Can You Get Someone To Change Their Behavior Without Sabotaging Your Relationship?

Giving useful, helpful, and adequate feedback is something that is hard for a lot of people. I constantly witness parents, spouses, friends, family members, and even mental health professionals try to change the person they care about by blame, shame, and humiliation. While negative feelings have important functions and can motivate people to change their behavior, lack of useful feedback can have the opposite effect. For sensitive people who struggle with self-destructive behaviors, internalized shame, self-consciousness, and obsessive self-defeating thoughts, the consequences can be devastating. Here is a list of what not to do, and some food for thought about what to do instead: 

Tell them it is their fault: Getting someone to take responsibly for their actions makes sense. However, telling someone they are at fault is generally not followed up on by some plan of action, support, or help to prevent problematic behavior happening in the future. Generally, telling someone they are at fault does nothing more than make them feel bad. It makes more sense to be able to describe what specific behavior they did and the consequences it had in a non-judgmental manner. Is the goal the help prevent them from doing it in the future? If so, what is your role in this interaction? What are your intentions in blaming someone? Often, saying a person is at fault is simply a way to express anger, and expressing anger too intensely can sometimes destroy relationships. 

Tell them they are mentally ill: If you are trying to write someone off for behavior that you don’t understand well, this is an easy way out. Telling someone they are “mentally ill” can sometimes get people off the hook for providing more specific feedback or expressing anxiety more directly. What specific behavior are you talking about? Is there something in particular you want them to change? Do you have trouble describing their behavior? If people are treated with respect, they generally respond proactively. Mental illness can sometimes be a nebulous term for behavior that is not fitting or appropriate to the situation, and can also be a way to say “I am not comfortable with what you are doing.” However, being ganged up on, being misunderstood, and being shamed only ostracizes the recipient. Is calling someone mentally ill a way to express fear of what you can’t understand? Consider what it is about their behavior specifically that makes you uncomfortable, and see if you can use words to describe it without judgment. 

Tell them that they do things for attention: An attentive, listening audience can be a powerful thing. Just ask anyone who has benefitted from a caring partner, a best friend, or a loving family member! I love it when I receive the type of attention I want, and the type of attention I need. It makes me feel closer, more connected, and warmer towards the people I care about. There is no need to pathologize what is completely normal, and to make people feel bad for social inclusion, affection, and control. If there is a behavior that they actually do that burns you out, overwhelms you, or angers you; it may be time to own your frustration and know and communicate your limits. It may also be an opportunity to provide some feedback on what isn’t working in your relationship, or to clarify what it is you actually need for them to do or change. 

Tell them they have a personality disorder: Describing a disorder doesn’t change a behavior. People often think that if they could only describe something, somehow it will change! Telling someone the reason they behavior x way is because they have personality disorder generally just make them feel bad, and in some cases hopeless to do anything about it. If you want to hold someone accountable, you will have to develop better ways of giving feedback. A more thoughtful approach to changing behavior includes a compassionate and realistic plan to address it. 

Tell them they are a bad (parent, teacher, spouse, child, etc.): In essence, bad is a judgment. Trying replacing “bad” with descriptions of impact, consequences, and feelings about what happens when they behave the way they do. What is it about their behavior is “bad”, and why is it so important to bring to their attention? Are you avoiding expressing your own difficult feelings by judging others? 

In general, people are more willing to do what we want them to do when we have a strong relationship with them, when the feedback we provide comes from a place of caring, and when we validate and encourage others. A person is more likely to take feedback into consideration when they feel valued and cared about. Are there ways you can encourage or enhance the relationship? Focusing on behaviors that you want to increase (such as connection, openness, courage, self-awareness) will probably go a lot further than punitive responses coming out of frustration or anger. While constructive feedback is sometimes called for, aversive consequences manage to prevent problem behavior, and limits around what a person can tolerate is reasonable; punitive responses can also damage relationships.  

Do you avoid what you want the most?

