The guy who writes me seems to have it all. A condo in downtown Chicago. Two beautiful dogs. A steady job. And a girlfriend of five years, whom he calls “intelligent, loving,” and someone with whom he has “a special connection.” Life, he tells me, is pretty spectacular.
The only problem is that:
She is an alcoholic and is in complete and total denial of it.
Her alcoholism is episodic. She typically goes one to three days without drinking, and this time is bliss. Then, the following day, I’ll call from work, and I’ll hear it in her voice. Immediately, my heart will sink and I’ll know that I’m in for a rollercoaster ride for the next one or two days, while she goes on an extreme bender.
The hardest part about this cycle is that “she becomes a different person. She will often stay up the whole night getting drunk with the TV on, while I’m trying to sleep before work.”
When he tries to talk to her about it, though, “she completely shuts down and the conversation ends right where it started.”
Right about now, I’m guessing you’re having the same reaction I did: Get out. Now. And you’re not the only one.
Many have recommended to me that I should leave, however, up to this point, I have not been able to, nor am I sure I want to at this point. I feel torn and don’t know how to handle the situation.
The situation being, of course, that he is trapped — caught in the difficult conflict between escaping this dysfunctional cycle and saving the person he loves.
“How can I manage this situation so that we both live a happy, sane, and sober life?” he asks me.
And to be honest, I have to think about it, because this one is tough.
Can this guy actually change his girlfriend? Should he?
Or is this situation totally f*cked, and his only responsibility is to get out while he still can?
Um, Can You Please Not Do That?
I find letters like this fascinating. There are just so many layers to this particular dilemma.
For starters, who’s at fault here?
Is it the girlfriend, who’s refusing to even acknowledge her drinking? A woman who subjects her boyfriend to the chaos of her addiction with no concern for his health and happiness, who won’t even engage with him long enough to discuss it?
Or is it the boyfriend, who refuses to leave a clearly dysfunctional situation? A guy who has become used to placing his girlfriend’s needs above his own, maybe because he doesn’t think he can do better, or maybe because he’s afraid of conflict?
Or is it no one’s fault, and we’re all just wired they way we’re wired, and maybe that wiring works with some people and maybe it doesn’t, and nothing about this is “wrong” or “personal,” just a case of two people shacked up with the wrong partner?
Or is it all of the above, depending on how you look at things?
It’s a tough question. It’s the sort of problem you could spend months of your life and thousands of dollars working through in therapy, just to get a handle on how this dynamic works and where the responsibility ultimately lies.
You could also investigate this problem so long that you lose all sense of right and wrong, blame and innocence, and finally come to the common conclusion that addiction is a black hole that will destroy a relationship until the addict decides to get better.
But the real question, in my view, is this:
Can you really change somebody?
And even more to the point:
Should you really change somebody?
Because at the end of the day, this couple can analyze their problem in so many different ways. And if they have any chance of making it without resenting each other and/or eventually stabbing their SigOth with a butter knife over dinner one night, they’ll have to. Probably with a trained professional, and definitely with a ton of introspection on both their parts.
But the result of all that work will ultimately come down to this: Someone will have to change.
And that’s what this guy is really asking. Can I make my girlfriend kick her addiction? Can I force her to see the damage she’s causing? Can I assert my needs and standards in the face of her choices? He asks how to “manage this situation,” but he’s really getting at something much bigger than just managing it.
He’s asking me a question we’ve all asked ourselves: Can I change this person?
The Opposite of Self-Help
If self-development had an upside-down, it would be the desire to change another person. This is the obverse of self-help, where the desire to address your own behavior mutates into the desire to change someone else’s.
It’s an impulse that pops up every single day, whether it’s writing a complaint to your local Starbucks about the super rude barista who made your Americano or explaining to your significant other why leaving their socks turned inside-out is incredibly aggravating, because why is it my job to fix your socks before folding them, they’re *your* socks! And how am I being annoying right now? I’m just asking you for a favor, and now you’re saying that I need to relax when *you’re* the one with the stupid sock problem, and you know what? Never mind. I’ll just turn them outside-in myself, it’s easier than arguing about who needs to change here. Also, can you please not breathe so loudly? It’s getting on my nerves. And by the way, I’m perfect. My only problem is that you won’t do exactly what I say.
