5 Reasons Why You Cannot Rescue or Change People

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We all have people in our lives that we love unconditionally. Perhaps those people are struggling or had hardships that you have helped them through. This could’ve been heartaches, loss of loved ones, addictions, low moods, existential fears, or simply times of worry.

How did you feel throughout this journey? Did you feel personally involved? Like this is also your problem that you need to solve?

When I worked with clients, I heard sad stories, difficult situations, and saw plenty of self-destructive behaviors. However, if I would’ve set myself the goal of “rescuing” every single one of them, I would’ve been emotionally drained very quickly. I interned at a police department for six months in the U.S. If I would’ve let every death or domestic violence get close to me, I couldn’t possibly have had a chance to even breathe or keep my belief in the good in people.

So next time you catch yourself trying to take control over the thoughts and actions of a person other than yourself, remember these five reasons why you can’t change or rescue people:

1. “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.”

.. as Tao Te Ching once said. This is a motto I have learned to live by. When you are convinced and obsessed with your attempt to change or make someone do something you want or that you think is best for them, you will only get frustrated and upset. This in turn will create conflict and probably push the other person away from you – in that case, nobody is helped. So, really all you can do is to take care of yourself and your emotions and be there for this person during this time of struggle as much as you can.

2. Nothing substitutes for personal experience

That means that they have to hit rock bottom in order to stand up. As part of my studies back in grad school, I attended Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Overeating Anonymous (OA) meetings in Chicago. It is tough to see other people drowning, but there isn’t really a way to help people up when they aren’t ready to be helped. If you’ve heard about the “12 Step Program” which is commonly used for treating addictions, then you might know that the first step of the healing process is to surrender and admit to being powerless over the addiction.

Same goes for people who are engaged in destructive behavior that isn’t necessarily an addiction. They have to be ready to listen and be helped by others. Think about a situation where you’ve seen a friend or family member suffering from any kind of pain who refuses to go to the doctor. It’s tough to watch right? The pain or discomfort that they experience needs to be bigger than the fear of change or going to the doctor.

3. “You can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink.”

This is a great proverb that my former professor used to tell us in class. Watching someone “drowning” is never an easy thing to do. However, we have to realize that this person needs to pull himself/herself out of it alone, with the support of others, but with their own strength.

We need to keep in mind that we never know the purpose of someone’s self-destructive behavior. Believe it or not, some people actually like to suffer and are always looking for situations or surround themselves with people that set them up for “failure” or “suffering”, so that they can confirm their opinions and assumptions about life. It’s like they can say: “See, I was right! People are like this! I am never lucky, I always get hurt or in trouble.”

This allows them to stay in their situation successfully, collecting arguments that the world “out there,” aka outside of their comfort zone, is mean and not worth going out to. Think about it: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” It really is.

4. There would be no self-development or improvement if someone else did it for you

If you tell your friend what to do and take over their life to bring it “back in order,” chances are the other person will be dependent on you and fall back into the old destructive behavior as soon as you stop helping them.

As Galileo put it: “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.”

Positive thinking, encouragement, and being a good example are the best tools you can use to support another person. They have the strength to pull themselves out of everything on their own. Often all that is needed is encouragement and someone to show them what they cannot see about themselves in times of struggle.

It’s like being a cheerleader at a football game. You cannot possibly throw a touchdown or run for offense, so all you can do is to cheer them on and encourage the offense to go on and score a touchdown.

5. Life is art

At the end of the day, we are only responsible for ourselves. The only thoughts and actions we have control over are our own. You’ve probably read or heard the saying that we are on a journey in life to find ourselves. I don’t think we are trying to find ourselves because that implies that we already know who we are or are meant to be.

I believe that we are constantly creating ourselves. It’s like a painting. We start out with a blank sheet and add colors, shapes, and shadows to it, thus we are creating our picture – ourselves.

Again, we are the ones holding the paint brush for drawing the picture of what we see. We draw the picture of our own life. That’s why life is art and can only be lived in the way we choose. The way you decide to live your life is reflected by the size of your painting and the vibrancy of colors.

So imagine if everything always ran smoothly or other people took over your brush for you. Your painting would stay black and white or have no abstract curves or shapes that made it yours. You are unique, and your painting tells a story that is beautifully different from all other paintings. And no one can draw that for you, just as you can’t draw it for them.

Karen Naumann