Question: “How do you come to terms with the realization that you can’t change someone else’s self-destructive behavior, but have to sit back and witness it?”
Before I began attending AlAnon a few years ago, it really never crossed my mind not to obsess about the ways other people were hurting themselves. It felt like the Christian thing to do to not just care, but to step in, say something (over and over again), pray about it, try to get help, et cetera.
And then I walked through the doors of recovery and was hit upside the head with this: live and let live. This slogan, which made me totally roll my eyes when I first heard it, basically means this: you go and live your life to the absolute best of your ability and let everyone else live their lives no matter what that looks like.
This killed me, for a couple reasons. First of all, I’m a complete control freak. Not having my hands in someone else’s business – especially if I were living with the person – seemed absurd to me. A family member’s destructive behavior that was affecting me seemed to be my business. And secondly, I’m a Christian. And leaving people to mess up their lives didn’t appear to be very Jesus-y of me to do.
So I completely get the heart behind this question. But here are a couple ways I started to rearrange my thinking on this issue.
I’m only responsible for one person: me. When I stand before God, I’m not going to be holding anybody’s hand. I’m not going to be accounting for anyone else’s life. He’s going to want to know what I did with my life, not what I did to try to fix so-and-so. Plus, I have my hands full in working on ironing out my own flaws. Keeping my side of the street clean (recovery-speak for living my own life well) is a full-time job. If I’m in someone else’s business, then something in my life is not being attended to.
I can care for someone without taking care of someone. Now, I’m not saying not to take care of your children or a sick relative or what-have-you. But I should not be taking care of the responsibilities of another adult, even if that adult is totally trashing his life.
If I am constantly intervening, I am keeping that person from experiencing his own victories and his own defeats. And if this person doesn’t feel the pain that comes from his mistakes, we are actually standing in the way of them ever truly getting better; because to get better, they have to feel the need to get better from within themselves.
I can only change one person: me. It doesn’t take too long living this life to realize that there is only one person who you have the power to change, and that’s yourself. You cannot change anyone else. Let me repeat that…I want you to say these words out loud: I cannot change anyone else. Only God can change someone else.
I can detach with love. Stepping back does not mean that you no longer care about this person. But if you hear yourself saying the same thing over and over again – even if it’s a good and true thing, like, “I’m begging you to stop drinking and get help” – you are nagging and these words are going to fall on deaf ears. Instead try praying that the person will feel ready to get help and that you have the strength to let them make their own mistakes.
I can set boundaries. You can leave the room, take the keys, get a ride with someone else, don’t answer the phone, hang up the phone, call a friend, go to a movie, take a bath, go for a walk, go to a recovery meeting, go to church, move out.
You do not have to sit back and just witness horrible behavior. You always have choices. There are always options. And you have a job to do: live your life well.
If this post helped you, I would encourage you to check out “Surviving in a Difficult Christian Marriage”, found here.