I ran across a blog post tonight in which the writer says you sometimes have to point out people’s flaws to them to empower them to change. I had a strong, visceral reaction to that.
My experience has been that people can’t change until they’re ready. Apply enough pressure and they’ll try to change, sure. They may even really good at faking it by changing the external behavior. But the internal change can’t happen until you’re ready.
And you wind up feeling guilty because you know you’re faking it for someone else’s approval. You live in fear that they’ll discover you’re faking it and then reject you. You always feel not good enough, and the pointing out of your weaknesses to “empower” you feels a lot like being bullied “for your own good.”
It’s hard not to try to fix people. It’s a natural impulse for humans, I think. But consider that what you see as a flaw, the other person might see as something valuable, useful, or necessary. To try to fix people who haven’t asked you to assumes they’re broken and forces them not only to believe that they’re broken but also to thank you for “empowering” them by telling them how broken they are. It is, in my book, presumptuous and often very offensive. In the words of C.S. Lewis:
To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.
He says it much better than I could.
I’m sure my strong reaction is the legacy of a lifetime of harsh criticism “for my own good.” As a child, I was never good enough; my family thought I’d never make anything of my intelligence and talents if I wasn’t pushed mercilessly. Instead of making me feel secure in my assets, I turned into a perfectionist who wouldn’t try new things for fear of failure and who would hardly breathe without permission and approval. I started punishing myself for all my “failures”–first with harsh and unrelenting self-criticism and later with self-harm, starvation, and even suicide attempts.
That led me into psychiatric treatment, much of which reinforced the messages I was getting from home: you aren’t good enough, you are a huge bundle of flaws with no redeeming virtues, you are broken, blind obedience is the only way for you to get fixed, we’re doing this for your own good. I naively thought mainstream psychiatric treatment would fix all my terrible flaws and finally make me an acceptable person, so I blindly obeyed. I wholeheartedly engaged in their Maoist self-criticism sessions. I didn’t understand why I was feeling worse instead of better.
Now I understand: it was the same dysfunctional power structure I was used to at home, where I was harshly criticized but had to thank them for doing it for my own good.
What I needed was compassion, not criticism–even if it was called “empowerment.” I was lucky. I went to Riggs and had an amazingly compassionate therapist there. I kept waiting for her criticism to come, waiting for her impatience with my stuckness. It never came. Without ever having to say it, she showed me it was okay to be where I was for as long as I needed to be there. Even though it looked to most people like I was stuck and going nowhere, I needed that time and space to make the changes that would let me unstick myself. And with her compassion and patience, I finally was able to make the changes that everyone else had forced me to make too quickly. That was when the changes stuck because they were real that time, motivated not by the wishes or demands of external people but by a deep internal desire for something better.