Reality Check: Other People’s Misery

Do you ever find yourself embracing misery that isn’t really yours?

John does. Unlike others in his extended family, John feels that he has a duty to visit and maintain connection with his great-uncle Matthew.

Far from expressing appreciation, Matthew complains. He tells John that no one visits him, even as John is sitting in his room visiting him. He complains that no one takes him anywhere while he is in the car with John, being taken somewhere. He chooses every opportunity to grumble that nobody cares.

Matthew’s behaviour isn’t new; he’s always been cantankerous. Age has not mellowed him; if anything, he’s become even crabbier. While his behaviour may not be well-considered, it is his life and his choice, and Matthew chooses “crabby.” That’s apparently what he wants.

But what about John? What does John want?

John values loyalty. Whereas other folks are content to leave Matthew to his crankiness, John wants the good feeling that comes from being loyal and considerate. He will not feel satisfied if he believes great-uncle-Matthew is abandoned and alone.

However, instead of getting satisfaction from his visits, John finds himself drawn into Matthew’s misery. He comes away feeling accused, defensive, and apologetic, sometimes even with physical distress such as headaches.

Dr. Wm. Glasser, in “Take Charge of Your Life” says, “Never let people control you with the pain and misery they are choosing.” But what can John do?

It would be nice if Matthew would change. However, unless Matthew himself sees that his behaviour isn’t working for him, he’s not going to change. So there’s not a whole lot of value in wishing, “If only Matthew would change.”

So, what can John change in his own behaviour to avoid being controlled by Matthew’s misery?

John could stop visiting, and if his misery becomes great enough, he may end up doing just that. However, as John values loyalty so highly, he’d then be dissatisfied by the feeling of letting Matthew down. Probably not the most effective option.

A more helpful choice could be for John to change his expectations. Ask himself, “What does a successful visit look like?” Instead of expecting no complaints, John could view success as spending half an hour together with only one complaint.

Another choice is for John to change how he responds to Matthew. For example, when Matthew launches into a complaint about no one caring, instead of his usual protest, just let it go. Change the subject.

John could also come prepared with conversation. “Tell me about the best time in your life.” “Talk about how you used to make sauerkraut.” Come ready to have a more positive conversation—one that could bring up happy memories rather than dwelling on everyone’s failings.

Be cautious about expecting miracles. No matter what John does, it’s unlikely that Matthew will suddenly become appreciative. Adopt an attitude of gratitude for any positive change.

You can still be empathetic while declining to let other people control you with their misery. After all, does your misery add any value to the situation?

When you are with someone who expresses misery, how do you avoid choosing misery also?

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