Lately I’ve been noticing that many people notice what other people do wrong and get quite upset about it, without taking time to consider their participation in the perceived problem. This often takes place in arguments with loved ones, whether the loved ones are friends, family members or lovers. I’d like to take the time to help you rectify this problem if you notice it in yourself.
We love to be right. We don’t like having people point out our flaws, because we fear their rejection and negative opinion. This is perfectly human and understandable. But it we persist in seeing only what other people are doing wrong and ignore our contribution to the interaction, we miss the opportunity to take responsibility for our actions and improve the situation by acting differently. So we keep feeling like victims, put upon by the whim of other people who are totally unpredictable and unfair.
Do you want to stay in a victim role? Or would you rather feel like you can behave differently in an argument? Hopefully you want the latter, because that is the only way I see out of this mess.
Next time someone gets angry at you or has a problem with what you’re doing, try these four steps:
Notice the feeling that arises in you and accept that feeling. That doesn’t mean you indulge it by acting on it. But it also means that you acknowledge, “I feel angry and like defending myself” without judging yourself for feeling that.
Reflect on what happened before this person got upset with you. As if you were observing the interaction on TV or in a movie, look at the actions that preceded and came after the anger. What were you doing, what were they doing, how did you react to their actions, how did they react to yours…. you get the picture.
If you can see something that you might have done to contribute to it, accept responsibility for that. Don’t conveniently block it out of your mind. Don’t pretend that you had nothing to do with it. If you’re not clear on why they’re angry, ASK, don’t assume.
If they’re not ready to take responsibility for their negative behavior, give them time to cool off before writing them off. If this is new for you, asking for responsibility from yourself and others in such interactions, then try to have patience for the other person and for yourself. It’s a new skill. You’ll get better the more you do it. So will they, hopefully.
Sometimes people don’t take responsibility because to admit fault is to sink into a quicksand pit of shame. If admitting wrongdoing does that to you, it’s probably indicative of low self-esteem and probably a good idea to get professional help. If you feel really angry every time someone points out something you did wrong, it may be an indication that you are covering up your shame or over-compensating for low self-esteem.
Hopefully you can take responsibility for your part in an argument, and the other person can too. It’s really a pain when only one person routinely takes responsibility, and that can lead to resentment, which makes your relationships suffer as a result.
At times, couples in therapy can reach a point where they have stopped hurling insults and hatred at each other, and find that they are not sure what to do next. If they had poor modeling from their own childhoods and families, they may not know what a healthy relationship looks like. We all have ideas from the movies and television of what the ideal couple should do when they have a disagreement, or that couples don’t have disagreements at all. However, this is not the case. Most couples disagree on a number of things and it’s not very important that they disagree, but how they disagree and whether they get their disagreements resolved.
Sometimes look at me funny when I suggest this, but I would recommend that you and your partner right down what your ideal argument would look like. It’s a fact of life in any relationship that there will be disagreement. But how do you want to resolve those disagreements? You can’t realistically expect that your partner will think exactly the way you do on every issue. Yes, there are some important issues like whether or not to have children and how you will spend your joint money, that you should probably agree on early in the relationship. Premarital counseling can be helpful in flushing out some of these potential landmines, if they are not agreed-upon. However, new disagreements and smaller ones pop up during the course of the marriage. Sometimes they are unpredictable, and depend on changing health or income status, and sometimes they are long festering wounds that were never addressed earlier in the relationship. In any event, it would be good to figure out what you don’t like your partner to do and what you do wish they would do instead.
You also need to look at how you behave in the fight, not just what the other person does that drives you up the wall. If the other person is speaking harshly to you, are you aware of your voice as well? Are you saying things that you know will make the other person upset, or disregarding their thoughts or feelings? These are all ways that you can clean up your side of the street, so to speak. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, each person’s opinion and thoughts are worth considering and it is important not to insult the other person just because you don’t understand where the coming from.
