Occasionally, a parent or a spouse will tell me that their child or partner “needs help.” I ask them why they think that, and they either don’t answer me, or they say that they can’t get their loved one to “make sense.” Over the years, I’ve discovered that “make sense” often means that the child or partner won’t do what the parent or spouse wants them to do.
Consider the case of Ted. He’s angry with his wife Luanne because he feels that she spends too much money. Rather than trying to talk reasonably with her, he tells her that she’s “crazy,” and encourages her to “get help.” On the surface, Ted’s attitude sounds rational and even caring, but, with naiveté and arrogance, he assumes that Luanne’s “problem” will be obvious to any objective mental health professional.
Luanne may or may not have a spending problem. Surely, there are people who live beyond their means. What Ted’s missing is that if Luanne is to change her behavior, she must first conclude that it is in her own interest. Ted evades that fact; bypassing Luanne’s mind in favor of some outside “authority.”
Feelings are not necessarily facts. If Ted can prove to Luanne that she is, indeed, living beyond her means, then he’s in a position to say, “We have to face reality. Look, here’s the proof.” If she then refuses to respond, then she’s the one evading reality.
The key here is to understand the method by which people use their minds. Are they applying reason in an honest way? Are they willing to look beyond their emotions and carefully search for the facts — including ones that might lead to a different conclusion? The more reality-oriented you are, the more “sane” you are.
The purpose of psychotherapy and counseling is to help ensure that your method is thorough and honest. An impartial outsider can ask, “You have considered A and B. But, have you also considered C?” Ted may be right to urge Luanne to consider “C.” But he has to understand that the purpose of her therapy is to help her consider not only “C,” but also “D,” and maybe even “E.” In other words, not just blindly agreeing with him.
In the former Soviet Union, as well as Fidel Castro’s Cuba, there is extensive documentation of psychiatric “care” being forced onto political dissidents. Ted might be operating on the same underlying premise. A dictator does not care if his subjects agree or disagree with him; he only cares that they obey. If they refuse to obey, he sends them for “psychiatric treatment” to “change their behavior.” Similarly, Ted evades the responsibility of trying to persuade her, and sends her away to change.
To force or intimidate someone into “change” will never truly change them. Of course you can refuse to enable them and you can try to persuade them, but these methods only lead to change if the person allows him- or herself to be influenced.
If one attempts to modify behavior without first changing one’s mind, then the behavioral change will not last. People who stop smoking or drinking because of pressure from an employer or a loved one usually return to that behavior. Why? Because they never really changed their own minds. They “did it for others” rather than coming to that conclusion on their own.
It’s hard enough to modify certain behaviors when you’re genuinely committed. But it’s impossible if you haven’t yet made up your mind. No amount of intervention or guilt can bring about permanent change. The subject must choose to solve it for him- or herself. No amount of good intentions, psychotherapy or medication can do the thinking and the choosing for them.
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