Have you ever said something harsh to someone, only to regret it later? I did it just this week and I could kick myself…

(This blog post is probably more self-indulgent than most. You have been warned)

Me And My Big Mouth!

Photo credit: Neuskleuter (licence)

You know what it’s like: you try to be nice but sometimes people just “get your goat”…yes?

This week’s incident involved a very good friend of mine, whose feelings had been hurt by someone. For anonymity, let’s just say the person who hurt them holds a “position of authority” in the community. I have a rather rocky relationship with this community leader: we have disagreed on several occasions. I think they exert their influence rather too heavily and insensitively at times. This, in my view, had happened again: but this time they had hurt my friend!

But guess what: it was none of my business. If only I had realised this sooner…

Why did I wade in with both feet?

On reflection, I got involved for two reasons.

Firstly, I felt bad for my friend: a quiet, gentle, generous person who gets on with life with the minimum of fuss. I have known them for over 30 years and I would trust them with my life; you know the kind of person? They had been wronged and I wanted to put it right.

Secondly (if only there hadn’t been a “secondly”…), I was using the situation to have-a-go at the person who had hurt my friend. Point-scoring, I’m ashamed to say: downright bad behaviour on my part.

Was there anything good here?

Loyalty to friends is important and I would go a long way to help or defend this particular friend. They are one of finest people I have ever known. But loyalty aside, the rest of my motives and my actions were far from helpful.

What did I do? Where did I go wrong?

Unfortunately I fouled up on several levels:

  • I allowed my previous difficulties with this community leader to colour my approach.
  • I used my good friend as an excuse to challenge them.
  • I tried to undermine their leadership more publicly by including a third party in the conversation (someone only slightly involved) instead of approaching them privately.
  • I opted for a knee-jerk reaction instead of a considered response.
  • I allowed my language (and yes, in writing) to become inflammatory.
  • Rather than build bridges with the community leader who had hurt my friend, I pushed them even further away.

It’s just all so childish, isn’t it? I used to work in a primary school and it sounds like one of the arguments between eight-year-olds I used to have to sort out after lunch. I really, really should know better. But I blew it.

What turned me around?

Shortly after my monumental mess-up (while I was still “stewing in my own juices”) I found myself reading through some of the older posts in this blog. I do this from time to time, to make sure I’m on-message and to double check for any comments (please comment!)

When I got to the blog post from June 2015 about Feeding Your Brain a New Diet, I was pulled up short by this bullet point:

  • “Judging others – I’m still working hard on this one. It’s so easy to put others down: finding fault is an all-too-convenient way of procrastinating on improving yourself. Constructive criticism is okay where it is welcome, but anything else is generally unhelpful, both to the other person and to you. Thinking negatively is equally damaging regardless of whether you aim it at yourself or someone else.”

Ouch. There it was in black and white: the Self-Improvement Guy (me) telling me what an a**hole I was being. I had been foolish and my motives were in the gutter. There was no getting away from my own advice:

Judging others? Check.
Putting others down? Check.
Non-constructive criticism? Check.
Negative thinking? Check.
Damage? Check.

What should I do next?

Two things needed addressing:

  • My strong emotional response – I was feeling bad
  • The damage I had done with my unwise words

The first step was easy: I used a re-framing technique that I picked up somewhere years ago while I was recovering from depression. In case you ever need it…

  1. I think through the events, imagining them like a movie being screened in my mind.
  2. I score how bad I feel about the situation from one to ten. It’s usually at least an eight if I’ve resorted to this technique.
  3. I replay the movie slowly backwards from end to beginning, draining the colour out of it as I go.
  4. I change the voices to silly, squeaky ones, give the people (including me) cartoon heads, play silly cartoon music in the background and play the movie again forwards at double-speed so it becomes ridiculous and hilarious (like Tom & Jerry, the Marx Brothers or a South Park song.)
  5. I laugh out loud. This is surprisingly easy: I have a vivid imagination…
  6. I score my bad feelings again: the score out of ten has usually reduced.
  7. I check if any part of the movie still feels emotionally “charged”.
  8. If there’s a significant negative feeling left, I repeat steps 1 to 7.
  9. Once I’m down to a score of two or three, I imagine squeezing the movie into a single frame and then make it float away from me. I continue to make it smaller, quieter and more distant until it becomes a tiny spot in the distance, and finally disappears.

That was done, and I felt a lot better.

But what now? Time to address the damage. This is where it gets tricky…

“I can’t do right for doing wrong”?

I saw three options:

  1. Apologise fully to the person who hurt my friend.
    PROBLEM: This would not be a genuine apology. In my view, this person routinely abuses their influence. Their insensitivity caused my friend’s upset. They hurt someone I care about.
  2. Apologise partly, explaining what I am (and what I am not) apologising for.
    This is like giving with one hand and taking with the other. A qualified apology was less likely to be accepted; it might be misinterpreted as just another criticism.
  3. Don’t apologise, just leave it.
    I had behaved badly. Even though I had dealt with my emotions, some sort of apology still seemed appropriate. 

I had rushed into this situation at the start without thinking: I was not going to make the same mistake again. I decided to sleep on it. There didn’t seem to be a good answer.

What would you have done?

Please “Leave a Comment” at the bottom and tell me! 

The next day…

Time to face the music: I thought about it for a while and then I sent an apology to the community leader. I stated (in the most gracious and polite terms I could muster) that I still didn’t approve of their approach to their job or the way they had treated my friend. So I guess I was opting for “Apologise partly”. But I also made it clear this was no excuse for my own behaviour, for which I apologised fully and unreservedly. I added that no response was required or expected unless they wished it. I didn’t want to re-start an old argument.

What can you and I learn from this?

Sorry if this all sounds a bit self-indulgent (I did warn you.) Blogging can be like that.

I’m just an ordinary person like you. We’ve probably been in similar situations before and there’s a good chance we will again. So I hope you get at least one useful take-away from this. However, I suspect that most of these lessons are for me to re-learn:

  • No matter how much Self-Improvement we achieve, we can still do something astoundingly stupid and when we do, we should try to fix it.
  • Our criticism should be weighed carefully and delivered constructively, if at all
  • Our words are like toothpaste: once they are out, we can’t push them back in again
  • Not every problem has an ideal solution.
  • We should try, really try, not to be an a**hole. And then try even harder…
  • If we keep a blog or journal, we should read back once in a while to gain useful insights from our “former self”

What do YOU think? Did I do the right thing in the end? Did I “cop out” and not give a full apology? Or should I have refused to apologise because they hurt a dear friend? Am I still being judgemental? (Aren’t we all?)

Does your outspokenness get you into trouble? Do you have a good way of keeping your mouth closed when it really matters?

Please “Leave a Comment” below and tell me!

To our continued Self-Improvement and success!

David Hendra
The Self-Improvement Guy