During my 35 years of clinical practice, I have heard just about every type of interpersonal complaint imaginable. The wise individuals, the ones who rarely end up in my office, take these interpersonal missteps in stride. They hold realistic expectations, realizing it is impossible for their acquaintances to always act saintly. They gracefully chalk their misbehaviors up to the inevitable by product of relating to imperfect, fallible people. They then either let the sin slide or they calmly sit down and talk it out. Either way, they forgive.
But, many people, certainly those who seek my help, don’t usually respond so wisely. They react with hurt and anger. They lash out, in turn inviting the other party to respond in kind. They carry their grievances as prized possessions, massaging and caressing them, holding them tight to their bosom, sometimes for even weeks and months. By not forgiving, they contaminate a key source their of pleasure and happiness.
The Case of Bill and Nancy
Bill and Nancy nicely illustrate the ravaging cost to happiness of the inability to accept and forgive. Nancy’s grievous sin of omission, according to Bill, was that she was a sexual icicle, desiring sex only once a week. For him, four times a week was more like it.
Now, for you couples who find your sexual rhythms somewhat unequal, you know that this is something you would be wise to resolve. Unfortunately, rather than sitting together as two loving teammates and negotiating some win-win compromise, both Bill and Nancy reacted with hurt and anger. First, Bill felt very angry, as if Nancy not wanting sex more frequently was a purposeful rejection of him. His resentment grew stronger and stronger the more he thought about it. Nancy in turn reacted with anger back toward Bill because, as she put it, "He's reduced our marriage to sex, treating me as if I'm a piece of meat."
As you can imagine, as both of their anger went north, Nancy's libido went further south. And, as one would predict, the less sexually response Nancy was, the more upset Bill grew. As this downward spiral continued, their ability to work through their sexual differences became more and more remote, their connection to each other waned, and their marital happiness practically disappeared.
Using the example of Bill and Nancy, we can extrapolate the elements of their hurt and anger that can likewise derail your own potential for experiencing happiness through your own relationships.
Note, first, that both Bill and Nancy harbored a complaint about the other. For Bill, it was Nancy's level of sexual interest. For Nancy, it was Bill's insensitivity.
Notice, second, that, in addition to being frustrated with each other, both Bill and Nancy reacted with happiness-killing hurt and anger. Now each one of them had two problems for the price of one; they each had to deal with the perceived “obnoxious” behavior of their partner, and they also experienced the pain of hurt and anger.
Third, by being hurt and angry, both Bill and Nancy subsequently acted in ways that invited the other to continue to act in the onerous ways they originally did. As Bill sulked and complained, Nancy felt less and less sexual; as Nancy became less sexually responsive, Bill felt more and more hurt and anger.
The Antidote: Premeditated Acceptance and Forgiveness
One solution to happiness-killing hurt and anger is to only hang out with perfect people. Good luck. If you find such a person, please let me know so I can introduce myself to him or her.
A more realistic solution is to train yourself to hold realistic beliefs about the people with whom you relate. Realize that you cause yourself your hurt and anger by your unrealistic ways of thinking. In other words, it is not their missteps or obnoxious actions that lead to your hurt and anger, but you're indoctrinating yourself with following three beliefs. See if you don't fall into their clutches yourself whenever you feel hurt or angry.
1. Taking It Personally. Personalization means that when someone acts in some undesirable way toward you, you make the assumption that it is cold-blooded meant to hurt you. Let's see how this played out with both Bill and Nancy.
• When I asked Bill what it meant to him that Nancy only wanted sex with him once a week, he said: "She doesn't find me attractive or really love me."
• When I asked Nancy what it meant to her that Bill got so angry at her about sex, she said: “How could be treat me like this. He must not think much of me as a person."
In reality, Nancy responded sexually as she did because of the relatively limited intensity of her libido, rather than out of not caring for Bill. And Bill reacted to Nancy as he did not because he disrespected her, but because he felt wounded. It simply wasn't personal on either of their parts.
Imagine if Bill and Nancy, facing the same adversity, had substituted a non-personalized way of thinking. Think how they each would have responded emotionally and behaviorally if they thought along the following lines:
• Bill - "I'm not crazy about the fact that Nancy is sexually wired the way she is. It's frustrating for me because I find her so sexy. But it's just the way she is. It's not about me.”
• Nancy - "Bill sure is acting childish about all this. I don't like it, but it's not because he doesn't respect me. It’s just the way he responds to frustration and hurt."
2. Expecting Perfection. Communicated with the words “should,” “ought,” and “must,” this is when we demand that our friends and loved ones not error, act badly, or let us down. As said earlier, this is a totally unrealistic expectation, for we do not relate with saints or angels who will ever be perfect.
To illustrate this, listen to the exchange I had with Bill and Nancy and one marital counseling session.
R.G.: "Bill, when you think about Nancy not being as sexually interested as you want her to be, what do you tell yourself?”
Bill: "Well, I don't like it."
