Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Grudge Not That Ye Be Not Grudged

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about relationships and how we are warping their nature in our society. Through the advent of social media and reality TV we are shifting our attitudes and communication focus. Somehow we are allowing ourselves to become desensitized to the power of our words and the damage they can inflict. Reality TV showcases alliances adopted and then discarded for power/influence/standing with no perceived emotional repercussion. The audience is captivated by this vicarious freedom from social morality and can’t help but watch the trainwreck. Social media gives us the power of instant reaction. It allows us to parade our opinions and even our need for validation to a mass audience. Then it invites that audience to pass their own judgement and agree or disagree on the basis of a single statement. It can be like putting a loaded gun in the hands of a child without explaining what will happen if they pull the trigger in a room full of people they love. This is the world we are creating.  

We have always had misunderstandings in this world. They can be as insignificant as a poorly phrased compliment or comment or as serious as a global conflict. They are everywhere. But I worry sometimes that we are creating an absence of accountability in our media choices that we’re going to have to pay for someday. If we are not careful, we will become a society plagued with grudges, vendettas and poison. I want to talk about the little ones we’re all familiar with.

Sometimes they seem to be a simple case of miscommunication – a “he said/she said” kind of situation usually involving the misinterpretation of something that ends up wounding one party while the other can’t understand what happened. Often a quick apology would resolve the situation (whether or not justified) and it would be old history, but too often it takes on an ugly life of its own, becoming a grudge.

We’ve all been there. We’ve been hurt and felt like it came out of nowhere from one of the people we hold dear. We’re blindsided by this sudden attack and like all good mammals, we pull the survival card and become defensive, angry and aggressive. We usually feel justified in our emotions, convinced that we have been treated unfairly. We often lash out, trying to redistribute the pain to where we think it rightfully belongs. And we are behaving naturally in our reaction, but we cross the line when it enters “judgement territory.” 

In a court of law there is something called “burden of proof.” The burden of proof is often associated with the Latin maxim semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit, the best translation of which seems to be: "the necessity of proof always lies with the person who lays charges."[1] That means when we choose to lay a charge of cruelty at someone’s feet, we are obligated to first prove the validity of that charge. If we want to attribute a perceived attack on our character to someone, we have to make that claim stick. Instead we allow our feelings to become the proof and rush straight into passing judgement. The flip side of burden of proof is benefit of assumption. This is often completely ignored. It means that until proof exists, the other party is innocent and cannot be judged guilty. That almost never happens when a grudge is in force. In our social media age, a reaction is instantaneous and splashed before myriad eyes in a split second. We cannot take it back. Our spears are launched before we even realize we’ve thrown them. We don’t even begin to bother with proof or real justification because we’re just flinging feelings, right?

There are some very important things to remember. We have a right to our feelings. But they are feelings, based on our background, perception, emotional health, environmental stress, personal morality. They are only truth for us. They are a marker of our emotional state. They are not proof. They are a message to our brain that there is information that needs to be processed and put into its rightful context. They are a valuable personal diagnosis tool for our benefit. Properly used and analyzed they can help us have healthier relationships and perceptions. They can teach us empathy and compassion. But used as a weapon, they create confusion, mistrust, and more emotional and physical stress. One of my favourite plays is a comedy that speaks some poignant truths.

“She speaks poniards, and every word stabs. If her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the North Star.”[2]

Words are weapons. They can cut deep. So why do we do it?

"A grudge is an anger that won't quit," says Robert Enright, PhD, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "When someone wounds you, it's natural to get angry. Like a turtle pulling into its shell, you harden your heart to protect yourself from further injury," says Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002). "For grudge-holders, grievances are like planes on an air-traffic controller's screen, circling endlessly and taking up precious air space." We hold grudges, Luskin explains, because we lack the self-confidence as well as the communication and resolution skills for dealing with a hurtful situation in the first place.[3]

Perhaps we are misled by this counterfeit confidence of “righteous anger.” That initial burst of power and indignation can be pretty heady. And if that feels so good, imagine if we could get others to back up our opinion. And off we go to blog/post/tweet our injustices. But we have little control over the damage it can create or the following downswing in our mood once the carnage is apparent. Families are fractured, marriages are wounded, children are emotionally scarred, and trust is often obliterated. People stop talking and retreat to their respective corners because they don’t want to be hurt again. And love is lost.

