On a visit to Taormina on Sicily, our hotel was situated so that we could stand on our balcony and see Mount Etna in the distance. I told my husband, Ron, how great it was that the locals had strung colored lights down the mountainside. He said, “It’s not lights. It’s lava.” I said, “No way is that lava! Look at the colors. It’s lights!” The next day, we made our way to the top of Mount Etna. And everywhere were flowing streams of burning molten lava. Even when someone offered to cast me a lava-ashtray to take home, I still had trouble believing it.
Ron always gets this stuff right. So no one wants to play geography games with him. The good news is that he doesn’t gloat about it. I’ve asked him why, and he says that staying supportive of us is what’s most important.
Supporting people who are acting in ways that drive us crazy can be challenging. Ron’s told me the story of his first delivery as an OB-GYN resident. It was a quiet night on the ward, and he was sitting in the nurses’ station, where they were teaching him to knit. They heard the elevator ping, announcing a new patient. And a foreign man burst through the doors, yelling “Help!” while pushing his rapidly crowning wife in a wheelchair.
Everyone jumped to quick action, including Ron who would finally get to practice what he came to medicine for, to deliver babies! The husband had a different plan though. When Ron tried to check his wife’s progress, the man took off his coat and threw it over her so Ron couldn’t see her, while yelling in broken English that it was inappropriate for a strange man to look at his wife.
What was Ron to do? First, he calmed the man by assuring him that everything would be all right. And then he delivered his first baby by poking around under a raincoat without looking.
Ron says that when disruptive energy comes at him, it helps to focus on the cause of the distress rather than whether he should react with the same energy – returning anger for anger, or hurt for hurt. He has a strong belief that why people do what they do matters more than what they do. And that when people lose it, the most important issue is their need to be supported – much more important than whether they’re acting as a catalyst for him to feel offended.
Returning anger doesn’t work.
Firing missiles at people doesn’t solve a situation, it doesn’t resolve our frustration or resentment, and it slowly erodes our relationships.
What works better? Remembering that we set causes in motion through our choices, and we experience the results, which means that our problems don’t originate outside of us. So our best choice is to find ways to resolve our problems, without involving the people we’ve believed are the reasons for our problems.
Venting can help.
If we’re feeling ornery, it’s important to be honest and name the name of what we’re doing. “I’m acting bitchy. It’s not personal. I just need a chance to blow off steam. Can you handle it?”
It’s not appropriate to make people wrong to justify our outbursts. So we need the other person’s agreement that it’s all right to vent. “I want a turn to vent. Can you listen to me? I’m not looking for a solution. I just need to unload.”
If the person says, “I can’t handle it right now,” we’ll need to find a different outlet. If the person is up for it, we can go ahead. But it remains our responsibility to safeguard everyone, because staying supportive is most important.
Expressing appreciation does more than anything else to create positive change in relationships. When my son was in university, he wrote a birthday card to Ron, who’s his stepfather, and he nailed it: “You inspire me to be better, including getting on my feet and enjoying life within my means. I use you as a role model when I see others being wasteful or avoiding work. Because of you, I enjoy working and saving. I pack my lunch, because you pack your lunch. I ride my bike to work, because you ride your bike. If everyone had your character, sense of duty and generosity, the world would be better off.”
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