Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Trying to Help Difficult People Be Less Difficult

Today a terrible argument occurred in the hallway outside my office. It began when one of my coworkers became irate at my boss for not notifying him promptly that a morning meeting had been canceled. It was a very painful thing to have overheard. He was yelling and swearing, and not even pausing to listen as she tried to explain her side of the story. It made me angry that he ambushed her in such a vicious way on something so seemingly trivial, and also angry that I had to listen to the whole thing. My boss’s secretary also got involved, telling this guy how rude and condescending he was, and that he owed her an apology. I sat at my desk for a while afterwards, contemplating the whole thing—the anger, the defensiveness, the unwillingness to listen, and how much pain the guy was causing my boss, everyone within earshot, and, in reality, himself as well.

I eventually decided that I wanted to go down the hall and talk to this guy about his outburst. It didn’t seem right to just let it pass without letting him know that what he did wasn’t okay. What I wanted to say was basically, “You should really go to an anger management class, and learn to behave yourself in a professional manner”, but I decided that would just probably just provoke an argument between him and me, and not do anything to prevent further incidents. I tried to consider his perspective. I have been angry many times and I know what that feels like. I would also guess that because he’s not the kind of person whose inclined to give other people the benefit of a doubt when things go wrong, he probably has a lot of insecurities.

Anyway, I did manage to speak with him about the matter, even though it made me nervous to do it. I tried to explain to him that there are ways for him to express his feelings that will create the opportunity for others to respond in a sympathetic and caring way. However, he had been expressing his feelings in a way that incited defensiveness and conflict, and I said I didn’t think that was getting him the kind of response he really wanted. I told him he needed to learn to handle his anger in a better way, so that he could bring a greater atmosphere of compassion and understanding into his relationships with others.

He seemed to regard me somewhat suspiciously. He calmly told me a bit more of his back story, that is, the problems he had incurred as a result of not knowing about the meeting cancellation. I told him that because he was now expressing his complaint in a calm and rational manner, I could sympathize with his difficulties, and I thought my boss would have been sympathetic and apologetic too, if only he had related his story in that way, rather than by losing his temper. He clearly wanted and tried to divert the conversation into getting me to agree that he was in the right, and to concur that my boss should have handled the issue better. I said that I was not saying his complaint was not legitimate, but my point was just that he had the choice between expressing his feelings in a way that would probably get a compassionate response, or in a way that would probably result in defensiveness and conflict, and that choice was his to make. Then he thanked me and I left.

Have you ever intervened in someone else's conflict? Was your approach successful?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Loving Difficult People

Of all the challenging relationships in my life, by far the most difficult is the relationship I have with my mother. I suppose it’s natural to have more problematic relationships with the family that you are born into, because forever afterwards, you get to choose your relationships, and move away from people who cause you pain. The one characteristic that gives me the most angst is my mother’s tendency to be very judgmental. The letter that follows is what I would like to say to her, but probably never will:

Dear Mother,

The one thing that I would like to change about our relationship is to have you accept me and value me as I am. As an adolescent, there were many times when I wanted to talk to you about my feelings, particularly why I believed certain things, and why made the choices I did, but you have been very critical of me for thinking and acting differently from what you wanted. So, I have not felt good about disclosing these kinds of things to you, lest it upset you and make you feel disappointed in me.

Sometimes it seems you are sad that we don’t have a closer relationship, and I feel sad too, but it seems like the choice for me is either pretend to be someone I’m not, or to distance myself from you. I’ve always wanted to hear you say to me, “I know that even though you’re not like me, you are capable and competent to live your life in your own way. I know you have good judgment and good intentions, and I respect you for who are.” I don’t believe you will ever respond to me this way, but that’s okay. I’m going to accept you as you are, and stop expecting you to be different. Whatever kind of relationship we can have is okay, even if it’s very superficial and casual. I don’t want to make myself feel bad anymore by expecting something of you that’s unrealistic.

