How to Change Other People (Finally!)

June 17

Retreat closing circle.  It was such a lovely weekend of strength and beauty!

If you read my blog posts often, you know that I teeter on the codependent side of the "adaptability in human relationships" scale. (Please don't Google that--I made it up.)

If you don’t, I’ll summarize. I grew up in a household where my family was breaking apart at the seams. From my five year old perspective, the best way to save my parents from divorce was to be perfect enough to save every last one of us.

Guess what?  That didn’t work.  Yet somehow that reality didn’t stop me from trying to save so many other people over the years.  I thought if I preached mightily and piously enough they would listen.  I sputtered out my own energy hoping for a glimmer of realization from the outside.

I know, I know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Perhaps I am just a wee bit insane in my desire to help others be happy and get along. To my childhood self, this felt like survival!

Yet really the good news is that it’s never worked.  Although always painful in the moment, I take my inability to change others as proof that the universe is a very compassionate place. It’s compassionate because it never stops supplying me with situations to prove my codependent theories wrong. It wants me to fail so that I can wake up to the truth of how to actually live an effective life.

What is most truthful to me is while I can’t change others, I can change myself.

The best way I’ve learned to change myself is to begin putting myself first. Making space for my own self care within a crazy world is what continually ignites my own process of change. For me, this is as small as putting together an outfit I like just because or sitting down to eat a plated breakfast instead of eating a bagel off a paper towell in my car.  These little pieces of care have lead to bigger actions like beginning a daily meditation practice and starting my own business.

The surprising part is that the more I pull back, pay attention to how I feel, and take care of myself, the more people around me actually do change their own behavior.

It started when my then-boyfriend began using a tongue scraper after watching me gleefully get the scum off my own tongue each morning. Then my mom signed up for my pilot self care program and began drinking green smoothies.  My sweet and slightly-cynical older brother even decided to go see a spiritual teacher with me after noticing that I was getting more peaceful after each visit with him.

From observing these patterns with myself and my clients, I’ve collected three steps that can help us help the people around us in less codependent and more effective ways:

1. Learn to Let Go. If you are like me, you get triggered by other people. This means that their behavior bothers you to the point where at the very best you have a preference for them to change and at the very worst turns you into a fire-breathing dragon version of yourself.

I find I am triggered mostly easily by the people closest to me: parents, siblings, significant others and admittedly, even my dog when he won’t stop barking at night.

It’s very alluring to think that with a few little changes, the people we love could get their acts together. Then we’ll all be happy forever, right?

But oh them! Despite our perfectly reasonable pleas, they don’t follow our directions.  We get impatient, then frustrated, then mad--cue fire-breathign dragon. Within all this, our need for them to change gets even stronger.

As benign as our efforts feel, we have to be very careful when these patterns begin. We can get stuck for a long time futilely trying to change other people. For many, this could be a life-long pattern.  This could be for different reasons that we think.  I believe that often we unconsciously choose to hang out with dysfunctional people as a way to avoid doing our own inner work.

I'm amazed by how much we keep ourselves in the dark about these patterns.  I’ve hung out with people for years without realizing I was secretly trying to change them. Luckily, my mom has done a lot of work with addicts and is always wise to point out enabling patterns before I can see them.

When the enabling patterning is in full force, we are obsessed with the other person. We feel that if they would only listen to us then everything could change for them. We ignore our own needs in our focus on fixing them.  After a while, we don’t know who we are anymore.

The reality is that we can never change another person from this place. We all know this but we still need to hear it often.  What we can do is let them go.  This can happen either symbolically or literally depending on your relationship with them.

It's important to remember that you aren’t letting go of your hope for them to find healing.  Of course you will always want your depressed sister out of the murk or for your partner to discover his true passion.

Rather, you are letting go of your dependence on that need because 1) it doesn’t work and 2) breaking the codependent pattern can often kick their butt enough to figure out their own healing.

If you are unsure if the relationship is really codependent then it probably is. Trust your instincts and set the other person free. It’s really the compassionate thing to do. They are stronger than you think and you are too.

2. Your Emotional Reactions Are Your Roadmap. So after you’ve cut away dependence, what are you left with?  Your own reactions and your own ability to learn from them.

Your reactions to others--especially the strong ones--are your new roadmap toward personal healing.  If followed, this roadmap will take you directly into your own shaky areas of growth and deepening self care.

What were you so desperately trying to change in that last relationship? What do you tell your best friend to do so often that you are tired of hearing yourself say it?

What if you finally took your own advice?  Lordy.  It’s a little scary, right?

Again this might not be easy.  In my last relationship, I was critical of my then-partner for his intense love of sweets.  I secretly blamed him for low self-control when I devoured pieces of rich zucchini bread and flaky cherry scones.  If it weren’t for his excellent and persistent baking skills, I wouldn’t need to eat three desserts a day.

After we broke up, I found myself still craving and eating sweets. I had been in such denial that I had a sugar addiction that I had secretly blamed it all on him.  I wanted him to fix his problem so I didn’t have to look at my own.

Now I am fully aware that I often use sugar to not deal with my emotions.  And I eat it because it tastes delicious to.   This makes it all a rather confusing problem.  But the good news is that it's my confusing problem.

My current solution is to usually not keep baked goods in the house.  I eat scones and zucchini bread at great bakeries with deep gusto.  However it works better for me not to be tempted by them on my kitchen counter on a daily basis.

I’m a work in progress but I am my own work in progress. By letting go of fixing someone else, I now know where I stand. From this place of honesty, I also can practice the best way to move forward.  I never knew how it empowering it would be to take everyone else out of the equation.

3. Make Self Care Look Really Good. I hosted the ending retreat for the spring Self Care 101 group coaching class this last weekend in West Virginia. I invited the 20 ladies who had just finished he course and the 14 ladies from my continuity program (after taking my winter 10 week course they signed up for another six months of doing deep and beautiful work together).

Although the continuity ladies were only halfway through the six months, they looked like different people from when we began last December.  They were grounded and radiant. Their skin glowed and they spoke from a grounded and radiant place. Their stories carried the right balance of strength and vulnerability.

Before the retreat, I felt the pressure to convince the finishing group of the many benefits of the continuity program.  Once I saw the continuity members, I realized that I didn’t have to convince anyone of anything.  These ladies were living proof of the deeper work actually working. Not only was I so dang proud of them, but they effortlessly convinced the next round to sign up. (Yay ladies, I’m so excited to work with you!)

One of these continuity ladies has been spreading her habits to her husband. After cooking vegan dinners for them during a spring cleanse, he admitted to her that he liked vegetarian food more that he thought. He said he wanted to eat more of it. The cool part about this was that she didn't pressure him to change his carnivorous ways.  She just made delicious food and let him decide for himself.

So this is our work. We have to practice what we preach and allow the benefits to shine out from us. We have to respect that we are all such strange, exotic birds and need to be tempted rather than chided into growth.  We have to let go of the heartbreakingly unchangeable and focus on doing our own challenging and fruitful inner work.

The benefit of opening our eyes and accepting these truths is that we set others free. We remind them that they don’t need to do anything to receive our love, although we will now be setting healthy boundaries that make everyone feel safe.

Within that we set ourselves free. We begin to understand a deeper meaning of love for ourselves which is unconditional. When practiced it feels something like shining bright, something like letting go into happiness. It feels something like trusting that we will all find our own way home in our own precious time.