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When You Wish You Could Change Others

It really hurts to see someone you love suffering. It's especially painful if you think you know what would bring relief, but they don't respond to your advice.  You might have the impulse to yell and scream at them hoping that enough force will wake them up to the bad decisions they are making.  As you wrestle with your own pain, you might become convinced that there must be some right thing, that only if you tried it, the other person would change and live the healthy happy life you know they can have.

There comes a time when you finally understand that no amount of coaching, prodding, demanding, or advising is going to pull someone out of suffering. You realize that they have to find their own way.  Their choice to change doesn't actually depend on some imaginery perfect thing that you could do.

When you get attached to the idea that there is some right thing to do, your words become a mixture of criticism, demands, and advice.  For example, if you have ever had a friend who was in a relationship that you thought was no good for them, I am guessing you may have said some things like:

"You have got to leave them!"

"You deserve better!"

"What are you doing in this relationship?!  You know better!"

"Look, I know this counselor, please go see her."

"Have you heard of NVC? Here let me loan you the book."

When your friend is telling you about their struggles, the first thing they want is empathy. If you were offering empathy, first, you would spend more time listening silently. Second, you might say some things like this:

"That sounds like it really hurts?"

"Are you feeling hopeless about getting the understanding you would like?"

"Is it scary for you sometimes?"

"Sounds exhausting walking on eggshells in hopes you won't upset them?"

"I'm guessing it's tearing you up, wanting to keep the family together and at the same time feeling tired and frustrated not getting the caring and love you long for?"

Making empathy guesses when someone is suffering and possibly jepordizing their life with addiction or abusive relationships, is a true empathy warrior practice.  It requires incredible strength to be with your own experience of helplessness and pain as you watch someone you love make poor and possibly dangerous choices.  

The point of your empathy guesses is not to guess "right" or change the other person. You are simply offering empathic presence.  You are a place of loving solidity in the storm of their life.  Even if they ask directly for your advice, respond first with empathy. Without connection to feelings and needs, advice is just another piece of floating information in an already overwhelmed person.

You can't change others, but you can create a space of acceptance and empathy.  If they make the choice to change, they will lean into your acceptance.  The biggest gift you can give to someone who is suffering is acceptance of them and your faith in them, that is, your ability to keep seeing their beauty and wholeness even when they don't.

To be able to offer warrior empathy, you need an incredible amount of support.  Find others who don't collude with schemes to magically change the other person.  Find others who have the strength to be with your suffering and make space for you to grieve what you can't change.

Take time now, even for three breaths, to acknowledge what you can't change in others and give your compassionate attention to whatever feelings come up for you.


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4 Responses

  1. Oct 12, 2012
    John Brown

    Lovely to be back in the "gem flow" feeling more and more of the abundance in my universe. And this one in perfect timing. Thank you!

  2. Apr 18, 2018

    I clicked on this one 'cuz I thought it was going to be about when we can't change others who are being inconsiderate of (or even attempting to harm) US, rather than about grieving the impact of someone else's bad choices on themself.

    Will you write or post that one next? That's the one I really need--seems to be popping up all over my life lately: overly entitled housemates, attempts to screw me over financially, family members who insist that their needs are the only ones that get attended to, neighbors who ignore common decency and requests to modify their impactful behavior. There is obviously something I need to learn here. I was hoping you might give me some clues.

  3. Apr 20, 2018

    Thanks EB. I will!

    In the meantime, this post is in the direction of what you are asking about I think, though, it is very specific to a particular kind of boundary crossing:

    I also wonder if my ebook on boundaries might be helpful:

  4. Apr 21, 2018

    Thanks, LaShelle!

    To be clear, I am generally really good at setting clear boundaries. These are places where personal, legal, or social boundaries have been well defined, but the person chooses to ignore them, and there isn't much I can do about it.

    I get it, that at a deeper level, they believe they can't get their needs met by engaging in co-operative need-meeting strategies, but that doesn't mean I am willing to have my needs thrown under a bus in order for them to feel secure. I feel at a loss for how to respond. When I feel trapped in a boundary violation like that it brings out very primal desires to strike out and do damage. What's the NVC solution? Thanks.

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