On Grievances

One thing I’m slowly learning is how to stop holding people accountable for things you haven’t articulated. It’s the emotional equivalent of waiting for an answer to a question that you mumbled. It seems basic but it’s actually really easy to avoid ever doing. There is so much incentive for abuse.

It’s insidious. On the one hand, there is some vulnerability in having to explain honestly how something makes you feel. On the other, saying anything means they might stop and then you can’t hold it against them anymore. Comparing the two options for someone like me, it not even a question. Think about how often people turn down the chance to feel better than someone else. In my experience, it doesn’t happen very often.

So I’ve tried to use the Mirror Trick on a regular basis. It’s meant for married couples but the application is far reaching:

Before you approach your partner with a grievance, take a mental peek into the mirror. What aspect of yourself, what issues or ‘stuff,’ either past or present, are you bringing to the discussion about this problem? For example, if you don’t like the amount of time your partner spends with friends, ask yourself “what does his/her spending time away from me mean to me specifically?” It could be an issue of feeling inferior to them or unwanted, something that cuts beyond the core of “a man/woman needs to be home with his/her spouse.” If you can ‘look in the mirror first’ you can then approach your partner with the grievance in the form of your personal idiosyncrasy with the issue as opposed to simply pointing the finger. This will often decrease defensiveness and lead to a more productive outcome. Consider: “When you spend such a large amount of time with your friends, it taps into my fears that you don’t want to be with me. I feel inferior to them.” Compare this with: “I hate it when you’re with your friends so much. You need to be home more.”

When I run through the list of my grievances they almost all are rooted at some level in this problem. I’m holding someone to account for something they never knew they signed up for. Changing that variable is an instant release of tension. I’m no longer carrying the resentment and suddenly, they aren’t the “violator” anymore. And for the other cases where you can’t do anything about it? It’s still ok, I think, to hold people to your own internal standards. You just don’t get the right to bemad about it.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.