A Wave reader in Frankford writes,
Dear Dr. Hurd,
Your response to the sister-in-law of the guy who drinks and smokes too much really got me thinking about myself. I also kind of overdue things (some legal, some not so legal). My girlfriend harps on me all the time about it, and I understand that she is worried about me. I love her, but her wanting me to give this stuff up just doesn’t seem to be enough to motivate me to do it. I can (and I do) ‘cut back’ when she threatens to leave me, but then it’s back to the same old thing. Shouldn’t I be able to stop doing these things for her sake?
Dear Wave Reader,
The Number One Rule for self-change is this: Do it for yourself, and for nobody else. Simply put, you cut back or stop an activity because it offends YOU. Any other motive is a recipe for failure.
Here’s a simple test to determine if you have the right motivation: Imagine, for a moment, that you’re no longer with your girlfriend. The activities that she objected to have become so annoying and frustrating to you that you cut back or work to quit on your own—for yourself—because you WANT to. Can you see this happening? If you can honestly tell yourself—and I do mean honestly—that, ‘I would stop no matter what, even if she were not in my life,’ then you know you’re really ready to stop—on your own, for yourself.
Changing your ways just to make your girlfriend happy won’t work. Yes, at first, you’ll like her approval when she sees that you have stopped. But once this initial gratification wears off, only one thing can logically happen: You’ll start to quietly resent her. You might not express it, and, early on, you might not even admit it to yourself. But it’s there and, I guarantee, it will come out either in sarcastic comments, an argument, or in the form of you engaging in the habits secretly, behind her back. Here you are trying to preserve this great relationship, and you only do damage to it by curbing your behaviors ‘for her sake.’
I know we’re all taught, from early childhood, not to be ‘selfish.’ But I frankly know of no other way to stop an addiction or any other kind of behavioral problem except through the powerful and instinctive motivators of self-interest and self-preservation. Every time I watch somebody try to do something solely for the sake of another, it backfires because the behavior isn’t authentic. It isn’t honest. If, for example, you stop smoking because your wife, mother or brother is on your back about it, then think about all the things you have overlooked: the damage inflicted to your own body, the inconveniences (smell, expense) created for yourself, and whatever else negative goes along with the habit. If, in all honesty, you think the risk is worth it and the inconveniences are minimal, then it’s your call. It is, after all, your life. But don’t expect to enjoy your girlfriend’s approval on the one hand, while ignoring your own needs and desires (rational or otherwise) on the other. It’s contradictory, and it will fail.
If a loved one is on your case about smoking, alcohol, or whatever, then ask yourself the following question: ‘Does this habit make sense or not? What does it do to MY life?’ I would rather see you approach your girlfriend and make a case as to why you think what you’re doing isn’t really such a problem. And when I say, ‘make a case,’ I don’t mean getting defensive or insensitive, saying things like, ‘Get over it. Live with it.’ What I mean is really thinking out, logically and factually, why it makes sense to keep doing what you’re doing. If you honestly think you’re in the right, and are acting in your own self-interest by doing these legal (and maybe not-quite-so-legal) things, then be open about it. And be open to your girlfriend’s questions or challenges. You claim you love her and that she loves you. Along with that should come respect. The odds of your relationship surviving under these conditions of open communication are much greater than if you perpetuate a lie, ‘for her sake.’
I once knew a man who ate too much and was somewhat overweight; taking moderate doses of medication for his blood pressure and cholesterol. His wife was constantly on his case about it. Finally, out of frustration, he simply told her, calmly and logically, ‘I like eating. I’ll curb it here and there, but I’m not going to give it up. It’s one of the things that makes me happiest in life, and I’m not going to be miserable. If it takes a few years off my life, then so be it. I want to do it.’ Agree or disagree, it’s his choice. And his approach was far more genuine and authentic than if he lived a lie—resentful and unhappy—just to please somebody else.
In the end, dear Reader, we come into this world on our own, and we leave it on our own. It’s up to us, and us alone, to confront the choices before us and make the decisions that seem to be the best. Don’t let anyone take this away from you. Let loved ones challenge you—even welcome it—and carefully assess what you’re doing because they cared enough to confront you. But don’t change just because they want you to. No matter what you decide, you will have been true to them by remaining true to yourself.