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If I had to generalize, I’d say that I spend a large chunk of the therapy hour trying to persuade clients that they can’t change the feelings or behaviors of other adults. Talk about continuing education. My best shot at helping clients accept this tough-to-swallow concept is to tell them, “If you didn’t cause it, you can’t fix it and if you didn’t start it, you can’t stop it.” They seem to get this idea on a theoretical level but find it hard to put into practice in specific instances. Here are some ways this theory might be applied.
I treat a great many clients who have abusive (leaning toward sociopathic) partners. To a person, these abusers had awful, dysfunctional childhoods full of neglect and/or abuse. My guess is that these abusers’ parents had pretty crummy beginnings themselves. So, my clients meet someone at age 19 or 27 when their personalities are already pretty solidified and set out to change them. They want to turn them from mean to kind, self- to other-centered, liars to truth tellers. But the templates these partners are basing their attitudes and actions on were laid down long before my clients ever met them, set down when their earliest attachments were formed for better or worse.
My clients want to jump in and fix something they didn’t cause. They can’t un-cause it. All the love in the world isn’t going to soften the harsh template that their partners are using for interacting in the world. All the caring and kindness in my clients’ hearts isn’t going to undo the damage done when their partners were infants, toddlers or adolescents. My clients didn’t cause the damage and it’s too late for it to be fixed (mostly because their partners feel okay as they are and have no interest in changing).
There’s also truth that if clients didn’t start a behavior, they can’t stop it. If they marry someone who was drinking/gambling/lying/cheating/drugging before they met them, how can they put a stop to these addictions. The seeds for their actions were planted in their spouse’s genetics and temperament, in the coping mechanisms their spouse’s parents modeled, and in what was accepted or not in their communities. This behavior became a strategy for life management long before they said their marriage vows.
They can’t make it stop by sheer will. If they’re fortunate, a spouse wants to stop his/her addiction and will take steps to end it. But all the wanting in the world isn’t going to help my clients end a spouse’s addiction. Ironically, their accepting they didn’t start it and can’t end it is the only way the behavior has a chance to die off.
Think about how you’re hell bent to fix things you didn’t cause and stop things you didn’t start. Consider how your passion to change others drives you to eat emotionally. Then focus on fixing yourself and stopping the behaviors you wish you’d never started.
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