We aren’t responsible for people’s reactions to hearing about our mistakes
child leads a parent to believe she’s still registered in college when, in fact, she’s no longer enrolled in her program. A husband fails to inform his wife that he hasn’t been paying the utility bills, preferring to have her find out when the lights no longer turn on. A son claims he has no idea what happened to the money he won, unable to face his father’s wrath that he allowed himself to be swindled out of $20,000.
Are these people pathological liars? Or are they just regular folks doing what they can to avoid having unpleasant confrontations with others? And if it’s the latter, is their behavior justifiable?
We all know that, whether we can “justify” such behavior or not, it isn’t good or moral. We feel the greasy discomfort in our guts but carry on with it because we feel we have no choice. But is that really true? Why can’t we face sharing unpleasant news with loved ones? What’s the worst that can happen?
There are several unpleasant possibilities that the actual truth might trigger. Possibly one of the most challenging to deal with is the confrontation of our personal choices: “You did WHAT? Why would you do THAT? What is WRONG with you?” We don’t want to hear from others that we’ve made poor choices. We feel defensive either because we agree we’ve made an error and we feel ashamed or because, although we still believe we were doing the best we could despite negative consequences, we don’t want to have to explain or justify our decisions to someone who clearly won’t understand.
Still, why should we add to our problems by running dishonesty through our bodies and souls? Wouldn’t it be better to be able to face the music and remain at least true to ourselves and to Hashem? We can do this when we internalize the fact that all human beings make innumerable mistakes, poor choices, and bad decisions, including our accusers. Our thought process could be something like, Yes, I shouldn’t have skipped my classes, wasted your money, and dropped out of school, but I know that you also have done things you shouldn’t have done in life. I’m not a horrible, defective person; I’m just a human being like you. Once we actually believe this, it will be easier to say, “You’re right, I should have thought this through before asking you to pay the tuition,” or “You’re right, I should never have given that fellow my money.” Being totally fine with being wrong allows us at least to be honest!
But what if the reason we chose to withhold information or outright lie was because we desperately wanted to avoid the hysteria of a loved one? What if the person to whom we were being dishonest could be counted on to become angry, tearful, or otherwise hysterical when hearing the truth? No one enjoys dealing with an emotionally dysregulated adult.
However, while it’s true that it would be unpleasant to have to listen to someone ranting, complaining, whining, disapproving, judging and/or yelling, there is a cost to acting in dishonest ways. We become someone we don’t approve of. And what for? If we could simply allow the other person to have their feelings, there’d be no problem. So what if the other person is upset?
Unless there is concern about violence (in which case, do whatever you need to do to survive), there is no harm to us when someone else feels and expresses distress, disapproval, or anger. In fact, we can just sit back and listen until they are done. We don’t need to offer a defense. “I hear you” is sometimes sufficient, but when it isn’t, you can decide which other forms of response would be appropriate. Some of the many possibilities include an apology (“You’re right and I want to apologize”), compassion (“I see how much this has upset you”), a fact (“I guess you and I see this issue differently”), and respectful silence.
In all cases, you can keep in mind that other people’s emotional distress isn’t something you’re obligated to relieve; they will have to work that through themselves. You can be honest and true to yourself, knowing that it’s not your job to keep other people calm, happy, or well-behaved, and that distorting your character doesn’t actually protect theirs.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 863)
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