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There are times when the reactions we get from others make us either upset or angry, or both. I am going to suggest something difficult to accept: that we may have contributed to our own discomfort. This is not an easy idea to accommodate. My theory about our contribution is that I think we actually get something from the outrage we feel – I haven’t ever fully understood the “brown stamps” concept in transactional analysis but maybe my pattern is an illustration of what other people manage to articulate more succinctly with that concept.

You do, say or write something; someone responds in a way that you find unpleasant, upsetting, infuriating, unjust … all the things you associate with feelings you prefer not to experience. You feel outraged and possibly misunderstood. You relate the story to someone else, the metamessage being, “Isn’t it unfair? Haven’t I been mistreated here?” You feel righteous in your indignation. With a bit of luck (from your point of view), the person you relate the story to says, “Absolutely!”, “It’s awful!” or similar, so that your righteous indignation feels endorsed and justified. You then go on to repeat the experience … over and over again.

If you really are lucky, however, at some point you will get a challenge rather than an endorsement. I put it that way because I think, in my own case, I have to take some responsibility here and I’d like to try to change my pattern. My feelings have not occurred as a consequence of a situation with no input from me. Whether I like it or not, I have actually gone to the playing field and put myself on it. Maybe I didn’t learn the rules of the game first. Or maybe I made the assumption that I simply could play, could handle the game and be good at it, just because that was what I wanted. Sticking with the analogy, maybe I then found that the way I played the game meant I didn’t score any goals, I got injured, or I got pulled up for fouls and got sent off. In other words, maybe my approach was ineffective or at any rate yielded the opposite of what I intended. What to do?

I think there are various strategies to consider. Some are:

  • Get tougher and roll with the proverbial punches (with apologies for the mixed metaphor!)
  • Commit fewer fouls and therefore get penalised less often
  • Learn to take evading action so that you get tackled less and maybe both avoid injury and get to score.

(This is obviously not an exhaustive list.)

What you do in real life, rather than in the game analogy, depends on what you really want. If the bottom line is that you want to have a story to tell like-minded people, who will empathise with your outrage and agree with your response to it, you will keep doing the same thing and put up with the discomfort of getting there. If not, you have to change something.

I’ve decided that the fun of telling the story is punctured too much by the feelings I have to go through to get to tell it (remember this is cyclical; if you do the same thing, you’re likely to get the same result). I’ve also always found “learning to roll with the punches” more desirable than achievable – call it frailty of character if you like, I just know I don’t find it easy. So I’m going to try to go for sparing myself the feelings in the first place and foregoing the fun of telling the story. Another way of putting it is that I’m going to try to take responsibility for how I feel, and do something about my contribution to that, rather than engineering righteous outrage at how I contend someone else has “made” me feel.

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Draw a line

Sometimes people surprise you, and not in a good way. You initiate a friendly conversation and it turns into an argument. You expect a certain reaction and the response you get is completely different. You make a call to impart some news you think will please the recipient and instead they shout at you before hanging up on you. Healthy self-esteem enables people to weigh up such events sensibly and sometimes to shrug and move on. Those of us who find it more difficult to deal with them need to focus on a few basic principles:

  • Don’t take responsibility for anyone’s feelings but your own.
  • The other person’s reaction may or may not have anything to do with you personally, and they are under no obligation to explain it to you, or to excuse their behaviour.
  • Some disagreements and differences of view can be fixed; some can’t.

It’s useful to learn to draw a line under events instead of reliving them over and over again. If they’re really yours to fix, then fix them. If they’re not, accept that you can’t make anyone else fix them. Let them go.

Giving what you want to give

Giving because you want to give is good; finding gratitude, attention, love, empathy, appreciation or someone giving in return is a bonus. The main thing is not to require any of those things in exchange for what you give. If you do, you may well be disappointed and eventually become resentful. This is a sad consequence but often an unavoidable one if we are relying on other people’s behaviour or reactions to match our fantasies and expectations. It is particularly unfortunate if the whole well of giving is poisoned in the process.

M Scott Peck said in “The Road Less Travelled” (1990) that he had

a colleague who often tells people, ‘Look, allowing yourself to be dependent on another person is the worst possible thing you can do to yourself. You would be better off being dependent on heroin. As long as you have a supply of it, heroin will never let you down; if it’s there, it will always make you happy. But if you expect another person to make you happy, you’ll be endlessly disappointed.’

The person wasn’t suggesting taking heroin was a good idea, but merely making the point that being dependent on other people to shape how we feel or to create our happiness is not productive – in fact, it is doomed to failure.

The only things we really have any control over are our own attitudes and behaviours – other people’s are usually beyond our sphere of influence except very temporarily, if then.

So, to go back to giving, the best we can do is to give when and what we want to give and to stay in the moment, getting our fix from the giving (ie what is in our control), not immediately attaching to it an expectation or hope of an outcome or return, which would not be in our control. Not requiring an outcome or return is probably one of the most valuable contributions to our own happiness that we can make.

What people say can give you useful information, as can what they do. But to get that information you need to be paying attention – you need to be present. This means you have to be in ‘observer’ mode, rather than in a world of your own imaginings when you are with them.

When a member of your family, a friend, a partner, a lover or a colleague tells you: “I am not good in the mornings”, they are probably genuinely trying to tell you that their behaviour in the mornings is unpredictable and possibly some way short of how they would like to be. It is code for “Please don’t get upset if I snap or appear grouchy and thoughtless – it’s not personal, I just take a little time to get into the day and into my more social role around people”. For many years when I worked in an office as one of a team, we had a deal whereby we would ‘issue bad mood alerts’ on this basis – to oil the machinery of which we were parts so that there was a chance there would be less uncomfortable friction. It is worth listening to what people say, and taking it in, if it can help us to avoid pain and upset.