Going into the bookstore has always been a positive experience for me. I am always filled with wonder at the millions of things I feel I could learn when I visit a big bookstore. I get the sense that I could just pick up a book, read it, and acquire a new skill, craft, or some time of knowledge that wasn’t there previously.

A few years ago, though, I wanted to write my own book. I was working on The Emotional Extremist’s Guide to Handling Cartoon Elephants. I would go into a bookstore and I would have the sensation that there were so many delightful, treasurable, and competing ideas and books that it almost felt as if I would just become one more competing voice. That my contribution wouldn’t make a difference. That all the ideas were taken. That people had accomplished so much more than I would ever be able to accomplish. The experience of going into the bookstore, as exciting as it was, had the potential to tap into my anxiety and prompt me to stop writing my book.

Sometimes “good” stressors open up in our life. What we really want is at our fingertips. Feeling good, contributing our own ideas, finding our voice, speaking up, influencing the world, and getting out of a place of feeling trapped, helpless, or stuck becomes an option. It’s there in front of us. We have the choice to be powerful and make a difference.

Sometimes these options cause us to shy away, shut down, stop believing in ourselves, not think we are good enough, or feel as if we are undeserving. These types of beliefs get in our way of taking action, having a better life, and surrounding ourselves with things we really want.

Here is a question for you: What is the cost of sitting back, becoming inactive, or avoiding what you want the most? How might your life be different if you approached -and got- what you want?

Ultimately, I was able to finish my cartoon elephant book. My confidence may still vary when I am around lots of beautiful books, smart people, or fabulous contributors to society. But I know that by not giving up on my goals, people have enjoyed my cartoon elephants, given me positive feedback about my book, and have found the cartoon elephant book to be a fabulous resource in addressing their own painful emotions.

What to do instead of criticize yourself

Try softening your stance, gently relax your face, and allow your muscles to become loose and less tight. Put a hand over your heart with an intention of lovingkindness, and try repeating the following statements with a tone of voice that conveys self-compassion:

May I bear this pain with kindness to myself

May I safely endure this pain

May I accept the circumstances of my life

May I find peace in my heart

May I let go of what I can not control

May I remember that others are also suffering

 

A mindful approach to self-hatred and self-criticism

Often people with self-hatred, shame or self-criticism get “caught up” in a thought process that includes a fair amount of self-attacking. This thought process can include arguments with oneself, reasons a person should not be the way he/ she is, or a rationale for how he/she “should” be feeling. Sometimes this thought process is associated with muscle tension, headaches, the suppression of emotion, the inhibition of interactions, or the shutting down of expression and experience.

People sometimes think that by punishing themselves in a self-hating dialogue is an effect way to change thoughts, feelings, or reality. Almost as if they are somehow being “deserving” of “bad” things someone sets things right. The difficulty is, it typically is not an effective strategy for changing thoughts or feelings! It might temporarily suppress feelings, shut down hurt or sadness, make one feel more empowered or less vulnerable, or even distract from other problems. But the bottom line here is this: Does actually work to reduce suffering? Does it get rid of emotions in the long term?

Being mindful, or starting to observe this process, is really the first step towards making some changes in this process. Being able to notice the thought, step back, practice using a gentle tone of voice, and practice saying “I am noticing the thought that…” is one way to start to just notice thoughts, rather than try to change them.

Next, assess your willingness to “shift gears.” Often people who are stuck in a ruminative process somehow believe that if they keep ruminating, something will change. That’s not to say you have the power to immediately “stop” ruminating, it just starts to get you thinking about an alternative.

If you feel miserable, want to stop hating yourself, and invest a lot of unproductive energy into engaging in self-hating thoughts, the option of doing something different just might be appealing. Once you decide to try something different, you can try softening your facial expression and relaxing your shoulders. Consider being curious about the physical sensations in your body that accompany the thought. What uncomfortable sensations might you be pushing aside in order to invest in the thought? Practice accepting physical discomfort and think about how you might approach or move towards it instead of away from it. If you could be curious about your pain and your emotion, you might be able to work with it a little bit differently. Remember to stay non-judgmental.

