Updated: Oct 29, 2020
Sometimes there are just those people you wish you could shake some sense into. We all have at least one person in our lives where we think something along the lines of “when will they learn?” We beg, we plead, we get angry, we yell, we give up, we beg. We do everything we can to appeal to their greater senses and somehow, no matter what, we can’t get them to change to save their lives. And sometimes it is a life-threatening behavior that we are trying to get them to change. Yet, despite our best efforts, we stay stuck. They stay stuck. Over time, it starts to erode the relationship because you’ve tried everything you can think of and they are still wishing their life was different but aren’t willing to do anything to make it different.
I will tell you that in order to support someone when they aren’t willing to change you will have to do the hardest thing to do when someone is hurting us or themselves through negative behaviors. You have to give them empathy and meet them where they are at. I wish I could give some magical solution to helping support someone that isn’t ready for change. Like almost all things therapy, the answer as to how to help them is “it depends.” How to best help someone and support them all depends on the person, the relationship, and the levels of harm that may be present if they don’t change.
Being honest, it really sucks at times. Most of the time when we are trying to help someone, it's because we are really invested in their wellbeing. Which means their behaviors feel like double edged swords that hurt us and hurt them. So we have a really difficult time separating from our personal feelings in order to see what the other person is going through. Trust me, I’ve ridden the struggle bus on this, in my personal life, enough to have an honorary seat. I can tell you, most of the time, no good outcome comes from us trying to force change upon them. It hurts us more. It makes them dig their heels in more. Then, the spiral. The best way to try to avoid the spiral of stubbornness, hurt, and disappointment is to meet them where they are at.
So the way that I break this down is that you and the person you want to help are both standing in a minefield, separated by a couple yards. The pair of you are scared, wanting to make it out alive. Stakes are high, meaning both of your tempers are peaking. Fear brings anger out the worst in us faster than anything. So, you have a choice to make. You know the person will not move, you know they are too fearful to face the potential of hitting a landmine and losing a limb, (you). The person’s actions are apparent in that they are begging you to rescue them. So, it's up to you. You can stay where you are at, frozen in fear, knowing that there’s no hope for rescue. Or, you can do the brave thing and walk across a minefield, risking landmines, to get to them. When you get to them, you can help them traverse the rest of the minefield.
In order to show this in real life scenarios, you need to show to a person that you are willing to risk emotional landmines to help them. You are willing to risk that things will not go ideally, or be pretty. You are willing to hold their hand through the scary shit and support them. Honor their fear. Honor that the reason they are responding to things in certain ways is because maybe at one point in time, it worked for them. Change is terrifying.Even if it hasn’t been working, it’s comfortable. It's safe in a way. Predictable. Most of the time, we need people to see and value how scary it is for us to forge into a path that feels unknown for us.
However, that doesn’t mean we don’t need people to call us on our bullshit. You have to be standing next to someone to be able to do it gently though. I mean, what would you prefer if you were standing in a minefield? Someone yelling at you from a distance as if they can see the ground in front of you, when you know they can’t? Or someone gently pulling you along in a way that allows you to both watch your step? I think a lot of us would choose door number two. If we truly want to help people on their journey to change, we have to show them we are on their side before we call them on their bullshit. The Golden Rule; Treat Others the Way You Want to be Treated. We do this by trying our best to understand that whatever they are doing, there is something underlying that and causing it. Some unmet need. Some fear. Something that makes the behavior make sense (in a weird sort of way). Try to figure it out so you can feel empathy for what they are going through. Then learn how to challenge it. Gently point out how their behaviors aren’t effective or helping them. Help them navigate the fear of changing by encouraging their bravery, building them up, being there to catch them if they fall off the wagon, and have grace for them when they relapse into their old habits. You recognizing effort in the midst of “failure”, will ensure growth. Freaking out and throwing things if they make a mistake will cause them to question if the reward is worth the work. Positive motivation is a much more pleasant process than negativity.
Word of caution to those bleeding hearts out there: don’t get so wrapped up in trying to save them that you enable their behaviors or end up hurting yourself. There is a huge difference in supporting and enabling. Supporting is giving room for imperfect growth. Enabling is giving excuses that allow the avoidance of growth. You need to set boundaries for yourself and know if/when you are overextending your boundaries. Know your limits. Don’t let those get pushed to a point that is extremely harmful for you.
Sometimes, reinforcements need to be called. Have the person in your life read this article on seeking help, to see if your family would be a good candidate for therapy.