"If your parents nursed grievances, or consistently treated you badly, you may be hyper-vigilant to affronts as an adult," says Luskin.[4]

It’s unfortunate that what we experienced as a child can reappear in the way we deal with others as an adult, especially when it was deeply hurtful and left us never wanting to feel that way again. Our programming often runs very deep, and unless we teach ourselves a different way to resolve our conflicts and become less prone to grudges, we will continue to hurt ourselves and others.  There are some things we can do:
      Acknowledge your hurt. Put a label on it. Admitting we are angry/betrayed/sad means we know what we’re dealing with.
      Control your natural stress reaction. Question what we’re feeling. Ask ourselves what’s going on. Why are we reacting this way? Are there external factors affecting our perception. It could be as simple as sleep deprivation or low blood sugar. Find our context.
      Communicate with the other party. This is the hard part. We actually need to talk with the other person and establish what is actually happening. Perhaps they’re having a bad day too. Perhaps they didn’t mean their actions to be perceived in the way our brain is reacting. This is where we must establish “burden of proof.” To continue without it is unfair to everyone. Notice that this part happens after we calm down and identify how and why we’re reacting. Then we give the other party “benefit of assumption” and let them help create a better version of the real situation with us. We cannot off load this responsibility to anyone else. It is our relationship to make or break. Involving others creates only more misinterpretation and confusion, adding new viewpoints and flawed contexts.
      Find out what relationship rules you are using. It can be surprising to discover what some of our internal rules actually are. Sometimes they were established as a reaction to a slight when we were children and no longer apply. We can give ourselves permission to rewrite them and eliminate any that create stress and unhappiness in our lives. If we really can’t play board games with our siblings without fighting, we give ourselves permission to let go of that until we have learned how to overcome the triggers that make us cranky (yep, that’s me). We want to win relationships not games. Relationships are not games. This step is ongoing and can happen at any time. It is not dependent on a conflict. It is about becoming emotionally healthy and breaking the cycle.
      I try to remind myself two things whenever I feel hurt by someone. 
      No one is perfect. I am definitely not perfect. I say stupid things. I don’t always pay attention or self-edit properly. Because of that I shouldn’t expect someone else to meet a standard of behaviour I am not able to meet.
      I am not omniscient. I don’t know what is happening in someone else’s life and have no understanding of their personal context. Until I do I am not allowed to judge their actions. Even then I cannot judge. My brain is not their brain, and judgement is not my right. And that means I have to talk to them. 

      It’s not easy. I screw it up often enough that I need constant reminders to think before I act. Hopefully by the time I am old and not completely deaf I will have figured out how not to judge/grudge others. It’s a lot of work, but it is definitely worth it. We all want to feel safe and trusted in this world. But we have to be the first to try. In this social media heavy, entertainment plastered world we need to be doubly careful. The immediacy of our reactions and perceptions can seem to be rewarded and become addicting. If someone “likes” our attitude we can believe we are right. We can find ourselves holding that smoking gun with injured friends and family at our feet without even realizing we pulled the trigger. I really don’t want to be that person. Learning the skill set that prevents these accidents and focuses on forgiveness is so much safer.

      A servant of the Lord, President James E. Faust put this alternative much more clearly than I can:
Dr. Sidney Simon, a recognized authority on values realization, has provided an excellent definition of forgiveness as it applies to human relationships:

“Forgiveness is freeing up and putting to better use the energy once consumed by holding grudges, harboring resentments, and nursing unhealed wounds. It is rediscovering the strengths we always had and relocating our limitless capacity to understand and accept other people and ourselves.”[5]

We all want to belong. We want to be part of this enormous human family and feel accepted and wanted. But we have to be the first one to accept, welcome, trust and think before we act. That’s just how it works. We need to remind ourselves to ask a few important questions before we react to any situation, real or media-staged.
            Is what I am about to say really the truth or just a snap reaction to my feelings?
            Who will this hurt?
            Does this help to make me the person I want to be?

No one knows what you’re actually seeing and feeling in your head. When we give them a sliver of our reaction to it and expect a truthful response we are being unfair. We are paving the way for another grudge to burst into life. We have to stop that. Our loved ones deserve nothing less.

[1] Transnational principle of law: Trans-Lex.org
[2]“ Much Ado About Nothing,” William Shakespeare, Act 2, Scene 1
[3] Winning the Grudge Match,” Marjorie Rosen, Ladies Home Journal, 2013
[4]Winning the Grudge Match,” Marjorie Rosen, Ladies Home Journal, 2013

[5] With Suzanne Simon, Forgiveness: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Get On with Your Life (1990), 19.

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