By Cathryn Bond Doyle.
Ideally, whenever someone does something that hurts our feelings, annoys us or makes us angry, we’ll tell them what they did and how it impacted us and then they will promptly acknowledge our feelings, apologize, agree to do it differently in the future and then work with us to figure out a better way to behave “next time.” Right!
Like I said…“ideally” that’s what happens. Clearly a big part of the growth process in any relationship is learning how to communicate about the things that don’t feel good so they don’t have to happen as much or anymore, while leaving both parties feeling closer and safer and happier with each other than before the “incident” happened.
I believe that’s a realistic goal and over the years I have watched couples, families and co-workers become highly skilled at successfully (and peacefully) teaching each other how they want to be treated. One of the keys to this skill and to achieving wonderful results is to stop looking at things people do as “bad and wrong” and begin to view them as different or ineffective. The purpose of this article is to talk about the allure of “bad and wrong” and explain why this shift from wrong to ineffective is so helpful and healing in relationships.
Why would we WANT to make someone “bad and wrong”?
1. Short answer…it feels better to be right, than wrong!
2. We learned, growing up, that we could legitimately complain if someone broke a rule or made a mistake and therefore were officially wrong (and bad). Without realizing it we then acquired the belief that in order to have the right to our feelings, we had to be able to state the “wrongness” in someone else’s actions.
3. As kids we were punished any time we did something wrong. Now whenever we hear that we’re wrong, we instantly brace for the punishment and become defensive out of habit or past experience. When we believe someone else is wrong, we feel they have to be punished. It is a nasty cycle, mostly unconscious.
4. We believe that if we are right, someone else is wrong. We believe that if we are good, then they are bad. This makes us feel better than someone else and is a temporary “power high.” This is also very absolute thinking (black and white only) and a very adolescent approach to life. Ok for teenagers but not for adults who can know better.
5. We hold a belief that when someone does something bad or wrong, we can justify our anger and punish him or her with our words and actions. This may feel better, in the moment, as the energy of our feelings gets an outlet, but often creates more negative impact than the original “incident.” We do it anyway because we believe we are entitled to our reactions.
6. We know no other way to look at the situation.
Why do we resist, withdraw or become defensive when someone tells us we have done something “wrong”?
1. Short answer…who ever WANTS to be wrong?
2. If we were shamed, humiliated or rejected by others when we were corrected for “bad” behavior as kids, it’s almost a programmed response to expect the same as an adult. We go into protective mode because who wants to be treated that way!
Let me make my point with the following example. Look closely at the wording I have chosen. Here goes…”Although you’re NOT bad or wrong for becoming defensive when someone tells you that you have upset or angered them. You ARE being ineffective in resolving the situation.” See how different it feels to be let off the hook of being wrong and then given the opportunity to look for a new way to behave?
3. For some people being wrong is immediately associated with being unworthy and by getting punished. What adult wants to feel like they are about to be punished? It makes sense they would argue for their rightness (or at least not being wrong) to avoid any impending punishment.
4. If we feel harsh and negative towards someone we judge as wrong, we become, in a sense, at the receiving end of our own beliefs. The person talking with us may or may not be thinking anything negative but when we judge others, we tend to assume others are judging us the same way. This creates a bracing behavior. In anticipation of someone judging us, we become rigid and prepare our defense instead of truly listening so we can learn and grow.
We all bring patterns and beliefs into our relationships. If we don’t have the courage to speak up when someone has negative impact on us, how will they know about it? Why would they change if they don’t know? How can we justify being angry with someone for doing something they don’t know is having negative impact on us? It’s our responsibility to voice our feelings. It’s also our responsibility to create a safe environment where people feel safe to express their feelings to us. Without this “safety”, things can get very tangled up. Trying to see each other’s viewpoint is nearly impossible when each person is jockeying to be right while believing someone else has to be wrong.
Unspoken agreements and the false nobility of silent suffering are all strong influences that interrupt any impulse to express our feelings to each other. That’s how much the fear of feeling “bad and wrong” impacts people. To avoid this possibility many of us have been taught, “don’t rock the boat,” “stay quiet, it will only make things worse,” “don’t bring this or that up to him or her or they’ll get furious and it will ruin the day, evening, event, whatever.” Can you see how an initial intention to share feelings and give feedback can very quickly become an inner promise to yourself to, “never bring that up again.”? This is not good for anyone, because it limits our emotional freedom.