Or, you know. Whatever your situation looks like.
But wanting to change people isn’t an inherently bad desire. In many cases, it’s totally understandable. In some cases, it’s absolutely necessary.
After all, if we’re willing to do the work to change ourselves, shouldn’t other people be willing to change too?
If we can change our own characters, then can’t we inspire other people to do the same?
And don’t people have to change as time goes on, especially if they’re to blame for causing dysfunction?
The simple answer is yes.
But the reason this desire often leads to trouble is that our reasons for wanting someone to change are usually pretty complicated. We see a behavior we don’t like — the inside-out socks, the judgmental tone, the reckless addiction — and we jump the logical conclusion: I’m the good guy here. They’re the one who has to change!
Then, before we know it, we’re demanding someone give up the beliefs and behaviors and choices they hold dear, without fully understanding why those beliefs, behaviors and choices exist in the first place. We demand change unilaterally, expecting the other person to see things exactly the way we do, frustrated when they don’t. The other person feels misunderstood or attacked, and digs their heels in harder, refusing to change. Our resentment grows, and we become even more convinced that we’re right. The other person blames us for not accepting them as they are, and the resentment compounds. Eventually, we part ways, and no one changes. Or we preserve the relationship, but with unresolved tension and unspoken agreements underneath it, poisoning the relationship from the inside out.
That, in a nutshell, is how most conversations about change go down. One party expects it, the other party resists it, and whatever happens afterward, the two parties remain exactly the same.
So how do we break that template? How do we move past the usual resistance to change and actually make someone evolve?
The Hard Truth
Spoiler alert: You can’t. At least not without the other person’s commitment. This is a tough pill to swallow — some people go their whole lives without learning to accept it — but it’s an essential one. Because as long as we cling to the illusion that we can change people on our own, we’re going to be stuck in the same dysfunctional dynamic over and over again.
Even if we could make people change, we still couldn’t actually bring about that change ourselves. Why? Because we can’t live other people’s lives for them. We can know them, we can love them, we can guide them — but we can’t be them. Only they can be them, which means only they can really create the change we want to see.
This separation between ourselves and other people — a gap that cannot be overcome — creates a boundary in every relationship.
That boundary is where one person’s responsibility ends and the other person’s responsibility begins. It’s the line that determines how much we can shape other people, how much we can expect from them, and how long we should keep trying to help them. When we force someone to change against their will, we overstep that boundary. When we insist that they change long after they’ve made it clear that they can’t or won’t, we violate it. It’s a line in the sand we all eventually recognize at one point or another.
This line exists to protect both parties. Boundaries preserve our autonomy, responsibility and sense of self. They prevent us from becoming overly enmeshed in other people’s lives, or being impinged upon by other people. They tell us when we’ve gone too far, or help us see when someone else has. They’re the outer limit of personhood: the line that says, “This is me, and that’s you, and this is how far you can go, and this is where my responsibility begins.” Boundaries are essential to strong identities and healthy relationships.
So if we can’t really change people on our own, then why do we still try? Is there any point to continuing this article? Or is it a hopeless enterprise?
I’d argue that it’s not hopeless. We need to know how to bring about change in other people now more than ever. And we all know that there are some situations — a person putting their life or another life at risk, a minor behaving recklessly, a person engaging in criminal or dangerous activity — that warrant more extreme interventions, even if those interventions temporarily cross a boundary. In some cases, we have to make people change — or at least try.
In my view, the fact that we can’t change people on our own doesn’t shut down the opportunity for change. On the contrary, it actually makes it possible.
Because once we accept that there’s a limit to how much we can do, we can focus on the right way to do it.
Pick up here
How to Actually Change Other People
Changing other people requires self-awareness, preparation, empathy, and leadership. Without these four qualities, the desire to change someone else will usually misfire.
It all starts with knowing why you want to change the other person in the first place.
Understand your motivations.
If you asked yourself why you want to change somebody, the answer might seem obvious. “Because there’s a problem. Because they need to change.” But this is just the surface-level reason. Lurking behind it is a deeper motivation — a need or intention driving your desire to change the other person.
