If you are someone who consistently finds the energy to engage and is willing to jump in when needed, hearing someone say no or seeing them participate in a half-hearted way might leave you feeling confused and exasperated. You might have tried all sorts of ways to get them going: inviting, cheerleading, rewards, threats, guilt-tripping, shaming, anger, or rational arguments. You keep hoping that if only you help them see things the way you do, they will jump in happily with vigor.
Underneath your efforts, there’s a part of you that knows you are not in charge of the changes others make or don’t make. It’s hard to let go of what you want for you and for them. Especially when you imagine they would be happier if…
This grasping onto what you think they should do is a sign that letting go is needed. Like in letting go of anything you long for, begin with allowing yourself to feel the grief. When you have really allowed grief, you will find some peace with them being just as they are. You will likely look for other people who can find energy and willingness to engage.
Grief and acceptance of someone’s struggles are often supported by informed compassion. Even if you can only make guesses about what might be blocking their willingness, it will support a softening in your heart. Let’s look at some common ways someone’s willingness might be blocked.
Safety: A sense of safety, both physical and emotional, creates a solid platform from which to risk and engage in new ways. An individual’s assessment of threat and safety arises out of their unique history. Even if you grew up together and were side by side for some scary events, their experience of that event may be radically different from your own. When someone has grown up with a consistent sense of threat, much intentional healing work is often needed to shift how and when threat is perceived. No amount of you trying to tell them they are safe is typically very helpful.
Pain: Emotional or physical pain can require incredible energy to manage. Someone managing chronic pain may have very little resources to find willingness to make a change or take a risk.
Resilience: Confidence in your own resilience means that if you fail at what you attempt, you are confident you can recover. Someone lacking such confidence faces a greater cost should their engagement “fail” in some way. For them, perceived failure may result in shame, depression, or intense hurt. They are highly motivated to avoid these experiences.
Clarity: Part of what helps you find your own willingness is that you are clear about the needs you will meet. When one or more of the reasons named above is holding someone back, they miss out on opportunities to learn about how their needs could be met. They lack clarity regarding what a new experience could be like for them. This may be the most difficult part for you. You may be so eager for them to have a new experience that you push and push, imagining that they would change their mind if only… And sometimes that’s true, but it’s not the point.
As you grapple with your own desire for someone to find their willingness, the essential thing is to recognize that this is about you and your needs. This means expressing your needs honestly and making requests. It’s not about cajoling the other into doing something different “for their own good.”
On the other hand, if you are really coming from a wish to contribute to another, then it’s about listening and responding. What are they saying support looks like for them? Have they expressed a desire to find their own willingness? Do they say cheerleading them into new experiences is helpful?
If so, do this explicitly and collaboratively. You might have had some unspoken experiences together in which you are pretty sure you were helpful. Speak them. Get explicit about how to collaborate. You will have more fun!
Is there someone in your life who you wish was more willing? Make some guesses at what obstacles to willingness they might be struggling with.