I still love you in spite of everything, but I cannot express my love by allowing you to continually rely on me for emotional support. I almost never agree with your position that various other people in your life are responsible for your problems, and treat you badly. I think that you create most of those problems for yourself and you could find better ways to interact with others if you really opened your mind to the possibilities. However, you become very defensive and angry if I try to suggest ways for you to see others’ points of view. I’m sorry that this is not what you want to hear. I wish I knew how to make our relationship better, truly I do, but I am out of ideas. I think you are actually very angry at me for being so distant from you, and you would like to tell me so, and that it’s all my fault…but how would that help us really? I feel like you want more from me that I am able to give. I’ve always hoped that as time passed, you would become a happier person, and be able to gracefully accept what life has to offer, but if that’s happening at all, you certainly hide it well. At least I can be grateful that I’ve learned a few valuable lessons from the way you’ve lived your life:

  • Blaming anyone else for my unhappiness is pointless, it’s up to me to find a way to be happy.
  • If I get upset when people tell me the truth, they will stop.
  • If I think most people think and believe the same things I do, I’m probably wrong.
  • By relying on others for emotional support without giving anything in return, my presence becomes an unpleasant burden.
  • It’s better to prepare children to face whatever life brings, rather than try to protect them from it.

In some weirdly ironic way, it's like you unknowingly sacrificed your happiness so that I could learn these things. I am very grateful. Try to understand that it’s hard for me to be in a relationship with someone who expresses love in a way that hurts me, and I think I’m doing the best I can for you under the circumstances, at least I sincerely hope so.


Who are the difficult people in your life and what would you like them to know?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mirror, Mirror, Be My Friend

This week I’ve been thinking about the distinction between and underlying unity of self and other. Everything in our reality appears to us in one of two categories. From my perspective, I consider everything I encounter as either 1. myself (or belonging to me) because I have some control over it, or 2. not me or mine, but a part of the external environment. The definition of “relationship” is where the two categories meet. A “relationship” is born when I interact with other people who are part of my external environment, and I have some influence on them, but no real control. That’s what makes the experience interesting and exciting (but also potentially frustrating).

In my relationships, I would like to be accepted by others, just as I am. I also want to achieve full self-acceptance, to totally know and feel “at home” being myself, but I struggle with being able to accept others as they are.

The essential challenge for me is to recognize that being accepted by others, accepting myself, and accepting others are not three different things, they are in reality the same thing. However being accepted by someone else is not something I can control, whereas accepting others and accepting myself are actions I can freely choose.

Anytime I feel like I’m meeting resistance in another person, that is to say, someone is not doing what I want him or her to do, I need to ask myself, “What is it I want from him or her that they can’t give me?” I read the book, Loving What Is (by Byron Katie), a while back, and that helped me develop my thinking about the way relationships function as a mirror. If I feel like I am disappointed in someone, what that really means is that I am actually disappointed in myself, and that feeling will go away if I can face the truth that what I am expecting from that person is unrealistic. It is my expectation of them that creates the disappointment, rather than anything they did or failed to do.

What are some of ways others have disappointed you? How does that relate to your expectations for them and for yourself?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Signs of Love

I have a wonderful relationship with my husband. We have been married for 11 years, and I am still as in love with him now as I was the day we got married. The main four ways that we show our love for each other are:

1. listening to each other and returning a meaningful response
2. striving to meet each other’s needs

3. being trustworthy and dependable
4. being physically affectionate

When my spouse does these four things, I feel and believe that he loves and cares for me. Other people have different ideas about what they accept and expect as signs of love. Some want to be given gifts, or to be allowed certain types of freedom, or to be protected, or to know that their partner does specific things only for them and for no one else. It is important to realize and be conscious of the fact that this is an emotional contract you make with your partner. A mutual understanding and agreement about how you will show your love for one another is the most essential kind of compatibility that you should insist on in a long-term relationship.

I’ve been noticing that when my husband and I have some kind of difficulty in our relationship, or when I have some problem in any another type of relationship, it almost always traces back to my thinking that something this person is doing (or not doing) is a sign that they don’t care about me (or about my feelings). But because different people express love in different ways, I always try to find a small gap of doubt in that conclusion. Never let yourself become convinced beyond any doubt that someone doesn’t care about you. Just assume that your ways of showing love are very different from their ways. If someone is not meeting your essential need to feel loved, why would you want to be with them?