R.G.: “But, Bill, if you just thought, ‘I don't like it,’ you'd only feel frustrated or disappointed, not angry. I'm hearing a ‘should.’ What is it? Finish this sentence: ‘1 don't like it that Nancy isn't more sexually interested, and she ...’ "
Bill: "She should be!"
R.G.: "That's right! You're saying to yourself, ‘My fallible imperfect human wife, Nancy, should perfectly be the way I want her to be - at least sexually.’"
Bill: “l guess you're right. I am thinking that way."
R.G.: “And that kind of thinking is what gets you mad. For, if there is some law of nature that commands Nancy to be exactly, perfectly, the way you want her to be sexually, and she is breaking that law, then I guess anger is justified. But, one, she is not perfect to begin with, and, two, there is no such law. Right?"
Bill: “But, I know she's not perfect. Nobody is."
R.G.: "But Bill, if you indeed operated on the premise that Nancy is a fallible person, who will inevitably let you down, would you have reacted with so much hurt and anger?
Bill: "I guess not."
Listening to this exchange, I could see that Nancy was gratified by Bill's chastised look. Not to let her off the hook, I next said to her:
“Now, Nancy, isn't the same thing true for you? Let’s assume for a second that Bill is incorrect in responding as he does. Like Bill, aren't you also secretly demanding that he be perfect, never treating you unfairly?" Sheepishly, she acknowledged I was correct, saying, "I guess you're right on!"
3. Other Damning. Other damning drives the final nail into the hurt and anger coffin. It starts with disliking or damning the behavior of the other person (e.g. Nancy: “I hate it when he makes such a fuss about sex.”) to disliking and damning the person (e.g. Nancy: “He's a fool.). With Other Damnation, we make ourselves not only frustrated with or annoyed at the other person's behavior, but also disparaging of, angry with, and disrespectful toward the other person.
Notice that these three killer beliefs cannot help but to lead to hurt and anger. The antidote, in a nutshell, is:
• Take Nothing Personal
• Expect, and never be surprised by, acts of imperfection on the part of your fellow human beings.
• Never, ever generalize from what a person does and damn that person.
What about you?
Unless you yourself have already been canonized into sainthood, I suspect you all too often cause yourself hurt and anger by falling into the personalization, expecting perfection, and/or damning traps. I know that I do.
You might want to ask yourself?
• Do I feel hurt and anger more often than I would like?
• Do I compromise my pleasure and happiness with others by getting upset with them more often than I would like?
• Would I like to relax and experience more happiness with and through my interpersonal relationships?
If you answered “yes” to any of these, take heart. You can indoctrinate yourself to habitually think rationally, even when your friends and lovers act badly. It only takes determination and practice.
Here is a surefire process for you to use to bring Premeditated Acceptance and Forgiveness into your relationship life, thereby bringing yourself more pleasure and happiness .
Step One - Be Mindful. Become aware of when you feel hurt and angry. These situations, though painful, can be opportunities for you to practice the foundations of Premeditated Acceptance and Forgiveness: Taking nothing personal, expecting imperfection, and never damning another.
Step Two - Take Responsibility. This step is difficult for many people. Why? Because, when wronged, it is easy to blame the offending person both for their offensive action, but also for the hurt and anger you feel as well; they figure that if they let the other person off the hook for their pain, they also let him or her off the hook for the obnoxious deed as well. But, while the other person is responsible for his or her action, you are responsible for how you react to it. Once you accept this responsibility, you can then work to rid yourself of your own pain and get back on the path of happiness.
Step Three - Find Your Irrational Thinking. Track down these three dastardly beliefs that lead to your anger and hurt: Personalization, Expecting Perfection, Other Damming.
Step Four - Tell Yourself The Truth. Forcefully show yourself how inaccurate it is to take the behavior of others personal, how unrealistic it is to expect them to not error or act badly, how inappropriate it is to damn them as a total person based on one grievous action or trait. Then, remind yourself of the truth — the obnoxious behavior wasn't personal; it was to be expected that the person would sooner or later act badly toward you; the person who acted badly isn't a damnable wretch, but just fallible and error-prone by nature.
Step Five - Decide What To Do. Once you eliminate your hurt and anger, then you can decide what to do. Your choices range all the way from doing nothing, to talking to the person about the issue at hand, to going so far as to end the relationship. Different circumstances require different responses, but, without hurt and anger, you'll be well-positioned to make the proper decision with reason and objectivity.
To fulfill your happiness with and through others, you must work at it. Why? Because you are not surrounded by saints or angels, just fallible human beings. One powerful way to maximize happiness in your relationship life is to practice Premeditated Acceptance and Forgiveness. By developing the principles of Taking Nothing Personal, Expecting Imperfection, and Never Damning Another, you'll easily accept and forgive the people in your life once they step on your precious toes. Then, you can get on with the practice of loving them and enjoying them, thereby increasing your life’s happiness in the process.
I look forward to sharing my next blog with you. Until then, live healthy, happy, and with passion. Please contact me with any questions or thoughts.
Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is the author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live. These include: Unrelenting Drive; Marriage On Purpose; and The Happiness Handbook (in preparation). You may contact Dr. Grieger for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.