An older man in my church came up to me several years ago and asked me how things were going in my counseling practice. After I had given him the standard “Things are going well” response, he jokingly asked me if I had figured out how to change anyone yet. He then told me, “Mischa, no one changes if they don’t want to,” which is some of the wisest advice I’ve ever been given.
So what do you do if you’re in a relationship with someone and wanting him or her to change? How do others change?
Many of us are in relationships in which we want the other person to act differently. Maybe it’s your spouse, one of your in-laws, your parents or a sibling. You wish that they would stop acting a certain way or doing a certain thing. No matter how many times you’ve tried to get them to change, they just haven’t. You may spend a ton of emotional and physical energy attempting to fix things that they’ve done or trying to get over things that they’ve done to you. When you really think about the relationship, you often wonder what you can do to change them, to get them to see how your way of doing things would be so much better.
If you or anyone you know experiences thoughts like that frequently, you might have a problem with boundaries.
Boundaries are rules or limits in relationships that allow you to feel safe and respected. Everyone has personal rules and limits that they try to hold to, but some people are better than others at enforcing them. People who struggle to hold to boundaries often overcommit to things, feel like they can’t say no and frequently operate out of fear of letting others down. Their mindset can become so focused on how to fix or help out others that they lose sight of what they want for themselves.
People who struggle with boundaries often experience a lot of relational angst because of a variety of reasons. They may feel let down because others don’t meet their expectations. They can feel guilty if they think that they’ve failed to meet someone else’s expectations or if they don’t do something for someone. They can develop resentment as they feel taken advantage of and manipulated by others. Sometimes they can be passive-aggressive, as they may struggle to say something directly to a friend or relative but will still do things indirectly to demonstrate their disapproval.
Consider this two-step approach when attempting to be more consistent with personal boundaries.
First, you must begin to implement those personal rules or limits that you have and hold others accountable when they cross them. Second, and what usually is more difficult, you must be willing to allow the consequences of you holding to your boundaries to run its course. By that, I mean that you can’t backslide on your boundaries when someone close to you objects to them. This is so difficult because other people grow accustomed to being able to cross boundaries, so when you begin to hold to your boundaries, they will naturally object.
If you are struggling with boundaries or wanting others to change and want to act differently, start by focusing on the things that you can control in your own personal life. A great way to think about situations is through the lens of the serenity prayer, which states: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to email@example.com.