Do you have someone in your life that complains about the same problems again and again, but does nothing to change them?
You have offered help, suggestions and advice, but nothing ever really changes. And every time you see them you have to hear about the same problems over and over again—the worst part is they don’t see their patterns. They think their issues are unsolvable, completely different every time and extremely interesting.
I do. I have this person in my life and it is driving me crazy. In fact, over the years I have had a few people like this. Can you relate?
- The girlfriend who always dates the bad boy and every time he cheats on her, treats her like sh*t or dumps her for someone else.
- The wantrepreneur who has another amazing business idea that will take off and be the next big thing. But it never does.
- The drama magnet who can never make rent, is always short on cash to pay the check at dinner and runs out of gas so you always have to drive.
I’m sorry if this post is sounding angry. I am a little angry, but I’m mostly frustrated. I’m frustrated because I care about this person so much and it kills me to see them ignorant to their own patterns. I love them and I want the best for them so it breaks my heart that they don’t realize that they are in a cycle of the same problem over and over again. They are stagnant—and blind to their own stagnation.
I call this person a hamster. They are lovable, but they are stuck in a cage going around the same wheel over and over again without realizing they aren’t going anywhere. If you have a hamster in your life, you know how exasperating it is to desperately want to help someone who will not help themselves.
Your desire to help someone is not enough. They have to want to help themselves.
I have noticed there is a 4 stage process of how it usually goes with a hamster:
- They tell you about a problem they are having. You offer advice. They nod and say they’ll try it.
- The problem comes up again. You ask about the advice you gave. No, that wouldn’t have worked. You offer sympathy and more advice. They take the sympathy, but not the advice.
- They want to re-hash a ‘new’ version of the problem. You mention it sounds similar. Could this be a pattern? They get mad. You decide to not try to help and just listen.
- There is an update on the problem they want to talk to you about. They spend a long time venting. This time it’s worse and has bigger consequences. Any advice is politely ignored as they continue to vent. You worry that by listening you are actually enabling the problem. You get frustrated and bored.
What do you do when this 4 stage process has repeated itself 5 or 6 times? A dozen?
Is this still a healthy relationship? Is this still a healthy person? I’m not sure, but I’m in a place where I don’t know what to do next. I figured if I am going through this process, maybe someone else is as well. Let’s process together.
I decided to start by tackling this from a behavior change perspective. What are the psychological forces at play here? I have met different types of hamsters in my life and believe that there is one driver behind all of them. They have damaging, but powerful self-narratives.
The Power of the Self-Narratives
A self-narrative is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Do you see yourself as a survivor? A hero? Unlucky? Unique?
Researcher, Dan McAdams has found that most of us have crafted narratives and stories about our lives. This is how we craft our identity and define the forces that shape us. Some examples:
- The Warrior Narrative: This person believes they are a survivor and have to fight for everything they want. They believe nothing has or ever will come to them easy. Typically, they have had difficult past experiences that they have survived and come out stronger. They say things like, “My whole life has been a battle,” or “I have fought for everything I have ever gotten” or “Nothing comes easy to me.”
- The Nurturer Narrative: This person sees themselves as a care-taker, a giver and a nurturer. They might have had a number of siblings or fighting parents where they played peacemaker in their home growing up. Or they are in a job where they have to put their own needs aside for others. They typically will always say yes to others even if it is not in their best interest. They tend to overcommit and be people pleasers.
- The Adventurer: Some people see their self-narrative like a character in a great novel. They thrive in unconventional situations and define themselves by doing unique things. They might have had an unusual upbringing or eclectic tastes and feel this defines them and their identity, therefore they continue to make unique choices that further differentiate them.
Why We Self-Define
Here’s the thing about self-narratives: they are self-defined. We craft a story about ourselves and then continue to make choices and behave in ways that further carry out the narrative. For example, if a hamster has the Victim Narrative, they always see themselves as a martyr or defeated. Then they pick jobs or activities that continue to put them in this place. I think this is why some hamsters have the same problems over and over again. Their problems are annoying and difficult, but they are also playing into their narrative.
This is how self-narratives work when a hamster won’t change:
- The Warrior Narrative: A warrior has a job where the boss hates him. You tell him to apply for a transfer with a new boss, but this means having a non-competitive work environment. A warrior isn’t used to having nothing or no one to fight about, this isn’t in their self-narrative. So they complain, but they keep the job because it’s what they know.
- The Nurturer Narrative: A nurturer is in a relationship where she is taken for granted. She does all the housework and is basically a servant to her partner. You bring this up and encourage her to stand up for herself. Although she wants to, standing up for herself and putting her needs first is against her self-narrative. So she stays in a relationship that is unhappy but familiar.
- The Adventurer: Your adventurer friend is always complaining about not being able to pay down student debt or afford dinners out. He can’t keep a steady job because they are all so boring. He would prefer to travel the world—great, you say! Then get a virtual job or save up more before traveling. Your idea of responsible is his idea of boring and too conventional. He keeps job hopping and complaining about the bills. He is an adventurer—a 9 to 5 job (even virtual) would kill his personal brand.
Unhappy But Familiar
Self-narratives are defining, they are also comfortable. Children who have been abused often end up in abusive relationships as adults. Why? I think this comes down to a self-narrative. They have a self-narrative that casts them in the horrible role of abuse. They don’t like it, but they know it.
For some, predictably terrible is better than an unpredictable unknown.
I think the reason why some people can’t change is because they are fighting two extremely strong forces:
#1: Their Identity
They are afraid of changing something because it’s not how they see themselves. By acting different, they might get something different and this feels scary.
#2: Fear of Change
Change is scary. We know what we like and we like what we know. This keeps us in a very limited mindset and prevents any kind of growth.
So what to do? I think the answer comes down to compassion.
- Don’t get angry, get curious. You have this person who won’t change, try to identify the forces at play. What do you think their self-narrative is? Is their fear of change greater than their desire to end their problems?
- Help them change the narrative. Instead of giving them advice on changing the behavior (the symptom) try helping them see the narrative (the cause). Ask them how they see themselves. Ask them what role they play in their relationships, job and friendships. Ask them what it would feel like if the roles were reversed or if someone could wave a magic wand.
- Let go. I have come to the sad conclusion that some people cannot be helped.
Everyone can be loved, but not everyone can be changed.
I tend to take it very personally when people don’t take my advice or people close to me keep making the same mistakes over and over again. But the truth is, it’s not about me or the quality of my advice. It is about their bravery and courage to see truth and make hard choices that bring change.
All you can do is be the mirror for them to see their narratives and the support if they decide to leap into the fear of change. It’s not easy: We can’t change people, but we can change behavior—slowly, lovingly, compassionately.
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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