Every desire to change someone can be traced back to a handful of foundational needs or intentions. These include:
- To keep things stable
- To help someone or be/feel responsible for them
- To be right (or for the other person to be wrong)
- To control someone or something
- To be seen a certain way (as morally superior, emotionally evolved, spiritually enlightened, etc.)
- To avoid having to change ourselves
As you can see, each of these needs has two sides: a positive and a negative.
For example, the boyfriend in the opening letter might want his girlfriend to address her addiction so that she will see that he’s right (and by all accounts, he is). But that desire to be right might also be masking another desire: his need for his girlfriend’s view of herself to be wrong (which, again, might be the case — but still, it’s complicated).
Similarly, the desire to change someone might come from a place of genuinely wanting to help them, which is a noble goal. But it can also mask the deeper need to control the other person. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a manipulative person’s good advice, then you know how it feels to be on the other side of these complicated needs.
Are these underlying intentions inherently bad? Of course not. But if they’re unconscious, then they’ll inform the way you try to change that behavior, often with disastrous results. We have to bring these intentions to consciousness so we can be in full control of our motivations.
But some intentions actually are problematic, even when they’re conscious.
For example, the desire to change somebody to avoid changing ourselves. This is one of the most common dynamics in relationships — and one of the most dysfunctional. Why do we do this? Simple: Because it’s easier. If someone else changes the behavior we find so problematic, we don’t have to investigate why we find it problematic in the first place, which might be just as important, and maybe even more so.
And if that behavior is bad enough (like a serious addiction), then demanding that the other person change means that we don’t have to investigate other behaviors that might be contributing to the problem — like our own need to cling to somebody who doesn’t want to help themselves.
So we need to get a good handle on these intentions. If we don’t, then we unconsciously act out the desire to change without understanding the deeper desires underlying it. That rarely leads to meaningful change in the other person, and it glosses over the change we need to make in ourselves.
Here are a few questions that will help you understand your deeper motivations:
- Why do I want this person to change?
- Do I want the other person to change for their sake, or do I want to spare myself the pain/discomfort/negativity I experience as a result of their behavior?
- What would happen to me if they didn’t change?
- What would happen to them if they didn’t change?
- If they ultimately didn’t change, how would I need to change in order to survive?
- If I addressed my own change first, would the problem get better? Would it disappear completely? Or would it stay the same?
- If we both changed, would the outcome be even better than if only one of us changed?
- If the other person changed, would my problem be solved?
Answer these questions in detail. Write down your responses. This is essential prep work for a conversation about change. In many cases, this exercise will make you discover that you don’t actually need to change the other person at all. That’s because it forces you to do the necessary internal work on the issues that gave rise to the desire in the first place.
But if you do still want to change them, now you know why — with a good grasp of your intentions, which will change the tone and dynamic of the whole conversation.
Identify the true source of the problem.
When you want someone to change, it’s essential to pinpoint the true source of the problem in the first place. You need to know whether the person in question needs to change for their benefit, or whether you just want the person to change for your benefit.
This can be a tricky question, because the human mind is very good at rationalizing its interests in other people under the guise of helping them. So we need to tease out exactly where the problem lies — in us or in the other person.
Let’s look at the addiction story from the opening. Based on what we know, the girlfriend’s alcoholism is creating significant problems for the guy who wrote in. His desire to help her get better is, at least in part, a desire to no longer have to deal with the chaos of her addiction. Which, fair enough, right?
But it’s safe to assume that her addiction is also causing problems in her life. It’s clearly driving a wedge between her and her boyfriend. It’s probably affecting her mental health. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s affecting her work, her happiness and the quality of her relationships in general.
So the girlfriend’s addiction isn’t just a problem for him. It’s a problem, full stop. It’s not just something the boyfriend wishes were different. It’s something that should be different, if we looked at the situation from a neutral standpoint. Which gives the boyfriend a good reason to try to change her.
But not at all problematic behavior works this way. Imagine, for example, a VP of Marketing who hires a scrappy, upstart young employee out of college.
