your own emotional baggage from the picture. Talk to close friends or relatives. Seek therapy if necessary. It is appropriate to express your feelings to your loved one, but don’t allow it to become a constant psychological bombardment.
If your loved one’s choices are completely unintelligible to you — if the things she is doing seem to make no sense at all — then you are not yet properly equipped to help. Learn to understand your loved one’s perspective. Listen, ask questions, and refrain from interjecting your own opinions. You may not agree with their reasoning, but you must learn to understand it.
Relationships are like a teeter-totter. They settle into balanced states, with each person providing counterweight to the other. Imagine two children who have settled to equilibrium: they sit motionless in mid-air, perfectly balanced on opposite ends of the beam. If they wish to reach a new equilibrium, both children must move. If only one of them shifts position, the balance will be broken and one side of the teeter-totter will drop to the ground.
Help your loved one by creating the option of a new equilibrium. Shift your expectations, change the way you speak and behave; move to a new place on the teeter-totter. You may be surprised at how quickly he moves to compensate.
People tend to emulate the behaviors, attitudes, and life outlooks they see around them. Exemplify the lifestyle you hope your loved one will choose. Hold yourself to the same standards you expect her to fulfill. Become living proof that the path you believe in is possible.
Nobody likes to be told what to do. We like it even less when someone tells us the things we’re already doing are wrong.
Resist the urge to offer correction at every turn. This does not mean pretending you approve. It does mean limiting your expressions of disapproval to a manageable level.
Consider the difference between these two statements:
a) “You are so rude and obnoxious”
b) “I feel uncomfortable when you say things like that”
The first statement is accusatory. The second opens the doorway to communication.
When dealing with sensitive subjects, try to begin sentences with “I” rather than “you”. It shifts the focus from a value judgment of the other person’s behavior and concentrates instead on the way his actions have affected you.
When trying to help someone change, we tend to succumb to one of two fallacies: (a) the compulsion to speak too much, or (b) the fear to say anything at all.
If you’re in the second category, recognize that your loved one cannot begin to change until she knows how you feel. Think carefully about what you want to say, and how. Recruit a friend to help choose your words, and perhaps to stand at your side while you say them. If a personal confrontation feels too intimidating, consider writing your thoughts in a letter.
Be aware that people almost never change their minds (or their lives) at the drop of a hat. Expect your loved one to resist your assertions, argue forcefully, and perhaps even storm off in an angry huff. This doesn’t mean that the conversation was a failure. It simply means that your loved one has been confronted with a difficult situation and needs time to come to terms with it. Try to stay calm and stick to “I” statements. Remove yourself from the situation if you sense physical danger.
Few feelings are worse than the fear that we have become unlovable. Take time to show your loved ones that you care about them. Be sure to communicate that you will continue to care about them no matter what happens.
It can be hard to stand firm against the emotional buffets of a loved one’s inner storm. Not every issue is worth arguing about, so choose your conflicts carefully. Stand firm on the issues that matter most, and remember that while you cannot control your loved one’s actions, you can control your own. Do not be afraid to take action, even drastic action, if the circumstances warrant.
Change is an arduous and time-consuming process. You would not expect a tiny acorn to sprout into a towering oak tree overnight, so don’t expect your loved one to make progress in leaps and bounds. Instead, watch for subtle indications of growth — a new way of speaking, or a willingness to broach topics that were previously taboo. Trust that these tiny adjustments may someday lead to significant change. And don’t give up.
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