I have tried for many years to teach people one rule of thumb: you can’t change anyone else. People hear the words and repeat them, but they don’t totally believe or act on them. Instead, they continue to get mad at others because they behaved in ways that disappointed them or let them down. Their knee-jerk reaction is to accuse them of being selfish, egocentric, lacking in understanding, or unsympathetic, all because they couldn’t read their minds. For example, “You should have thought, on the way home, that we needed bread and stopped at the store to buy a loaf. Remember last night, I said ‘we’re almost out of it’?” Basically, they’re angry because they want so much for the someone to meet and fulfill their emotional needs. It could be a person they’re married to, a child whose love they need, a boss whose adoration and approval they’re trying to get, or an entire company whose respect they want and feel they deserve. When it isn’t forthcoming, they feel cheated, misunderstood and resentful, even though they know, intellectually, you can’t change somebody else.
That’s when I say, “Look at yourself.”
“I know I should”, said my patient, Paul, “But first, let me tell you how Carole acted last night. Here we are, in the midst of a divorce. Finally, she’s crying and emotionally upset. She’s gotten past threatening me with lawyers and telling me she’s going to take everything. She’s seen you in therapy and she says, ‘why don’t we try, one last time, not to find fault with each other, but to deal with each other out of the best of who we are. So, for a brief time, as an experiment, instead of you cutting me down, finding fault, try to be kind to me and I promise to do the same.’
Two days later, I say to her, ‘You know that young lady that works in my office, the one who’s from out of town and her father just died? Well, she just got back and she has no place to go on Thanksgiving. Why don’t we invite her to come over with our family? Also, there’s an intern who’s from out of town. I’d like to invite him. They’re two young people who are going to be alone and Thanksgiving is a time to have people over.’ And she said yes. I couldn’t believe it. I began to think, maybe this will work. She seems genuinely different, accepting and willing to go along with a suggestion.
The next morning, I woke up and, while eating breakfast, she says, ‘You know, I thought about it last night. It’s going to be uncomfortable. We’re having so much stress right now, why would we interject two other people into our problems? It’ll make me feel uncomfortable. So my answer is no.’ I became furious. In my mind, I took the checkmark off the positive side of the score sheet and put it on the negative side. My first thought was ‘I need a divorce’.”
About then, I said, “Paul, why don’t you look at you?”
He said, “I don’t have to look at me. I’ve got faults, I admit it. But, look at her. She’s a liar. She makes promises she doesn’t keep. She doesn’t care what I feel. She has no concern for other people. She’s totally egocentrically concerned with whether she’s comfortable or not. I don’t want to be married to somebody like that.”
My answer was, “Although I don’t want to make this a political issue, Newt Gingrich, a man I don’t particularly care for, personally or politically , said something recently that made me realize he’s quite a bright human being. I think it totally applies, so I’d like you to hear it. He said, “I want to address the issue of healthcare: One, there are millions of people in this country who have no healthcare, who are dying needlessly. Two, these same people are bankrupting our whole medical system, because they’re using the hospitals and the emergency rooms for their GP, causing the hospitals to run at a deficit. Many of them are closing their doors. Three, medical insurance is being abused by people who are malingering and receiving needless treatment. Four, doctors are ordering more and more tests. They want to cover their bottoms because they’re faced with a litiginous society. Five, health insurance companies are making obscene profits. Most people are saying these are the problems. My answer,’ Newt said, ‘is they are not the problems, they’re the facts. It is a fact the system is breaking down and going bankrupt. It is a fact that people are suffering and without insurance. It is a fact that doctors and others misuse, violate and abuse the systems we have. Those are all facts. They are not problems. The problem is, how do you deal with them?’”
Based on Newt’s words, Paul has to stop and say, ‘The facts are that my wife is scared of having strangers in the house. My wife’s fear caused her to forgot the new policy. My wife is egocentrically involved, because she is so insecure that she can’t see anything outside of her own self survival. Those are the facts. But how I deal with her is the problem.’
And that’s what I’m saying to you. How you deal with the issues is your problem. If you concentrate on all of the shortcomings in your kids, wife, parents, friends and jobs, you never get to deal with the problem. You only get to criticize and find fault with the facts. That guarantees failure, because you can’t change the facts. What you can change is the way you deal with them, which may eventually cause others to alter their behaviors or ‘facts’.
So, in the future, when you look at your problem, i.e., you, I’d have you say, “The fact is, I’m in a relationship, or employed by a company that isn’t as considerate, empathetic, understanding or supportive as I’d like. I have the right to end the relationship or quit the company. I also have a right to approach these facts in a different way, a way that is best for me. But, before I make the choice regarding how and what I should do, I must recognize that the decision comes from what I want, not the facts. I am the problem and I can change me. Therefore, I can be in charge of me.”