Changing someone else is difficult.
People have emailed me in the past asking, “Can you make someone change?” They tell me the issue is their father, their partner, their child, and they want to know what I can do about it.
Sure, if that person, the one you want to change, if they are willing to come to the office and do some work, they can make changes. Awesome.
But if you’re the one who is more invested in your life being different, and you’re the one who actually shows up for the appointment, that’s great too! Actually, it’s probably better, because you’re the one with more “buy in” to having stuff go differently.
The thing is, though, that although you’re the person who’s going to do the changing, the effect on others is that they may just change as well.
When Things That Happen TO You May Actually Be BY You
One interesting part of working with people is that at some point in the treatment they begin to tell me stories of positive things that are happening to them.
A client will tell me that a friend starts talking to him more openly and honestly, or they begin to have serendipitous encounters with strangers. Other people in their lives begin to treat them differently.
Sometimes that same father, parent, or child begins to change and my client is glad that these other people are doing something different.
They immediately want to let me know how things outside of themselves are changing and sometimes hesitate when I wonder out loud whether the external people are changing in response to them.
Not everyone is willing to go there with me right away, but if more and more shifts start happening in their world that weren’t happening before it’s hard to stay unaware that you just might be the catalyst.
Systems Theory and How it Works
In my business we call it “systems theory.” It’s the idea that one part of a system effects the entire system.
By systems I mean families, offices, neighbors, partners—anywhere, really, where there is more than one person. (Some would include pets in this, and why not?) More than one being represents a system and things can change within that system even if only one person does the changing.
This is why one of my website pages is called Relationship Counseling for One. It’s why Parent Counseling doesn’t need to include the child. Bringing the baby to Counseling for New Fathers is fine, but not necessary.
What happens in the counseling room ripples out into the rest of your life. And this is a good thing!
Other people may not notice this change in you directly. If you’re in therapy for a few months and you start asking people if there’s anything different about you, they may not be able to really answer. That can be disappointing for some, but why expect others to be more perceptive than you are!
Noticing the Effect You Have on the World
Clients will sometimes think, well, the situation changed in my life so it’s all good now. Well, if that’s the case, then you’re going to have the same issue the next time the situation changes.
It can be truer—as well as more empowering—to realize that your approach to the world may be different and this has led to a situational change. Now that your anxiety isn’t as palpable people respond differently to you. Do you really believe that everyone else in the world collectively decided to change?
Change Takes a Lot of Energy
Change is difficult. It’s hard for everyone and you need to really want the change to happen. I spend a lot of time with a person often trying to suss out what motivates them, because that’s the energy that we need to put into gear if meaningful change is going to happen.
It’s great to find that motivating energy in a particular moment—the aftermath of a night of poor eating leads to all kind of self-promises of getting healthy and exercising more—but what sustains this? That’s another post, but I bring it up to say that when you want change to happen in someone else it’s going to be the path of less resistance if you concentrate on what you’re willing to change. The energy being put into getting that other person into the room could be better spent. And you can have great influence on your world–even if we’re talking about families and politics.
Change Doesn’t Equal Blame
Your fourteen-year-old may not see the benefit in making a change. Also, the lack of power they feel in the family may make the burden on her to make a difference very heavy. You on the other hand can be the best ally in helping your child change by doing some of the changing yourself first.
It’s important to note that when I say “change” I don’t mean to imply that someone has been doing something wrong and they now need to do something different.
A mother could have been doing just fine, but a child needs something else and if that mom can provide that “something else” then the child is more likely to feel—and then act—negatively. Mom’s not to blame here, she just needed to understand the situation a bit differently so she could provide something different. Go, Mom!
A Few Words About Power
A caveat to much of this is that power plays a large role. I am not advocating for someone to stay in a dangerous situation with the idea that you can change a perpetrator.
That’s really important to understand. People with less power often take on blame—the domestic violence survivor, the abused child—and often feel that if they can do something different then it will change the abuser, but that is not what this post is about. There is such an extreme power differential in those situations—as well as in the sexual advances made by a boss or other harassing comments made by people in society when they have more power than someone else.
The system change I’m talking about is when you have power (such as a parent) or are on equal footing with someone else.
So Can You Make Someone Change?
To return to the start of this post, it’s not always helpful or the best use of your time to enter therapy to change other people. If you come into a session and you’re starting from that place, that’s ok, but quickly you will see that the therapy will become about you because you’re the one who is willing to make changes. You’re the one with some power.
Congrats for taking that first step.
If you find that you’d like to have some support in locating this power inside you and have the effect on the world you want, please drop me a line.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He practices counseling in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.