Existential Psychology

Helping People Change Maladaptive Behaviors

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The same rules apply for helping people change in therapy as in the wider sphere of life. Probably the most fundamental, inalterable rule is that no one changes in a lasting way unless they decide they really want to, unless they decide it’s in their own best interests and the best interests of those around them to start approaching life and relationships differently.

Most of us are pretty narcissistic in our attitudes towards the maladaptive behaviors of others. We demand that they change because of how those behaviors are negatively affecting our lives. We think, “You need to change this or that part of yourself because I don’t like it.” And so from the get go the primary motivation for change is external to the very person expected to do the long, arduous work of change.

If we’re really serious about helping someone we care about change their maladaptive behaviors we need to rethink our approach, first and foremost by removing ourselves as what is supposed to be the primary motivation for that change. Because while we’ve probably been made to suffer, that person is surely suffering too as a result of those behaviors but might not be fully aware of the extent. The idea here is to switch from “You need to change this or that part of yourself because I don’t like it” to “I believe this or that maladaptive thinking, feeling, or behavioral pattern is keeping you from being your best self and interfering with your growth and happiness. If and when you’re ready to start changing it I’d like to help.”

It’s ironic that we tend to call those who are hurting us without a seeming second thought about our feelings ‘narcissistic’ while we at the same time narcissistically demand that they change primarily for our good rather than for their own good. As long as our mindset remains antagonistic the chances for enduring change are pretty low. But when we side with the people engaging in maladaptive behaviors, when we see and are vocal about the good in them and offer our help in overcoming those maladaptive behaviors the chance for enduring change goes up dramatically.