The young employee turns out to be gregarious, ambitious, highly social — and difficult to manage. The VP grows frustrated, angry, and resentful. The young employee spends more time on the phone with customers than in meetings with their colleagues, building great rapport with customers but delivering fewer benefits for the marketing group. The young employee doesn’t take direction very well; they’d rather structure their own schedule, drive their own work, follow their own milestones.
Finally, the VP arrives at a crisis point: Either the young employee changes — by committing to the role and responsibilities of a marketing employee — or has to go.
In this scenario, there does seem to be an objective problem, which is that the VP hired a dedicated marketer, and instead got something closer to a self-starting salesperson. The company needed X, and it’s getting Y. Either the young employee agrees to focus on X, or there isn’t a place for them on the team. Objectively speaking, it’s a problem.
But if we dig a little deeper, we might start to see that this “objective” problem is more of a personal problem for the VP specifically.
The VP wants an employee who will deliver what they needed. The VP does not want an employee who shows talent in another discipline, another role, another department. The VP doesn’t have time or desire to change their goals to fit one employee; the VP needs their employees to achieve the department’s goals.
There are personal tastes at work here, too. The VP is respectful, orderly, systematic. The young employee is informal, instinctive, opportunistic. If the VP knew how to manage someone like this, they might be able to train and capitalize on the young employee’s unique talents. But their radically different personalities create additional tension on top of the original issue. The problem, at the heart of it, is that these two people are fundamentally different creatures.
So when the VP wants the young employee to change, they’re really saying that they want the young employee to change for the VP. And if the VP gets their way, then the change might actually hurt the young employee, since it would suppress their natural talents and goals. The change is designed to serve the VP’s underlying needs, not just the situation as a whole.
Wanting to change people is often a lot like the VP and the young employee. In fact, it might be even more common than the addiction example.
We often believe that we’re making someone change for their benefit. In reality, we’re usually making them change for ours — because we’re uncomfortable, angry, or frustrated that the other person isn’t behaving in a way that satisfies us.
If the girlfriend doesn’t address her addiction, then her life will objectively take a hit. That’s how we know that the boyfriend wants her to change for good reasons — reasons that include him, but aren’t just about him.
But if the young employee doesn’t address his behavior, then his career might actually improve. He can follow his natural talent into sales. He can use his self-starting personality to rise up in the organization and lead a team, or leave to start his own company. What seems like a liability from the VP’s perspective could actually be the young employee’s greatest strength. And, if the VP could rise above their limited point of view, they might be able to capitalize on those qualities by, for example, redirecting them to different responsibilities, transferring the employee to a division where they could make the right impact, or carving out a space to explore other talents in addition to the ones the VP expects.
So when you’re trying to figure out whether to change somebody, take a moment to understand where the problem really lies.
Is the behavior in question objectively problematic? Is it creating dysfunction for everyone involved? Would someone else besides you benefit from the change?
Or is the behavior relatively problematic — that is, relative to you? Are you hoping this person will change so you can be satisfied? Is the change only designed to serve your interests?
If so, then take a moment to reconsider your desire to change the other person. Examine your own interests. Try to understand why this person’s behavior matters so much to you. Consider whether you really have a good reason to change them, or if the problem, as you see it, is actually a tension you need to resolve within yourself.
In many cases, that’s the only change we need to make.
Understand whether the other person wants to change.
As we’ve discussed, true change is only possible when the person in question wants to change. If they don’t, then meaningful, lasting change will never truly be possible.
This is a truth of life that some people never fully grasp — either because they overestimate their power over other people, or because they don’t want to acknowledge the limits of their influence. It can be pretty scary to accept that someone will only change meaningfully when they want to, and not because they love, respect, or fear us. It means recognizing that we are all the masters of our own lives, choices, and minds. We can persuade, help or influence people. We can beg, demand, or manipulate them to change. We can even put them into situations that require transformation — like cutting someone off financially or forcing someone into rehab — but at the end of the day, we cannot make them change in a meaningful and lasting way unless they want to.
It’s like Cal says in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin’ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language” (my emphasis).
At a certain point — maybe in a couple months, maybe in a year — the guy from the email will confront this reality with his girlfriend.
