Many of us find ourselves wanting to change other people in our lives. It might be a partner, a family member, a friend, or even a coworker.
First, know that no one is broken and no one needs to be fixed. But we do often think this way and try to cajole or push others into changing. We have judgement around what is going on with them and believe that they should behave in accordance with our thoughts of what’s good for them.
We believe this person has a problem and we want to solve what we see as the issue. We may criticize them and give unsolicited advice. We might push our agenda by giving them books or materials to read, or nudging them to attend meetings or therapy. Our badgering and judgement are likely to fall on unwelcoming ears.
But the truth is, we cannot change another person, and attempting to do so actually harms the relationship. This is another important part of minding our own business and allowing others to mind theirs.
Why We Want To Change Other People
As a substitute for working on ourselves
When we’re trying to change other people, it’s often because we have our own healing to do. We might think it’s easier to change another person than to change ourselves. Trying to help another person is not a substitute for doing our own work. Our reactivity to that person’s behavior is likely our own unconscious issues coming up. It may feel easier to project onto another person and distract ourselves than face our own problems.
To feel like a helper
We may also want to feel like a hero for helping someone else to boost our own self-image.
This happens a lot in romantic relationships. We might be attracted to someone because we believe that person is wounded and we can help them. We might believe we can love someone out of their issues and that this will heal us or help us feel better about ourselves. We also believe that that person will love us for saving them.
This can also happen the other way around, where you have a wound and someone comes into your life to rescue you. It may feel good at first. You might feel relief that they’re going to help you, that they’re going to heal you, but just like we can’t heal others, others can’t heal us.
Because others expect us to
Sometimes, people expect others to be able to heal them when they don’t want to take responsibility for healing themselves. And if this person gets into a relationship with someone who wants to be a helper, things can get very dysfunctional.
Another person’s dysfunction is not about love or a lack of love. It’s about their woundedness; perhaps past traumas, addictions, or other factors.
You can’t love someone out of their problems, and trying to do so is a recipe for disappointment. It’s inflating your own self-importance in a setup for more problems. We can think we’re being selfless, but we often have a hidden agenda. We want to be the one they’re leaning on and have an excuse not to do our own work.
And if they don’t change, you might be resentful and think “isn’t my love enough?”
Why You Can’t Change Other People
Ultimately, one has to heal oneself. No one can do this work for another person.
Let’s take a broken leg: A trained professional can set the bone, prescribe medication, and guide a person toward healing. Other people can support that person while they heal by taking care of driving, shopping, and other tasks, but ultimately, the person is responsible for doing things that will help their leg heal like keeping their weight off of it, engaging in physical therapy, and following up with their physician.
It is the same with mental or emotional wounds. A person has to heal themselves, and they have to choose to heal. And this is not easy.
Ultimately it is up to the other person to decide if they believe there is a problem, and if they want to do anything about it. If they do want to change, we can support them in their decision, but they must do the actual work.
As a therapist, I know I can’t help someone heal if they don’t want to be healed. Often, someone will come to therapy because of pressure from somebody else. But if they don’t identify a reason why they want to change and heal, there is very little I can do for them. I can talk about ideas that might be helpful, but they have to choose to implement them. I can offer possible tools to help them feel better, but they have to be willing to use them. Healing is an inside job.
You can’t change other people, so do yourself a favor and stop expecting yourself to be able to. It’s hard enough for us to change ourselves. No one else can change us, and we can’t change anyone else.
The Difference Between Supporting and Enabling
While we can’t heal someone, we can support them as they heal. But it’s important to know the difference between supporting and when we’ve moved beyond support and have crossed into enabling.
Support means that you care about the person and can offer love while they’re in the process of changing. For example, if you want to support a spouse in their recovery from alcoholism, support may include offering to watch the kids while they go to therapy or AA meetings (that they have chosen to attend) and listening to them on their healing journey.
On the other hand, enabling means that you take responsibility, make excuses, or cover up for their behavior.
Notice if you are trying to change other people
Are you minding your own business or trying to force your agenda on someone else?
As always, the first step is noticing. Notice if you are trying to change or control someone. Are you more invested in their healing than they are in healing themselves? Are you using manipulation, anger, or other forms of control?
Are you relying on someone else to heal you? Are you looking for a knight in shining armor to rescue you from your problems?
The first step is always awareness and consciousness. Once you’re aware and conscious, you can ask yourself why this is a problem in your life? Until then, it’s hard to focus on changing your own behavior to promote your own growth.