Recently I’ve spoken with a number of people who are puzzled by difficult problems in their lives. In the situations I am thinking about, each person is feeling alienated in his or her relationships, and sometimes things are not going well at work either. Thinking about the commonalities for each person in the various situations they face has caused me to notice something. Sometimes we have a hard time recognizing that the world is responding to us because of what we are doing.
So, here’s an example. I was talking with a young woman who said everyone seems to get angry with her. She has friends or partners or even siblings who seem to be motivated to be involved with her, but inevitably something happens, and they end up angry with her. She would like to feel better about this, and she tells herself people are impatient or self-centered. But really, she recognizes that people are getting angry with her because of something she is doing. Or not doing.
She can speculate, create hypotheses and try out different ways of being in relationships. Human nature is way too complex and changeable to nail down complete reasons for much of anything. Mostly you take a guess and then try to do something differently. But not all guesses are equally useful, and if you pay attention, your guesses will get better, and your new approaches will be helpful more often than not.
There is something that feels really bad about saying, “Hey, the problem in this situation is ME!” We avoid that feeling. We’d like to analyze until it is buried in cognitive processing. We’d like to avoid the issue, travel, eat an ice cream, yell at the driver in the next car. Anything but feel that sinking feeling that we are not actually perfect, and we might even need to work on our ways of interacting. Especially with the people we care about.
It’s embarrassing. And awkward. To admit that maybe we are missing something or not understanding something, or, worse yet, interacting in an unskillful or uncompassionate way. Or (horrors) having feelings that make us dislike ourselves. Like jealousy. Or envy. Or rage. In our more reflective moments, we cannot imagine ourselves having those feelings. But there they are. In their full humanity….Disappointing.
These awkward experiences and unsatisfying situations could be the world’s way of teaching us what we need to know. When something doesn’t work, we can take the message that it needs attention. Maybe not even fixing. Just attention. Sometimes it is simply a matter of letting ourselves notice how we are seeing the world or how we are feeling about things. Sometimes it is a matter of having compassion for our own humanness. And sometimes it is a matter of getting serious about our own agency in our lives, our responsibility for what we can regulate, and choosing to be a grown-up about it. It just doesn’t always feel easy or comfortable.