With this in mind, there are other situations where we would also do well to listen to what people say: when they are self-critical, for example. Choose not to believe them at your peril! The information they are imparting to you is invaluable for your well-being in relation to them. So the next time a person says, “I’m a real bitch!” or “I’m an insensitive bastard!”, don’t disbelieve them and don’t ignore what they’ve told you – or at least do allow for the fact that they may be being totally sincere.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have them in your life, but in the same way as it is wise to go into financial investments with your eyes open, it is sound to approach emotional investments with a similar awareness and desire for self-protection.

Let reality in as soon as you can, because you’ll invariably always have to let it in eventually.

Disappointment

We experience disappointment when things don’t turn out as we wanted, imagined or hoped. It is quite hard to get past the feeling, especially when we’ve invested a lot in a particular outcome and it doesn’t materialise. I suppose ideally the answer is not to invest in a particular outcome – just do what you have to do and stay in the moment of doing it without projecting forward what might follow or result from it. But it’s difficult to do that, and it hurts when it doesn’t work out, particularly at the time we realise that we are just not going to get our desired outcome when we want it. I used to think T S Eliot had encapsulated what life often seemed to be all about, with his:

Man’s life is a cheat and a disappointment;

All things are unreal,

Unreal or disappointing… (“Murder in the Cathedral”)

But generally the feeling passes, usually because life doesn’t stop; it continues and whatever it was that was disappointing becomes one of those things you see in the rear view mirror – eventually it is gone. Often we look back on those disappointments and see them differently, either as lucky escapes, or simply as things that were not so bad. This is not just a “Pollyanna” attitude of wanting to find something to be glad about; it is just a perspective that time and distance tend to lend. I look back at some disappointments with sheer gratitude (admittedly some time later!) when I am able to see more of the picture than I could at the time, and I am genuinely able to think “thank goodness I didn’t get that job”, “how lucky I was that that situation didn’t work out”, “how amazing that I should have gone from feeling so wretched to feeling so much better, despite what I thought I’d lost!”

I tend to avoid the explanation that whatever it was “was meant to be” (or otherwise), because for me it doesn’t lead anywhere – it is conjecture, post hoc explanation, a case of finding something that fits after the event and seems to make sense of what happened, insisting on believing that it was part of some divine plan. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that – I’m just saying it doesn’t work for me. I would rather look at the reality now, what is, what has happened, rather than fantasise about what might have been. I’m not sure that fantasising about what might have been makes people happy because there is so much regret and wistfulness involved – it focuses on loss, not real loss, because it is the loss of something they never had, but perceived loss. In other words, I think it involves an avoidable feeling of loss. There is enough of the other variety – we don’t need the avoidable kind as well.

When I experience disappointment I think the most useful thing to do is to try to feel the feeling – there is no point in pretending to myself that I’m not disappointed if that is how I feel – and then to try to let it go on the basis that I don’t know what happened is not for the best – I am literally, at that particular point, not able to judge. Maybe Eliot was right all the time: he went on to say,

All things become less real, man passes

From unreality to unreality.

My experience has tended to be that generally when we look back on our disappointments we reckon that what happened was somehow for the best – we just couldn’t see it from where we were sitting at the time, so we couldn’t see that the disappointment was just another bit of unreality (and it would pass).

(30 November extract from  “The Language of Letting Go” by Melody Beattie, 1990 Hazelden foundation)

One day my son brought a gerbil home to live with us.  We put it in a cage.  Some time later the gerbil escaped.  For the next six months the animal ran frightened and wild through the house.  So did we – chasing it.

“There it is.  Get it!” we’d scream each time someone spotted the gerbil.  I, or my son, would throw down whatever we were working on, race across the house and lunge at the animal, hoping to catch it.

I worried about it even when we didn’t see it.  “This isn’t right,” I’d think.  “I can’t have a gerbil running loose in the house.  We’ve got to catch it.  We’ve got to do something.”

A small animal the size of a mouse had the entire household in a tizzy.

One day, while sitting in the living room, I watched the animal scurry across the hallway.  In a frenzy I started to lunge at it, as I usually did, then I stopped myself.

No, I said.  I’m all done.  If that animal wants to live in the nooks and crannies of this house, I’m going to let it.  I’m done worrying about it.  I’m done chasing it.  It’s an irregular circumstance, but that’s just the way it’s going to have to be.

I let the gerbil run past without reacting.  I felt slightly uncomfortable with my new reaction – not reacting – but I stuck to it anyway.

I got more comfortable with my new reaction – not reacting.  Before long I became downright peaceful with the situation.  I had stopped fighting the gerbil.  One afternoon, only weeks after I started practising my new attitude, the gerbil ran by me, as it had so many times, and I barely glanced at it.  The animal stopped in its tracks, turned around and looked at me.  I started to lunge at it.  It started to run away.  I relaxed.

“Fine,” I said.  “Do what you want.”  And I meant it.

One hour later the gerbil came and stood by me and waited.  I gently picked it up and placed it in its cage, where it has lived happily ever since.  The moral of the story?  Don’t lunge at the gerbil.  He’s already frightened, and chasing him just scares him more and makes us crazy.

Detachment works.

One evening an old Cherokee Indian told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all.

One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”