One of life’s hardest lessons to learn is that you can only change yourself.
Some people spend inordinate amounts of time and energy upset, angry, or frustrated by other people’s thoughts and behaviors.
But to what end? You can rail against the rain or feel sanguine about the snow, but there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Why should we, by default, believe we can change another person’s — an independent, thinking self just like us — behaviors and thoughts with just a few choice words? If you think about it for a minute, it sounds kind of ridiculous.
Yet we don’t think about it when we have an emotional reaction to someone else’s behavior or words. We say things like, “How could they say such a thing!” or “How can anyone be so rude!?” or “Don’t they know how much they hurt me? Why do they do that?!”
We often react in this way because our emotions are a part of most people’s innate decision-making skills. We react and respond emotionally to emotional needs of our own, rather than in a logical, rational manner. So when someone touches one of these emotional needs, we can respond in a way that may not make a whole lot of sense to an outside observer.
What you can do, just once, is to make a polite request for another to stop the behavior that you find frustrating, annoying or disturbing. But that’s it, just once (or maybe twice, if you feel the person really didn’t hear or understand the initial request). After that, you just become a nag and will be ignored. Repeating something over and over again doesn’t suddenly make people more aware of themselves, it just makes them aware of how annoying you can be.
There’s no magic to stopping trying to change other people’s behavior. Catch your thoughts (by writing them down in a journal or blog, for instance) when you find yourself saying something like, “I wish she wouldn’t do..” or “I can’t believe he thinks that…” — things like that. Making a note of it, mental or otherwise, allows you to pause your automatic thinking before you jump to the next step in your response (which is usually to say something to the person).
If you’ve already said something, now’s the time to stop and go no further. Unless you’re the other person’s parent, they’ve probably already heard it and may have even tried stopping the behavior. Hearing it again isn’t going to suddenly change their behavior.
People can spend weeks, months and in some cases years in psychotherapy working on changing their thoughts or behaviors. That’s because such change often takes that long to understand, practice, and then implement. Behaviors most important to others are also likely behaviors that are important to ourselves and not readily changed, even if we wanted to. They sometimes are integrated part of another’s personality or way of thinking about and looking at the entire world.
So save yourself some frustration today and try to learn to stop trying to change others. Focus instead on changing your own faults and you may find yourself living a happier and more peaceful life.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 14 Nov 2008
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Grohol, J. (2008). You Can Only Change Yourself. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2008/11/14/you-can-only-change-yourself/