The problem with a problem is that I seldom know whether to talk it out or fling it from the spin cycle of my brain. Usually, though, talking wins; how else to learn how to treat my friends and teach them how to treat me?
But talking is a gamble. I’ve encountered defensiveness and indifference but also enlightenment and deeper friendships.
Recently, a flaming failure forced me to reanalyze my approach.
When a friend handed me an insulting greeting card, I unsuccessfully tried to laugh it off, obsessed for weeks, then fired off a preachy email that said in part that “it isn’t OK to draw attention to other people’s flaws because it might cause embarrassment and hurt feelings.”
She answered that since she hadn’t meant to upset me, it would be “disingenuous” to apologize. OUCH.
Now, she’d not only insulted me with a tasteless card, but she didn’t care about my feelings, either.
Still, I had to accept part of the blame. Email-as-medium was a big mistake, and admitting other blunders forced me to formulate new rules for myself.
Soon, I got a chance to practice them when another friend called and said, “I left a package on your porch.”
“Which porch?” I said.
“The front one, of course, where else would I leave it?” she said, her voice loud and dripping (it seemed to me) with the desire to add “you idiot.”
The “of course” made no sense. She’d never left a package before, and we have several porches. “Unfair and mean!” my mind said as my stomach clenched into a knot.
I denied the feeling — my usual escape — but then forced myself to feel it and get clear about what bothered me.
I closed my eyes and replayed my friend’s voice, then realized, simply, that it hurts to be yelled at.
Instead of letting it fester, I called her back immediately. “Do you have time to talk about our phone call just now?” I said.
“Yeah, I’m stalled in traffic, what’s up?”
I said, “Do you remember our conversation?”
“Yes,” she said, hesitantly.
“Well, it hurt when you yelled at me just now,” I said, then stopped. The knot and I waited.
Her voice came back soft. “Oh, wow, I’m so sorry! I just didn’t realize how I was coming across. I’m so frustrated with this traffic, and I guess I took it out on you. I’m sorry.”
I exhaled. “Thank you. I’m grateful you could see that, and I really appreciate your apology.”
She said, “Hey, I want you to know I would never knowingly hurt you. Forgive me?”
Forgive her? The knot vaporized. My mind quit yammering. Birds began to sing, and suddenly, the sun shined bright on my old Carolina home.
I’ll probably never hear such a perfect apology again, so I analyzed it to see what had brought such rewards. This friend acknowledged what happened and gave a short explanation without making excuses. She apologized immediately and sincerely. She asked for forgiveness. She’d even thrown in words that splashed dopamine all over my neurons: She told me she would never knowingly hurt me. This exchange deepened our friendship and ultimately led to gleeful joking about the incident.
For my part, I “owned” my feelings and used “I” statements, such as “I felt hurt,” instead of accusatory words like “you hurt me.”
I spoke to her privately and in the most personal way possible — face to face being best, but this time by phone. I asked permission to speak about the problem, then briefly stated my feelings without accusing or lecturing.
Finally, I thanked her when she apologized.
These stories exemplify a process that may seem trivial, but small hurts pile up and weigh me down. Besides, learning from my mistakes is such an interesting, full-time job!
Tomorrow, I’ll tell my other friend I’m sorry for my ineptitude, then follow my new rules and see what happens. Inevitably, her reaction will determine our future relationship.
“I’m sorry for my part in this, too,” is all I need to hear.
Shirley Jones lives on James Island with her soulmate, Jack. She has published a book of poetry and is working on a novel.