Dear LetterBalm: I have a personal problem that I have trouble dealing with. It’s just too much for me to handle. I grew up in a loud, opinionated family with a lot of siblings who jumped on each other if anyone made the slightest mistake. They don’t forgive, ever. Over the years, I’ve found it harder and harder to forgive people, whether family, friends, co-workers, even people helping me in shops and behind counters. I hold onto a grudge for far too long. The latest thing happened with one of my good friends, someone I’ve known for years. A few months ago, she did something that really hurt me – she revealed a confidence in front of people who really mattered to me. I’m having trouble letting this go. I confronted her, and she accused me of “making too much” of it. Now, I’m brusque with her, rebuffing invitations (pretty rude about it, too) and making it clear I don’t want anything to do with her. I hate myself; I have to get out of this downward spiral. What can I say to her? And, how can I help myself?
–Stewing in Santa Fe
You may not realize it, but you’ve already taken the first big step in dissipating this resentment: You’ve acknowledged the grudge and how corrosive it is in your life. You might consider behavioral therapy to help you cope in general. But now you must look at this situation with absolute clarity. You need to prepare yourself to share your feelings constructively with your friend, frame her transgression, put yourself in her place (yes, Ms. L.B. knows that will be hard for you) and accept the reality and let it go. It may mean you must make an apology first, something you’re not used to, but something which will go a long way to help you forgive and bring your friend back into your life. Have a quiet, private talk with her thusly:
Bonnie, things have been tense between us, and I want to clear the air. I don’t like what’s happening – you’re too important to me. But I have to ask you to listen to what I’m going to say. When you revealed what I told you in confidence, it was a big deal for me. Can you understand that I felt hurt and betrayed? I lashed out and held it against you all this time. What you don’t know is that I grew up in a family that still holds grudges – it’s standard operating procedure for me. And, it’s corrosive, I know that. In fact, I’ve started some behavioral therapy to break this pattern. But as far as we’re concerned, I want you to know that I’m working hard on forgiveness, on letting grudges go. I’m not perfect, but I’m trying.
Dear LetterBalm: I have a friend who acts condescendingly toward people in service positions. He can be very rude, and it embarrasses everybody around him. He corrects them, tells them how to do their job, orders them around, rolls his eyes – you get the picture. And, when he looks like he’s actually in the wrong (mistaken about the wine, for instance), he gets angry, calls for their boss and threatens to have them fired. My friends and I need to make him stop this once and for all. He’s a know-it-all with a thin skin and a temper. But believe it or not, he can be kind and extraordinarily generous.
–Cringing at the Table
How do you continue to be friends with this prince among men? Does he pick up the check and treat you to fine wine or cigars? Does no one speak up for the poor harassed service person? To quote humorist Dave Barry: “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person.” There’s another adage that says you can judge a person’s character by the way he treats people who can’t do anything for him. Humiliating a waiter or a customer service person – especially over a small mistake or unintentional offense – is the worst sort of unkindness. It’s a power trip that marks someone as insecure and a bully. He sounds like he has few redeeming qualities. If you tell him off, your friendship is probably over, and Ms. L.B. says only you can decide how far you want to go. A few of you might talk privately with your friend but understand that it’s likely he’ll start yelling and won’t think your words apply to him:
Mort, we’ll make this quick. I know you think you’re a great guy – and, in some ways you are because you can be very generous. But until you change your behavior toward waiters and customer service people, you’ll always be an insecure bully. You’re a smart guy. Why is it that you have to show superiority over people in service positions? You act condescendingly, you harass them, you tell them how to do their job, you call for their bosses and threaten to have them fired. Does this make you feel good? Did someone lord it over you and that’s how you think you are supposed to treat people, especially those in junior positions with fewer resources than you? If you don’t address this, you’re in danger of losing every friend you have.
Dear LetterBalm: I’m concerned for my brother’s family. He and his wife have three children. The middle child is 15 and developmentally disabled, with the mental age of a four-year-old. My sister-in-law has always been his caretaker at home. But in the past few months, my wife and I have witnessed some alarming behavior. He’s going through puberty, and he’s suddenly grown tall and almost 180 pounds. His personality has changed from cheerful and sweet to angry. He yells and throws things when he doesn’t want to obey simple commands, and we’ve seen him punch and kick family members when he doesn’t get his way. We’re afraid something terrible will happen. Should he be removed from the home? What can we say to help? In the past, they haven’t wanted to listen to our misgivings.
Ms. L.B. won’t presume to diagnose what’s happening here, but puberty certainly is playing a part. The boy is going through natural changes that are challenging for any young man; he must be confused and mystified. But there may be other contributing physical and psychological factors. You and your wife clearly see that your brother and sister-in-law must take immediate action. And, you’re right – delay could be tragic. The four of you must sit down with no distractions or children around. (Is there anyone who can take the boy for an hour or so?) This family is in jeopardy. Be calm, but pull no punches and don’t be worried about hurt feelings:
Seth and Jill, we’ve asked you to sit and listen to what we have to say. Please don’t interrupt and please try not to get defensive. Seth, you’re my favorite brother. We love you and Jill and the kids. But Robin and are worried about you all. We’ve always admired how both of you have taken on caring for Bart and his special needs. We know it hasn’t been easy for you and for the whole family. His care takes up a lot of time and energy. But now we have to speak up. Bart is bigger, bolder and angry, maybe because he’s going through puberty. Jill, he outweighs you by 60 pounds, and he’s been punching and kicking, which is alarming. He could seriously injure – or, worse – any one of you. We have to insist that you schedule an evaluation, speak with Bart’s doctors, whatever must be done, and right away. You can’t look at this as a criticism of your care or your previous decisions about your son. Those were the right things to do at the time. But this is a whole new ball game. You can’t delay or think this will go away. It will only get worse if you don’t tackle it. You know we’ll be with you all the way. And, after all, the most important thing here is what’s best for Bart.