There’s been mistreatment or injustice – now what?
The Practice: Stay Right When You’re Wronged.
— An Excerpt from Making Great Relationships —
It’s easy to treat people well when they treat you well. The real test is when they treat you badly. It’s natural to want to strike back. It might feel good – for a little while. But then the other person might overreact, too, and now you’re in a vicious cycle. Other people could get involved and muddy the water. We don’t look very good when we act out of upset, and others remember. It gets harder to work through issues in reasonable ways. When you calm down, you might feel bad inside.
So let’s explore how you can stand up for yourself without the fiery excesses that have bad consequences for you and others.
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You can use these suggestions both in the heat of the moment and as a general approach in a challenging relationship.
This step could take just a few breaths or, if you like, a few minutes. Here’s a quick review of psychological first aid:
- Pause – You rarely get in trouble for what you don’t say or do. When I work with couples, much of what I’m trying to do is to s-l-o-w them down to prevent runaway chain reactions.
- Have compassion for yourself – This is a sense of: Ouch, that hurts. I feel the warmth and the caring for my own suffering.
- Get on your own side – This is a stance of being for yourself, not against others. You’re an ally to yourself, being strong on your own behalf.
Clarify the Meanings
What are the important values or principles that the other person may have violated? For example, on a 0–10 Awfulness Scale (a dirty look is a one and nuclear war is a 10), how bad was what the other person has done or is doing? What meanings are you giving to events – and are they accurate and proportional to what has happened? Events do not have an inherent meaning; the meaning they have for us is the meaning we give them. If what has happened is a three on the Awfulness Scale, why have reactions that are a 5 (or 9!) on the 0–10 Upset Scale?
See the Big Picture
Take a moment to focus on your body as a whole . . . the room as a whole . . . lift your gaze to the horizon or above . . . imagine the land and sky stretching away from wherever you are . . . and notice how this sense of the wider whole is calming and clarifying. Then place what this person has done in the larger frame of your life these days. What they did could be a small part of that whole. Similarly, place what has happened in the whole long span of your life; here, too, it’s probably just a small fraction of it.
Alongside the ways you’ve been wronged, what are some of the many, many things in your life that are good? Try to get a sense of dozens and dozens of genuinely good things compared to whatever has been bad.
When we’ve been mistreated, we need others to “bear witness,” even if they can’t change anything. Try to find people who can support you in a balanced way, neither playing up nor playing down what has happened. Get good advice – from a friend, a therapist, a lawyer, or even the police.
In the next few chapters, I’ll have specific suggestions for how to talk about difficult issues, resolve conflicts, and, if need be, shrink a relationship to a size that’s safe for you. Here, I’m focusing on the big picture.
Listen to your intuition, to your heart. Are there any guiding principles for you about this relationship? Can you see any key steps to take that are under your own influence? What are your priorities, such as keeping yourself and others safe? If you wrote a short letter to yourself with good guidance in it, what might it say?
Recognize that some wrongs will never be righted. This doesn’t mean minimizing or excusing bad behavior. It’s just a reality that sometimes you can’t do anything about it. When this is the case, see if you can feel the grief of damage that can never be repaired with compassion for yourself.
Walk a Higher Road
When you’ve been wronged, it’s especially important – even though it can be really difficult! – to commit to practicing unilateral virtue, as we explored in chapter 24 (“Take Care of Your Side of the Street”). Know what your own Dos and Don’ts are. With certain situations and people, it’s helped to remind myself of specific “instructions,” such as: Stay focused – don’t pursue their distracting accusations. Keep breathing. Stay measured and to the point. Don’t feel that I need to “prove” or justify myself. Also tune into the feeling of being calm and centered.
If you are going to be interacting with this person again, think through how you’d like to conduct yourself in specific situations, such as a family gathering, a performance review at work, or bumping into an ex- while you’re with your current partner. You can mentally “rehearse” skillful responses to different things they might say or do. It might seem over-the-top, but practicing these in your mind will help you actually do them if things get intense.
Try to stay out of quarrels. It’s one thing to work with someone toward the resolution of an issue. But it’s a different matter to get caught up in recurring wrangles and squabbles. Quarreling eats away, like acid, at a relationship. I was in a serious relationship in my mid-twenties, but our regular quarrels finally so scorched the earth in my heart that the kind of love needed for marriage couldn’t grow there.
If the other person starts getting fiery – speaking more loudly, getting provocative, threatening you, blasting you – deliberately step back from them, taking some long slow breaths, and keep finding that sense of calm strength inside yourself. The more out of control they get, the more self-controlled you can be.
Much of the time, you’ll realize that you just don’t have to resist the other person. Their words can pass on by like a gust of air swirling some leaves along the way. You don’t have to be contentious.
Your silence does not equal agreement. Nor does it mean that the other person has won the point – and, even if they have, would that actually matter so much in a week or a year?
If you find yourself driving, driving your point home, insisting that you’re right and they’re wrong, speeding up, coming in hot with guns blazing . . . try to have a little alarm bell go off inside that you’ve gone too far, take another breath, and regroup inside. You could then say what’s on your mind in a less aggressive or allknowing way. Say less to communicate more. Or you could stop talking, at least for a bit. I definitely have a tendency to hammer my point home, and then I try to remember the acronym I heard from a friend, WAIT: Why Am I Talking? (Or WAIST: Why Am I Still Talking?!)
You might acknowledge to the other person that you’ve gotten into a kind of argument, and then add that this is not what you really want to do. If that person tries to keep up the fight, you don’t have to. It takes two to quarrel, and only one to stop it.
If you need to, stop interacting with the person who has wronged you – for a while, or permanently. Leave the room (or the building), get off the phone, stop texting. Know what your boundaries are, and what you’ll do – concretely, practically – if someone crosses a line.
Be at Peace
Others are going to do whatever they do, and realistically, sometimes, it may not be that great. Many people disappoint: They’ve got a million things swirling around in their head, life’s been tough, there were issues in their childhood, their ethics are fuzzy, their thinking is clouded, their heart is cold, or they’re truly self-centered and mean. It’s the real world, and it will never be perfect.
Meanwhile, we need to find peace in our own hearts, even if it’s not present out there in the world. A peace that comes from keeping your eyes and heart open doing what you can, and letting go along the way.
Know Someone Who Could Use More Peace after Being Wronged?
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