Excerpt From Relationships That Work: The Power Of Conscious Living
– By David B. Wolf
Let us look more closely at this stance of personal responsibility, with respect to our emotions. Spiritual traditions maintain that the inherent nature of our being consists of qualities such as joy, vitality, consciousness, clarity, radiance, warmth, compassion, love, connection, confidence, balance, beauty, playfulness, fulfillment and power. Also, a fundamental quality of the self that accompanies consciousness is self-determination, or freedom of choice.
The following are some emotions that people commonly consider to be unpleasant: anger, confusion, fear, feeling like a victim, humiliation, embarrassment, worthlessness, hurt, pain, sadness, resentment, guilt, bitterness, shame, anxiety, inadequacy, pressure, suffering, jealousy, disappointment, frustration, discouragement. Nobody actually likes to be troubled by these emotions.
Assuming that we have freedom of choice, and that our nature is vibrant, bright, powerful and free, how come we would choose experiences such as depression, bitterness, anxiety, worthlessness, fear, guilt and confusion? Based on my experience with people I can guess that some readers are saying, perhaps instinctively, “I do not choose these emotions.” Stay with the premise that we are at choice, that we are the creators of our experience. Even if we don’t believe this premise to be true, we can reflect on the idea, saying, “Okay, if it were true that I am choosing these emotions, why would I be doing this?”
If we notice responses such as, “It’s just a habit…I am conditioned that way,” dig deeper. We form habits for a reason. How come today, at this moment, we choose to accede to emotional habits like resentment, depression or discouragement? Whatever our past or conditioning may be, how come, now, we choose to be influenced by conditioning that results in sadness, pain and repeatedly being victimized?
In the spiritual transformation seminars that I conduct people frequently, after some initial resistance to the assumption of self-determination, generate reasons such as getting attention, gaining sympathy, feeling superior, feeling right, an excuse for not taking risks, protection, manipulation, maintaining an image, avoiding responsibility and reinforcing and justifying beliefs.
We will refer to the items on the unpleasant emotions list as “grungies,” and the items on the reasons list as “payoffs.” I want to acknowledge that I was first introduced to these terms, as well as several other concepts in this part of the book, through the Lifespring trainings developed by Dr. John Hanley, Sr. These lists are partial. Each of us could probably think of additional grungies and payoffs. The grungy-payoff connection varies according to one’s personality. Some of us, for example, may use depression to get attention, whereas others may use anger or confusion to receive attention. Below are a few examples of grungy-payoff interactions.
Examples of Grungy-Payoff Interaction
For as long as she can remember, Ricky has felt worthless, as if she has no value. She knows this is related to the way her father treated her. Still, in considering why she holds onto this feeling of worthlessness she has realized that she uses it as an excuse for not taking risks, to avoid the possibility of failure and also to get sympathy from others. If she let go of feeling worthless, experiencing instead her intrinsic value, she knows she would be more productive and fulfilled. With the new awareness that she does not have to feel worthless, Ricky notices that she no longer feels intimidated around people whose presence formerly caused her discomfort. Ricky experiences the truth of Eleanor Roosevelt’s statement, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Alan repeatedly finds himself in situations—within relationships, in his profession, and throughout his life—where he is the victim. Looking at this pattern from a responsible perspective, he recognizes that being in a victim role gets him attention, and even admiration, when he dramatically recounts his victim stories.
For more than a decade George has been confused and unclear about whether to commit to a university degree program or start his own business, about whether to remain single or get married. Now, adopting a responsible position of choice, he understands that he remains in confusion to avoid commitment and also to get attention from others, who often try to help him make decisions.
Jan lives in fear. Fear pervades her experience of life. Intellectually she knows that most of her fears are irrational. Reflecting on why she holds onto fear, she acknowledges that it serves her in several ways—such as not taking responsibility for the results in her life and protecting herself from hurt in relationships.
Gail is constantly in anxiety. When challenged with the perspective that “Anxiety is a choice,” she realizes that most of her anxiety is not productive. In fact, her successes have not resulted from her anxieties and fears, but despite them. She uses anxiety to protect herself from accepting responsibility that she does not think she could handle. With this new awareness, she begins to consider ways to establish healthy boundaries for herself, without excessive anxiety.
Everyone in Bill’s circle knows him as an angry person, irritable and severely agitated at the slightest perception of provocation. Honestly reflecting on himself from an accountable perspective, Bill sees that he has been using anger to get attention. As a small child that was the most effective way to get noticed. This strategy still works, to influence others to notice him, and also to manipulate people to do his bidding. But at what cost? Bill begins to consider the price he is paying in terms of intimacy, closeness and respect for hanging onto this emotional habit.
Stephen holds resentment from mistreatment he has suffered. Previously he never considered that he had a choice about this. Introspecting, and hypothetically accepting that he is responsible for his emotional state, Stephen unburdens himself of much emotional pain by acknowledging that by holding onto resentment he gets the payoff of feeling superior to the person whom he perceives has wronged him. Also, he uses resentment to avoid courageously confronting and communicating with people. Realizing the extent to which he has tormented himself by holding onto resentment, he personally relates to the saying, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
Karen carries heavy guilt, for the way she treated her parents when she was a teenager, for a financial indiscretion with a friend last year, for immaturity in a romantic relationship a decade ago, for not knowing what to say at the committee meeting yesterday, and for a multitude of events throughout her life. Shame and guilt are major coping mechanisms for her. When asked about her payoff for guilt and shame, after a short pause she responds that she receives the reassurance of others, who assure her that she is a good person and encourage her not to be harsh with herself. Meditating further, she realizes that she gets other payoffs—namely justifying her beliefs about herself and avoiding responsibility. Like all of us, Karen likes to think of herself as a good person. When she does something (or neglects to do something) that she perceives as bad, guilt serves to validate her virtue. “If a decent person does this bad thing, at least she feels guilty about it.” With such a framework of beliefs, one episode after the next would be a catalyst for Karen to accumulate and further entrench guilt and shame.
Responsibility, Guilt and Resentment
Sometimes we confuse responsibility and guilt, thinking, “I am responsible, therefore I am guilty.” Actually, it is a common grungy-payoff dynamic to use guilt to avoid responsibility. Instead of honestly looking at my responsibility for what happened, and ways I can rectify mistakes, I feel guilty. Rather than sincerely acting to improve my character and behavior, I feel guilt and shame about my shortcomings.
Guilt and resentment grungies relate to our expectations, as illustrated in the drawing below. The jar on the left represents your expectation of yourself. The line about 40 percent from the bottom indicates your reality of yourself. Instead of accepting and being satisfied with the reality—or constructively endeavoring to improve your behavior and character—you fill the remainder of the jar with guilt. The jar on the right represents your expectation of another person. The line designates the reality of that person. We have a choice. We could accept that reality; or we could initiate transformative communication towards productive change. But often, instead of making either of these choices, we fill the balance of the jar with resentment. Expectations, or the attachment to them, can be premeditated resentments. Much of our suffering arises from an inordinate desire to control life, insisting that life conform to our expectations. Resisting reality is a losing battle, while surrendering to it brings peace of mind and heart. Surrender does not mean that we abandon efforts to make the world and ourselves a better place. It means that we peacefully accept that life does not always yield to our designs, and that we transcend emotional reactivity to unmet expectations.