Recently I talked with a friend about why he harbors so much resentment towards his partner and their 13 year old child, that he sometimes reacts with intense anger to relatively minor snappy expressions. My friend, let’s call him Fred, wanted to free himself from the grip of unconsciously chosen anger, so he could choose how to respond.
As we talked, Fred recognized that it’s highly unlikely that he can transcend his reactivity in the moment. It’s almost always too late. The moment of true power is earlier, when he makes his own choices about what he will or will not do.
Fred suffers from a common affliction I like to call being “overly nice.” Simply put, Fred tends to stretch towards his partner and his child, or say “yes” to what they ask of him. That “yes” often comes with an expectation, usually unconscious, that they will appreciate him later. Then, when they don’t show appreciation, he can easily experience it as a breach of an invisible contract they don’t even know they signed! No wonder he gets so angry.
Complete Ownership of Our Choices
The first practice Fred decided to adopt was simple: before he says “yes” he will check to see if he is genuinely able to do so without expecting anything later. Fred was shocked to discover how often he would then have to say “no.” I then offered him a middle strategy as well. If he couldn’t release his expectation, maybe he could be honest about it. He could say something like: “I’m willing to do it. I am so sad to say that I don’t have the capacity inside to do it without building resentment. Would you like me to do it given how much of a stretch it is for me?”
Asking for What We Want
Fred was excited about how much freedom he could get just from learning to identify and honor his limits. For greater freedom, he decided to become equally honest and exacting with himself about what he wanted from his family and to take explicit action to make it happen. His continuous willingness to stretch had been hidden from his family, making it so much easier for them to take his “yes” for granted. Now he plans to be transparent about stretching so he could be seen.
He also intends to let his family know how much he wants appreciation, and to ask them to express appreciation whenever they notice it. Working his way towards expressing his need, Fred had further insight that self-respect is about how he treats himself, and has very little to do with how others treat him. This allowed him to glimpse the possibility of expressing to his partner in full the pain he sometimes experiences in their interaction, rather than masking his vulnerability with anger.
I heard from Fred that in the first 24 hours of applying his practice he already experienced much more freedom than before. He said “no” to his child on a number of occasions. He noticed how much harder it was to say “no” to his partner. Even without changing all his habits, he experienced growing clarity, self-honesty, and choice, and reduced resentment. I like to believe that many of us can increase our sense of power in life if we become more honest about saying “no” when anything less than unattached generosity is motivating our choice, and if we grow in our capacity to ask for what we want.