Myth: Little Things Aren’t Worth Getting Upset About
“Take it easy. Chill out. Relax. Cool down. Don’t stress out. Lighten up. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s not a big deal.”
These are some of the things that I used to say back in the day when I didn’t want to hear Linda’s complaints when I failed to keep my word regarding something that I had told her that I was going to do. And back in the day there were quite a few of those things. Like being ready to leave at a certain time to go to the airport to catch a flight or pick up some groceries that she needed for dinner on my way home, or remember not to make any other commitments that might interfere with our date night or well, you get the picture.
These instances were, unfortunately not infrequent and as much as Linda hated to be disappointed and upset with me, I hated hearing her feelings that were provoked by my negligence; partly because it felt like I was being scolded for doing something wrong, but mostly because I knew that she had a right to feel the way she did and that I was guilty of dropping the ball again. Hearing Linda’s disappointment also put me more directly in touch with her feelings and reminded me that I had something to do with them and that didn’t feel good. Rather than acknowledging my guilt and the legitimacy of her feelings, which might have strengthened my motivation to make amends and break this painful cycle in our relationship, I instead often chose to make excuses to explain or justify my actions (or inactions) and become defensive in an effort to make Linda wrong by telling her that she was making a big deal out of nothing.
I was a great believer in the notion that the best defense is a good offense and I did my best to be offensive, which unfortunately I succeeded at being. Linda was always quite offended by my efforts to turn the tables on her so that I didn’t have to deal with or admit to the consequences of my own irresponsibility. The trouble was, as I learned the hard way, that although this strategy might work in football and other contact sports, it fails miserably in the game of relationship.
It took longer that I would like to admit for me to finally get it, but although I tend to be a slow learner, I did eventually learn. The “it” that I finally got was that it’s not just some agreements that are important and need to be kept, but all agreements. It’s not because it means that you’re a bad person if you fail to honor your word, but that there are consequences to doing so; consequences that show up whether it seems like the agreement isn’t all that important, like handling the cat box by the end of the day or whether it’s a truly big deal, like picking up the kids after school.
The consequences to failing to keep agreements go far beyond the results that ensue from this failure in regard to the immediate situation, but extend into the foundation of the relationship with the person with whom we’ve made the agreement. When there is a pattern of unfulfilled promises and broken agreements in a relationship the trust level inevitably goes down, as does the sense of being held in esteem and respect of the person who is one the receiving end of the broken agreement. It’s hard not to feel that “I must not be that important to you if you prioritized something else over me and the agreement that we made”.
The situation is compounded when there is an unwillingness to accept the feelings of upset or disappointment that inevitably arise when agreements are not kept. This isn’t to suggest that there is or should be zero tolerance for any broken promise. The point that I finally got wasn’t that I need to make sure that I never ever drop that ball and that I maintain a perfect record in the agreement department. My lesson was to take my word seriously when I gave it, and to accept the feedback that I received from Linda or anyone else. I realized that they were speaking up because she cared enough about our relationship to be honest with me when she felt let down or disappointed if I did screw up.
My offensive strategy had another unpleasant aspect to it, which was to discourage Linda’s (and others’) willingness to express their feelings to me out of a fear that in doing so they would be subject to a defensive or offensive reaction from me. Why would they want that? It would be easier just to stuff their feelings and tell me “it’s okay, I understand.” The problem is that stuffed feelings have a way of turning into resentment, particularly if they are cumulative, and un-dealt with resentment has a was of turning into nit-picking, criticism, judgment, and passive-aggressiveness. Taking what might look like the path of least resistance in order to avoid upset can in the end turn out to be the path of greatest resistance.
Breaking the habit of being late, being defensive, denying responsibility, or neglecting to keep our word can seem like a daunting prospect, particularly if we’ve been rationalizing our justifications for years, but take it from one whose been there, it’s very doable once you get committed to doing it. And if you can keep that commitment to yourself, you’ll be much more likely to keep those that you make to everyone else!
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