Monday, June 3, 2013

Making people change.

Everyone knows that you can't make a person change.  You can support people.  Provide inspiration and motivation.  You can set an example and encourage people to follow your lead; but at the end of the day, each person has to do their own heavy lifting. (some of use more than others)

That can be a tough thing for someone writing a self-improvement blog to admit.  I know that nobody is going to go out and change their life as a direct result of what I write here.  If even a tiny handful of people who were ready and willing to make a change are nudged over the edge by what I have to say, I would count that as an incredible win.

Every once in a great while, however, we get to see someone grow up all in an instant, right before our eyes.  Maybe not because we made them, but because we were there to be the catalyst for a change they knew they needed.  Today, I'd like to share one such story with you, which was recently shared with me.  The names have been completely omitted to protect the innoc....  oh who am I kidding?  The names are omitted to protect me.

I recently spoke to a woman who's fiancé is a teetotaler.  When they'd first started dating, he'd been a drinker.  Not a raging alcoholic or anything like that, but he drank, and he drank too much - too often.  I think, "Raging Alcoholic: The Prequal" would have been a good description.

Meanwhile, her most recent ex had been the type to stay out late and cat around. (hence the 'ex')  The new beau would drink, but he came home, and he never came home stinking of cheap perfume, so she tolerated it amicably.  Any time the topic of his drinking would come up, she'd tell him it was fine.  She didn't have a problem with it.  She liked a drink once in a while too.

No. Big. deal.

Was there a bit of denial involved?


If you or I were her brother/sister/mom/dad/pushy Work-Friend™, would we have told her to literally kick him in the bad place and figuratively kick him to the curb?

Most likely.

Would she (or you or I if the roles were reversed) have listened?

Definitely not.

However, she said it was no big deal, and at the time she meant it.  He was drinking too much, but he wasn't catting around, he wasn't a mean drunk, and it didn't interfere with his work or their relationship.  He just liked to tie one on, a bit more often than was probably good for him.

Of course one evening, a few months in, he calls her on his way out from work to check in, and tells her that he's going to stop off at the bar with a friend for bit if that's okay.  One beer, maybe two, and he'd be home before the news came on.

Two turned into three, and three turned in to many.

Sometime around 2am he stumbled home, and there she was, waiting up and a little worried, but doing her best not to freak out.  He took one look at her and said, "Wow, I am an ass.  I am never drinking again."
As a side here, I feel it's my responsibility to point out that a drunk person making a sweeping declaration is never to be trusted or taken at face value.  The sentence  "I swear it was just the alcohol and I'll never do it again," is possibly the single most destructive sentence in the English language, because people have an unfathomable tendency to believe it, even though it is almost universally a lie.  If you are in an abusive relationship, get out now!  Call your local women's shelter, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE, visit their website at, find a local domestic abuse hotline, or talk to your priest or pastor.  There are people who understand and are ready to help.

Now, people say things like that when they've been caught with their hand in the cookie jar, but as the last five years have proved, this time really was the exception to the rule.  The next morning, he brought it up again, and renewed his promise to never touch another drop of alcohol.  When she told him that she didn't want him to do that just because he'd worried her, he told her that he knew he'd been drinking too much and it wasn't just because of her.  It was because something had clicked for him.  Somewhere along the line he had become someone he had never wanted to be, and it had snuck up on him (it happens that way).  Now five years down the road, they're engaged, he's a great dad, and he truly never did touch another drop.

She didn't make him change, but she provided the two things he needed to make a change in himself.  She was a good person who gave him the desire to be better than he was, and she gently shined a spotlight on what he already knew was in need of a change.

The truth is that this is as much as we can do to change another person, and trying to do more will only build a wall, brick by brick.  Whether you're trying to encourage a friend to stop drinking, get a better job, or even lose weight, the best thing you can do is quietly set out a good example and do your very best to be there for therm.

If you're very fortunate, you may one day get to see someone grow up in an instant, because you provided a little motivation, and a very gentle nudge in the right moment.