The power to change without trying to change others

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”  Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy was certainly onto something. Often, while working with clients in my practice, I hear them say things like, “If only she changed, then I could be more patient with her”, “If she didn’t provoke me so much, I wouldn’t get violent”, or “If he wasn’t so touchy, I wouldn’t respond this way.” It seems like we often wait for others to make changes before we decide to change ourselves. Many of us strongly believe that our responses are purely determined by the other person’s behavior. They provide the stimulus and we respond accordingly. As a result, we may spend years blaming those around us – our parents, partners, colleagues or friends for our problems.

We have more control to change than we actually choose to believe

While it may be easier for us to believe that the fault always lies with the other person or the situation or some other external factor, this kind of thinking can also take away our power to change. If we truly believe that another person controls our thoughts, behaviors or emotions, it would then mean that we have no control over our own responses. As a result, we become helpless to change our circumstances, no matter how unhappy we are with them.

Positively responding to others begins with changing ourselves first

The truth is that no matter how badly we might want somebody we care about to change or to behave in the way we want them to, we cannot make them change. People only change when they are ready to and genuinely want to change. Assuming we can force other people into changing their behaviors if we correct them enough, or overwhelm them with logic or by sulking and being upset with them leads to nothing but more frustration. What if we start changing ourselves without waiting for other people to meet our expectations? It’s important to recognize we can start making positive changes at any given moment. We don’t need to wait for the other person to behave differently so we can respond in a better way. This is something we all struggle to accept.

An illustration from Kritika and Arun’s Story

For example, Kritika and Arun came for marriage counselling because they had been frequently fighting recently. Arun believes that Kritika does not appreciate everything he does for her and their family and therefore he has stopped trying to spend time with her. On the other hand, Kritika feels that Arun is not open to hearing her out or even trying to understand her concerns. The only way to get his attention is to start a fight and show him how angry she is with him. Arun believes that Kritika needs to stop getting angry if she wants him to spend time with her and Kritika wants Arun to stop avoiding her and face their problems. Here, both partners place the onus of changing the situation onto the other person. Many people also believe that changing their stance or initiating an attempt to reconcile is a sign of weakness on their part. They don’t want to give up on their point of view. However, Kritika and Arun’s relationship will continue to deteriorate as they wait for the other person to do something about it.

Kritika and Arun have both played a part in these problems arising and they both equally need to play a part in resolving them. The moment they begin to recognize that, they can start identifying what they need to change about their own behavior. Sometimes, we may need to change the way we are putting some things across, the way we ask for something or respond to other’s requests or on changing our unrealistic expectations of them. May be Kritika could find better ways of expressing her feelings to Arun rather than staying hostile towards him all the time. In his turn, Arun could work on addressing their problems directly rather than choosing to avoid her or escape from their problems by focusing on his work or friends.

An alternative approach

When you start taking the initiative to make some changes, others might also respond in kind, although that cannot be guaranteed. The main purpose behind you making these changes is to help yourself feel better regardless of the other person’s behavior. In other words, you have the power to help yourself.

If the issues described in this article resonate with you and you are interested in helping yourself and making positive changes in your life, TalkItOver provides individual counselling and a range of other services for you to choose from.

Talk It Over

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About Sarayu Chandrashekar

Sarayu Chandrashekar is a qualified Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). She has an M.S in Marriage and Family Therapy from Purdue University, USA, an M.S in Psychological Counselling from Montfort College, and a B.A in Psychology from Christ University, Bangalore. She has worked in a de-addiction centre and a family therapy clinic in the US as well as with the Association for the Mentally Challenged, Bangalore in the past. She has also completed a research study for her MFT degree on Indian couples living in the US and their marital satisfaction. She has nearly 1000 hours of counselling experience. She incorporates a combination of systemic family therapies and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in her work. She has a passion for couple and family therapy and group work.