Can I Change Someone I Love?

I had a conversation with friends this weekend that had us all very thoughtful. We were talking about the people in our lives who struggle with addictions of one sort or another. Every one of us in that conversation has had someone close to us caught in desperate addiction. It’s difficult seeing someone we love throwing away their lives, or so it seems. We wondered if it’s possible to change someone we love and what to do if we can’t.

I’ve been on both sides of the addiction issue. My beautiful mother was an alcoholic and I went to the mat with alcohol myself during my break-down break-through. I almost didn’t survive it and I know people who haven’t. It can be excruciatingly painful to watch someone we love in the throes of it all. It can be terrifying not knowing if they will make it through to the other side. We can become desperate to change them just as I was desperate to change my mother.

As my friends and I were talking, I told them that I was surprised to find that the only thing I truly regret since my mother’s death, is that I tried to change her. If I could have one conversation with my mother today, it would be to apologize for that. It would be to tell her how differently I see it all now. How differently I see her now.

You see, I don’t believe it’s possible to change another person. I believe that change comes from within. Always. I believe that when we attempt to change another, we set ourselves up for even more suffering and I don’t believe it’s particularly helpful to the other person.

In my desperation to change my mother, I had all kinds of expectations that I put on myself and on her. I felt tremendous angst and pressure, from myself, to help her. She felt pressure to change for me and other family members, but the change she attempted was not from within her so it didn’t last. Change happens through insight, not from outside pressure or expectations.

I can remember the church trying to change me. I remember feeling tremendous pressure and then shame when I couldn’t change or sustain the change they wanted. I remember the few close friends near me during my break-down break-through who were pressuring me, innocently, to change. I couldn’t do it… until I could, and that came through insight, not from pressure. The shame I felt was partly why I couldn’t change. I couldn’t see my innate wellbeing. That’s no one’s fault but my own but it’s part of what was going on for me at the time. I know mama felt shame.

You see, when we are consumed by shame, we forget that we have innate wellbeing. We forget that we are not broken. We forget our resilience. We lose touch with ourselves and that is devastating. When that happens, some of us go down the path of addiction. Some of us go down the path of anger and manipulation. Some of us go down the path of depression and anxiety. Some of us go down the path of self-righteousness. There are many paths.

So, what can we do if someone won’t change? I believe that all we can do is love them. Love them without expectation. Love them without judgment. Love them without the demand that they change. Love them from your place of wellbeing, knowing that they, too, have wellbeing, even if you or they can’t see it right now.

That does not mean that you stay in harm’s way. That does not mean that you don’t have boundaries. That does not mean that you don’t take care of yourself. That does not mean that you don’t offer support if that seems the thing to do. That’s not to say that if someone commits a crime we just let them go on their merry way. It may mean we lock them up for everyone’s safety but what if instead of seeing them as criminal, we see them as whole and forgetting their wholeness? How might we treat them differently? How might we support them? What if we saw the addict as whole? 

I believe that the most helpful thing we can do for another is to trust them on their path, even if their path looks destructive to us. I had two people during my darkest times who absolutely trusted me and loved me despite how it all appeared. They reflected back to me my innate wellbeing and wholeness. I don’t know if anyone did that for mama. It made a difference.

What if we did that for one another? What if we reflected back to those around us who are in desperate straits, pure love and acceptance? What if we reflected back to them their wellbeing and resilience? Look, it’s no one’s responsibility to save or change another. It’s our responsibility to change ourselves and we can do that when we remember our innate wellbeing. And by remembering that those we love have innate wellbeing, too, then we can offer support and love without expectation and demands.

Everyone is on their own personal journey. We cannot understand what another is going through. We cannot possibly know what’s best for them. 

We cannot possibly know what's best for them.

Yes, I said that twice and it may need to be said repeatedly. All we can do is love them.

I know firsthand that what I’m saying could sound simplistic and naïve. It is simple but it’s not necessarily easy, especially when we aren’t in touch with our own wellbeing. Just do the best you can. Open with love and try to stay with love. You know when you’re coming from love and when you’re not. Love is not controlling, manipulative, anxious, coercive, self-righteous, or judgmental.

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails." I Corinthians 13:4-8

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