“You Can’t Change Anyone But Yourself”
Part 1 of the Therapist Pet Phrase Series
I read an article recently from Psychology Today online, which took a look at some of the “pet phrases” therapists use. Remarks like “How does that make you feel?” and “What I hear you saying is…” were included as phrases repeated, perhaps, just a little too often in session. The article sparked some interesting conversation with colleagues about what we find ourselves saying with regularity and what those phrases mean to us and our clients. I can sheepishly admit I had enough to inspire a short blog series (I can easily envision my clients snickering at this – they’ve heard it all before).
One of my admitted favorite “truths” is you can’t change anyone but yourself.
Even in individual therapy, much of our work revolves around relationships. Whether experiencing problematic interactions with a spouse, child, employer, or friend, often our clients express how much better things would be if the other person would only change. The wished-for change may be something as minor as picking up more around the house, to bigger issues such as infidelity.
“If only he would change, our marriage would be wonderful.”
“If only my co-workers weren’t so lazy, I’d be happy at that job.”
“I can’t stand her drinking. If she would stop, I could finally be happy.”
“My parents are too strict. If they would let me do whatever I want, everything would be so much better.”
As therapists we listen to statements like those above and recognize that, for the client, these words feel absolutely true. We also know that even when the change is warranted, necessary, or a matter of life or death, making another person change is nearly always destined to fail. People change when they are ready to change. Communication can help that process begin. We work with our clients to find ways to express their needs and preferences to the others in their lives, and sometimes this is enough to initiate a needed change. An example might be “I am not happy with the amount of time you spend away from home watching sports with your friends. It causes me a lot of extra work and worry to be alone here 5 days a week. Can you please be here more?” Asking for what you want in a clear and calm manner is a great way to explore if change is an option. Ultimately, though, it is up to each of us to make changes in our lives.
If we cannot change another person, what can we do? We can change ourselves. The kinds of changes I mean include:
- Getting clear on your needs and wants.
- Setting healthy boundaries.
- Making time for personal growth.
- Taking care of your emotional, physical, and spiritual health.
- Seeing a counselor or talking to a trusted friend for support.
- Saying “no” when necessary.
- Changing the things you can, to have the kind of life you want.
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Taking the focus off changing someone else, and turning toward your inner needs and wants is the way to effect true, long-lasting change in your life. The funny thing is that sometimes when people make their own lives better, others around them follow suit. Either way, you will be closer to a deeper self-knowledge and a healthier sense of self.
So when a therapist says “You can’t change anyone but yourself,” he or she probably means something along these lines. Ask your therapist to work with you to determine what changes you want to make and how to make them.