After compassionately listening to some long-winded, likely dramatic family story several years ago, an old friend told me, "people only do what they want to do, there is no way to make 'em do anything." At the time, I was just finishing my doctoral degree in psychology and was certain that with support, people can be convinced to change.
Even though it is my profession to help others make the changes, I have understood over the many years since this conversation that there is a significant amount of validity to this sentiment. This is a hard pill to swallow, to say the least, and literally took me several years to understand. Loving others and becoming attached leaves us vulnerable to being caught up in the pain surrounding those folks not making the changes we believe they should make.
We have friends that we wish would call more often, we have family that we wish would drink less alcohol, we have children that we wish would quit smoking cigarettes. We have professors that we wish would recognize our efforts, bosses that we wish would give us a raise, spouses that we wish would be more intimate with us. The problem for each of us, is that if these people do not want to, they will not.
The only coping strategy that really works as an antidote to the big feelings associated with these experiences is to follow our own advice in our life. If we want others to take better care of themselves and they are not yet ready to, we must. If we do not want others to smoke, or drink too much, or live in unhealthy relationships, then we ought not either. If we would like more recognition for our service toward others, we can improve the situation only by recognizing others for their service.
Although this doesn't take the worry away from us about our loved ones, it reminds us that the only power and control that we have is over our own choices. Because we want to do something, we will. Because someone else wants to do something, they will. Until desire and motivation are present, change will not occur, and there is absolutely nothing that we can do about this except take better care of ourselves in the process.
Over the years, I have engaged in numerous negative coping strategies to deal with the frustration and disappointment of others not changing because I wanted them to. Recently, I have started working on a new concept, the worse those around me care for themselves, the better I care for me. The more frustrated I am about another person's decisions, for example their lack of expressed care for me, the more I care for myself. This new perspective achieves two very important goals at the same time, first it protects me and my mental and physical health while I wait, and secondly at the same time sets an example.
As I write this, I am thinking about a large disappointment I am trying to manage in my life involving a very close friend. I have taken longer and hotter showers, stayed in bed a little longer each morning, forced myself to get on my yoga mat each morning, eaten more chocolate, and let myself cry. Even though this friend will not make a change because she doesn't want to, I am coping with it by trying to take better care of myself and ensuring I am not repeating her behavior toward others. Forgiveness takes time but being gentle with ourselves in the process can begin immediately.