Why We Don’t Change What We Can Change

If you’re stuck in a bad situation, don't deny yourself your own empathy
BY Nancy Colier TIMEJune 29, 2022 PRINT

Have you ever found yourself in a situation you didn’t want to be in? If you’re over the age of 7, the answer, I’m guessing, is yes. As a therapist, I often meet people in moments of conflict. Something in their life isn’t working, but they don’t know how to get out of it; they don’t know how to change their reality to get out of a bad situation.

Lisa’s aging and ailing father was now living with her. She was making all of his meals, checking on him during the night, helping him use the bathroom and bathe, and many other difficult tasks. It was a lot of work, on top of her full-time job. As a result, Lisa felt exhausted, frazzled, resentful, and overwhelmed. Her relationship with her boyfriend was coming apart because she simply wasn’t available, emotionally or physically. There wasn’t enough of her to go around. And her own health was declining, too; without the time or energy to exercise, make healthy eating choices, or get enough sleep, she was in hardcore burn-out.

Ana, on the other hand, was a stay-at-home mom. She adored her children, ages 4 and 7, but was tired and frustrated from only being a mom; she was losing patience for all the domestic tasks that she increasingly hated doing. She missed working in the adult world and longed to use her brain again. She, like Lisa, felt burned-out, bored, and increasingly resentful of her husband, who got to “have a life.” She even found herself resenting her kids because she had to spend all her time with them, which made her feel terrible about herself.

Both women were struggling in situations they desperately didn’t want to be in, situations that were costing them their own well-being. And yet they both felt guilty for even considering making changes. Despite their own suffering, doing something different was out of the question.

Their situations were emotionally complicated and logistically challenging to unravel, and I’m by no means suggesting that they should have been easy to change. I’m using them simply as examples to help us see and understand a much broader issue, one that keeps us stuck in bad situations long after we need to be stuck there.

The issue is this: Our gauge for whether to stay in a bad situation is faulty, or put another way, the question we ask ourselves in considering our choices in a bad situation is the wrong question. For some odd reason, we think that because we can keep doing something we don’t want to do, we should keep doing it. Both Lisa and Ana stayed in their bad situations because they could stay and thought they should stay.

And it’s of course true that sometimes life is just difficult. Sometimes we simply have difficult obligations we must fulfill. If we’re fortunate, we may be simply looking at that situation in a way that causes us suffering, and a change in view or understanding can ease much of our anguish. But often, there are actual things we can do to change our situation, and the major barrier is that we simply forget that we too are worthy recipients of our own compassion—and action, if possible.

With both women, I pointed out an obvious truth, that while it was true that they could keep doing what they were doing (without dying), they couldn’t keep doing what they were doing in the way they were doing it and be well. There was something about acknowledging this simple truth—that their own well-being wasn’t possible in this reality—that proved important in freeing up the possibility for change.

In deciding whether to free ourselves from a bad situation, we consistently overlook our own experience as a factor in the decision; we dismiss the reality of what the situation is doing to us, how it’s affecting us emotionally, physically, spiritually, and all the rest. It’s as if that bit of information, how we are, really, is irrelevant and need not be considered in the decision-making process. Women in particular invisibilize themselves (although men do it, too) when deciding what choices to make in their life.

For one thing, it’s difficult for us just to acknowledge that we’re being deeply affected by a situation, that we are indeed suffering as a result of it, which implies that we are human and not invincible. Furthermore, it’s even harder for us to acknowledge that we have limitations, and that we can’t be OK and keep doing what we’re doing. From the time we’re very young, we learn that it’s not OK to not be OK, and it’s not OK to not be able to make any situation work.

When I pointed out to Lisa and Ana that they couldn’t keep doing what they were doing and also be well, that it just wasn’t possible despite their really trying, both women felt an initial sense of relief and surrender. It was the kind of relief that happens when we recognize something utterly true about ourselves and our life, something we’ve been fighting to make not true, but that is still true. It’s that moment when someone tells us something about ourselves that we know deep down but that hasn’t yet come to the surface (or we haven’t allowed to come to the surface). Both women expressed feeling tremendous relief, as we all do, in being allowed to acknowledge their limitations, their humanness, and the fact that they couldn’t do everything without suffering.

It’s counterintuitive really; we soften and relax when we are offered permission to be imperfect, just the opposite of what we’re conditioned to believe. We’re taught that in order to be our best, we should strive to be perfect and invincible. But in reality, we feel our most authentic and present, our best self, when we allow ourselves to just be human, and dare I say, flawed—when we give ourselves permission to be who we actually are and stop fighting with reality.

But shortly after acknowledging the truth that they had been denying for a long time; shortly after enjoying the deep relief that came with allowing the truth of their limitations, both women began putting up a fight. Interestingly, neither contested the basic point, that she couldn’t keep the situation going without serious consequences to herself. And yet both women rejected a more fundamental aspect of what I was suggesting by raising the issue of their own well-being.

What women resist (and sometimes men, too) is the suggestion that their well-being should be a factor at all in whether to stay in a situation that’s hurting them. If a woman feels that she should do something, then what happens to her in the process is of little import; what should be done trumps everything—including her. The fight Lisa and Ana launched, each in their own way, was of a deeper and more fundamental nature; it was about whether their experience, their un-wellness—actually mattered.

Still, what was remarkable and remarkably encouraging was this: As Ana and Lisa allowed their own suffering into their awareness; as they acknowledged the truth of their reality, their resistance quickly dissolved. My unwillingness to join them in dismissing their experience, and rendering their suffering irrelevant, gave them the permission they needed to own their truth and make changes on its behalf. Lisa and Ana shifted their operating system from “I can do this and therefore should do it” to “I cannot do this and be well and therefore need to change it,” which allowed both of them to change their situations for the better.

I encourage you to consider your own experience when making decisions about your life—to allow your own truth to be a factor in your choices. It seems like it should be obvious, but sadly, for many of us, it isn’t at all obvious. Because you should and can keep doing something is only one small part of the equation and decision. Try it as an experiment: Add in an even more important question, namely: What is doing it doing to you? Ask yourself, Can I keep doing this, stay in this situation, and also be well? Can I do it and even feel OK? Is there something in my relationship with this situation that I can change to alleviate my suffering? If the answer is no, then it’s time to change it. It’s not just the situation that matters; even though you may never have been taught it—you matter, too.

Nancy Colier
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, thought leader, public speaker, and the author of "Can't Stop Thinking: How to Let Go of Anxiety and Free Yourself from Obsessive Rumination,” “The Power of Off,” and the upcoming “The Emotionally Exhausted Woman: Why You’re Depleted and How to Get What You Need” (November, 2022.)
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