My husband and I both have a particular small failing, and not so long ago we received a complaint about it. We could see that the relationship with this person had suffered because of this failing, and we felt bad. “Why didn’t you tell us before?” we wailed.
“I did,” was the devastating response.
And it was true. I had heard the previous complaints; I remembered them, so on some level they had registered. But they hadn’t sunk in; they hadn’t produced change. Still more painfully, I realized this wasn’t the first person to make this particular complaint to us.
I’m pleased to say that in this case, it finally got through. We apologized and did make improvements in that area. But I don’t think this is an unusual situation – interpersonal problems rarely resolve as easily and quickly as flipping a switch.
So, if you go to your brother a few times about something, and he still doesn’t change, that means it’s okay for you to become angry and lash out, right?
If you’re putting any thought and effort at all into being a good person, deep down, you know it doesn’t work that way. Other people doing the wrong thing doesn’t relieve you of your responsibility to do the right thing, to continue on your journey regardless of where they are on theirs. Just be grateful for the opportunity to develop patience.
Ha! Just kidding.
But not really.
Does that mean you have to be “Mr. Nice Guy” forever and let someone walk all over you with no attempt to stop it? Does that mean you have no responsibility to try to get through to this person you (presumably) care about, who is doing something harmful to you and/or to him/herself (possibly indirectly, by hurting relationships with others)? I don’t think it does.
There are occasions where a judicious use of temper might work, but only if the person showing anger does so very rarely (pretty much never). Most of the time, if you try to use this technique, you’ll end up over-using it and not only will it not help, it will make things worse.
If calm, careful explanation isn’t working, there are a few other things you can try.
- Get another of your brother’s friends to take up the issue. My all-time favorite proverb is, “If one man tells you you’re a donkey, ignore it. If another man tells you, consider it. If a third man tells you, believe it.” A man may easily deny the importance of something his wife is always nagging him about, but if one of his guy friends expresses – whether directly or, maybe even better, indirectly – the importance of making the change, he’s much more likely to hear it.
- They say that dogs, horses, and children use misbehavior as a way to get attention. If you respond with attention – even negative attention – you’re teaching them to repeat the behavior because it works. (And if this is the pattern of your relationship with your child, they’ll ultimately absorb the belief, “Being yelled at means I’m loved,” which is a very dangerous belief to take into romantic relationships.) Therefore, the recommendation is to ignore the behavior completely and “starve” it out. I can’t say I’ve had a lot of success with this in humans (and only occasional success with dogs), but it’s up for debate whether that’s because I don’t ignore consistently enough or because allowing people to continue unchallenged in the status quo doesn’t convince them of the need to change. Both could be true in different situations.
- Here’s the one you were hoping I wouldn’t say: consider whether what you’re getting is what you’re giving. Maybe you think your friend has a habit of unfairly accusing you for situations they’ve played a part in. You demand they take responsibility; they turn it around by saying you’re blaming them and refusing to take responsibility for your own part. Who’s right? Well, unfortunately, probably a bit of both. Somebody has to break the pattern. Maybe that means you apologize for your part and they never apologize for theirs. Maybe that happens a few times. Maybe it happens a lot of times before the pattern breaks. Maybe it never does.
And there’s the thing you really didn’t want to hear: no matter what you do, it might not change.
No matter how many times you go to them, it just might never get through.
Or it gets through, but they disagree – or, perish the thought – you’re actually wrong about what they’re doing or the need to change it.
Maybe they’re even getting conflicting advice from others. (I have personally been criticized both for “living too much in the gray” and being “too black and white.” There’s no way to reconcile those criticisms, so while I’ve examined both, I’m not too swayed by either.)
Or maybe they totally agree and want to change, but have trouble overcoming “muscle memory” in the key moments, so it happens before they realize it, or they don’t even realize when it has happened. In that case, it may upset, depress, or discourage them that people are continuing to criticize them harshly, as if they aren’t trying – or else that people are “giving up” and not helping them see when it happens.
It’s so tricky. Iron sharpens iron. If we’re not sharpening each other, we’re failing in our responsibility to each other. On the other hand, it’s not my responsibility to change you. And you can’t change me; only I can do that.
So often we think of going to our brother, I think, as giving us a sort of power over them. And it doesn’t. It’s not an order. My telling you that you are wrong isn’t a magic code that forces you to give a little shiver – like a robot receiving new instructions – do an about-face, and start marching in the direction I’ve indicated. But so often when that doesn’t happen, we get upset about it. “I’ve told you!” we say.
But when we have that reaction, we’re putting ourselves in the role of the arbiter of what’s right; the setter of the standard. And that isn’t our role… even if, in this instance, our understanding of what’s right and good is correct. When we have that reaction, we place ourselves squarely in impatience and arrogance. And that makes us wrong.
The line between trying to help and trying to control is one that’s easy to blur. But I suggest this: that love is not control. And also this: that you cannot help someone change without love.
It’s not loving to expect change, right this minute, just because we’ve demanded it. It’s not loving to point out every failure of love from others – especially not repeatedly! If you have an insight that might help someone, by all means, share it (gently!). But after that, quite often, the most loving thing is to wait patiently beside someone* while they get there on their own.
*There are, of course, situations where it might be better to wait patiently far away from the person, depending on the magnitude of the problem and its effect on you. But we still have to wait patiently – and preferably without complaining to anyone and everyone about how this person won’t change.