It’s easy to treat people well when they treat you well. The real test is when they treat you badly.
Think of small or big ways you’ve been truly wronged: someone stole something, turned others against you, broke an agreement, cheated, or spoke unfairly or abusively.
When these things happen, we feel mad, hurt, startled, wounded, sad. Naturally, we want to strike back, punish, get others to agree, and make a case against the other person.
These feelings and impulses are normal. But what happens if you get caught up in reactions and go overboard? There’s usually a release and satisfaction, and thinking you’re justified. It feels good.
For a little while.
But bad things usually follow. The other person overreacts, too. Others get involved and muddy the water. You don’t look very good when you act out of upset, and others remember. It gets harder to work through situations in a reasonable way. After the dust settles, you feel bad inside.
Consider this saying: “Blasting another person with anger is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.”
Sure, you need to clarify your position, stand up for yourself, set boundaries, and speak truth to power. The art is to do these things without the fiery excesses that have bad consequences.
Start by taking a dozen seconds or so to get centered:
• Pause – You rarely get in trouble for what you don’t say. Give yourself the gift of time, even just a few seconds.
• Have compassion for yourself – This is a feeling of “ouch, that hurts, I wish this hadn’t happened.” A savvy brain trick for activating self-compassion is to recall the feeling of someone caring about you.
• Get on your own side – This means being for yourself, not against others. Remember a time when you felt strong, did something physically challenging, or stuck up for someone.
• Make a plan – Figure out what to do, or at least where to start.
Once you’re on firmer ground, here are some practical suggestions:
• Clarify the facts – What actually happened?
• Rate the event accurately – On a 0–10 awfulness scale (a dirty look is a 1 and nuclear war is a 10), how bad was it, really? If the event is a 3, why have reactions that are a 5 (or 9!)?
• See the big picture – Recognize the good aspects of the situation mixed up with the bad ones. Put the situation in the larger context of unrelated good things happening now, and over your lifetime.
• Reflect about the other people involved – Consider the “10,000 causes” that led them to do what they did. Be careful about assuming it was intentional. Try to have compassion, which will make you feel better. You can have compassion and forgiveness while still seeing their actions as unskillful, harmful, or immoral.
• Do what you can, concretely – Protect yourself from people who wrong you; shrink the relationship to a safe size. Get support; it’s important for others to “bear witness” to mistreatment. Build up resources. Get good advice. Pursue justice.
• Act with unilateral virtue – Live by your code even if others do not. You’ll feel good, others will respect you, and the person who wronged you is more likely to treat you better in the future.
• Say what needs to be said – Use this formula from “nonviolent communication”: “When X happens (stated objectively; not “when you are a jerk”), I feel Y (emotions; not “I feel you’re an idiot”), because I need Z (deep needs like: “to be safe, respected, emotionally close to others, autonomous”).
Then you can make a request for the future. Some examples: “If I bother you, could you talk with me directly?” “Could you treat your family agreements as seriously as you do those at work?”
• Move on – For your own sake, start releasing your anger and hurt. Stop obsessing about the past, and focus on the present and future. Turn toward what is going well, and what you’re grateful for.
In the garden of your life, you have to pull some weeds, but mainly focus on planting flowers.
• Be at peace – All you can really do is what you can do. Others are going to do whatever they do, and sometimes it won’t be that great. Many people disappoint: they’re juggling a million things, life’s been tough on them, their ethics are fuzzy, their thinking is clouded, etc. The real world will never be perfect.
We need to find peace in our own hearts, not out in the world. A peace that comes from keeping eyes and heart open, doing what one can, and letting go along the way.