We all have things we think could be improved in our loved ones, right? Things we wish they’d do more (the dishes) or less (nagging). In some cases, what could be changed might vastly improve your loved one’s life – losing weight, quitting smoking, cutting back on alcohol/ drug consumption, improving their time management, chasing long held but never actioned dreams, or expressing their creativity.
So what if your daughter, partner, mother, best friend or any other significant person decides they’d like to make a change of the better? Here’s what you can you do to make sure that you help, rather than hinder, them.
Notice when they’ve made the right choice
It’s all too easy to forget to compliment someone when they’ve made the right choice, by thinking ‘well that’s what they ought to be doing anyway’. But humans love praise. Psychological studies have found it’s the best motivator, better than any material rewards. So compliment your loved one when you notice they’ve made the right choice. It’s much easier to remember to comment if the right choice is engaging in a behaviour (e.g. exercising), rather than commenting on the absence of a behaviour (e.g. not smoking), but both kinds of change deserve acknowledgement.
Ignore the wrong choices
No one likes to hear they’re wrong or that they have failed. Criticising or arguing with people tends to make them feel threatened, and they actually cling to their old behaviours in order to feel safe, and to soothe their hurt feelings. Change is hard enough without dealing with harsh words too. So speak up when they do right, and minimise/ ignore the failures.
Do as I say, not as I do…
You may have noticed that children tend to copy what we do, rather than what we tell them they should be doing. It goes for adults, too. It’s no good telling your loved one not to eat cake if you’re going to eat it in front of them, even if you’re not overweight and they are. Help them out by changing your behaviours too. If this feels too much like hard work – well, that’s how they’re probably feeling too!
Make it easy
Do what you can to remove obstacles to their behaviour change. An obstacle will easily become an excuse why change is too hard. If time is an issue, offer to do some chore they’re normally responsible for so they have more time. If money is a concern, instead of listening to them moan about it, engage in a brainstorming session with them and find other ways of either coming up with the cash or doing it cheaper. If unhealthy food is tempting, stop meeting at cafés.
No Quiet Sabotage
This can be accidental or intentional. It’s when you passively undermine a person, and can happen when you start to feel threatened by their changes. You might start to feel boring when you see what they’re doing with their painting, or lonely when you realise they’ve made a good friend at the gym. And you start to say things like ‘but don’t you want to watch the end of this program with me?’ when they’re heading off to class, or ‘you never spend time with me anymore’ when they’re heading out to the studio, or ‘just taste this wine, it’s amazing’ when they’ve been off alcohol for a while. If you find yourself doing this, you’re getting insecure. They’re improving. You’re not. Maybe they won’t want to hang out with you so much anymore. The solution here is not to bring them down – it’s to find your own way to improve. If you feel boring, take up your own hobby. Lazy? Try a new fitness class. Lonely? Meet up with other friends, or go to the gym with them! The jealousy and insecurity will drop and you can get back to being supportive.
We started with praise, and we’ll end with it too. When your loved one hits a milestone, find a way to celebrate it – a box of new pastels, a piece of exercise equipment, a massage, a healthy treat. Let them know how proud you are of what they’ve accomplished.
If you’re the one changing, you can use these strategies too. Focus on how good it feels to engage in your new behaviour. Don’t beat yourself up when you fall back into old habits. Surround yourself with people who behave in the way you’d like to, and work out in advance what’s likely to trip you up and how you’ll manage those situations. And remember to treat yourself when you hit your goals!
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.