Change is Inevitable! Resistance is Futile!

There seems to be a popular sentiment, that runs along the lines of “How do I get my______ to do _________?”  Most people are at some point in their life spend time trying to convince somebody to do something that they want them to do. And to a certain extent this may be reasonable. Explaining to toddlers why biting is not an appropriate means of engaging with conflict is reasonable. We all do a certain amount of directing, redirecting, and bobbing and weaving to finagle things to go our way. We want things to go our way and we want other people to help us! There’s a lot of psychology around it,  and advertisers use it all the time, (and this is form “psychology can mean “subtle manipulation”) and frequently they play off shame and insecurity. (Buy stuff! You aren’t good enough! Everybody knows it! Buy stuff!)

But there is a particular style of managing other people that we are talking about today, and this kind is pretty directly related to people trying to control other people “for their own good,” and/or because they love them soooooo much and have to be all up in their business all the time.

This type of helping (“for your own good”) I think is something that a lot social work-y/helper type of folks take on.  They want you to go back to college and finish your degree-they believe in you! They want you to go for a run-you’ll feel better! They want you to remember to eat dinner- dinner is important! They want you to get out and make some friends- you are very likeable!

All of these things are not bad things to want for somebody else. However, I think we have a pretty obtuse view of “helping”- it often becomes this extremely elevated task in which a power differential is inherent, and whomever does the helping is this sainted, magnanimous creature who can do no wrong. And these earnest helpers really want to herd you away from all the bad things: from your mean parents! From addiction! From too much internet! From the toxic aspects of the society we live in! from gluten! From ill-fitting clothing!

However : you cannot make anybody change their mind about anything they don’t want to. Shame is a short-term solution to most things, but it doesn’t actually motivate people to make change, and you CAN’T MAKE ANYBODY CHANGE. Even if your motives are pure. Even if you are just doing it because you love them. Even if you have done everything, everything right and now years later you are burnt out and resentful. Even then, you cannot make anybody change.

And most people, most of the time are capable of change. Most change is slow and incremental, and even though culturally we love to glamorize sudden makeovers (suddenly I am a totally different dress size and I am also funny and never awkward at parties and all people want to do is come over to my house and drink cocktails out of tiny mason jars and we laugh and all these great pictures of me show up on facebook and it looks like every moment of my life is SO MUCH FUN.) Most change does not work that way. Often it takes time, and consistency, and intention. Those things might not appear sexy at first glance, but they also will probably save your life in the long run.

Also, (this is a thing they sort of taught me in grad school)-people are ambivalent about lots of things. And if something needs to change, they are often having a strong sense of ambivalence. Ambivalence is kind of like a see-saw- there are often two sides to it, the side that says, “Change!” and the side that says, “Keep doing things the exact same way!”

Many well meaning helper types will hop onto that see-saw and be like, “Change! Change is good! Change is not as scary as it seems! I will help you change!” which leaves the other person little other choice but to get onto the other side of the see-saw, and insist that things must stay the same. (Something that is funny and almost universally true: people don’t like to be told what to do.)

It is an interesting exercise to validate someone’s desire to maintain the same patterns they’ve been using. When you do that, folks more often than not will have lots more desire/willingness to discuss the ways in which maybe it would not be so scary/bad if they explored doing things differently.

(dear nerds: sometimes people call this motivational interviewing. Or, you could call it “talking to somebody and not steering the conversation toward the thing you want so that you are actually listening to them.” Whatev. Your call.)

But so, there’s the other part of why a person’s self-esteem is tied up in doing for other people in the first place. Sometimes, it’s about socialized gender roles! Surprise! If you are born into a particular gender category, (usually female) it apparently follows that all you want to do is take care of people and annihilate any ambition or boundaries you may have. Lots of people have deeply internalized the message that in order to “truly” love somebody or something, that thing must come first at all times, and to have a sense of self apart from your job/romantic relationship/passion for saving endangered guinea pigs, you are doing it wrong and you are betraying the idea of your One True Love/Passion/Ambition.

Dear friends, this is nonsense talking. However, it is a story a lot of people know, which speaks to why people put themselves out doing for other people and sometimes as a result cannot respect the fact that other people are not going to change their behavior or their attitude on your schedule.  You (yes you) are a big shiny star-person and you are good enough even if you are not constantly running around policing other people’s behavior. In fact probably people would like you more if you stopped doing that. But people like you! Now go on and have fun and act like a boundaried adult, even if you don’t feel like one. You’ll get the hang of it eventually.


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