Are you frequently pointing out to people what they’ve done wrong? Do you routinely rehearse conversations in your head about what you want to say to someone to set them straight? Do you get a sense of righteousness indignation that compels you to want to teach someone right from wrong?
Holding onto bad feelings about an individual is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die. A bad attitude causes you to be critical, impatient, disgusted, or distant. And it fills your mind with worry, ruminations, and anger. You’re likely sooth yourself by drinking, over-eating, etc.
To change a negative attitude you’re holding about an individual you’ll need to uncover the underlying belief that’s creating your unhappy feelings. Begin by asking whether you believe that people, in general, are doing the best they can.
Research by Brene Brown has revealed that people who answer “no” are frequently struggling with being perfectionists. They reason that they’re not always doing their absolute best, so it doesn’t make sense to assume that others are functioning at their best either.
They’re acutely aware of their own shortcomings and are as hard on themselves as they are on others. They judge someone’s behavior by the same exacting standards to which they hold themselves.
In her latest book, Rising Strong, Dr. Brown writes: “Most of us buy into the myth that it’s a long fall from ‘I’m better than you’ to ‘I’m not good enough’ – but the truth is that these are two sides of the same coin. Both are attacks on our worthiness. We don’t compare when we’re feeling good about ourselves; we look for what’s good in others. When we practice self-compassion, we are compassionate toward others. Self-righteousness is just the armor of self-loathing.”
If we’re judging others because we’ve decided they’re doing something wrong, we’re going to end up angry and feeling disrespected. Expressing our judgement to others about how we disapprove of what they’ve done will only bring us further frustration because it’s highly unlikely our criticisms will correct their behavior. And when they continue with what we’ve decided is bad behavior, we’ll get really tired of having to constantly spend the energy to express our hostility and resentment.
As we become emotionally exhausted by our futile efforts to change the other person, a sense of vulnerability sets in. Some people feel powerless, and this is when they’re most likely to lash out. The other person has continued to hurt them, they tell themselves, and therefore they’re justified in hurting the offender in return.
Other individuals will be prone to lapsing into feeling helpless and hopeless. They feel they’re not good enough because once again they failed to live up to their expectations of being able to make everything work our just right.
People who are able to break free from this negative loop have a very different attitude about whether someone is doing the best they can. In Rising Strong Dr. Brown writes that wholeheartedly happy people “are willing to be vulnerable and believe in their self-worth. They, too, offered examples of situations where they made mistakes or didn’t show up as their best selves, but rather than pointing out how they could and should have done better, they explained that, while falling short, their intentions were good and they were trying.”
Believing that you and others are doing the best you can requires compassion. You may not be absolutely sure of about the intention behind someone’s behavior, including your own. But being compassionate is about cultivating the attitude that normally people do their best with the tools they have. Compassion allows us to believe that we can all learn from our mistakes, enabling us to grow and change.
To that end, Dr. Brown discovered that compassionate people “also ask for what they need and don’t put up with a lot of crap. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
To maintain a positive attitude toward ourselves and others, Dr. Brown recommends “Living BIG: Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity.” “Setting boundaries means getting clear on what behaviors are okay and what’s not okay. Integrity is the key to this commitment because it’s how we set those boundaries and ultimately hold ourselves and others accountable for respecting them.”
Once boundaries are clear, she goes on to say, we can “extend the most generous possible interpretations of the intentions, words and actions of others.”