by Dr. Ken Larsen
I was talking with a friend recently. He was telling me about his holiday experience with his ex-wife. He was describing how difficult it was for him to get along with her. He finally “unloaded” on her, telling her that as long as he was with her, he could not be civil.
That word “unloaded” struck me. I’ve thought about it over the past few days. What is being “unloaded”? I can only speculate that it was his emotional load of anger and anxiety that was being dumped on his ex.
In a way I believe this is a “normal” reflexive reaction. When we are hurt, our first reaction is often retaliation. We express that reactive retaliation by what we consider “honesty”. In our culture there is a certain value placed on “telling it like it is”. But aren’t we all tired of the bad feelings and turmoil and conflict that results from reactively retaliating to a real or perceived hurt?
The tragedy is compounded when we realize the instinctive retaliatory reflex exercised by nation states as a primary weapon in our foreign policy arsenal. Most of our international conflicts are the result of a commitment to “if you hurt me, I’m going to hurt you right back. Only more. And harder.”
If this is an instinctive reaction, what can we do about it? One thing that we can do is to use our “metacognition.” To think about how we are thinking. To ask ourselves “is retaliation the best way to respond?” There is an old cliché’, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” We may not be able to change the direction of conflicting foreign policy, but we can change the way that we respond and relate to one another.
One of the foundational bits of wisdom Dr. Glasser gave us is the question: “Is what I am doing (or going to do) bringing us closer together or driving us further apart.” He challenged us to realize that we have a choice. Do we want to fight or do we want to seek understanding? Perhaps in this coming election we can look for those candidates who are willing to explore alternatives to retaliation as policy.
Mental health and happiness cannot co-exist with hostility. We need to be thoughtful in how we relate to one another, especially when confronted with conflicting emotions. Are we just reflexive reactors or do we have the power within ourselves to choose a better response to one another? Not easy, to be sure, but is it doable? I think it is, especially if we accept that we can make progress even though perfection is a bit elusive.