In a recent conversation with a couple, the husband, Mark, freely admitted many of the mistakes he had made in their relationship—including several instances of infidelity. His wife, Sara, enjoyed his admissions of responsibility, but then I asked her to talk about her role in precipitating the conflicts that often existed between them. She denied any such responsibility, even though she was often angry and controlling. When I pointed out some of her behaviors, she minimized each example, at one point saying that she "hardly ever" did what I was suggesting.
"Why do we always have to talk about what I do wrong?" she asked. "Why can't we talk about what I do right?"
I have often heard variations on this protest. People want to focus on "the positive." They don't want to talk about the negative things in their lives.
First, I do not suggest that we talk only about the negative. As we understand what has worked for us in our search for happiness—the "positive"--we often grow in our ability to duplicate those feelings and behaviors. It is not enough, however, to simply focus on what we do well. If we don't address the mistakes that interfere with our happiness, we will tend to repeat them.
"Have you ever had a flat tire?" I asked Sara.
"What did you do about it?"
"I called the number on my roadside assistance card."
"What did you say to them?"
"I told them I had a flat tire."
"Why didn't you just tell them about the other three tires, the ones that were not flat?"
"Because they weren't the problem. They weren't keeping me from driving."
"And that is why it's not enough for you to talk only about what you're doing right in your life. These 'positive things' are not keeping you from being happy, just like the three good tires weren't keeping you from driving. You need to talk about the mistakes you're making, because those mistakes are making it impossible for you to be as happy as you'd like."
We do tend to attract into our lives what we think about, so many people believe that if we wallow in the negative, we become more negative. These people suggest that we listen to uplifting music, read daily affirmations, and try to talk only about the "good things." Again, there are obvious benefits to this emphasis, but if there's an elephant running around in your living room—destroying your home—it's not enough to talk about the matching colors of your carpet and couch. You have to address the elephant.
When I recommend talking about our mistakes, it's important to understand that I'm suggesting that we talk about the unproductive choices we make, not that we dwell on the negative feelings we experience. If I talk only about how I feel empty, lost, sad, angry, victimized, and afraid, that certainly would tend to perpetuate those feelings. Some discussion of these feelings can be healthy, but overall we benefit more from talking about our choices, because it is our choices that more accurately reflect who we are, while our feelings are often more an indication of what other people and circumstances have done to us.
In order to illustrate the importance of talking about our choices, imagine that a friend—we'll call him John—is being critical and angry with you. You become afraid. Why? Not because of what he's doing in the moment but because of the wounds you felt in the past from a mountain of experiences where you were wounded by criticism and anger—as amply discussed throughout the Real Love series. Your fear in the present—what some might call a "negative feeling"—is a result of judgments you formed from past experiences, a product of what other people have done to you.
What you choose to do in response, however, is a better indication of who you are and what you have chosen to learn. In this scenario—where John is angrily criticizing you—you lie about your mistakes, you vehemently defend yourself, you act injured, and you attack him by bringing up some of his mistakes. Finally, you withdraw entirely from the interaction.
Hours later, you talk to a wise friend, Julie, about your experience with John. You could easily use this as an opportunity to attack John, providing mountains of evidence to prove that he had been unkind and thoughtless. Or you could focus on how sad, hurt, and angry you are. Each approach would be an example of an unhealthy "focus on the negative," because each interferes with accomplishment of our greatest goals in life: to feel loved and to share that love with others.
We can feel loved only when we know that other people accept us for who we really are. This means that we must tell the truth about ourselves. If you talk only about John's awful behavior, it's obvious that you won't be talking about yourself and won't create opportunities to be seen or accepted for who you are.
It's not as obvious—but just as true—that if you talk only about your own negative feelings, even though they are yours, you're still not talking about yourself. You might be thinking, Wait a minute, if I'm talking about my feelings, then I must be talking about myself, right? Not really, because when you say that you are sad, hurt, and angry, you're strongly implying that John has caused these feelings. Again, you're talking about him, not you.
So how could you talk to Julie in a more productive way? Talk about your choices.
- Recognize that when you interacted with John, you failed to remember that your friend was simply drowning in emptiness or fear, or both.
- Admit that your fear was not caused by John but was a response to many years of past experiences and conditioning.
- Describe how the conversation went badly because you chose to respond with lies, anger, victimhood, and running.
If you share these truths about yourself, two benefits become possible: First, you will begin to see—perhaps with Julie's help—the existence of wiser choices you might make in future interactions. Second, you create the possibility of your wise friend really seeing who you are and unconditionally accepting and loving you. Neither of these two important benefits can occur, however, if you focus on the negative behavior of others or the negative feelings you have.
Now, do you have to avoid sharing your fear, sadness, and anger with your wise friend? No, but you would do this only to provide a more complete context for discussion of your choices, and to allow your friend to see you more fully. You wouldn't wallow in these feelings.
Can you talk about John's behavior? Sure, but tell the whole truth: Yes, he was angry and critical, but why did he behave in that way? Because he was empty and afraid, and as you fully realize that, and as you feel more loved by Julie, you will feel a great deal more compassion toward John, which will make you much happier than simply complaining.
When we realize the purposes of telling the truth about our mistakes, we don't regard it as "negative" anymore. Truth telling creates opportunities to feel more loved and loving. If we talk about these flat tires as we experience them, we will gain the ability both to repair them and prevent them.
Find genuine happiness now and forever.
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