It’s not good for the relationship, because it stops growing, loses spontaneity and gains more unspoken, yet clearly communicated and constricting “rules.” Our unwillingness to feel all the unpleasant feelings associated with being wrong, make us less open to hearing genuine feelings and this is a downward spiral into co-dependence, hostility and a lack of trust and closeness.
Uncover your beliefs then make a new choice
It’s clear that being bad or wrong has lots of negative associations that are not conducive to open and positive conversations. Being aware that making yourself or another bad or wrong puts a kink in the relationship connection will hopefully motivate you to reframe your feelings and make a conscious shift to a new approach.
Next time something happens and you want to tell someone about it, stop for a moment and get clear about your intention. “My intention is to tell them HOW what they did effected me so they’ll understand, hopefully apologize and do it differently in the future.” If you have to process some anger or hurt, do that BEFORE you talk with the person so that when you speak with them, you can be do so with a loving intention and an open heart.
Some people don’t like the idea of processing their anger privately. At some level they prefer to punish another. “They hurt (or angered) me so I can do the same to them.” Well, own up to the fact you are emotionally about 8-16 years old when you’re feeling that way. Not bad or wrong, just not being your adult, responsible Self.
Please note: I’m not talking about abusive or illegal behavior. I’m talking about the everyday sort of misunderstandings that tangle up so many relationships.
By shifting your intention from blaming to informing, you’ll see an immediate change in the words you choose and therefore the reaction you get. When your goal is to change something that is ineffective into something that works for both of you, defense mechanisms can give way to problem solving skills. Until both of you trust and believe this automatically, make a point to say, “You’re not bad or wrong, this thing you did just wasn’t effective, or just didn’t work as well as it could or was different from what I expected.” Then continue on to offer alternative ways to handle things or to behave or to interact with you. It’ll feel good for everyone to focus on the future instead of fearing retribution for the past. This is very powerful and very healing. It can be a bit awkward at first but that’s only because the patterns (and impact) of the past can run very deep.
Here’s a comparison of the two approaches:
The Bad and Wrong-making You: “How dare you not get me something for Mother’s Day!! (Unspoken but clearly communicated- ‘you wrong and dumb son of a gun.’) With all I do for you and the kids, you can’t get me something nice? I am sick of this! You can forget Father’s Day. I’ll show you how it feels to be unappreciated.”
This approach is not bad or wrong, but it sure doesn’t lead to more closeness or make either person feel more appreciated, more aware or more motivated to please each other in the future.
The Intending to inform and change You: “Honey, I love you and I want you to know that I felt hurt and angry that all I got for Mother’s Day was a funny card from you. I felt unloved because you didn’t take the time, make the effort or spend the money to get me something. It ‘s not that you were bad or wrong. It just made me feel unloved. Father’s Day is coming up and instead of getting even, which I know is a childish urge, I want you to how I’m feeling and why, so next year, it can be different and I can feel more loved and appreciated by you. Do you understand what I’m saying?
If you surprise someone with this new approach, it may take him or her a few minutes to pick his or her chin up off the ground and react. So often, couples anticipate each other’s behavior (from the past) and any change can take someone by surprise. They may react defensively (out of habit) but when you can stick to your intention, keep your heart open and look to them for understanding…all kinds of good things can happen, where arguments previously prevailed. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. This approach will work if you give it a chance.
Another option is to talk about this with your loved one or friend when things are great and BEFORE there’s any more conflict. See if you two can agree to try this new approach the next time something upsets either of you. Families can do the same thing with terrific results as everyone helps each other learn more about each other while practicing this new skill. No one has to be bad or wrong in order for things to be ineffective, explained in a new way and therefore changed for the future. This approach allows people to focus on the behavior and how to be more loving and aware of each other. It creates an emotional safety and a constructive way for people to love and learn about each other without fear and that’s a wonderful quality in any relationship.
©2002 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All rights Reserved.