Trying to Fix Others to Make Yourself Feel Better

When I met my husband, he was going through a divorce. He’d recently moved with multiple pets into an old, crumbling house that had been a college rental for years.  The pets were insane and both the house and yard were a wreck which nobody had attended to for years.  The hedges were overgrown, the yard was weedy and full of construction dirt from his first major attempt at fixing the foundation.  His personal life as well as the house, the yard, the hedges were all a big, wild mess.

Within a short time of moving in, a neighbor knocked on his door.  She lived more than a block down the street in an extremely tidy house with an equally tidy yard.  She announced that she and “the other neighbors” had been talking about his messy yard, and that it bothered all of them.  At one point in the conversation, she said to him, “I don’t know if you are depressed, or what is going on in your life, but if you cleaned up your hedges and your yard, you might feel better about yourself.”  He responded quickly with, “No, you would feel better if I cleaned up my hedges and my yard.”  This comment cut right through to the heart of the matter: she did not care what my husband was going through, she just wanted him to change his property’s appearance to suit her desire for tidiness and order.  She said that maybe she would come back one day and weed his yard.  While she never actually did so, her response made clear that she had such a strong desire to not have to look at my husband’s messy yard that she was willing to put a great effort into changing it to look how she wanted it to look.

Years later, we found out that this woman’s personal life was much messier, dangerous and out of her control than my husband’s yard was.  Inside her home with its orderly, perfect exterior was a frightening interior overrun with severe domestic violence that she was unable to escape from, change, or control.  The messy yards and the loud children and the wilder people in her neighborhood were too much for her to bear because they reminded her that she was not in control of her life.  She was doing her best to find some sense of order and sanity by trying to get others to clean up their acts; it was too overwhelming, painful, and seemingly impossible to clean up hers.  She was so attached to her role of sane person in control that she couldn’t reveal to anyone that her life was exactly the opposite.  She needed help but instead of asking for it, she tried to alter everyone else so that she could look outside of her turmoil and see a sane world.

There are many ways that we might have a little bit of this neighbor in ourselves when we try to get others to do things that would make us feel better about ourselves, but we frame those things as being better for them.  We might even throw an ultimatum in there, to get them to make those changes.  Doing this often ends in frustration because it is impossible get people to change to suit us.  Instead of attempting the impossible, look within and ask, “Is this really something that would be good for me, would make me feel better?”  If you are trying to get someone to do something for “their own good,” whether they are your partner, friend, child, ask yourself, “Would I feel better if they did this?”  If the answer is yes, the next question to ask is, “What feels bad in me that needs to feel better?”

Let’s say that you are trying to get your reluctant partner to get therapy, because you think it would make them feel better (but actually you are hoping it will make them act better).  Would you feel better if your partner got therapy?  If so, then something in you is feeling bad in the relationship.  What is that thing that feels bad?  Do you feel unheard because your partner doesn’t listen to you?  Do you feel ignored because your partner is too distracted: by work; by pot; by the Internet; by something other than the relationship?  Do you feel shut out because your partner can’t share their feelings with you?  What part of you is attracted to this sort of relationship to begin with?  You might have some success in getting your partner to go to therapy, and maybe your partner will come out of it as a better listener who is more attentive and who can share their feelings with you, but unless you address and change the internal part of you that fits the bad listener who is inattentive and withholds feelings, your partner will no longer fit, and the relationship will end.  You can’t make your partner change to become the person you wish you were with, but you can change yourself.  It is work well worth your time and the rewards surpass the effort.

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