Imagine you go on vacation to a beautiful tropical destination, and stay at an all-inclusive resort. You are thrilled to have all your meals provided, and to not have to worry about cooking and doing dishes. You absolutely love the maid who manages to clean up your mess every day. You are charmed by the evening entertainment and the games the resort's activity staff have arranged for the guests. You are thrilled to be able to lay around all day, and not have to worry about going to work. It is a relief to be away from your annoying neighbour.
After a week of kicking back and relaxing, you pack up your things to go. Now imagine you are told, "Sorry, you are not allowed to leave. We have decided that you are better off here. You were not eating healthily, and not keeping up with your housework. You had too much debt, so we will be taking control of your finances to pay for everything here, and selling your house to pay off your debts. You were having interpersonal problems with your neighbour, and need a place where we can help you get along with others. We expect you to participate in all the daily programming offered by our staff, and if you do not, we will view it as you needing to spend even more time here."
Nothing has changed about where you are staying, but I bet your perception of it has. I believe people have an innate drive to be free - not just physically free, but free to make their own decisions.
I used to work for a psychiatric institution, and now that I work in the community, I often run into people from the institution. For some of the people, I remember being told by staff that they were "better off" in the institution; they were "too sick" to leave; and would "never make it" in the community. When I see them in the community, they are usually living in not very nice apartments, and in not very nice areas (poverty sucks!). They have to deal with being mugged, having not enough food, and having bedbugs. Yet not one of them has ever said to me that he or she would like to go back to the institution. In fact, some of them were worried I was there to take them back!
However, it is not just with institutionalization that we see people trying to "care for" others. Just as it is human nature to need our independence, I think it is also human nature to want to try to protect the people we care about. Think of how often you see someone (maybe a friend, family member, or client) making a decisions that you "know" is a bad decision? Perhaps they are making a poor financial decision, or choosing and unhealthy behavior. How do you usually react?
Ultimately, we cannot control how other people act. This is probably a good thing, because no matter how right we feel we are, the other person usually feels equally right; although it is hard to admit, there is a chance the other person really is right. Who are we to think that we know what is right for someone else?
Of course, there is always a balance. The exception to this is when a person really is unable to understand the consequences of his or her decision, and therefore can be deemed incompetent. I really struggle with this situation, because it makes it so difficult to be client-centred. However, just because a person makes a "bad decision" does not mean that person is incompetent. I think we should all be grateful for this, because I don't believe there is anyone out there who has never made a bad decision.
What can we do when we think someone is making a "bad decision"? We can help the person explore all the possible consequences associated with that decision. You never know, we might even be surprised by how well the person has already thought through the situation.
What should we not do? We should not try to force our values on someone else - this leads to the person digging in his or her heels, and wanting to do the opposite of what we are asking. We may not like it, but people have a right to make "bad decisions".
I think we just need to remember that we are all a "work in progress". There may be a slim chance that we do not always know what is best for everyone else, so ultimately we need to let others choose their own path.