NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Getting to Know the Only Person You Can Change: Yourself

As a psychotherapist in New York City, it's not unusual for me to work with clients who come in because they're upset about a loved one's behavior. It might be a husband who refuses to stop drinking, a mother who continues to be masochistic, a father who is emotionally detached, a sister who has a long history of getting involved with abusive men, and so on.

Getting to Know the Only Person You Can Change: Yourself

Trying to Get Loved Ones to Change:
Listening to these sad stories, I can certainly understand and feel compassion for someone who is sad and dismayed that his loved one continues to engage in dysfunctional or self destructive behavior, and that his inclination is to try to "fix" them in some way. After all, don't we all want the best for the people that we love?

Searching for "Just the Right Words" to Get Your Loved One to Change:
Often, clients come to therapy because they think they're going to learn what to do or say to change someone else's behavior. They think if they say just the right thing in just the right way, maybe they can get their loved ones to see their point of view so that they can start changing their behavior. They reason that if only they can come up with the perfect solution, their spouse, father, mother, sister, or best friend will "see the light" and everything will be okay.

Often, these clients will ask me, "Have you worked with anyone who has this problem?" (referring to their loved ones). As an experienced, psychotherapist, usually, I have experience working with people who have the same kinds of problems. At that point, when I tell them that I have, clients are relieved to know that I understand what they're talking about.

The very next question is usually, "So, what did you do or say to change that person?" When I tell a client that I don't have the power to change anyone, they often seem mystified. After all, isn't that why people come to see psychotherapists--so the therapist can make them change? Well, not really.

No One Can Make Anyone Change if He Doesn't Want to Change:
The truth is that no one can make anyone change if he or she doesn't want to change. Even when they want to change, it's not the psychotherapist's job to get them to change. When I realized that, as a psychotherapist in training, it was a humbling experience.

But, ultimately, it was a big relief: As long as I know that I did everything that I know how to do, my responsibility ends there. I might wish for a different outcome for my client, but I'm not responsible for making anyone change or saving anyone or forcing them to do anything that they didn't want to do. It's completely up to the client. I can provide compassion, some guidance and tools, help them to explore underlying issues, assist them to overcome trauma, help them through the healing process, but I can't make anyone do anything that they don't want to do.

For many clients who come in because they want to change someone else that is close to them, they often don't believe me, at first, when I tell them this. It's as if they're thinking, "Surely, she must have the answer and she's waiting for me to come up with it myself, but if I don't figure it out, she'll tell me."

"But I keep telling him that he needs to change. Why doesn't he listen to me?"
One of the saddest things that I hear in my office from clients who are trying to get someone else to change is, "But I keep telling him that if he continues to do this, he'll destroy himself. I can't understand why he doesn't listen to me." Then, often, they'll ask me to speculate as to why their loved one is not listening to reason (as if I know). They seem to think if they can only figure out why this person is not listening to them, then they can get them to listen and to change.

Just like anyone else, in the past, I've experienced these feelings too for people that I've cared about and wanted to change. So, I have a lot of compassion for clients who come in hoping that they'll learn what they can do to change or save their loved ones. I've been there, and I know what that's like. But the longer I do this work, the more I realize that some people are just not going to change, no matter how much you want them to and, sometimes, no matter how much they say they want to change.

One of the hardest things that I have to tell clients is that their loved one is probably not going to change, no matter what they say to their loved ones and no matter what they do. I wouldn't say "never" to anyone because I've also seen many people make miraculous changes in their lives. Having witnessed this, I'm always open to the possibility of someone turning their lives completely around. Every year, I get calls or emails from former clients who tell me that they're continuing to live sober lives, or they continue to be much happier than when they first came to therapy, or whatever changes they made that they might never have thought that they could make. It's so gratifying and heart warming to hear from these clients.

I Meet Extraordinary People in My Office Every Day:
So, it's not that I don't believe that people can change--because I meet extraordinary people every day, and I'm so grateful to have a job where I can witness such wonderful changes. The problem is that when clients come to therapy focused almost exclusively on changing someone else, they often neglect themselves. Not only do they neglect themselves, but they've become so immersed in trying to get the other person to change that, they're convinced, against all odds, that they can do something to get their loved ones to change.

