• Jason Griffing

You're the Problem

Years ago, I used to get insanely frustrated with someone close to me. We'll call him Bob. Bob is a guy who doesn't have a filter and who can be quick to lose his shit. His temperament is generally orthogonal to mine, and this lead to a lot of friction. Today, my relationship with Bob is vastly improved. But Bob hasn't changed a bit.

So what has? It turns out, Bob wasn't the problem. I was.

For most of my adult life, I was clueless as to how much suffering I was inflicting on myself through my tendency to project black and white definitions of right and wrong onto other people's behavior. My way of being—e.g. demonstrating control over my emotions—was "right". Bob's way of being—e.g. being reactive—was "wrong."

It turns out that framing relationships this way can be deeply problematic. When we engage with people through this lens, we are inviting feelings of powerlessness and victimhood into our lives. We cast others' behavior as objectively "wrong" and then feel a sense of impotent rage when our attempts to change or exert influence over that behavior fall short.

The more well-adjusted version of me today is able to see something that the previous version couldn't. That in Bob's behavior, I was not encountering malevolent intentions or some other objective wrong. Instead, I was witnessing the manifestation of an unimaginably complex web of historical baggage—the result of deeply embedded patterns of thought stemming from a collection of lived experiences that I knew nothing about and could never hope to fully understand. Seeing Bob this way built empathy, but that's not actually the point I want to make.

The bigger realization was in recognizing that before I started making value judgments about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of Bob's behavior, a better approach might be to recognize the role that my own complex historical baggage might be playing in shaping my perceptions. To recognize that my own way of being is equally narrow, complex, nuanced, and in many cases maladaptive. That my interpersonal suffering with Bob wasn't actually Bob's fault, it was due to me judging Bob. To me running Bob's behavior through my own biased algorithm and then spitting out arbitrary "rightness" or "wrongness" scores based on assumptions that were masquerading as facts.

Barring extreme cases, abuse, for example, such black and white assessments of "right" and "wrong" in the context of relationships are usually gross oversimplifications. Recognizing this fact was the key to acceptance. And acceptance changed my entire experience.

Do I suddenly agree with Bob's worldview? Not really. But when I stopped casting my own value judgments about Bob's behavior, it was as if I had cut the Gordian knot. I can't control how he carries himself. I can control my response to it.

There is no escape from your own subjectivity. And if we’re not aware of this, if we continue to operate with unchallenged self-righteousness, that will be a far greater contributor to our own suffering than any external force could ever be.

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