Can You Change Your Family, Coworker, or Spouse?

So, someone else in your life is driving you crazy

It could be a boss, co-worker, sibling, parent, partner, friend…

And you’re wondering: What can I do to make this person be different?  What can I do to change this person?  How can I turn them into the person I want them to be?

As the world is changing at a rapid pace, so are our relationships.  Quarantine may be bringing to light some new things about your relationships that need change.  So this month I wanted to provide some guidance on all things relating to other people, and changing things up that aren’t working.

While some people say you can’t change others, my view is less black and white and more “it depends.”

The serenity prayer provides a lot of guidance in situations like this.  In essence we need:

To accept the things we cannot change

Courage to change the things we can

And wisdom to know the difference.

So first, it’s important to assess:

Is this other person capable of change?  Or is this something I just have to accept?

I wouldn’t be a very good therapist if I didn’t believe people could change.

And at the same time, not everyone has the awareness or motivation to change.

And who can blame them, change is hard.  I’m sure we all have things about ourselves we wished we could change but haven’t.

So the first step is:

1: Assessing the other person’s changeability and setting expectations for yourself.

We need to be very honest with ourselves here and set realistic expectations.

Because holding on to hope that someone else will change, and they never do, can be very painful.

So ask yourself these questions:

-Has this other person demonstrated a desire to grow and change in the past?

-Is this other person open to change/open to feedback?

-How do they generally handle feedback?

-Do they handle uncomfortable conversations well?

-Are they open to talking about feelings and needs?

The answer to these questions should help you set your expectations at a realistic level for what to expect from a conversation with them about change.

If you feel there may be some openness on their part to change, it may be worth a conversation.  If you feel the other person has consistently demonstrated closeness to change, then it may be time to move to acceptance (and beyond).

2: Deciding to say something

If you’ve gone this far and you feel that it is worth approaching the person to have a conversation about change, move on to the next two steps.

If you’ve determined that the person is highly unlikely to change, or feel like it is not your job to say something, move to number 5: Acceptance.

If you are being hurt in any way, it may also be wise to say something for the sake of setting a boundary.

It is important to note that there is not a right/wrong way here.  If you are unsure, you can try a conversation, and that will give you more information about their willingness/ableness to change.

3: Communicating in a way that they can hear

So you’ve decided to have a conversation with this person with the intention of changing something.  Good for you!  That is brave.  As you approach this conversation it can be important to think about what and how you want to express yourself.  Here is a general recommendation for how to go about it.  This is based on Non-Violent Communication.

  1. Share what you notice is happening:  Start by just stating objectively what the problem is, for example: “When you say ________,”  “When you do ________” (ex. When you throw your dishes in the sink without washing them…)  Do not add any of your judgments or evaluations, just state what an outside observer may see or hear.
  2. Share how you feel:  Continue by saying “I feel ____________”  Fill in the blank with an honest emotion that you feel in the situation (angry, sad, hurt, scared, confused, etc.)
  3. Optional: Share what goes through your head:  For example:  “I have this story that you don’t like me at all,”  or “I have these thoughts that I did something terribly wrong…”
  4. Share what your unmet need is.  Underneath your negative emotions are unmet needs such as understanding, compassion, connection, etc.  For example: “I have a need for care”
  5. Share what you would like them to do to meet your unmet need.  Here’s where you get to ASK for them to change (not demand).  “Would you be willing to do _________ ?”

To put it all together you get something like:

“When you say ‘Look at your stomach, you should really think about starting a diet’ I feel hurt because what I really need is positive support.  I start to tell myself that I am ‘fat and worthless.’  Would you be willing to offer positive support such as compliments, or reminding me I am valuable, regardless of how I look?”

It is important to note that the above is often just the start of a conversation, and not a magic bullet.  You both need to communicate your perspectives, feelings, needs, and wants for it to be a productive conversation.  And it could take some time to both reach an understanding of each other’s perspectives.

Timing is also important. Make sure both people are willing to have some openness at this time of the conversation.

4: Listening to their perspective

Listening could go before speaking, but it depends on the conversation.  Regardless, it’s important to also try to understand and listen to the other person’s perspective.  Even if you can’t change this person, it may help to understand where they are coming from, as it also may help you take the entire situation less personal.

Here’s some questions that might be helpful to ask in the conversation:

-What is your perspective on the situation?

-How are you feeling about this?

-What are you needing here?

-What would you like to see different in our interactions?

And then just sit there and listen, doing your best to understand their perspective.  Lead with a genuine sense of curiosity for what the other person is experiencing.  Notice and let go of any defensiveness that may arise.

The point is to bring more awareness to what is really going on in the dynamic.  If both people are able to expand their awareness about their own and the other’s experience, it usually is easy to find a solution or mutual agreement to change after that.

Whether you have decided to approach the person and speak to a change, or not, this next part is equally important.  If you have made continual attempts to change the dynamics and nothing is working, it is time to move toward acceptance.