Finally, try out the phrase, “May I be at peace.” Try stating this phrase quietly and softly to yourself. Make sure you keep your face and shoulders relaxed, and practice acceptance. Try doing these steps several times throughout particularly difficult days, knowing that practicing new behaviors (and getting “good” at them so they are more automatic) takes effort and rehearsal.

Is everything really going to be okay?

When people tell you that everything is going to be okay, sometimes it is helpful to hear. Sometimes it is soothing, and can give you a sense of hopefulness and shared understanding. There are many ways in which other people try to soothe us, and which we find help and assurance in cases of extreme distress.

However, people sometimes use this statement in a way that is unhelpful. For instance, the statement that everything is going to be okay may be an attempt to avoid the subject, offer a platitude, or inhibit communication of distress. Sometimes it is more helpful to obtain some acknowledgment or understanding of how you really feel. Sometimes worries, fears, or concerns about the future just need to be openly expressed. In addition, it is hard to know that things are going to be okay when you don’t have a way to solve the current problem.

The statement that everything is going to be okay is a statement of expressed hope. It can be offered to the person who is going through the most severe of all crises, and even though there may be some irony to it, there is some truth to it as well. Sometimes when we feel very hopeless it is hard for us to hear the usefulness of this statement. Sometimes in the worst of moments we can find and create experiences of hope and joy- despite significant loss. Being able to find and participate in these moments help people survive.

Thinking about the ways in which this statement is both helpful and not helpful at the same time can help us to create space for different perspectives. When we can see things from different angles, we have more flexibility in addressing situations, responding to our environment, and finding help that may actually be helpful. There is always some element of truth to things turning out okay, but there are also moments when hopelessness prevails. Sometimes it is nice to consider the kindness of another person’s intentions, even if their attempts to be helpful aren’t always exactly what we need to hear in our moment of our pain.

10 Reasons why you need The Emotional Extremist’s Guide to Handling Cartoon Elephants book this holiday season

1. The Cartoon Elephant book, after being temporarily unavailable through Amazon, is now back on the market. The retail price is $26.95, but sometimes Amazon will let it go for a bit less.

2. Cartoon Elephants approach painful emotions with humor. If there is an elephant in the room in your family, this book is the starting point for approaching avoided conversations. You will recognize yourself and others in this book. There is no finger pointing or blaming.
 
3. Cartoon Elephants is something you can put on your coffee table. Because it is a graphic book with pictures and fun fonts, it is an easy read. The elephants will fit nicely next to big picture books about Africa and Asia.
 
4. The Cartoon Elephant book is being used to teach people in Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills groups about emotions. Loaded with psycho-educational material and teaching points, it cleverly accomplishes the task of making people think they are reading something fun yet giving them something valuable.
 
5. This book is not hard to read. There is no “plugging away” at chapters. If you want to bring something to someone’s attention in a way that is universally applicable, this book will do the trick. You don’t need to have painful emotions to appreciate elephants- you just need to have emotions.
 
6. If you are going to buy someone a self-help book for Christmas, this is safe bet.
Whether they believe it or not, everyone has cartoon elephants. The research proving this to be true is cited in the back of the book.
 
7. This book can be used and re-used, read and re-read. You can share it with family members, friends, or long lost relatives. It won’t go out of style. Emotions, as a rule, will be with you as long as you live.
 
8. You will get some food for thought about how and where you see yourself in relationship to your elephants. This is great for discussion groups, weekend retreats, and writing workshops.
 
9. This book is great for people of all ages. If you’re trying to get your kid to read something important, heavy, and deep, you can give them this book. It won’t take long to read and it is much more fun with illustrations.
 
10. The book will be the perfect introduction for my live series on emotions starting January 20, 2014. Of course you don’t need the book to sign up, but if you have the book you will have a better appreciation for cartoon elephants in general.