He can try to get a handle on his intentions, identify the source of the problem, and find the right way to discuss her addiction. But once he commits to his expectation — that she get sober and return to the life they had before — he’ll have to accept that she will only get better if she wants to get better. He can guide her, he can support her, he can make it as easy as possible for her to get better, but these will only be advantages in her recovery. Her success will depend on her own commitment to change — a commitment that can only originate from her.
This is a sobering (if you’ll pardon the term) thought. It basically means that we can only do so much for other people. It also means that we have to accept them as they are — which could actually be the better outcome — or eventually move on.
You have to understand whether the other person wants to change before you invest time and energy in helping them change.
This will help you recognize their boundary before you even begin, respect the other person’s experience, and potentially save critical emotional energy changing someone who isn’t interested in changing.
How to Find Out If Someone Actually Wants to Change
To find out if someone actually wants to change, lead with conversation and observation.
When you talk to the person in question about the problem at hand, you can ask them point-blank: “Is this something you want to work on? Do you think this is a problem you can change? Are you interested in getting better?”
If the person takes these questions in and engages productively, then you have a window to discuss the change. If the person resists, reacts, or hems and haws, then they’re probably telling you that they aren’t interested in changing.
You can continue to push, of course, depending on your relationship. You can say, “It sounds like you know there’s a problem, but you’re not sure if you’re ready to address it.” Maybe they’ll agree, giving you a window to dig a little deeper and help the person move into a space to confront the issue. Or maybe they’ll shut down even further, making it clear that they aren’t ready to change.
At the same time, you can observe the person’s behavior. The girlfriend who apologizes for her alcoholism, makes an effort to stay sober and tries to repair her relationships is signaling that she knows she can do better. This is an indication that she wants to change, even if she’s struggling. But the girlfriend who abandons her partner, doesn’t take his experience seriously and spends most of her time nursing her addiction probably isn’t ready to change.
This is where the concept of rock bottom comes into play — the point at which the costs of the person’s choices become so dramatic that they have to be willing to change. At which point they actually have a shot — but only because they know they must.
This might be the most critical step of the process. Knowing whether the other person wants to change will maximize your chances of helping them — and save you from trying to help someone who doesn’t want your help.
Many people skip this step, either because they assume that the other person shares their point of view, or because they don’t care whether the other person wants to change. After all, why should it matter if they want to change if they should change?
But it does. It matters on a practical level, and it matters on an emotional level. That’s why we have to take the other person’s experience as seriously as we take our own — which brings us to the next principle.
Lead with curiosity and empathy.
If you have a handle on your intentions, you know that the source of the problem lies in someone else, and you have a reasonable expectation that the other person wants to change, then you might decide to try to change the other person.
At this point, the general desire becomes a concrete conversation. And the success of that conversation depends on how you meet the other person in this moment.
As with most tough conversations, curiosity, and empathy are your best tools to achieve the outcome you want. Together, they will dramatically increase your chances of successfully changing someone — or, short of that, help you walk away with a better understanding.
So what does it actually mean to lead with curiosity and empathy?
First, understanding the other person’s psychology before you try to change it.
The natural instinct in this conversation is to jump to the demand to change. We have to check that impulse and work through a more important step first: meeting the other person where they are, and seeking to understand them.
To understand the other person as well as possible, translate the statements you want to make into open-ended questions. Let’s look at some of the most common.
|“Your behavior is a problem.”||“Do you think there’s a problem?”
“Can you help me understand why you’re behaving this way?”
|“I need you to change your behavior.”||“Do you want to change your behavior?”
“Can you understand why I would want you to change your behavior?”
|“You’re the problem here.”||“Do you think you’re the problem here?”
“Am I doing anything to contribute to the problem?”
|“I feel angry / frustrated / resentful / afraid.”||“How do you feel about the situation?”
“Can you understand why I feel angry / frustrated / resentful / afraid?”
|“Things will get better if you change.”||“Do you think things would improve if you changed?”
“What opportunities would you have if you made different choices?”
If you do this step right, it’s very possible that it will be the last step. Either the other person will see the need for change on their own, or you’ll realize that the other person doesn’t need to change at all.
For example, you might find out that what seemed like a one-sided problem is actually a complicated dynamic, and you share responsibility for the other person’s behavior. (Anyone who’s been in a close relationship of any kind, personal, or professional, knows this dance.)