It’s too easy to fall into the trap of first thinking, “I love this person, but they aren’t showing enough signs of caring about me”, followed by “If this person doesn’t love me, maybe I’m not lovable”, followed by “So there must be something wrong with me”, followed by “If I could only get this person to show that he or she loves me, then I will be reassured that I’m really lovable.” This chain of thinking is a big mistake, and a recipe for continued frustration. Never allow yourself to think your way down this path. I’ve done it a few times, and it leads to nothing but pain. Now, I short-circuit this kind thinking right after the first thought. If anyone I love is not showing me recognizable signs of love or affection, then obviously he or she has very different ways of showing love that I do. Trying to get closer to such a person is pointless, because I won’t get any fulfillment from a relationship with someone who doesn’t express love in a way that I can recognize---period, end of story! Of course, I’m still lovable, I’m just not compatible with everyone, and I am free to show my love for others even if I’m not seeing any evidence whatsoever that they’re feeling the same way about me.

It’s been useful too, to realize that when someone is making demands on me, or criticizing me, what they are really saying is, “Show me that you care about me in a way I can recognize because what you’re doing now feels like a lack of love”. Understanding that the action itself is not truly the problem is very liberating. It gives me the freedom to think about our relationship issues from another perspective, and to envision creative solutions. In most relationship situations, people don’t really want control, they want to know that they are loved.

What are the expressions of love that you can understand and relate to? Why are they important to you?

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Goal

My new year’s resolution for 2009 is to work on personal relationships, and find ways to feel closer to other people. My initial goal read like this: “Reveal personal thoughts, expand my comfort zone in talking to people, and improve communication skills”, but after rolling it around in my thoughts for a few days, I’ve decided that I really need to focus on bringing more honesty and courage to the relationships I have with others. It’s not that I’m not basically honest in the sense of answering questions truthfully, but I was raised to the mantra of “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”, so I’ve begun thinking about the extent to which I self-censor my own speech, and the impact of that on the relationships in my life.

I read that you feel closest to the people with whom you are most honest and open, which seems very true and obvious once you say it out loud. And yet, that’s not the way I function, and I think not the way most people function. For most of us it goes like this: I like you and I want you to like me, so I will try to figure out what kind of person you would like, and then I’ll try to be that way. Of course, if I succeed I’ll never really know if you really like me for who I am, or only for who I’m pretending to be. And I’ll never really feel comfortable in my role, or be able to relax my inner dialog. And then I’ll wonder why I don’t feel close to you…

On the other hand, there are reasons, perhaps legitimate ones, why I can’t be open and honest with everyone all the time, but I would like to find out what are the real limitations on honesty and openness? So I’m asking myself how far can I push that envelope, and whether there are any useful strategies for managing the risks that come along with this?

In that spirit, I’m taking a second look at what I’m thinking and why I don’t normally share certain thoughts with others. The reasons seem to fall into two categories. One is that I’m afraid of offending people. If I’m having a thought like “you’re totally wrong about that” or “that seems like a selfish thing to do”, I don’t share that because I don’t want to make people feel bad. The other reason for not sharing thoughts is that people will think I’m weird, or would be judgmental in some other way.

What do you think…are these the reasons that you to hold back in revealing what you’re thinking? Is your experience that honesty brings people closer together or pushes them farther apart?

What's up with this blog?

What’s this? This blog is about personal relationships. It will cover topics such as social skills, emotional intimacy, interpersonal communication, friendship, and thoughts on what makes some relationships special.

Why does it exist? I’ve started this blog because this year I have the goal of improving my personal relationships. I want to experience a greater sense of closeness and intimacy with the people I love, and I want to get to know more people.

How does it work? I thought it would be helpful to my goal to write about these topics, and to ask for comments from people who are also interested in working on this aspect of their lives. At least once a week, I will post some reflections on personal relationships, and ask a couple of questions for you to think about.