Real life is very rarely the life in our heads. The reality of ordinary life is more like a tattoo – pain and beauty – scars and art, combined. You can’t have one without the other. Our preferences blind us. We want everything to work out; we want everyone to love us perfectly, to read our minds. Truth is, we become more well-adjusted if we accept the pain and beauty in life and start loving the people who make us more remarkable each day despite their imperfections. Remember, we are the people we hate in other people’s lives, too. If we can love other people, maybe we can learn self-compassion.
I once had a manager who hired and promoted me, then repeatedly tried to railroad me, worked to micromanage all I did, detracted from my reputation, and routinely discouraged me from any meaningful work. He also had institutionally destroyed the morale in my colleagues and paid us in emotional hypertension. This dysfunction brought me to a dark place. I was a pretty good clinician and worked well with what my colleagues called “impossible cases,” but I was coming home at night wanting to quit.
That being said, what I experienced in my time working with this manager was invaluable. If you are going to blame people for the bad they have done, you have to blame them for the good as well. This is a simple concept to understand, but a difficult one to put into practice.
'If you are going to blame people for the bad they have done, you have to blame them for the good as well'
My wife had mentioned how my relationship with my manager sounded like a bad marriage. As a therapist, how would I go about providing marriage counseling?
Good questions don’t always have to move the mouth; they need to move the mind.
Before, I had what psychologist Carol Dweck would call a fixed mindset. Individuals with a fixed mindset focus strongly on performance and demonstrating their competence rather than developing their potential. People believe that other individuals can’t change their character, intelligence, or creativity in a meaningful way. They also tend to avoid problems which might demonstrate their lack of competence.
Because of my wife’s question, I began to see this relationship as a challenge instead of a persecution. I started practicing a growth mindset. An individual with a growth mindset sees things as changeable and believes that solutions are possible. They want to solve problems, because it’s an opportunity to improve their skills.
Out of this "marriage on the rocks" developed direct communication, goals for the clinic and staff, passion for my work, and values clarification. Things became more intentional. I also took full responsibility for my own happiness and meaning in my work. I started to pay attention differently. I kept score of all my manager’s positives and tried not to focus on the negatives. I wrote an actual list of what he had done right and consciously told him about it. The aspects that I focused on improved. It felt strange, though I kept doing it. Our relationship noticeably improved. He started to be kinder and more open to my ideas.
'Making sense of our lives is all about integration of experiences, not dissociation from the ones that make us uncomfortable'
It’s important to pay attention to what feels unnatural. Choosing to see what is good in yourself and those around you develops habits that allow you to become more resilient and resourceful. Reflect on who holds your resentments. Remember that every one of those people created strength, drive, and countless other virtues. I am who I am because of these people in my life. The people that made me grow most didn’t always make me happy. They weren’t marshmallows; they had sharp edges. They cut me. They carved my character.
Your ability to tolerate and grow from that struggle is key to defining your character.
Of course, I love the people in my life that are nice to me, that show me love, that make me happy. I’m not discounting them. We should strive to be like those people. The world needs more of them. There is an epidemic of people starving for encouragement.
However, loving those who love us is easy.
Making sense of our lives is all about integration of experiences, not dissociation from the ones that make us uncomfortable. I encourage you to be grateful for all the people that hurt you, seeing that they gave you a gift more precious than you recognize. They gave you real wealth. The difficult people in your life gave you a struggle. Your ability to tolerate and grow from that struggle is key to defining your character.
To be grateful is a hard choice and a courageous act of inner freedom which few people practice. It is a choice that makes remarkable men and women and inspires others to challenge the status quo of silent misery we see in too many people’s lives.
We all have experiences that are less than ideal. Our lives are imperfect. They are like pieces of coal; dirty, dark, and combustible. The moment you reject the difficulties in your life, your character starts to erode, your peace burns away, and you become a person for which you don’t care. Learn to trust yourself and see that your struggle is where your character is made. When we take a different mindset, we don’t see limitations, but rather possibilities. That piece of coal, with the right kind of attention, can become a diamond.
Remember, you can only shine in the dark. Don’t be afraid to make peace with your dark places.
Dan is a therapist, writer, and consultant based in New York. You can find him online at his website or his video blog on Youtube The Hope Weapon, where he answers questions weekly about life, relationships, and mental health.