5: Accepting the person for who they are.

Sometimes making this shift of inner acceptance starts to change things in the dynamic all by itself.  Acceptance is not resignation, it is actually an act of love to accept the other person as they are.  If the relationship has been littered with criticism and blame, this can be a powerful shift.

“I commit to stop trying to change you, and instead accept you and love you for who you are.”

Now this may be very difficult – to give up your hope that this person could ever be different.  It may involve a grieving of a fantasy that they will be different “some day.”  And that’s OK.

Allow yourself to grieve the loss of that fantasy – feel all the sadness, anger, fear, and other emotions that go along with it.

Acceptance is a process, not a sudden flip of a switch.  It can take some time to get there.  And that’s OK too.

Just start with the intention to accept, and be willing to take the journey to get there.  Notice what shift happens inside of you as you make that intention.

6: Setting boundaries

If you are being hurt by this person in any way, it is most likely time to set some boundaries.  The most important things about setting boundaries are: Be direct, share exactly what your boundary is, and stand up for your well-being.

You can use the formula above in # 3 to communicate your boundaries as well.  It could look something like:

“When you are late or miss our planned meetings I feel hurt because I need to be with someone reliable.  I am only willing to meet with you if you show up on time in the future.  Do you understand this?”

Sometimes setting a boundary means saying exactly how much contact you want with a person: “Let’s just talk once a week for an hour” or “I’m only available to talk once a month.”

Sometimes setting a boundary means walking away from the relationship completely:  “Our interactions are very hurtful to me and my wellbeing.  I need to stop communication and pursue other things in my life.”

Deciding to end a relationship, or just set a boundary can be a scary thing for most people.  We don’t want to hurt the other person, disappoint them, or abandon them.  And ending a relationship can initiate a grieving process.  This is ok.  Let yourself grieve this ending, even if it was an unhealthy relationship.

And remember, every time you say “no” to something, you are also saying “yes” to something that may work better.  Setting a boundary gives you, and the other person, an opportunity to find a relationship that actually works better for the both of you in the future.

Don’t deprive yourself, and the other person, the opportunity for something better for both of you.  If you are open and honest, setting boundaries is an act of love.

7: Changing yourself, healing yourself

If there’s one thing you have the most control over, it is how you relate to yourself.  If you’re having a challenging relationship, you can see it as a gift.  This person may be showing you something about yourself that you need to look more closely at.  Perhaps they are showing you more about your ego, your shadow, or your early childhood trauma.

Working with a skilled therapist can help resolve some of these deeper issues.

Perhaps you need to take some time away from this relationship to look at yourself, resolve some of your own issues, and then re-engage in the relationship in the future.

Most importantly, we need to take responsibility for the part we played in creating this difficult relationship.  We need to let go of our pride and admit that we too need to change or grow in some way, and have that be the focus, rather than changing other people.

This is the most powerful step, and the one I would recommend putting the most energy into.  We can’t force other people to grow, but we can choose to look at ourselves and pursue our own growth.  This is what gives us ultimate power in any situation.

And no matter what’s happening in the relationship, we can always choose to be kind and compassionate to ourselves.

Ask yourself:  How do I want this other person to treat me?

And ask:  How can I treat myself in this same way?

8: Getting your needs met through other relationships

When all is said and done, don’t give up on your relationship needs!  It can be difficult to come to terms that this person can’t change and can’t meet your needs.  But just because this person can’t meet your needs does not mean your needs are not legitimate.  If they won’t or can’t change, there are plenty of other wonderful human beings in the world that you can connect with.

Reach out to old friends, join new groups, use the internet to start new connections.  People these days are especially deprived of connection, and reaching out to people means a lot more than you may think.

Be clear about what your relationship needs are and start new relationships with this in mind.

To sum it all up, if you decide you want to try to change someone else, be kind, be direct, and be prepared that not all people are willing or able to change.  Ultimately, we can learn to accept people for who they are, set boundaries, and move on to other relationships that are truly fulfilling.

There is no easy solution or magic bullet here.  But there is a journey of growth if you are willing to take it.  If we are humble enough to see where we need to grow, we can thank this other person for showing up on our path to greater self-awareness and love.

Until next time,

Ellis Edmunds, Psy.D.

P.S. Feeling anxious and stressed? We are now offering our mindfulness group online!  Click below for our next free intro class!
*Free Intro Class: Mindfulness for Stress and Anxiety at Home Group (click to register) – September 17th on Zoom.

P.P.S.  Can’t make the live class?  We just created our first self-guided online mindfulness e-course!  Check it out below:

Everyday Mindfulness for Stress and Anxiety 6 Week Self-Guided E-Course

P.P.P.S.  I’ve been having visions of starting an outdoor nature meditation group in the Bay Area (weather permitting).  If this is something you would like to see happen, let me know 🙂