“He has imposed on me, but he has not injured me.” This is a great line in the Jane Austen book, Emma. This is what Emma says to Mr. Knightly explaining how she reacted to finding out that Mr. Churchill had been secretly engaged for almost a year while supposedly pursuing her romantically. Mr. Churchill had pretended to admire and flirt with Emma in order to disguise his clandestine relationship with Jane Fairfax. I have often used this line to help me explain to clients how to manage their reactions to others who do not behave well in order to behave well.
Characterizing another person’s behavior as an “injury” to which we are justifiably angry, hurt, or fearful, gives us permission to act badly in return. Feeling ‘injured’ in such situations harkens back to a younger age when any small imposition or slight is experienced as an injury to our self because of our cognitive and emotional limitations as children. As children we are take everything personally because we lack adult perspective-taking.
When adults do wrong by us (e.g. not being attentive, not showing gratitude, breaking promises, keep us waiting, being unkind to us) remember they are imposing on us not injuring us. If we act out our experience of being injured, 100% of the time we will act badly in return. A thoughtful judgement about how to respond toward others needs to be based on the recognition that others can impose on us without injuring us.
How do you respond to other people when they have ‘imposed’ on you? I’ll take a simple example of planning lunch with a friend who has kept me waiting for about 20 minutes. My first reaction, which is automatic (rather than ‘normal’) is to feel ‘insulted’ (i.e. ‘injured’) by that person’s ‘rudeness’.
My first task is to ‘soothe’ the anger so I can remember the difference between being ‘imposed’ on and being ‘injured’. Once I do that, I can begin to address the issue of being kept waiting more time than I am willing to spend. Here is my strategy for dealing with the friend.
- I leave the restaurant, going on with my day. I say or text something like, “I missed having lunch with you today since you were unable to make it at the time we arranged.
- I then say that being late (not making it on time) did not “work for me”. For example, I might say, “I was not willing to wait for you as I had other plans. I had a pretty tight schedule today.”
- I then say, “I would love to reschedule when it works for both of us.”
The general principles I used in the above example are:
- I state the person’s action (not my characterization of the action as ‘rudeness’). This means I describe what the person has done that did not work for me. I am a stickler for addressing other’s actions that are not okay with me as actions that “don’t work for me”. I love the phrase “it doesn’t work for me” as a powerful statement of my position without putting anyone down.
- I do not characterize their action (e.g. “You are being rude to me by being late.”). I describe the action, being late or unable to be on time. It takes a lot of willingness and practice to describe rather than characterize or label another person’s actions. I guarantee you that most people do not accept/agree with our characterization of their actions. At the same time, they cannot really dispute a description of their action.
- I do not make any assumptions about the intent of the action toward me.
Even though you have made a herculean effort to treat the other person well, he/she may react as if you had accused them of some ‘injury’ to you and react in a defensive (self-protective) manner. Do not lose your cool. Do not undo your good work at managing your own reaction. Just repeat what you have already said, emphasizing that it just didn’t work for you to wait, not that he/she was behaving badly.
All of this depends on your willingness to forego feeling ‘injured’.
The same principles work in intimate relationships. Husbands and wives ‘impose’ on us all the time (they are late, they don’t attend to us in the way we want, the keep us waiting, they speak harshly to us, etc. etc.). The difference occurs when a particular kind of ‘imposition’ is repeated. When this occurs, you still use the above principles in the immediate situation. However, at some other time you identify the repeated ‘imposition’ as a problem to be addressed, i.e. to be discussed and negotiated between the two of you.