A somewhat different version of this post was published previously.
I used to get calls from a sort of friend of mine. I call him a “sort of” friend because he only called when he wanted to complain about how terribly the world was treating him — or, as my friend Todd says, to “vomit on me.” Always problems; never solutions, and this had been going on for years. We all know folks like this, in and out of the program.
Anyway, we’ll call him Saul, since that’s not his name. In one of our last conversations, Saul was quite upset because he asked if he could help someone at the place where he volunteered and they said — quite abruptly, according to him — “If I want your help I’ll ask for it.”
Saul felt that he was badly dissed, and that he was “entitled to an apology”. Since that was unlikely to happen, his sponsor and I both pointed out that the allegedly rude behavior was about the other party, and that he should accept that people have bad days and forget about it.
Clearly that was about Saul’s self-esteem, not a rude comment from someone who quite literally had no power over him. He was obsessing over the matter and making himself miserable.
I tried to point out to Saul that the other person’s opinion of him is none of his business. He doesn’t seem able to handle that concept. I’ve seen this a lot over the years. Some folks just don’t understand that we can’t control what people think about us (or anything else) and that it really is none of our business. You get a lot of push-back on that, but how can what goes on in your head possibly be any business of mine? Do I have some sort of right to know? Can I just walk up to you and say, “Hey…I demand to know what you think of me!” and expect a useful reply?
Sure I can, but — expectation or not — I probably won’t get a straight answer. You will say what pleases you, depending upon your mood at the time. You may tell me either what you think I’d prefer to hear. Alternatively, if I’ve annoyed you enough, you may tell me what you’re thinking at that moment, which most likely won’t be something I want to hear. The fact is, we all withhold information about stuff like that, because, as they say, manners are the grease that keeps society moving along. It’s the only way we’re able to get along with other people at all.
And do I even want to know what you think of me? I’m an addict. You can tell me 99 things about me that you think are wonderful, but if you happen to mention that you were sitting next to me at a meeting six months ago and it seemed I might have needed a shower, the only thing I’m going to remember is that you said I stink. Or, let’s say you tell me 99 things that you don’t like about me. My denial will kick in to protect what little self-esteem I’ve got, and I’ll decide that you’re an asshole, and who cares what you think anyway.
Of course, a sober person probably wouldn’t behave like that, although we all have bad days occasionally. She’d probably realize that people have moods, their own problems, and their own stressors. How I react to my cat if he jumps on my lap when I’m trying to hash out a problem with my writing is likely to be rather different from my behavior if I’m gazing out the window at the lake and contemplating the social habits of the Moorhen.
We’re all rude sometimes. Some folks are rude a lot. (Especially Saul — surprise!) Finally, social norms differ among populations. What seems rude to me might be perfectly normal where you came from. I might think you “should” know better, but that’s on me.
We have choices about how we deal with rude folks, as well as with life’s other minor problems. We can choose to find our way past the little bump in our path, or we can make it into a mountain and spend a lot of time trying to mold it into a statue of us on our high horse.
The solution to unhappiness of any kind is all about us. If we don’t want to wallow in our misery any more, we can learn to do otherwise. The Twelve Steps aren’t about changing folks who disagree with our plans for world domination, they’re about changing us.
I tried to explain that to Saul. He doesn’t call me anymore.
Yet there’s so much stigma attached to people dependent on substances. People who are co-dependent on others or have stubborn personalities are viewed as weak or difficult. If we empowered people instead of classifying everyone with one kind of disorder or another, I’m sure the world would be a much better, happier place.
I should also comment that trying to help a family member deal with their issues is usually a sign that our own codependency needs attention. We hard-wired each other’s buttons, and we play symphonies on them without even thinking about it.
“At least not the kind affected by substances.”
Aye, there’s the rub. Process addictions are some of the most insidious, because they’re not only harder to recognize and acknowledge, but usually dig even deeper into who we are. That makes them far scarier to confront than the things we can simply quit and thus convince ourselves that we’re now okay.
My mother and “Saul” seem to have a lot in common. My mother is the kind of person that will do something “out of the kindness of her heart” but will ask if you’ve thanked her and then expects that you do something in return. Out of the kindness of your heart of course. I spent years allowing my mother’s behavior to affect me, I took it personally and have had many embarrassing situations affect the way I think about myself even though I knew it had nothing to do with me.
Years later I would turn out to be an addict. After all of my treatment and re-education of thoughts and behaviors I would be the one to tell my mother that her behavior is inappropriate. She has come a long way, but will still have an emotional day, call me crying and ask what I think of her. What do other people think of her? Is she a bad person? Obviously somewhere along the line her self esteem has been deeply cut by childhood trauma she endured. But she never became an “addict”. At least not the kind affected by substances. She faces her own demons, though, desperately seeking acceptance and affection from others, but never seeming to find enough.
I’ve found that (most) people in recovery have a better insight into their thoughts and feelings, are more empathetic and know that everyone has their own thoughts and opinions but they don’t necessarily have to agree with them. My recovery has been a very liberating experience, has made me a stronger individual and has helped me develop healthier relationships.
Some people take longer than others to learn these things, and some may never learn. Thank you for sharing this topic, it’s something I often struggle to help my mother with and have always wondered if other people deal with it too. =)