I’ve been dealing with some situations over the past several days where others have been angry or upset with me. I get a visceral reaction to others being upset with me: my heart races, I feel like I want to throw up, and my mind immediately goes to what I did wrong and how I am to blame, and of course how I can fix it.
I feel threatened, as if my life depends upon appeasing whoever is upset with me and making sure they know I didn’t mean them harm. Given this strong reaction, it’s no wonder that I feel a sense of urgency to set things right immediately.
As I was pondering (i.e. obsessing about) the latest instance of someone being angry with me, it occurred to me that at the core of my reaction is a belief that how others view me is the correct view, the way it really is. If I have acted in a way that seems fine to me, but someone else is upset by it, then I must have acted incorrectly.
Intellectually I know that this is not true, that it is a matter of perception and of our own filters and preferences. But in my gut it feels as if it is absolutely true. And not only do I believe that I have acted incorrectly when someone else is upset by my behavior, but I also believe this bad behavior on my part says something about my character, about who I am as a person. It says that I am bad, or uncaring, or mean.
With this understanding also came the understanding at a deep level that just because someone does not agree with how I acted, or something that I did, doesn’t make them right and me wrong, just as it does not make them wrong and me right. This is where “agree to disagree” comes from. Again, I have understood this concept for a long time, but somehow I suddenly got it at a different level.
In disagreements I always feel attacked, and this feels like an attack not on my behavior, but on my character, on the core of who I am. In these situations I have vacillated between feeling like the worst person on the planet and feeling outraged that the other person was blaming and attacking me.
Now I see that there is another way. I can agree to disagree. I can feel and express compassion for the other person’s viewpoint without becoming defensive and without acquiescing.
Of course there will be times when the other person has a valid point and I should apologize or I should make a change in my behavior. Doing this also becomes easier when I believe that making a mistake does not mean that I am a vile and worthless human being.
Another realization I had is that the times when I am most upset and feel the most threatened, is when the other person’s demand for my apology or admission of wrong-doing goes against my authenticity. Seeing this at play in the most recent situation is what led to this revelation.
How can I apologize for something I don’t believe is wrong, and still be authentic? Obviously I can’t. But I can tell the other person that I’m sorry that they are upset, because as soon as I stop feeling like I need to defend myself that is true and authentic.
So, to summarize, the key for me is first of all to check in and see if I think the other person has a valid point. If I believe they do, then I can sincerely apologize and correct my behavior. Whether or not they accept the apology is beyond my control, but I am at least acting from a place of authenticity.
If I decide that I don’t agree with their assessment then I can still express to them that I feel badly that they are upset without saying that I did anything wrong. My experience is that frequently this will not be enough and they will demand that I agree with their viewpoint. If this happens I can again express compassion for how they are feeling while firmly maintaining my own perspective.
In the end what it comes down to is that I won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and that doesn’t mean anything about me as a person. We are all different; we all have preferences and filters. The best I can do is to be as authentic as possible and to act from a place of compassion and caring. If they don’t like me, they don’t like me. And I’m still a good person.