Saturday, 19 March 2016

Assume Generously

Why are we so mean to each other?

Do I sound like a 12 year old girl lamenting about trouble at school? Probably.

Sometimes life as a 33 year old wife, mom and business owner doesn't feel any less tumultuous than it did in junior high. Let's be straight up here ... we spend tons of time trying to fit in and be "cool" or keep up. We want to create marriages, families and careers that get enough "likes".  After all, we have to live up to a ton of expectations (both our own and those set by the Pinterest gods).

And we're still so damn mean to each other.

I don't want to oversimplify here or imply that I'm ignorant of life's intricate complexities.  People have unbelievable stories and hurts and challenges, but I think the reason is related directly to these stories.

When I say harsh I don't necessarily mean something as obvious as laying a smack down on your neighbor for parking in your spot or delivering a knuckle sandwich to the lady who buds you in line. (Yes I used the phrase "knuckle sandwich" ... this explains a lot about my struggle with being cool). It's way more unsuspecting than that.

It's sideways glances, snide comments, and rude conversations about people we don't know.  It's passive aggressive notes at work aimed at "the person who..." when we know full well who we are targeting. It's the viral photo of the mom on her phone at the park. HOW DARE SHE miss one moment of her child's growing life to breathe and find her sanity (even if that constitutes answering an email, reading an article or browsing Facebook?).

It's the conclusions that we leap to so eagerly and fiercely when they are about someone else and yet snap when these same rash judgments are applied to ourselves.  And don't even get me going on Internet trolling or forum banter. It's disgusting. Like, I vomit-in-my-mouth-a-bit kind of disgusting (am I being completely clear that I despise Internet comment/forum fights?).

I'm no saint. I've done all of these things (even the nasty Internet squabbles ... I get drawn in too which is why I dislike them so much).

And I know exactly why I get reeled into these things.

I am shitty with my assumptions.

Stingy.  Narrow. Shallow. Frugal. Judgmental. Mean.

Just shitty.

When I see or hear or encounter someone else, especially when they confront, disagree or offend me, I'm quick to defend myself, usually by knocking them down a rung or two (at least in my mind). I start the story in my head immediately...

"Who the hell does she think she is?  That's totally not fair, after all I've done for them. How dare they take advantage of me? Say that?  Treat me so poorly? How dare they snap at me that way?"

But here's the fascinating thing ... What is the story in my head when I am the one who is snappy with the lady at the counter?

Well she just doesn't understand what kind of a day I've had.  She doesn't know what it takes to be in my shoes.

Of course I have a list.

You know, the list.   We all have one.  It's the one we play over and over in our heads.  It's our defenses, justifications and reasons.  The things we throw at people when they dare confront us about our behaviors or actions.

I think we've all had times when we wish we could carry around this list and hand out to people when we aren't acting our best (and feel the need to justify it).

For instance, I forget to respond to messages ...a lot. I try my best I really do but life moves quickly and I have a hard time keeping up.  I don't generally enjoy correction or criticism about it. I immediately want to explain.

Or occasionally (most of the time) I am late (and don't be fooled, I HATE being late).

These are times I often pull out my list.

My life is crazy.

I have four kids. I home school because the  school system failed us and it was our last ditch effort to keep our son off meds and enjoying school.  He really is so talented. Homeschooling makes our life so nuts!

I also have to make a full time income on the "side" of raising my kids with my small business teaching riding and training horses . So I try to squish 8 hours of work a day into 3 hours in the evening (many of which I have to bring the kids along if Brendan is working late or has other commitments).

Between cleaning, cooking (which I suck at and loathe), laundry and basically 2 full time jobs I often feel entitled to the occasional lapse in manners or judgement...

Depending on how defensive I feel this could go on for a long, long time ...

I think the fact that I have a list is fairly normal.  This is my story. My narrative.  And how I deal with, prioritize and justify my list isn't actually what I think the problem is.

The problem is how I deal with YOUR LIST. 

How do I react to the lists of others?

Am I understanding, open and empathetic?  Or knee-jerk, short-tempered, narrow-minded and opinionated?

Here's a question ...

How would the world look if we all treated other peoples' lists as important, legitimate and valuable as our own.  What if we gave other people's stories as much thought, credence and validation as our own? 

In her writing,  Brene Brown talks a lot about "generous assumptions" and it has been really transformative for me. She is faced with (and poses to her readers) the simple question,

Are people really doing the best they can?

The wise and kind of the world generally answer, YES.

Think about the implications of this suggestion.  Everyone (like, EVERYONE YOU MEET) is DOING THE BEST THEY CAN.

What would this mean in our everyday lives?

Well, it means that when you encounter someone who offends you or rubs you the wrong way, you would consider the most generous, wide-thinking and kind thing you could muster in order to explain their behavior.

You need to consider their list.  Think about it, and then validate it in your mind.  Give it credit.  Allow their story to become as important to you as your own (or at the very least someone you love deeply and unconditionally). You could even try a little experiment and defend it.

You don't need to know the actually story, or the person's actual list (although you'd be surprised what happens when you take the time to listen).  It might be as simple as:

"Maybe that mom on her phone has been tirelessly tending to her kids all week and this is her first moment to herself in days?" or
"That man driving too fast or cutting me off in traffic could be on the way to see his wife give birth."

Or it might even (more honestly) look like,

"That person looks distracted.  Maybe they are losing their job.  Maybe their child just failed a test, or they got a bad health diagnosis."  

What comes across as inconsiderate and rude might just be that person coping.

This becomes insanely challenging when it comes to things closer to your heart or of more consequence.  A cheating spouse. An angry boss.  An unfaithful friend.  A bully (and believe me, adults can be bullies too).  A thief or offender who has stolen, hurt or even killed someone you love. You may need some professional assistance in order to make generous assumptions in some of these cases.  It may take a lot of time.

But here's the thing.  Those people have lists.  Reasons.  (Unless they are a clinically diagnosed
sociopath, which although we may joke, is a very serious condition wherein someone does not have any remorse or conscience or empathy for the consequences of their actions.  The majority of people you will meet are likely not sociopaths, despite your initial assessment).

Here is my question ... what could it hurt?

Would it really make your life worse to make generous assumptions about other people's lives, problems, effort, and actions?

Think about a time when you behaved your WORST.

You could probably come up with a justification or defense for your behavior.  You may regret doing it.  You may be in complete remorse for it.  But you still had a reason.

And the only way you are going to get beyond the incident, behavior or attitude is by acknowledging it as being "the best you could do" at the time.  And then, as they say, once you know better you can do better.

We have to be kinder to ourselves first.  Then we need to extend this gentleness and understanding out to others.

We are mean to each other because we want to defend our own list of justifications for our role, actions and attitudes, while at the same time invalidating the other person's.

Living a brave and authentic life (which I think translates into a more peaceful, joyful and satisfying life) means breathing deeply and allowing ourselves to reflect on the position of the other before jumping to defend ourselves. 

When we do this, we truly experience empathy and we find even more growth and peace in our own lives as we consider ourselves through the lens of the other. We see ourselves how they might see us then we can then decide if we like what we see (not in a self-defensive way, but with honesty, vulnerability and openness).

When we are open to another's story, their narrative and the possibility that they are doing the best they can we allow ourselves to enter deeper reflection, understanding and relationship, and we can often elicit less hostility back.

Even if not, it won't matter.  We won't feel nearly as attacked and we certainly won't be as inclined to counter attack.

And when we have tools to stop these attacks (even if only from our end), that my friends is when we stop being so mean.

Bravely forth in all you do, 


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