We all have expectations about how people should act and the kind of relationships we want to have throughout our lives. Therefore, it’s normal to sometimes want to change people so that they better meet our expectations.
We know from classic books like Influence that individuals are malleable in a number of ways. Often the deeper our relationships, the more that person will be willing to listen to what we say and follow our advice. However, there is another element of human psychology that is rarely talked about, but always taken for granted: free will. If it’s true that everyone has a sense of will-power, then it’s also true that we can only change people to a limited extent.
We notice this in our everyday life. We’ve all experienced moments where we try to change something about someone, but they actively resist it. No matter how good our advice was or how nice we tried to be, the other person’s will was too strong and they wouldn’t budge.
This is something to be mindful of whenever you are consciously trying to change another person. You may have good intentions, you may have all the knowledge to help them, but if they aren’t willing to change then your efforts will be thwarted. Consequently, when we try to change something that we don’t have control over, it can often become a great source of stress. Therefore, we need to know when it’s appropriate to let go of this desire to change others when it may become too toxic.
In addition, sometimes when we are too controlling a person will purposely rebel and do something in spite of our efforts. It’s not necessarily the case that they wanted to do what they did, they just felt obligated to do the opposite of what we told them (because they felt their freedoms were being trampled). In order to motivate someone to create a lasting change in themselves, you have to respect their freedom and autonomy.
Recently I sent a newsletter to my subscribers asking who wanted to participate in free mindfulness coaching. I knew that not everyone who responded would be interested in changing their lifestyle, because a lot of people who seek help really just want quick fixes. They want you to do a magic spell to them and they don’t want to put in any work. It’s difficult if not impossible to change people like this, because they aren’t willing to accept the responsibility to make that change. You can tell them step-by-step what they should do and share tips that have worked for you, but they will never find the motivation to follow your guidance. It reminds me of the classic idiom “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
With this in mind, I had to be cautious when choosing participants for my coaching. I wanted to find people who would stay dedicated and who were willing to put in the work. If I chose the wrong people, it would end up being a waste of time for both me and them. I can’t change everyone.
Here’s another example of why we need to be careful of who we try to change. I have a friend of a friend who is occasionally suicidal. My friend knew I was good at talking to people in need, so she had me contact her and try listening to her story. I was very hesitant to give any advice because of how fragile the situation was. I listened and showed my concern, but I could tell she was someone that was very stuck in her ways. She was ridden with guilt because of some things she had done, but she tried to backwards rationalize it by saying everyone sucked and they deserved it. She would occasionally admit what she did was wrong and that she should change her ways, but then the very next sentence out of her mouth would tell a different story. In the midst of this confusion, I tried to recommend some actionable advice to ease her mind from the guilt: go for a walk, take pictures,try to channel your emotions in more creative ways. But she insisted on dwelling and feeling victimized. In some sense, she thrived on it, even enjoyed it. She was addicted to misery and there was little I could do. Eventually I had to tell her that she should see a professional because I wasn’t equipped enough to help her.
Our power over others is limited. And it’s important not to be too hard on ourselves when we can’t change everyone for the better. Before anything, we should be responsible to ourselves, and maybe through our example we can inspire others to change in positive ways too. Even the most influential people find themselves limited in their capacity to transform the relationships around them. In today’s world, we are so used to getting what we want that we often try desperately to change disappointing relationships into something more fulfilling, even when it is hopeless. That may explain some of the reasons people stay in physically and psychologically abusive relationships. They feel that if they hang on a little longer, things will get better. But the best course of action sometimes is to just walk away.
If you’ve read this blog for any extended period of time, then you know that I have a strong desire to change people. It may then seem hypocritical that I am writing a post like this. However, I don’t want to discourage you from exercising your influence, I simply want to remind you that there are boundaries that need to be acknowledged. If you continue to expose yourself to toxic interactions because you think you can change them, then you may get caught in the toxicity and suffer more because of it. Sometimes it is better to let go of things you have limited control over, rather than putting forth more and more effort. This is very similar to the theory of sunk costs (or loss aversion) – our desire to continue to invest in something that has already accumulated many costs, because we hope to reverse what we have already lost. What often happens however is that instead of turning our investment into a positive, we just end up losing more and more. Instead of spending a year in an abuse relationship, it may turn into a decade or even a lifetime, because we are so strong-headed to make things work.