So what is a healthy relationship look like? What do you want to be doing differently with your partner, and what do you want them to be doing differently? Some key pillars of relationship health are, in my opinion, the ability to take responsibility and to have empathy for the other person. Listening is essential to the ability to empathize with your partner. If you are just assuming that you know how they feel, without checking it out with them, then you are expecting them to be just like you. If you truly want someone who is just like you to spend the rest of your life with, then perhaps being single is a better option for you. Usually we get together with our romantic partners because there’s something exciting and different about them that sets them apart from other potential mates. In a healthy relationship, we celebrate and appreciate those differences rather than seeing them as character flaws the other person.
By now it’s probably obvious to you that your relationships with your earliest caregivers (usually mother and father but sometimes other people too) shape how you see yourself and the patterns that you seek in your relationships with others too. For those who don’t believe their own experience of this phenomenon (i.e., they keep winding up with friends or lovers who treat them similarly to how their parents treated them), there is ample psychological research to support it (I especially like _The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy_ by L. Cozolino or _Attachment in Psychotherapy_ by D. Wallin).
What I find interesting and troubling about this is that many people say they want certain, healthier things in their love lives and other relationships, like mutual respect, reciprocity, to be heard and appreciated, etc., but when they have a glimpse of it, they become uncomfortable and some even reject this new behavior. Why? They may feel they don’t deserve the new, healthier components of the relationship. They may view it as suspect — no one has ever offered those things and been truly nice to them unless at some point they had a hidden, harmful agenda. And still others just feel mismatched to the new behavior — it doesn’t feel familiar enough to them to accept.
Needless to say, working on this is not an overnight fix. It involves many layers of self-esteem, relationships with others from their past, and creating a new story that says, “I am worthy of a good relationship and I will accept no less.” Overlooking bad behavior is often preferred over suffering rejection or loneliness, but one must be willing to risk that in order to create this new relationship. It can also be hard to accept that loved ones don’t have the skills or capabilities, or even willingness, to try to act differently towards you in a relationship. But without that recognition, it is hard to move forward and have the relationship you want with them.
However, I don’t want to discourage you from making this effort. Often what is familiar is very limiting and sometimes damaging to your self esteem and relationships. If you have the courage to change this, I will be by your side helping you. Once you learn to assert and love yourself, and create a new pattern of behavior, it will be much easier to accept healthy, reciprocal and loving behavior. Not only will it be better for you, it will be the new familiar, the new normal. Then when people run the same old game of exploitation, abuse, or manipulation on you, that will seem unacceptable. You’ll be able to say, “no thank you” and turn to the relationships you say you want.
Sometimes people have anniversary reactions grief, and for those who have lost their partner or spouse, Valentine’s Day can be a painful reminder of being without that special someone. I have seen many people who have lost their lover, fear that they will lose other loved ones as well. Others think that they will never have a relationship again. It is often too soon to tell whether either of these things is true. What I find is that these reactions to grief are often an attempt to assert control over the uncontrollable. Another common reaction is thinking that the surviving person could have done something to prevent their loved one’s death.This is a painful way to feel and think, but it makes sense in the framework of trying to control something that is out of our control. Part of the antidotes to this loss reaction is to remind yourself that you had no control, and that it is natural to want to control such a situation. There’s nothing we can do to ensure that those who are close to us will always be there. In fact, I would hazard to say that it is impossible. If you are having an anniversary reaction, try to be gentle and kind with yourself. Be patient with the anxiety of losing other ones, that remind yourself that there is no evidence that your other loved ones are in danger, at least not imminently.For some, they may decide not to happen other romantic relationship. However, often I hear people say this in the throes of grief when they are in extreme pain. It’s important to remember that the pain doesn’t last forever, and that it will fade with time. When we have healed in a covered more completely, the possibility of a new relationship doesn’t seem so foreign. I wish you well in the quest for greater peace in the face of the loss of a loved one.