Or, in another scenario, you might discover that the problem really does lie with the other person, but that they don’t see a compelling reason to change. Either they don’t think the behavior is problematic, or they know it’s problematic and don’t want to change — which is a sure sign that there’s no real conversation to be had.
Whatever the situation, we need to understand the other person fully before we try to change them. And that begins by taking the time to ask them meaningful questions and meeting them where they are.
Second, focus on the benefits of changing (and the costs of staying the same).
When we change our behavior, we’re always changing to enjoy certain benefits or avoid certain costs. Having a clear handle on those benefits and costs is a powerful tool in helping someone change.
Here too, translating the basic demand into a conversation about benefits and costs will make the change real and attractive to the other person. Let’s look at some common requests to change, and how they can be more productively framed as opportunities.
|Change Request||Change Opportunity|
|“I want you to stop drinking.”||“I want you to take care of your mind and your body.”
“I want you to be clear and healthy enough to enjoy our relationship to the fullest.”
“I want you to have a chance to address the underlying issues in your addiction.”
|“I want you to be a better partner.”||“I want us to have the best relationship possible.”
“I don’t want us to argue or ignore each other.”
“I want us to behave in a way that will create the most meaningful future together.”
|“I need you to be a better employee.”||“I want you to contribute to the team in a meaningful way.”
“I don’t want to micromanage, annoy or resent you.”
“I want us to be on the same page so we can do our best possible work together.”
|“I need you to start taking responsibility for your life.”||“I want you to have the satisfaction of setting and achieving your own goals.”
“I don’t want you to feel disempowered for off-loading your life to someone else.”
“I want us to be responsible for ourselves so we don’t place that burden on the relationship.”
Speaking in this way will bring to life the stakes of the change in question. It’s very easy to dismiss someone’s request to “get sober.” It’s much harder to dismiss someone’s request to “take care of yourself so we can protect our friendship.” That second formulation gets at the goal of the change — what’s really at stake in the transformation — which can galvanize someone into action.
Third, become a partner in the person’s change.
Once you’ve articulated the need for change, it’s in the other person’s court to pursue it. As we’ve seen, if that person doesn’t want to change in the long term, it probably won’t happen. But that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to help them along the way, as long as it’s appropriate.
Becoming a partner in someone else’s change begins by asking them what they want, need or expect from you in order to change.
“I’m going to be there every step of the way” might be music to one person’s ears, but to someone else, it might sound condescending, claustrophobic, or unnecessary. “How can I help you make this change?” is a much more welcoming way to articulate it. That version invites the other person to accept your help, and then tell you what they really need. From there, you can commit to that help as much or as little as the situation demands.
Of course, every relationship and situation requires a different kind of partnership.
A long-term boyfriend trying to get his girlfriend into rehab, for example, will probably warrant more involvement. He might insist on being a part of her recovery, commit to checking her into a treatment center, and follow up on her progress throughout. A distant acquaintance, on the other hand, might take a different approach, since the relationship is less intimate. But if it turned out that the addict in question had no close friends or family to help them through the process, the acquaintance might step up and be a more involved partner — if that’s something the acquaintance were able and willing to do.
So much of this comes down to your values. We all place a different importance on friendship, love, support, and the balance of priorities in our lives. Some of us have all the free time and energy in the world to help a struggling friend; others of us have to place our children and spouse above someone else’s journey. These choices and priorities are totally acceptable and highly personal. There is no template.
The two main factors that determine these choices are the other person’s desire for help and our own ability to help.
In my view, the more urgent and genuine the other person’s desire for change, the more we have a reason to help them.
An addict who is truly committed to getting sober probably deserves all the support we can reasonably offer. An employee who is truly committed to growing as a professional probably deserves all the guidance we can give.
But if the other party isn’t truly committed, or isn’t grateful for the help, or toggles between wanting to change and staying the same, then we have less responsibility to step up to the plate. Meaningful change exists in a reciprocal relationship.
At the same time, we can only help as much as we’re truly able.
