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How to support loved ones who keep making “bad” decisions

We all have people we love who make life choices that lead to bad outcomes: a friend in an unhappy marriage; parents living an unhealthy lifestyle; children who have no direction in life.

We don’t want to control or judge them. We don’t want to be the parent who insists their child take a specific occupation. Or the friend who disapproves of a romantic partner because we don’t like them.

But too many bar counters, dining tables, and living rooms have bore witness to people pleading with their loved ones to make better decisions. In certain cases, we can’t help but feel the need to intervene.

It’s frustrating to see our loved ones crash and burn. Especially when we know exactly what they could’ve done to stop that from happening.

Common example: A friend and I talked about moving on once. He and his ex were unhappy together. We both knew it was best to cut the relationship and move on. But he kept reinitiating contact with her and repeating the cycle of pain and drama.

“It’s like watching a train chug towards a cliff,” I told him in defeat, after seeing the look in his eyes that said he agreed with all the logical and emotional merits of moving on — but he’d go back to her anyway.

“I have these red signal flags and I keep waving them for the train to stop. But the train is stubbornly, stupidly chugging away. I wave the red flags helplessly, knowing the train will eventually fall off the cliff.”

It’s frustrating to see our loved ones crash and burn. Especially when we know exactly what they could’ve done to stop that from happening.

We can’t “just accept it.”

“Just accept it and move on. If they don’t want your help, there’s nothing more you can do.”

True. But that’s easier said than done when we’re dealing with people we deeply care about. Especially when we feel obligated to care for them.

“Acceptance” is thrown around a lot these days that it’s starting to lose its meaning. Personally, I don’t consider acceptance as an answer. It’s not a one-off action. Maybe other people can say, “Okay, I accept.” And that’s that. But I can’t count how many times I’ve said the same, only to realize that I haven’t really done so.

Acceptance is a process. And a process undergoes steps or cycles to get there. What can we do? Both for our loved ones’ sake and our peace of mind.

Over time, my experience taught me we can accept and support a loved one’s decision by acknowledging the following:

  1. People’s beliefs and values can be different from yours. And “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “wrong”.

I’ve always had a hard time connecting with my younger brother in the past.

We fought a lot. We fought so much our neighbors could hear us. We disagreed on a lot of things, even petty stuff. After a big fight, my mom would talk to me (and she’d probably talk to him too when I’m not listening). And she’d always say the same thing:

Your brother is not like you. You two are different. You each have your own way of perceiving the world.

I had a hard time accepting that, mostly because my brother and I shared too many similar traits: from favorite movies to childhood experiences and even extracurricular activities in school. It may be easier to dismiss our inner differences if we exhibited different personalities from the start.

But as I talked to him more and tried to understand where he’s coming from, I realized it’s not just a matter of hobbies, interests, and personalities.

It’s about belief and values. It doesn’t matter how similar you are to a person. If you believe and value different things — you will be wholly different from each other.

That’s why advice columns always tell you to find a romantic partner with the same beliefs and values. Interests, hobbies, and personalities are just the tip of the iceberg.

And the sooner we recognize the decisions they make are different — not wrong — from what we “would have done,” the better we can support them.

2. Even if someone is “wrong,” you cannot make them realize that.

We have a saying in Filipino that goes, “Hayaan mong mauntog.” Which literally translates to, “Let them bump their heads.”

Realizations take a whole process. It’s not a conclusion we can jump to. Sometimes, people have to experience the inevitable consequences of their actions before they can really learn.

This is a struggle I had with my 5–year ex. I’ve always tried to support her life goals. But I felt she kept making excuses for herself. Having a better work routine to increase her productivity, for example. Or getting out of her grandparents’ home.

I illustrated and argued how independence and a productive work routine can help her get what she said she wanted (“freedom and better work opportunities”).

It’s great to learn from someone else’s experience. But sometimes, personal experience is still the best teacher.

I kept urging her to take action; I could see the toll that her grandmother’s abuse has taken on her mental well-being. And her habits have negatively affected her work. But she always put it off. When we broke up, I realized that my constant pushing didn’t help her at all.

Maybe if I let her be, she would’ve “bumped her head” sooner, realized things for herself, and acted accordingly.

It’s great to learn from someone else’s experience. But sometimes, personal experience is still the best teacher.

What you want for them, even if it’s in their best interest, may not be what they want/need right now.

There was a time when I indulged in the most toxic and debauched things (like exclusively sleeping with women who are in a relationship). I knew what I was doing was wrong, and that it won’t lead to anything good in the long term. But I did it anyway.

I had to.

Looking back, it was a “necessary dark phase” in my life. I was going through various things simultaneously at the time: the breakup with my long-term girlfriend, a radical change in my career, a new city where I knew almost no one. It was my way of processing the pain, confusion, anxiety, and fear that I felt.

Obviously, it wasn’t the best way to do things. It was a long, painful detour. But sometimes, people need to take those detours.

It’s painful to see our loved ones make bad decisions. It’s even more frustrating when we see them going through the same cycle again and again. But sometimes, they need those things at that stage in life. The best we can do, if we care enough, is to help them get back up when they fall.

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