The following is a bit more of an exercise than what I usually write, as opposed to a personal insight. It might come across as rather technical, as least in the way that it is written. Maybe someday we will put together a cartoon to illustrate it. But in the meantime, I am posting this in the middle of the month, since it is not my usual style.
I still plan to make a regular post in August. Enjoy!
Ever since I was a kid, I had this trick I would play with myself: I would try to understand the way other people acted, by looking for moments in my life when I had acted the same way. It could be something that someone did to me, or a mean thing they said, or general indifference, or really just about anything. Seeing that I had acted the same way in my own life often helped me get a sense of proportion, and be more tolerant of the other person who was now acting this way toward me. But in some cases, I think it also gave me some insight as to what reasons they may have had for doing what they did.
Over the years, I have toyed with this concept, and come out with ways of approaching challenging interactions with people that I have found very helpful. I would like to share one such exercise. Maybe you will find it handy.
I want to stress that I have virtually never been in a situation where I could not think of some experience or other in my own past, that compared remarkably well with whatever I was experiencing in the present moment. Certainly the details might be different, but the emotions (at least the unresolved emotions, and it is important to separate those from the rest) would be the same. Sometimes even the words or actions would echo each other across time, like a cosmic rhyme. In other words, if you find yourself in a situation that challenges you with another person, you can pretty much assume that you have been on the other side of the same situation at some point in your life. If you can’t think of any such time, just keep looking. It can take a long time, but like I said, I have pretty much never been disappointed.
So here is the exercise:
Let us assume that you are having a challenging interaction with someone - and let’s refer to them as “Present Person”, just for convenience. Look back in your life, and find someone else with whom you have had the same experience, but from the opposite side. Give yourself time to do this. Sometimes there will be more than one occurrence in your past, and sometimes the same relationship in the present will have multiple facets to it, with each one corresponding to a different past experience. Sometimes you may feel like the victim, and other times you might be the perpetrator. Many times you’ll think you were one, and discover that you were the other. I’ve been through all of the above. This is a personal exercise - you do this for yourself. Be honest.
But keep looking, until you find that experience. And if you find several, go one at a time. Let’s call the person in your past “Past Person”.
Now sit down, and write a letter to Past Person. But this is a backwards letter: It is not actually TO them, it is FROM them. You are to write everything that you would love to hear from Past Person, as if they are writing it to you. This should feel like a letter that, if you received it, would have the potential to resolve things between you - or in the very least, to get them moving in a better direction.
Once you are done, put the letter down, and don’t look at it for a good two weeks (but if you cannot wait even that long, I would say at least three days).
After waiting, come back to the letter and read it as if it was really written by Past Person, and addressed to you. Notice how the letter makes you feel. Ask yourself if it achieves what it was meant to achieve, if it covers all the bases, if it truly feels good to receive this letter.
Change whatever you need in order to make this letter as perfect as you can. It should feel like this letter can really change your relationship with Past Person.
And then, let it sink in. Take a deep breath.
And then change the names: Now this letter should be FROM you, and addressed to Present Person. You might have to change some details, but do your very best to change as little as possible - only what is absolutely necessary to make this letter relevant to the PRESENT relationship. You might be amazed at how well it fits, with minimal changes. The hardest parts are the ones you will probably be most tempted to change. Be aware of those. And you should probably keep them in, exactly as they are.
Now put the new letter down again, for another two weeks. But at least three days. Try not to rush this.
After you wait, go back and read the new letter. Imagine that you are now “saying” these things to Present Person. Notice how you feel. Let it sink in. See if this helps you see the present interaction in a different light.
And should you send the second letter? That is up to you. Maybe it will just help you view the situation differently. Maybe the challenge will somehow feel more surmountable. Maybe you will send it, or maybe you will talk to them, or maybe not. But here is the most important part: This is about you. How the other person responds is entirely up to them. As a matter of fact, in my experience, the response is usually not what you expect.
But this is about you. If you do it well, it should allow you to feel that you did your best. And it may help you feel some sense of resolution.
I wish everyone peace, and love. And plenty of exercise :)