 

 

10 things you can do to survive painful life situations

1) Remember what matters. Consider the connections you have and what your current relationships mean to you. Do something today to honor those relationships, even it if is just expressing appreciation or liking.

2) Look for meaning in the current situation; including spirituality, faith, understanding, vulnerability, and connection. Sometimes our own painful situations get us to take our guard down, soften our stance, and risk letting others in.

3) Keep in mind the “bigger picture.” How do you think you will be looking at this situation in ten years? Sometimes focusing on our current pain prevents us from seeing reality in perspective.

4) Sometimes, when we are in pain, we look around us and see how other people don’t have to go what we go through. Instead, consider what you have right now that someone else would want (A job, an able body, health, a place to live, a relationship, a child, a parent, someone to love you, a garden outside your window).

5) Consider rehearsing, imagining, or writing out a scenario in which you cope adaptively. The key is that you don’t avoid reality and that you respond in such a way that you maintain your self-respect.

6) If you can’t solve a big problem right now, solve smaller problems. Sometimes taking care of smaller problems gives us a sense that we are doing something as opposed to being passive or helpless.

7) Give your mind a “break” by planning adaptive distractions that have nothing to do with your current life stressors. Sometimes perseverating on a painful situation makes us think that we are actually doing something to solve it.

8) Take care of your health. Remember that physical activity can help you “shift gears” by releasing endorphins and changing your physiological arousal. Don’t forget to eat. When you eat, pause and actually taste the food.

9) The only way to get through a situation is to survive the moment. Instead of denying, avoiding, or escaping the moment, breathe into it. This moment too shall pass.

10) Consider how you typically respond to a crisis. Do you do anything to make it worse, such as complete avoidance, threats, or escalations? Take the first step towards doing what works. Be effective and do what is needed, even it if is hard.

Pleasant events and positive life experiences

One way in which we buffer negative emotion, stressful life events, and painful circumstances is to create opportunities for positive emotion, tell people about these opportunities, and plan activities and events in our lives that we look forward to doing.

One way of doing this is to build mastery. This means doing things that are challenging or hard and provides opportunities for growth and achievement. Building mastery generally gives us a sense of purpose, accomplishment, or an “Aha! I did it!”.  Not having enough challenges can make us bored, which can be a contributing factor for depression. Approaching something that we have been avoiding, taking an emotional risk in sharing what we are feeling, or speaking up when we usually don’t might all be ways of building mastery.

Another way to create positives is to really notice and experience the small comforts throughout your day. Small daily pleasures or simple “little” things often get taken for granted, ignored, or neglected when we are focusing on our pain. When we plan for pleasant events and opportunities, resulting positive emotions show up more often. Consider spending time with someone you care about, fostering a relationship, attending and listening carefully, or being emotionally present when you are with someone. Consider sharing recent pleasant events, ways in which you are building mastery, how you are working on short or long-term goals, or what you are looking forward to this week.

Renee’s 27 stages of change:

1. Be reminded on some gut level of why you want or need to change
2. Avoid everything related to changing
3. Consider those who have changed
4. Compare yourself to those whose lives are different
5. Attack yourself for not changing
6. Start to take the first step towards change
7. Become overwhelmed
8. Wallow a bit
9. Consider the benefits of change
10. Get motivated or inspired by others whose lives are different
11. Be reminded on some gut level of how things are miserable for you now
12. Ask for help
13. Experience a sense of efficacy or encouragement
14. Experience a setback or discouragement
15. Try again
16. Become overwhelmed
17. Avoid people and places reminding you of change, at least for a while
18. Give up
19. Try again
20. Get reminded of how miserable you are
21. Approach everything that you’ve tried to avoid
22. Get overwhelmed
23. Take a small step and stick with it
24. Notice the pros and cons of the small step
25. Rant and rave to other people in your life about how things aren’t working
26. Try to get help again
27. Get motivated, take another step.
Etc. Etc. Etc.

Don’t kid yourself.
This is hard work.
We’ve all been there.