The Responsibility Game
Checks and Balances on Selfish Behavior are Needed for Fairness
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
People from all over the world write to me, mostly women but sometimes it’s a man, asking about what they can do to help their loved one or family member “control” his or her anger. Or how they can help “diffuse” their partner’s anger. They say that their partner is “such a good guy or a good woman” and the only flaw is the “anger problem.” Or they feel so sorry for their out-of-control child or abusive parent who hurts others. This well-meaning intention to help is good but it is misplaced as it enables the angry person to stay as he is. The only person who can change their anger is the angry person.
Feelings of pity and guilt over someone else’s inability to stop doing something harmful to themselves like drinking or drugging, getting angry or get their homework done or anything that the rest of the world is able to do but they can’t/won’t are a waste of energy. Guilt and feeling sorry for someone is at the bottom of the codependency need to fix someone else as a defensive maneuver so that you don’t look at your own behavior.
We get the relationships we are willing to put up with. We were not able to choose the family of our childhood, and how they dealt with stressors. Some caring partners accept the negative behaviors of others and never insist on change. If you have felt helpless in your childhood with an angry parent, you may think that angry relationships are the way life is supposed to be. Living with anger may be familiar to you, but it is not healthy. One fifty-two-year-old woman described the freedom she felt when she finally learned to assertively say to her nit-picking husband, “Don’t go there. Just don’t go there.”
Put “checks and balances” in the areas where your partner’s behavior gets out of control. Calmly calling your partner on his bad behavior may work if he has some voice of reason within and a willingness for fairness and justice. A person whose behavior is continually disturbing to others needs feedback at a time when he is calm as to how he hurts others so he can evaluate the consequences of his actions. Calling a person on the consequences of their behavior helps maintain the moral order of the relationship. Loving firmness is the best way to talk to a person about his unacceptable behavior. Remind him that fair is fair and you expect him to be reasonable with his anger. There are unspoken boundaries between couples that are played out with nonverbal and verbal snippets of control behaviors. One man said, “I can’t talk to her directly about her nagging as she blows up as she’s too sensitive to hear any criticism. So when it gets too bad, I glare and she backs off. We’ve got this “Glare and back off contract that she isn’t even aware of!”
One way to maintain fairness is to insist on having a correction technique for all members of the household. Correction is a behavioral technique where the person who messes up the environment is required to clean it up as an offer of restitution. The correction procedure holds people responsible for their misbehavior by requiring them to undo, as much as possible, the damage they have done. Correction of what has been disturbed in the environment gives practical penalties for disturbing the home and the people who have been affected. With correction, the person who throws things must pick them up and return them to their proper place. If he breaks things, he must replace them. If he yells and screams, he must apologize to those he has disturbed. Correction procedures should be installed with all members of the family.
Just like two-year-olds, grownup temper tantrums last longer when a person has an audience. You need not stay in the same room with a raging person. Warn him that you will leave when he is yelling and go take care of yourself. Don’t stick around and take the barrage of ugly words. Take the children and leave quietly, saying that you are not running away but are giving him some space to cool off and you hope that the next time he will take his own time out. Go to another room or get in the car and leave for a while. If he gets angry because he is fearful of being alone, level with him to show that his anger will create his being left alone for awhile for both of you to cool off. You are not abandoning him but you are removing yourself from his anger.
A common myth is that people have no control over their feelings. That’s old thinking-now with all the techniques and anger management classes that we have available for anger release, blowing up in anger at others is a choice. Watch how you enable other people’s bad behavior. Do you make excuses for him? Do you tell the children that their dad can’t help it? It is not your job to try to get anyone else to “diffuse” or “control” his anger. It is the job of each angry person to take care of his anger and find appropriate ways to express it. An angry person may not have the motivation to do so. If you excuse him repeatedly for his outbursts without any consequences, why should he be expected to change?
Don’t be held hostage by other people’s feelings. And while you are at it, take a look at your own anger responses. You and only you are responsible for your thinking and the way you think creates the type of life that you will create. No other person or thing has the ability to get inside your head and pushes a button marked anger. Nobody pulls your chain, pulls your trigger or pushes your button. Only you make yourself feel what you feel. The bottom line is that you are always responsible for what you think, say and do. And you are responsible if you have allowed another person to treat you with disrespect!
Positive Self-Talk Affirmations:
I am responsible for my thoughts, feelings and actions.
I am responsible for deciding what I will and will not stand for.
I am responsible for how I treat people and allow them to treat me.
I can only feel good about myself if I live in accordance with my positive values.
I affirm that I am healthy and whole and I am worthy of being a happy person.
Be gentle with yourself; you are learning to be more honest with yourself to break into habits of a lifetime. If you slip up and revert back to a behavior you dislike, analyze what went wrong. Tell yourself that you made a slip and you will be more careful next time. You will get better over time. You are responsible for how you act in the future. Forgive yourself for doing what you have learned and vow to be different. If you do an Energy Psychology technique about your behavior and the beliefs that lie underneath it, you will be less likely to slip in the future.
A client recently said to me, “I am willing to do whatever I need to do to become whole. That includes challenging my defense mechanisms over and over.” Wow! What courage that took to be willing to confront the unhealthy behaviors that other threw at her.