Some of us don’t have the expertise to help someone recover from personal trauma. It would be unreasonable to take on that burden ourselves if it’s beyond our means or ability. But we can help them find a trained professional, encourage them to stick with the therapeutic process, and be available to listen and discuss their recovery as a friend. Similarly, we might not be able to find a friend a new job in the engineering industry after they’ve been laid off, but we can offer to read their cover letters, make introductions, and give them general career advice. We help other people to the best of our ability, and in proportion to how much they really need it.
At this point, you might find that you’ll have to change along with the other person. Which brings us to our last principle.
Model the change you want to see.
Years ago, my friend Alana found herself struggling with her teenage daughter. Almost overnight, it seemed like their relationship had taken a turn. They were fighting a lot. Her daughter was wrestling with anger and anxiety. And Alana, a usually very peaceful person, found herself reacting to her daughter’s moods, compounding their issues.
Alana had been meditating for many years, and knew that her practice had brought a lot of clarity and peace to her life. She thought it would help her daughter, too. So to help their situation, she decided to tell her daughter to start meditating, in the hopes that it would help with her anxiety and improve their relationship. This was a daunting conversation, in part because her daughter had dismissed meditation in the past, believing it was pointless.
Then Alana realized something important. If meditation were so effective, then why wasn’t it working? If she was still reacting to her daughter’s moods, was she really as enlightened as she thought? And if her practice were so valuable, why hadn’t her daughter picked it up on her own?
Did her daughter really need to change? Or did Alana need to make some adjustments in herself first?
These are exactly the kinds of questions we’ve been talking about in this piece. So before she demanded that her daughter change, she investigated herself. It didn’t take her long to realize that she had a role to play in their dynamic, too, and that if their relationship were to improve, it would require change on both their parts. If meditation were part of the solution, maybe she needed to go deeper into her own practice first.
So she did. After falling off of her usual daily routine, she started meditating in the mornings and evenings for a dedicated amount of time. That made it easier to track her own emotional responses, which made her far less reactive when she and her daughter hit a conflict.
Almost instantly, their dynamic improved, and her daughter noticed that Alana wasn’t reacting the way she used to, which made her realize that her mother was serious about improving their relationship.
One night, Alana’s daughter came home from visiting a friend to find her mother sitting in the living room, eyes closed, peacefully meditating. The next morning, she asked her mom how her meditation was going, and Alana told her about how it had helped her, without pushing it on her daughter in any way. It was a kind, gentle, open conversation — the first they had had in months.
A few days later, her daughter did something Alana didn’t see coming: She asked if she could join her mom in meditation one day. She saw how it was helping her mom, and she wondered if it might help her, too. They began that evening, and their conflict slowly evaporated, with the help of meaningful conversations. They’ve been sitting together frequently ever since. All because Alana decided to embody the change she expected from someone else.
The best way to bring about change isn’t to demand it. It’s to model it.
Modeling change means embodying the qualities you want the other person to embrace, committing to them before you demand them of someone else, and making yourself an example of the change you want to see. Call it the Ghandi approach.
Modeling change is important for two reasons.
First, modeling change gives you the authority and capital to change the people around you.
If you don’t embody the qualities you expect from other people, it’s much harder — and often misguided — to ask them to change.
It’s like a boss telling his employees to be more present when he checks his phone during meetings, or a mother telling her children to be more respectful when she doesn’t take their needs seriously. When your expectations of others and your standards for yourself don’t align, it’s easy to slip into hypocrisy and narcissism.
On a more practical level, it’s also much easier to make people change when you’ve done the work yourself.
A boss who’s fully engaged in meetings embodies the benefits of being present. A mother who respects her children’s needs demonstrates the power of respect. People are far more likely to change when they can clearly understand the benefits of changing. And the best way to understand those benefits is to see them in someone else — especially someone who’s close to them.
This is why it’s so important to walk the walk. When people fail to change others, it’s often because they’ve failed to change themselves first. We’re very good at recognizing authenticity and authority; we know when we’re being asked to change by someone who isn’t willing to do the work themselves. On a moral and a practical level, then, it’s essential that we embody the change we want to see first.
Second, modeling change can bring about the desired change on its own.
That’s what happened with Alana and her daughter. She wanted her daughter to change, and she thought she was the one to help her, by telling her to pick up meditation. In reality, all she had to do was model the behavior on her own, and invite her daughter to see the benefits for herself. As we’ve discussed, this kind of change is always more meaningful, because it comes not from the outside, but from the person who needs to change.