The Role of Denial:
Years ago, I had a friend who, up until the day his wife died from alcohol-related complications, was convinced that he could get her to stop drinking. He was in such denial that, despite all evidence to the contrary (including her severe liver damage, cognitive impairment, and her non-stop drinking), he could not be deterred from his efforts to get her to be abstinent from alcohol. When she died, even though he had watched her steady decline at close range, he was the only person who was surprised by her death. He was also shattered to realize that nothing he did made any difference.

The Role of the Inner Child:
Very often, when an adult child wants to change a parent, there is an inner child part that is wishing, against all odds, that the parent will change. Clients are often surprised to hear that, even though they might be adults in their 40s, 50s and beyond, they can still have inner child parts that are still operating on a deep emotional level. They're surprised to discover that their inner child has taken control of their emotions and their reasoning, and this can have a very powerful effect on how they feel and think.

Your inner child might be buried deep, but he or she is still there and will often get emotionally triggered in certain situations. Typically, these situations involve an old desire, that is still very strong, to change someone that he or she loves. It doesn't have to be the same person that they wanted to change as a child. It could be someone else. So, for example, if a young boy had a strong desire to stop his alcoholic mother from drinking, it's not unusual for him to have the same feelings when he gets married to a woman who is an active alcoholic.

Helping the Inner Child to "Update the File:" "That was Then, This is Now":
Because our inner children are often so fragile and vulnerable emotionally, we don't want to run roughshod over them. However, we do want to help our inner children to realize that "that was then, and this is now. Of course, you had a strong wish and fantasy that your mother would stop drinking and somehow you would help her to stop. That was perfectly understandable back then, but this is now. "

Typically, a therapist, who works with clients who come to therapy primarily to help a loved one, helps these clients to "update the file." Often, this involves trauma work to work through the old trauma that is getting triggered again in the new situation. There is also grief work to be done for the old situation and the current situation.

On the Road to Acceptance: "So...I guess she's probably not going to change."A client who is starting to come to grips with the fact that their loved one is probably not going to change will often say, almost in a questioning tone,"So...I guess she's probably not going to change." This is a big step in that client's recovery. It might be a tentative step, and it might involve taking one step forward and another step backwards as denial sets in again. But it's the beginning of an opening for the adult self to nurture that inner child.

Focusing on Yourself:
Rather than continuing to neglect themselves by focusing so much on changing the other person, clients who are coming to grips with the reality of their situation, ideally, begin to focus on themselves. Maybe they've neglected their own health. Or, maybe they've neglected themselves in some other way because they've been so focused on their loved ones.

Coming to grips with the fact that, no matter how much we love them and what we're willing to do for them, sometimes, our loved ones just don't change, can be a very difficult emotional journey. We can go through many different stages as we, reluctantly, come to accept that they're not going to change: sadness, anger, disbelief, shock, and, hopefully, acceptance. We might go back and forth through these stages and there's no logical order.

Acceptance Can Be a Humbling Experience:
Accepting that you're the only one that you can change is a humbling experience. But it's often a relief for people who have worn themselves out trying to get the other person to change. By the time they stop trying, they often need to regroup and, sometimes, get to know themselves again. The focus has been so much on the other person that these people often lose a sense of themselves.

Codependence, But So Much More:
Often, what I've described in this article is called "codependence." I use this term myself, but I think it's, sometimes, misunderstood. And in the situations that I've described, where there is such a longing for the loved one to change, it doesn't even begin to capture what that experience is like for the person who is "codependent."

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're stuck in a battle with a loved one and, possibly with yourself, to try to get this loved one to change, you could benefit from psychotherapy for yourself. Your loved one either will or won't change, very often having nothing to do with what you try to do for him or her. But if in the process of your trying to get the other person to change, you lose yourself, then, really, all could be lost. So, the healthiest thing to do is to rediscover and take care of yourself.

About Me
I am a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and EMDR therapist in New York City.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients through their journey of acceptance in difficult situations. I've also helped them to rediscover and nurture themselves again.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.