Updated: May 18, 2020
What can we do when someone we care so deeply for, love, and see the best in, is making a choice that we can so clearly see is leading them to unhappiness, pain, or away from their central, best, human selves?
What can we do when we believe we can help them steer clear of that downward spiral, and yet, they don't want help, don't want change, and for whatever reason, are holding to the ground, even when it's quicksand?
What can we do when that person is ourself?
It is a relationship that all of us find ourselves in, from situations of relatively small impact (you have a habit of chewing your nails, and while you know it's not good for you, you just keep doing it) to life-or-death situations (your best friend is suicidal, and no matter how much you want to and have tried to help them find happiness, you have been unsuccessful). For myself, it has shown up with people I love in the form of substance addiction, depression, and lack of self-worth.
After years of trying to help them by getting them to change these aspects of themselves, my experiences with loved ones in these arenas have left me feeling hopeless and exhausted by the situation, unsure what to do.
Then I realized, we can't force somebody to change their actions, their choices, their life. They must always, ultimately, make the decision themselves. We can share a bevy of information to inspire a change within others, to paint a picture of a better future to incite change, but we will never have the agency to make choices for anyone but ourselves.
If that is true, then what can we do? Of course, when faced with this realization, one solution is to simply walk away. Hell, if I can't make them change, then why even bother? We can throw our hands up to the sky and say Hasa Diga Eebowai.
Or we can roll up our sleeves, reevaluate, and recommit to a different approach. After all, we are talking about people we care about here. There must be something we can do. Perhaps the most potent thing we can give our loved ones, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and fellow human beings in need of help, is... empathy.
Empathy; that's hard.
And it's also the most powerful agent for affecting a change in this world.
Imagine with me, instead of coming from a place of defense and instruction, we came from a perspective of empathy and construction.
First, truly seeing and feeling where it is they are coming from. Everything in life is a choice (that's a subject for a whole other blog), and we only make choices that we believe are beneficial. Therefore, our loved one must be seeing the situation differently than us, even if subconsciously. What is it about their vice that they see as the best choice to make, given their context of understanding? What are they benefiting from that choice? How do they see that as the the way to find happiness, love, and belonging; the core needs humans strive for?
Only once we are able to empathize with their perspective can we understand what lies behind their decisions and actions. We can then sit with them in our newfound, shared empathy, and communicate that they are seen, heard, felt, understood, and loved.
If, in that shared space of empathy, we believe we can offer help and perspective, having an understanding of all sides, we can offer our resources to help them construct new choices. We will never be able to build for them, but giving someone the support of being seen and loved alongside the tools for them to pick up and use, may just be the best way to help someone else.
And it is completely in the realm of possibility that no matter how much empathy, solidarity, and resources we may show them, they still will continue to make choices that we clearly see as harmful and destructive.
So we must remember to be kind to ourselves. In these sometimes hopeless-feeling relationships, it can be all too easy to blame or critique ourselves for not having the ability to get someone un-addicted, past depression, and out of their funk. These can be the people closest to us, or perfect strangers who just came into our lives. We must remember that we only have control over our own selves, and that in the end, we cannot make the change for others. So we must relinquish our duty to do so, and instead, offer what we can with generosity and kindness, un-attaching ourselves from the result as being responsible for someone else's choices.
Show up; be kind; lean into empathy. It's all we can do, and it is so much.
Four For Further Fun:
(At the end of each blog post, I will include four things that have had a strong impact for me in the area of the post's discussion)
A Book- The Art of Possibility | Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander articulate in their co-authorship fundamental pillars and practices of life that cultivate a position of possibility, empathy, and expansion. (Thanks Peter Shepherd for the recommendation!)
A Musical- Next To Normal | The Pulitzer Prize winning musical offers a breathtaking look into a family dealing with medical and psychiatric challenges, and their circuitous road to helping one another and themselves.
A Blog Post- Mindset | Jen Waldman articulates the notion of acknowledging and cultivating ownership over our choices in her blog.
A Mantra- Namaste | "Nama means bow, as means I, and te means you. Therefore, namaste literally means "bow me you" or "I bow to you."" Yoga Journal
*I have not been compensated to promote any of these resources. They are all things that I recommend based on their impact in my own experience, and hope that you may find use in them as well. Enjoy!*