Sep 7, 2013

It's Not Always Me

I think I'm addicted to introspection. This may be a more benign addiction than meth or porn or skin-picking (yes, dermatillomania is a thing). Still, I spend hours picking at scabs of conflicts past and present, wondering what I could have done differently and how I might handle things more gracefully in the future. Because I prefer to avoid being hurt, or hurting others, I practice what therapists call "identifying my role" in times of interpersonal strife. I have become really good at identifying my role when shit goes down.

I embrace the truism that you can't control how other people behave, only how you react. Or maybe it's that you can't change other people; you can only change yourself. Probably both. Whatever. Either way, when I'm struggling in a difficult relationship, I feel compelled to do a bunch of messy internal work to figure out how I should react differently to the other person. I examine how my own issues could be contributing to the discord.

So it looks something like this: my reactivity + my issues = my role in conflicts.

This exercise provides a sense of self-awareness and empowerment, two things of which I am very fond. But while I have wrapped my brain firmly around the fact that I cannot control or change others' behavior, I still believe that changing my own will make difficult relationships easier, that if I take enough responsibility for my shit, the relationship will succeed.

Of course it doesn't always work that way. And then I feel sad and guilty and I go back to digging around my psyche, examining my shit. I even revisit relationships that ended years ago, excavating the ruins in search of the moments when I could have done more, or less, or better. Sometimes mutual friends or family members pressure me to make things right. Maybe I listen to them and give it a shot. Or maybe I do nothing because they don't know the whole story and that's really annoying.

Lately I've begun to see how this fuckery can be damaging, not just to relationships but to my emotional well-being. Instead of nurturing old friendships or fostering new ones, I waste time holding on to people who don't want to be held, providing life-support to relationships that were never healthy. This little epiphany materialized when I realized that people sometimes behave like assholes without me playing a role in it.

Some people behave like assholes for one simple reason: They're just assholes.

Family and friends, people we love and feel closest to, occasionally say or do hurtful things. I've hurt people, both unwittingly and deliberately. No one waltzes through life shiny and happy all the time. When I know I've behaved badly, I do what I can to make it right. When I've been hurt, I may talk about it or I may let it go.

If I choose the uncomfortable talky scenario, I hope to hear an expression of regret—not a bullshit nonpology like, "I'm sorry you feel that way," but an admission that they made a mistake and they feel really crappy about it. No excuses or rationalizations. I know this is possible because I have a history of unshiny moments and I know how liberating it is to say, "I was wrong. I shouldn't have done that. I'm so sorry."

The relationships I most appreciate are those that weather occasional tension, or even full-on blowouts. These are people I know I can trust. We fuck up and it's okay because it's an anomaly. We apologize and we move on and we hope we are stronger for it.

It's okay to occasionally behave like an asshole if you regret it and offer a real apology.

When the anomaly becomes a pattern and I find myself in a cycle of hurt with someone I love, my mind executes an accelerated infinite loop, pinging from pain to anger to fear to confusion to guilt to hey look a squirrel! until my entire emotional system becomes unresponsive. (My brain is a poorly coded computer program.) I might go into offense mode to make sure the person is still paying attention, but eventually I start looking for my role so I can make everything okay again.

My success rate might be higher if my counterparts went through a similar process. But it turns out not everyone wants to work on strained relationships. Not everyone cares to admit they've made mistakes that call for an apology. Not everyone feels compelled to identify their role in the unpleasantness, much less cop to having one.

In the past, I spent wasted lots of time exploring my "trust issues." After years of trying to figure out why I was so "triggered" by dishonesty, I had one of those aha! moments, followed by a facepalm. I don't have trust issues, nor am I triggered by deception. I just don't like being lied to.

I also get upset when someone lashes out and then plays the victim when I try to talk about it. There is no give and take or rational discussion, just anger and resentment. Sure, I can be a reactive jackass and make things worse for a while, but I assume that talking it out will bring resolution.

For some people, however, the only acceptable resolution is a one-sided apology, even if they were the aggressor. I've offered too many bullshit apologies in the interest of maintaining big, important relationships. I've told myself that a scary relationship was better than no relationship at all. I was wrong.

Some people aren't worth my energy because I will never be able to please them.

People who hold on to too much anger tend to lash out unexpectedly. They hold others to standards of behavior that are constantly shifting, but are always higher than what they expect of themselves. When crossed, they don't accept an apology and move on. They file the infraction away for future reference. They hold grudges. These people are toxic, and changing my reactions or behavior is a waste of time. I am not "triggered" by them, either. I just don't like self-absorbed assholes.

I don't want toxic people in my life. They exhaust me. More important, I absorb their negativity and start acting like an asshole myself. I've seen it happen during difficult times in the last few years, and I've behaved in ways of which I am not proud. Enough. I've decided the only way to put my introspection to good use is to make positive changes. I want to surround myself with people who have compassion and integrity, people who are not just self-aware, but also interested in personal growth.

Self-awareness can be used as an excuse or it can be used to make positive changes.

If I start to feel as if I'm doing all the work in a relationship, or constantly apologizing for shit I didn't do, it's time to let go. I no longer need to muck around in my head and search for responsibility where there is none. It's not always about me and my "role." Sometimes relationships fail, and I need to accept that and move the fuck on.

In conclusion, I offer this pretty Venn diagram to illustrate my new and improved mentality around relationships.