I’ve found that many people who see me in therapy wish that they could change the people around them. Mainly they want to change how these people think and what they feel or believe. For example, one client wants her mother to stop believing that she (the mother) is the only person who can be trusted with the family business and that if she is helped by other family members they will ruin everything. Another client wants his brother’s wife to stop believing that he (the client) is interested in stealing her away from his brother, even though he is clearly gay. Finally, a teenage client wishes that her father would stop expecting the worst from her and instead understand her feelings.
Your ability to influence another person is limited.
Your influence on another person runs a continuum from behavior to thoughts to feelings. Behavior is easiest to influence and feelings (or beliefs) is the hardest to influence.
Many people have a price at which they will perform the behavior you want. For example, you can get a whole group of people to get up earlier than they like, drive through miserable traffic for a long time, sit in a 10×10 cubicle and do busywork they don’t like for 8 hours, five days a week, most weeks of the year. All you have to do is give them money and they will give up a large portion of their lives for you. Or, if I tell you that I’ll make you a cake (and boy, I can make a cake that’s so good my family refers to it with capital letters: The Cake), IF you come over to my house next Tuesday night, and IF you are free next Tuesday AND you live relatively close to me, AND if you like really excellent chocolate cake, then it’s likely you’ll be willing to modify your behavior enough to include a stop at my house next Tuesday. However, let’s say you lived in Vanuatu. Also you had a regular date on Tuesday nights with Chris Hemsworth (yes, I had to google a list of hot guys under 40 to come up with that name). There’s just no way you’d change your behavior to be at my house next Tuesday.
It’s even harder to influence a person’s thoughts and beliefs.
Yet you can. You can provide lots of rational arguments. Post tons of propaganda. Add social pressure. And eventually the person’s thoughts will start to change into what you want because, as much as we hate this, the truth is that propaganda works.
Still, it’s much harder to change the beliefs of someone close to you without engaging in society-wide propaganda. Can you imagine the campaign?: “All self-respecting brothers bring their big sisters chocolate bars every Saturday morning! Bring your sis a chocolate bar today or Shame On You!”
No, I don’t think so.
So as much as we wish we could change the thoughts and beliefs of those whose thoughts and beliefs bother us, we are much better off working on simply getting them to do the behaviors we want.
The key message is this: If you are waiting around for someone to change their feelings or thoughts or beliefs into something that will make you happier, give that up. Become happy without asking them for change. It’s not only quite possible, it’s much freer.