That is my least favorite thing I ever say to a client, but there are things that I cannot change and some things I am unwilling to try to change. Let me explain.
A 19 year old woman came to see me for feelings of depression, anger, sadness and anxiety. She had tears in her eyes as she told me her story. She is a freshman in college and has a 21 year old boyfriend. They have been together for a year and a half. She wants to stop feeling sad and depressed and to stop fighting with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend works a lot, and likes to spend time off with his friends at the bar scene. She gets angry because she wants him to consider the kinds of places that she can get into like a sports bar or restaurant where she can go and not drink but enjoy being together with both his friends and hers. He, however, only wants go to the kind of places she cannot get into. She gets angry and they fight about it, she doesn’t want to be angry about it anymore. She wants me to help her to not feel angry at her boyfriend or anxious about their relationship.
She relayed another example; they were together with a large group of mutual friends and the guys were being crude to the point of her feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. When she told him how she felt he said she was ridiculous and that none of his previous girlfriends would have minded his antics.
She asked me to help her change so that she could be accepting of his behaviors. That’s when I said, “I’m sorry I can’t help you.”. I explained that I cannot change her feelings or the values she holds dear. I also pointed out that although her boyfriend disagrees with her, he seems to be rather disrespectful and dismissive of her and her feelings. In a relationship people can disagree and even though she is right in her feelings, he can also be also right. The success of a healthy relationship is not to get the other person to change or to agree with you, but to respectfully negotiate a compromise that suits the needs and values of both parties.
I told her I can help her to release the stress and anger and help her feel empowered. I can help her communicate more effectively, but I cannot change her and that she cannot change him. She agreed to let me do what I could to help her feel better.
She cried through most of the session and we agreed to a follow up session. I saw her again and was amazed at the difference. She stood tall and proud, exuding a confidence I hadn’t seen before. She smiled as she shared her week with me. She began by telling me how her friends and coworkers noticed a complete change in her demeanor. Without anger or depression she was a different person. She told me she was dealing with her boyfriend in a calm confident way and her anger is gone. Her boyfriend isn’t quite sure why she is so calm and not angry but so far it’s going well.
I wonder how many others are in unhealthy relationships and believe something is wrong with them because they have been told that their feelings are invalid or ridiculous. Often a change of perspective can make the difference between hopelessness and happiness. When you realize that most often when you disagree with someone you care about, it is usually because you are both right. Finding a respectable compromise becomes easier than getting a person to change their position.
If you feel disrespected by a friend or partner or someone tells you that your feelings are stupid or doesn’t respect your boundaries, it may be time to get help with that relationship or rethink the value you put on it.