Ask Yourself This to Improve Your Relationships

By Wendy Craig-Purcell
Ask Yourself This to Improve Your Relationships

The Sufis tell the story of a man who in his youth wanted to change the world. He was passionate, and he prayed every day to be successful. But he made no progress. As the years went by and he approached middle age, he changed his prayer.

Rather than praying to change the world, he decided to narrow his circle. His daily prayer became, "God, I haven't been successful at changing the world. So please help me at least be able to change the people I live with, the people I see each and every day." Still he failed. As he approached old age, he changed his prayer one last time. This time his prayer became, "God, I haven't been successful in changing the world and I haven't even been successful at changing the people I live with. Let me change myself." And, of course, with that as his prayer, he was successful.

Even with years of practice on the spiritual path, it can still be hard not to make others our project—especially the "others" with whom we live and work. Sometimes our intentions are sincere, and we are truly wanting to help. But often, if we're honest with ourselves, we're motivated more by the thought that if only they would change, we could finally be happy.

Trying to change others to be the way we think they should be or the way we want them to be is a recipe for disaster. No one likes to be another person's project. And while it is certainly true that we can and do influence each other, lasting change only happens when an individual makes that choice for him or herself.  …

Who Are You Trying to Change?

Who is your project? Your irascible neighbor? Your critical coworker? Who are you trying to make over? Your noncommunicative spouse? Your judgmental mother-in-law? Who are you wishing and praying and visualizing would be different? Be honest, now. I bet there's someone!

Refuse to buy into the temptation to rationalize your answer by saying things like: "But I just want them to change because I love them so much" (you probably do love them, that's not the issue) or "I just know that if they meditated and prayed, they'd be better off; (they probably would; meditation and prayer have been proven to be effective) or "I just know if they followed a low-fat diet, dropped that extra weight, and lowered their cholesterol, they'd be happier" (this may be true too). Refuse the temptation to justify your answer and just stay with the question. Regardless of the reasons, who are you trying to change?

Though you've undoubtedly heard it before, it bears repeating: People don't change because we want them to; they change because they want to. It doesn't matter how clever, how noble, how skilled, how manipulative we might be, people only make lasting changes when they are willing and ready to do so. Period.

A wise man once said: "A man convinced against his will is a man of the former opinion still!" We can manipulate, we can love, we can pray someone into a temporary change, but I promise you it will be temporary. As soon as we remove ourselves from the picture, reduce the pressure or shift our focus, they will go right back to where they were before-and probably breathe a sigh of relief that we've finally backed off! Lasting personal change happens only when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing.

We can certainly help and support others to change, but only when the time is right. Have you noticed that when you jump in uninvited (no matter what the motivation), your efforts are seldom met warmly? But when another reaches out to you and invites you in, saying, "I'm struggling, and I could use some help," or "I'd like your opinion," or "I'd like your help in making a change," the exchange is entirely different. Then, whatever you have learned along your life's journey can be shared, and it will likely be helpful and appreciated. …

In big and small ways, we try to make other people be like us instead of learning to accept—and enjoy—the great and wonderful diversity of human expression. Leo Stein, art collector and brother of Gertrude Stein, says, "The wise man questions the wisdom of others because he questions his own; the foolish man, because it is different from his own."

Wendy Craig-Purcell is a Unity minister, and the founding minister and CEO of The Unity Center in San Diego. She is the recipient of the Gandhi Nonviolence Award from the Tariq Khamisa Foundation and has been inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers Hall of Fame. This article is excerpted from her book, Ask Yourself This.