Monday, November 29, 2010

What we can't change

I saw a patient a few week who was struggling with some personal relationships. I'm not talking about her family or closest friends, but a woman she runs into at social events every few weeks. To hear my patient describe her, this woman is nasty, opinionated and possibly cheats at cards. Regardless of what she's really like, she makes my patient absolutely crazy. When she walks into a room with her, she starts to become agitated, and she literally hunts for things to be mad about while the other woman presumably enjoys her socialization. Only one person appears to be harmed by this situation...
Other people behave in ways we may not like, and they may say things we don't agree with. They have their own background and their own motivation guiding them, and we can't ever really know where they're coming from. We also can't change them. I am not talking about a debate or meeting of the minds, but about truly changing their core nature. I heard my patient saying if only this woman would behave in this way, if only she wouldn't say that. Finally I stopped her and asked if she was familiar with the Serenity Prayer. We all know it's power for people struggling with addictions, but I find it to be a perfect guideline for many of life's uncomfortable situations. The Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." That breaks things down neatly into categories: things we can change, and things we can't. The things we cannot change, we have to accept, or let go of.
So, then it came time for strategy. I asked my patient some other ways she could handle the situation with this woman. We came up with several options that allow her to be in control. The first and most obvious is to avoid social interactions when this woman is present. She can control what invitations she accepts. Another is to change the way she responds to this woman. Instead of looking for the negative, try compassion or even humor. She can control her own thoughts and behavior. Another is to look for a time out if she finds herself getting upset. Ask to help in the kitchen, step outside for some fresh air, ask another friend to go to the ladies' room with her. All behavior that she can control. I was a bit amazed that she had never considered her alternatives to anger and disappointment in this situation. It had not even occurred to her to decline attending functions with this person. She told me she felt she had options now, and that felt good.
Every day we encounter people who, for some reason or another, rub us the wrong way. We can't change them, their thoughts, or their behavior. We can accept people the way they are, or change the things we can: our own thoughts and behavior. I find this to be so helpful every day. I realize I can choose how to react or respond in any situation. This takes control away from others and puts me in charge of my day. How empowering to have choices!

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