How do I accept another person as they are while helping them avoid mistakes in their life?
I’ve long learned that everyone wants recognition and acceptance for who they are. That’s something I long for and I’m frustrated when I feel judged negatively by others who do not have context. This goes for people telling me how to raise my kids, what I should eat or when I should go to sleep. At the same time, I find myself jumping in to “help” others when I see them doing things that are wrong or that I judge they might regret later. Spoiler Alert – I am not capable of getting someone to avoid mistakes or regrets.
“Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.” – Erica Jong
The results of the assistance I provide are frequently not very satisfying. At times, the conversation turns into debates, such as the time when I gave suggestions to a friend who was having problems with a colleague who was being argumentative and directive. I gave him advice on communication techniques, how he might leverage the management team, even tips on how his mindset or attitude might support a better outcome. Frustratingly, the conversation turned to one of “yes, but” debates of why something wouldn’t work, how he had already tried the techniques, and what I don’t understand. In the end, both of us felt unheard and were tired of defending our perspectives.
At other times, the other person seems to listen. But then, they don’t do anything with what I just shared. A different friend once lamented to me about not being able to eat better, exercise, and generally live a healthier lifestyle. I proceeded to share research I’d read, my experiences and other ideas. While he nodded and agreed with what I said, he didn’t change anything except avoiding that topic when I’m around.
Perhaps the most unsatisfying is when the other person goes out of their way to do exactly what I recommended against. When I tell my ex-spouse not to try putting things on the top shelf by herself because it’s dangerous, she will do exactly that just to prove me wrong.
The scenarios I described above may seem obviously avoidable. Sadly, knowing, doing, and being are very different things. I believe that human beings, when we are open and unafraid, will tend to help others and seek to bring more joy into the world. However, figuring out how to help can be really tricky. Let’s be honest, one of the reasons we help others is because we want to feel good about helping others. At times, I do see particularly altruistic people helping others when that help is detrimental to themselves. Even then, the emotional reward of helping must exceed that of tangible losses or they wouldn’t do it.
“I have not the right to want to change another if I am not open to be changed.” – Martin Buber
When we are less aware of our own biases and subconscious beliefs, we start advocating our view of the world to the people we are trying to help. In this way, I am telling others that their problems would go away if only they were more like me – or like who I want to be. The conversation becomes one where my job is to convince the other person why my way of thinking is superior; I am trying to “fix” the other person. In an effort to safeguard their own identity and assert their autonomy, the other person then becomes defensive or shut down. I know that I do this at times and I’ve seen many other people react the same way.
“It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear lowing streams when one is heard.” – Carl R. Rogers
Ironically, when we are able to accept the other person completely as they are, so that they no longer need to defend who they are, the other can start to lower their defensive shield. As the shield lowers, the mind becomes open to more possibilities and other perspectives. This doesn’t mean that we have to agree with or condone the other person’s beliefs or viewpoints. It means we accept that they believe as they do and we don’t try to make those beliefs wrong. In that instant, we can ask for permission to share our perspectives and see how they feel about our insights. Ultimately, we honor that everyone is in control of their own lives and get to decide what they will do.
Of course, this acceptance of the other person cannot be a trick to manipulate. There are usually telltale signs when we are not being authentic, unless we’re really amazing actors. Those signs are frequently quite subtle, and yet the body notices when someone is not being sincere – think back to uncomfortable conversations when we feel tightness in our chests or pits in our stomachs.
Instead, if we are able to be truly curious and compassionate in the moment, we can see, hear, and feel another human being in ways that we normally cannot. That’s where personal growth and personal awareness come in. I am human too. I have subconscious beliefs I cannot see in myself and can become triggered when those beliefs are shaken. Perhaps, the greatest gift that we can give ourselves is one of self-compassion. Accept that we are simply doing our best and let go of trying to fix others. While we are at it, perhaps we can accept that others are also doing their best too, and there’s nothing to fix.
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” – Carl R. Rogers