When Tony got home from work, Julie was agitated and upset. Earlier that day she had taken their young daughter to a dentist appointment, which was a ten-minute walk away from the house. But she had arrived late. She told Tony that she had been late by a minute or so. The truth was she had been 15 minutes late – for a twenty-minute appointment. Because she had another patient waiting, the dentist had refused to see their daughter and had told Julie she would have to book another appointment. Julie was furious. ‘She couldn’t even look me in the eye,’ she told her husband. ‘I might have been slightly late, but there was no excuse for being so rude. She should have been more professional. How dare she.’ What Julie wanted from her husband was some empathy. She was upset and was looking for affirmation. Unfortunately for her, Tony was not very good at empathy. If he was honest, he could see the dentist’s point of view. The problem was that his wife had been late; the solution would have been for her to have arrived on time. She was always late for things. It had often annoyed him in the past. He did not say any of this out loud, of course. She would have been very sensitive to any suggestion that the problem might have been her. Tony struggled to know what to say. ‘Sounds like she was a bit abrupt,’ he suggested unconvincingly. ‘Yes, it was the level crossing – the lights changed just as we got there. And then they took forever to go green. You know how it is!’ It was all circumstances, she had convinced herself.

Since the missed appointment, she had spent the rest of the day stewing, mulling over the incident and turning it into a major trauma. The dentist had criticised her and her mothering, she felt, and she was not going to stand for it. So she had distorted the facts in her own favour – minimising the lateness and exaggerating the dentist’s reaction, to ensure maximum empathy from any would-be listener to her story.

She could now sense she was not getting the empathy she felt she deserved from her thick-skinned husband, so was becoming increasingly frustrated with him. ‘Why had she married someone so lacking in sensitivity,’ she asked herself. And he would suffer that resentment for the rest of the evening.

But the problem wasn’t circumstances, the problem wasn’t the dentist or the level crossing, the problem was Julie. She should have left a bit earlier to allow for the level crossing, then none of this would have happened and she would not now be so angry. It was all in her control. What she needed was a solution, not empathy. Though it would have been impossible to convince her of the fact. The responsibility was hers, but she refused to accept it, because she was far too sensitive to the mild rebuke she had received from the dentist.

Arriving on time was quite within her control. The reason she had become so agitated and was now looking for affirmation was that, deep down, she knew she had been wrong. And that the dentist had been right to be slightly annoyed with her.

On his site, there is a very good article on the serenity prayer from the addiction counsellor, Steve Rose PhD:

“When faced with an obstacle, we can have one of two reactions. We can claim we are a helpless victim of circumstance, or we can take ownership of the things we do have control over.”

Julie had chosen to blame circumstances.

If something is out of our control, we might deserve some empathy from others; if something is within our control, it is our responsibility to find a solution.

When criticised, we should listen to what is being said and decide whether it is justified. If it is, we should act on it. That way we learn and develop. We should not twist the facts, refuse to accept responsibility and get angry with anyone who might try to point out the ‘solution’. That would mean taking no responsibility, learning nothing and stewing over a set of circumstances which we convince ourselves are outside of our control. We remain a child and give others the role of adult.

– end –

Published by Peter Runkel. Introvert or HSP or … something like that. Reluctant business consultant. Lives life in PowerPoint.

Published by Peter Runkel

"Work hard and be nice to people." Anthony Burrill

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