In my journey of providing children with positive behavior supports, a critical piece of any success I helped to achieve is the following insight…shared with me by my first true mentor in behavior management.
- You cannot make anybody do anything
- Nobody can make you feel anything.
These insights required years, nearly decades now to sink in to the point where I mostly understand them. This is not to say that others need the time I needed. No, I’m saying that I needed a REALLY long time to get a point where I’m calm and comfortable within my own skin. So, it’s me. Not you.
That first insight seems incompatible with the actual endeavor of behavior change…but in fact it’s the key. Let me get specific. In your mind, visualize a person with whom you have a particular challenge. Got it? Let’s call that person X. You cannot make X do anything. Now let me expand, you cannot make X do anything X doesn’t choose to do. Let me flip the script, X cannot make YOU do anything you don’t choose to do. I mean, amiright?! (I’m right.) So what can/should you do? Well, you need to figure that out, but here’s a valid goal: set up your relationship, decisions, and behaviors to maximize the likelihood that X will make choices that fit within the social and community boundaries you’ve set in whatever milieu you need to interact with/around X. (I know, it’s very wordy and specific, but it kind of needs to be. Specific and measurable at least.)
Now, comes the second insight. And it’s a tough one. Nobody can make you feel anything. Your feelings…are yours. Mine…are mine. Surely there are things that I can say and do that you don’t like or prefer, and perhaps I say or do things that push your emotional buttons. But your feelings are yours. We so often blame others for our feelings. “You made me feel X.” It’s simply not true. Contemplate that for just a few minutes and I think you’ll see the stark truth embedded.
So, in approaching X…it’s really important to understand that you can’t make X do anything…AND…X doesn’t control your emotions.
The problem almost always is…X absolutely believes X can control your emotions, and to some extent (…perhaps as much as totally…) you’re giving X reactions that prove X right. Think of it like a video game…except X’s controller isn’t connected to a Wii…it’s connected to you! X knows X can manipulate your feelings, and so X does.
Here’s another problem…once you endeavor to force X to do things by threat, punishment, reward, or any other seemingly logical means, all bets are off. Because X absolutely doesn’t want to be controlled. (Do you want to be controlled?) X wants to control. (Who doesn’t want control?) X wants a state of homeostasis in which X can relax and exist without unwanted restrictions. (Sounds great, right?)
The challenge of behavior support, particularly when we meet a particularly bright, particularly manipulative, particularly troublesome, particularly confounding individual is that we have to take some time to think about our own biases, our own theories on development and human behavior, our own emotions and baggage. Again, I’m not judging or pointing fingers…I’m simply sharing how I came to find peace and success building relationship with and providing service to the Xs in my life.
So what’s the moral here?
Always take a good, long, gentle but honest look in the mirror before you endeavor to influence another person. That’s one.
Look before you leap. That’s another. A classic.
And, as is inherent in the actual insights listed above, accept that each human, including you, has moral, emotional, and behavioral agency.
I still struggle, daily, with all of this.
The struggle is the achievement.