Change others by changing yourself

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s all their fault. I’m as guilty of this predisposition as many people. The government is such a mess because the Republicans are in charge. If only my child would listen to me about schooling. If only my wife would fold the laundry right away instead of letting it accumulate in baskets to be done later. If only my mother would get her daily exercise instead of sleeping so much. If only my father would stop this passive-aggressive thing with my mother.

I bet most of you have thoughts like this every day. I often wonder where these thoughts come from. I do know I have spent perhaps an inordinate amount of time analyzing people around me and saying in essence “If they would only do things my way things would be so much better.” And perhaps they would. All they would need to do it make a copy of my brain, implant it in their skull and throw out the old one. They would then think like me and at least that aspect of their behavior would change. Too bad that whatever unique personality they had that attracted them to me in the first place would be gone.

I have looked at myself. Much to my surprise and chagrin I have discovered that I have a lot of character deficiencies. Even by my own standards, which I hope are pretty high, I probably eat too much and exercise too little. I tend toward procrastination. I know my dress appalls my wife. If there was one thing she could change about me it would probably be to give me some fashion sense. Never wear a dress shirt with your blue jeans. You look stupid when you do that. I strongly suspect though that I will continue to dress like a dork. Even if I could get an appreciation for fashion I’m not sure I could find the motivation to dress fashionably. I seem to be missing that chromosome.

I am starting to figure out though that all this projection of my values and my ways of doing things on other people is unhealthy to both me and them. Step one in this self improvement process was to button my lip. I decided it was okay to think these things just not okay to actually express them. There was only one problem to this approach. These feelings still have a way of manifesting themselves. I might not say anything about my wife for not folding the laundry right away but I was still projecting this bad vibe and she was picking it up. Every time I projected myself onto others, either directly or indirectly, it created a poisoned atmosphere. Rather than helping the situation it seemed to make the situation worse. People I allegedly care about, rather than addressing my perceived problems, put up their defenses instead. This inhibited communications and simply entrenched the very things I would like to change about them.

I’m trying to understand how I broke away from this mindset. I would like to think that some part of it came from paying $130 for 45 minute sessions with psychologists every couple weeks or so. But I don’t recall him ever connecting the dots for me. Rather he went through boring cognitive therapy. He asked questions like “What can you do about this problem?” In most cases I couldn’t do much. But what I could do was turn down my own defenses and find opportunities to talk about issues with, say, my wife when her guard was down too and we were both in a mellow space. Part of the solution for me was not to tell intimates like my wife what I wanted them to change, but simply to express how I was feeling on a particular issue.

And it turned out those simple non-defensive conversations with people I cared about worked very well. (I learned to express things differently. “I feel upset when you do XYZ” not “What you are doing about XYZ annoys me.”) In most cases it didn’t change the underlying behaviors in other people that annoyed me. But the act of expressing them was very therapeutic for me. Over time I found that I cared less and less that the laundry wasn’t getting folded immediately or that my daughter wasn’t bringing home straight A’s. Instead I found other more pleasant things to fill up the time I spent needlessly dwelling on behaviors of other people that I could not really change.

It turns out, at least in my case, that the more I stopped projecting my expectations on the rest of the universe the happier I became. My marriage improved. My relationship with my daughter deepened. Toxic coworkers became less toxic and more like human beings. I found myself enjoying life more. I found that the cloud of doom that seemed to either be above me or close by had receded. Now it’s gone pretty much all the time.

What an irony. It seems that sometimes I can demonstrate caring by appearing not to care at all about people I love the most. Rather than be overbearing I have found it is far better to be supportive, positive and nurturing.

I hesitate to say that I am all cured and I will now live happily ever after. I still nitpick about things that shouldn’t matter too much, such as having my daughter do her chores twice a week by 9 PM so I can take the trash out. But I am improving. And so are the people around me. In most cases they are still engaging in the same annoying or potentially self destructive behaviors that irritated me to begin with. But in other cases now that the pressure is off they too are finding ways to improve their behaviors. And sometimes they choose ways that please me. But more often I find that even if they choose ways that don’t please me, it doesn’t bother me.

So I’ll keep my little self improvement project going. Understanding myself should be a big enough challenge for me in one lifetime. Letting go can be healthy, liberating, and best for all involved. And maybe it is the best way of all to change people. From now on I vow to do my best to be supportive and not domineering of my friends and intimates. It’s the best I can do for them and it’s the best I can do for myself.

One thought on “Change others by changing yourself

  1. This is great thinking. It is very much the way Dr David Burns reasons in his book Feeling Good: New Mood Therapy – a life changing book, if ever there was one (HB/NWT aside, of course). Just a simple – though, admittedly, not so simple to practice – change like this can have dramatic effects.

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