It may not always seem like it, but fundamentally we all change in a similar way. Ideally in childhood our parents let us experience an appropriate amount of uncomfortable consequences when we acted out. By experiencing this discomfort, we identified our own personal reasons why the behavior (or misbehavior) was not in our best interest. And ideally, this mechanism of motivating discomfort continues to work for us as adults.
We can only change our self. People or life can present uncomfortable or inspiring circumstances. But we alone make the choice to change or not. This observation is not new, but its wisdom can be much easier to accept when considering the preferred method of our own change, rather than that of someone we’d like to change. Objectively we can know that brow-beating is ineffective, but how many of us can still get worked up about at least a few things – from exasperation with “lazy” children or coworkers, to political beliefs of a left or right slant?
Pushing someone to change is not much different from physically pushing them. The analogy can be extended to a useful point. Imagine a wrestling match. Which tactic would be best for moving your opponent? Pushing against them with all your might (when they can easily dig in their heels and brace against you), or embracing your opponent and moving with them (as in some martial arts)? All things being equal, the second option would likely be far more successful. The same is true for relationships. It is much more effective to create alliance with someone before ever attempting to move them in any direction.
Authentic but respectful. Those are the ideals for effective communication, and that’s the best tool we have to persuade anyone of anything. We have our best chance of creating an alliance with someone we wish to influence, when we communicate genuinely but respectfully. We share what is ours to share and don’t push past the boundaries of what is not ours to decide. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to be authentic, or to remember respectful communication boundaries, if our experience of early relationships was mostly distant or intrusive.
If a parent didn’t hold us accountable or held grudges when we acted out – the effect can be twofold. As adults our tolerance for accepting consequence may be lacking, or we may have a hard time advocating for ourselves at home or at work. In childhood we need consistent affection and consistent limits. In the absence of enough nurturing or accountability, we don’t develop the internal resources to sooth ourselves and keep ourselves in check. We can develop a habit of looking externally for answers before we look within. That means we leave a lot of our power on the table.
It is a common and understandable wish that we can swoop in and fix a situation for someone. It is also a universal experience that sometimes we’d love for someone else to swoop in and fix our stressful circumstance. But we’ve probably all learned the realities of adult responsibility several times over by now. And if we feel the need to fix something for others too intently and too often, we’re probably not taking the time to create that alliance first. It’s also possible that our urgency to influence, save, or fix others is coming from a deeper desire to avoid changes we may need to make ourselves.
We all fundamentally move away from pain, not toward it. Shame and judgment are obstacles to positive change for anyone. We must nurture and contain ourselves first (with our “Bucket”), so we can direct our energy into endeavors where we are empowered to create action. Analyzing, arguing or cajoling takes a lot out you, and investments of this sort rarely pay dividends. An investment in self-care allows you to harness your energy and direct it by choice instead of reaction. When we take good care of ourselves, we can feel genuine confidence and true compassion. Only then can we have the necessary reserves of goodwill to inspire the change we’d like to create for others.
Jessica is a psychotherapist, relationship and addiction expert, and creator of The Visible Self ® and VisibleU™ system. Over the last 17 years she has helped hundreds of busy adults create healthier habits and more satisfying relationships.
Jessica received her Master’s in Applied Psychology from New York University, and completed mediation training at the Columbia University School of Law. She has held numerous clinical roles, managed clinical operations for a national EAP, and advised executives on employee-relations concerns at Fortune 1000 companies. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and a master instructor of mindful living …their Border Collie/Pointer-mix “Abby”.