Modeling change can also resolve a problem without the other person changing at all.
That’s also what happened with Alana. She thought she needed her daughter to start meditating in order to get better. In reality, Alana needed to start meditating in order to handle her daughter better.
The human mind is quick to project its needs onto other people. Unconsciously, it outsources the hard work to someone else, so it doesn’t need to be held accountable.
We see someone zoning out in a meeting and think, “Man, he really needs to be more present” — forgetting that in that very moment, we’re the ones who aren’t present, because we’re so focused on the guy who isn’t paying attention!
Or we look at our child and think, “She needs to be less anxious and more respectful. What will happen to her if she doesn’t tackle her anxiety? What kind of parent am I if I can’t even earn her respect?” Of course, by indulging those thoughts, we’re the ones who are anxious, and we’re failing to respect our child, by not empathizing with her experience.
That’s why modeling is such a powerful shortcut to change. Oftentimes, we’re the ones who need to hear our own message, because we’re the ones who need to change.
So before you ask someone else to alter their behavior, take a moment to reflect on your own. Flip the request around, and see if it applies to yourself just as much as the other person. Notice when you want to ask your employees to be more present, and ask yourself if you’re being fully present. Notice when you want your significant other to pay more attention to you, and ask yourself if you’ve been truly listening to them. Catch your mind externalizing the change you need to do onto someone else.
In other words, change yourself first. See if it doesn’t bring about the change you hoped to see. In many cases, it will. If it doesn’t, then you have license to ask the other person to change as well, using yourself as an example of that change. But now, you’ll actually have the capital to ask for that change without being smug or hypocritical.
That, of course, is called integrity. And integrity gets built through modeled behavior.
What To Do When You Can’t Change Somebody
The boyfriend from the email is in a strong position to help his girlfriend change using all the principles in this piece. If he has a grasp of his intentions, takes the time to understand her experience, and models the behavior he wants to see in her, then he has a decent shot. But as we’ve said, if she doesn’t truly want to change, then she never will.
That’s the good news and the bad news about changing people: It’s never really up to us.
So what do we do when we can’t change somebody? How do we deal with the problem that remains?
The psychologist Victor Frankl famously said that when we’re no longer able to change a situation, we’re challenged to change ourselves. Which might actually be the most important lesson in trying to change other people.
If the boyfriend in the email discovers that he can’t help his girlfriend get better, then he’ll eventually arrive at this conclusion too. It will force him to turn his frustrations inward, and decide for himself if and how he wants to change.
Maybe he’ll decide to stay, and accept that his girlfriend’s addiction is more important than his happiness. I’m not saying that’s a healthy choice, but it’s a choice. It means that he will have to change his expectations, his needs and his values. And who knows? Maybe that’ll bring some peace to their dynamic. Maybe part of their problem — even a small part — was his resistance to his girlfriend’s decisions. Maybe once he lets go of the need to change her, their dynamic will improve. It’s possible, even if it’s not optimal.
Or maybe he’ll decide to leave, finally knowing that his girlfriend doesn’t want to get better. If he’s done everything he can to help her, then this is probably the healthiest choice (and the most difficult, for a time). Knowing that she won’t change her behavior, he’ll have to change himself: his priorities, his actions, his decisions. He’ll learn more about his character and values. He’ll build a life that looks very different from the one he had with his girlfriend.
And maybe that’s the best path for him. Maybe the reason he had to go through this traumatic experience is to discover the kind of life he really wants. Maybe he needs to recognize the unconscious needs and behaviors in himself that enabled her addiction for so long. Maybe he has to learn for himself how to change people, and discover that there’s only so much you can do for someone else.
Maybe that’s the real gift of coming up against a person who doesn’t want to change: introspection.
Because where that boundary gets drawn, real growth begins. That’s where the other person gets to determine their path. And that’s where we remember that as much as we want to change other people, we have to determine our own.
In my experience, that’s where the most meaningful change happens: in ourselves. And then, maybe later, in other people — if it has to happen there at all.
[Featured photo by Jonathan Sharp]