Some of my clients will say to me: “why do I always end up drinking more than I wanted? I just don’t know….I wish I could change how I talk to my son. We always seem to end up fighting. I just don’t know what to do….I can’t believe it. Once again, I’m in a dead-end job. Why does this happen?”
The question is, do they really not know? We may have heard this from ourselves or someone else when confronted with a difficult issue. We often come up with these words, “I don’t know” to avoid solving a problem. “I don’t know” says one of two things, either A) we don’t know and we hope that we will be left alone or B) that we don’t want to think about it, so perhaps someone else will tell us the answer.
Now there are of course somethings we really do not know. Like what the capital of Canada is? You can look me in the eyes and say “I don’t know” and I can accept that. (It’s Ottawa) But when I ask how you felt about being yelled at and you look at your shoes and say “I don’t know” I don’t believe it.
We may say to ourselves, “Why does this always happen to me, or why does life have to be so unfair? or why is it so hard?” We react this way when we secretly imagine ourselves as being at the center of the universe. This isn’t conceit or arrogance, but it can be called “narcissism”. It’s what happens when we are the point of reference for everything that happens all around us.
We are all a bit narcissistic. A little of that is natural; we look out at the world through our own eyes and hear through our very own set of ears. But when we act like everything happens because of us, we headed for trouble.
Many of us go to college, get the job of our dreams, marry the person our heart has pictured, buy a car, a house; live the dream. However, as the days go by, our education seems less important and that person across the table looks better and better, so we go out and get married. We have kids and can no longer afford to continue in college. So we get a job, but we can’t afford a car. We can barely afford an apartment, and so the dream begins disappearing a little every day. We end up feeling trapped and so does our partner. We blame them; they blame us.
We can hang onto our unattainable dreams and feel like a failure. Overtime we may feel guilt for failing. From this guilt comes a wave of anger towards the person we promised to love, honor, and cherish, which will eventually become bitterness and resentment. All because two people are choosing to assign blame, rather than accept the reality of their own choices and adjust their expectations to include the changes in their lives.
So much of what we achieve results from a lifetime of decisions, large and small. We choose our clothes, job, relationships and everything in between. Our choices may lead us to the peak of our potential, or leave us meandering in the valleys of doubt and guilt. Yet despite their power, most decisions happen so automatically we barely even realize we are making them.
So, if our lives are not exactly where we want them to be, maybe we should change the way we make choices. From time to time, we may have had thought if we did X then life would react in a predictable, desirable, anticipated way.
This reminds me of a client I was seeing. One day she brought flowers from her garden. This client took enormous pride in her prize winning roses and spent a great deal of care and attention to her flowers. Actually it was a suggestion we had discussed in one of her sessions, to use gardening as a source of leisure. Anyways, my client gave some flowers to the receptionist as a gesture of appreciation for all of her help processing some insurance problems.
My client thought bringing in some of her elegant ruby red roses would be seen as a considerate act of gratitude. I was delighted by the magnificent array of delicate brilliant roses, with their tender soft shiny petals. However, my secretary was allergic to the flowers and began to ferociously sneeze, and then broke out in a rash. My client was left feeling guilty and good for nothing. She had a good intention. My client thought she knew what would
make others happy.
I told her that she tried to predict the future. She had automatically relied on an unconscious generalization that all people like roses. My client was now hurt and felt that perhaps her judgment couldn’t be trusted. We discussed how she had done the same thing for two people and gotten two very different reactions. I was delighted and grateful for my client’s efforts, but my receptionist was disgruntled and dissatisfied. So, who was justified in their reactions? Which one of us was right? It’s all a matter of perspective.
Instead of taking others’ reactions personally, we can remind ourselves that others words are smoke and mirrors for their own pain. We can choose to remind ourselves that we all have our own opinions and preferences based on our own unique experiences and expectations. They are not right or wrong, it’s just a matter of personal taste. We can validate our efforts even if the outcomes are not perfect.
The truth is we really do not know what is best. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ are absolutes. We have enough trouble figuring out what is best for ourselves, how can we know what best for anyone else. Our human imperfections can make people angry sometimes because we may trigger their memories and they may mismanage their emotions. It is regrettable when they do and you can express appropriate regret. Here you are modeling validation, acknowledging their emotion without condoning it.