The New Year is a perfect time to make resolutions that can improve your interpersonal relationships. The only way to truly do so is by making amends to those you have trespassed against. You may initially disagree, and this is why your relationships are in disrepair. So if you do really care about taking some personal steps forward this year, listen up.
Thankfully, I have learned a particularly effective strategy that many therapists also use to help clients work through their emotional and relationship struggles. Get yourself a writing instrument and piece of paper.
1. Make a List of All the Folks You Have Harmed
Not just the biggies, but the sneaky, snide slights as well. Consider the big and small stuff—like a harsh word, gesture, misuse of power, recent action, and snarky glances with that all-knowing and disgusted sense of disapproval you have perfected.
Don’t overlook having given the single-digit salute to someone, an unwarranted and cold snub, drunken utterances, your false pride rising when humility would be more appropriate, shirking responsibilities, playing the victim when the opposite is true, a superior attitude, greed, blatant disregard for others’ feelings, ungrateful responses to kindness, malicious gossip, and always giving advice when the other person only wants a sympathetic ear (Lord knows I hate that one).
Put four columns on your paper. Column one is for the names of the persons you harmed. List strangers as “anonymous.”
2. Specifically List How You’ve Harmed Each Person
This is column two on your list, and entitled “My Part in It.” Knowing how flawed, stubborn, and reluctant people usually are when confronted with the need for critical self-analysis, I offered some examples above to get you started. With a little effort, you can focus in more closely.
Be specific about the who, when, why, and where of your transgression(s). This is about some long-overdue self-awareness to enable you to interact with others in a more respectful and healthier way. Both sides profit.
I’m sensing your deep-seated gratitude and burgeoning self-awareness already.
3. Move Onto ‘Why I Acted As I Did’
The next column, entitled “Trigger Defect,” is where the heavy lifting comes in. Your friends and family could make a list of your character defects, but that would be self-defeating. It is past time for you to learn more about yourself than you may want to know.
Rigorous honesty about others comes easy for people, but when it is about ourselves, usually not so much. You might be comforted to know that I’ve struggled with this rigorous self-honesty mantra, so I know how difficult it can be.
The “Why” part is where the rubber meets the road. It is about discovering character defects that skew reactions and attitudes such that your response mechanism reacts inappropriately at times—not always, but sometimes. Let me give you a hint: anger is often rooted in fear. Chew on that: physical fear, fear you won’t get what you want, fear you might lose something, etc.
There are other causes of misbehavior. Things like The Seven Deadly Sins from The Good Book, plus two more. I’m referring to pride, lust, anger, greed, gluttony, envy, sloth, then being judgmental and holding on to resentments. Any one, or several, of these could be the source of our difficulty.
Do not concern yourself with the other party’s character defects. That is not your business. This is about cleaning your house, not theirs.
A little book euphemistically referred to as “The Twelve and Twelve” says “It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter the cause, there is something wrong with us.” To be honest, I can’t say I always believe that to be the case. On the other hand, in my experience, this axiom is correct vastly more often than it is incorrect. Therefore, remembering it has merit.
Someone else acting poorly is not a justifiable invitation for you to reciprocate and be even worse. “Biting your tongue” is the more Christian approach, and submitting to this mantra will enable you to more accurately see some of your less desirable auto-responses. It is your porch we are sweeping, not theirs.
Inappropriate behavior is frequently propelled by false pride, ego, failure to meet your own expectations (which might well be unknown to you), a chronic tendency to question others’ integrity and competence, and any number of emotional tics you possess.
If you are thorough in your behavioral research, you just might uncover some recurring defects giving free rent in your mind to people and things over which you have absolutely no control. It’s time to stop this.
The problem typically persists when a person has not taken time for self-examination accompanied by rigorous self-honesty. You may not have a trusted friend or respected confidant to share these character defects with once you have uncovered them. If you remedy this situation, two things will happen.
One: you will take the power out of these secrets, and two: you will find out you are not all that much different from the rest of earth’s inhabitants. Trust me, it is a cathartic experience.
4. Now, Prepare to Make Amends, and Execute
This step requires some forethought and more than a little sincerity if you are to get a strained relationship back on track. In fact, it is not always possible because the other party is simply not willing to acknowledge the issue and move on. If you have tried to make amends and the other person rebuffs your effort, they now own the issue: quietly and politely withdraw with the parting words, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
You do not possess the power to make anyone forgive or forget. Making amends is the cleansing where you change you, not someone else. Banish the thought that amends is an opportunity for you to tell someone else what he did, and therefore, why you acted as you did. It is all about your actions, not theirs, and your job is to take full responsibility for your inappropriate action(s).
If the discussion goes well and the other person admits his or her part in the schism, and wants to discuss it in a civil and sincere way, be grateful. If it feels right, it might be appropriate for you to offer something akin to: “I reacted the way I did because one of the character defects I’m working on is…” That very act could open the door to an incredible new relationship.
Do not, I repeat, do not try to blame the other party. This is about your growth, not theirs. However they choose to act is their business. You are working on you, and if you walk away knowing you did your part properly, you walk away with dignity and a clear conscience. Everybody may not welcome your amends, and that is their right. Be prepared for that eventuality and take it with dignity and poise, resisting the bait to respond in kind. In fact, optimally you will forgive them. Why? Because it helps you. And it’s the right thing to do.
Also, take note: Your amends absolutely cannot include injury to a third party by revealing something that will cause them harm. No exceptions!
5. Moving Onward and Upward
Being a good person who has made mistakes and has the character to acknowledge them is a handsome reward in and of itself. If you receive forgiveness from the other party, you can bet it also connotes respect, a significant bonus.
Another benefit of this making amends process is that you heavily invest in yourself by thoroughly examining your behavior, which in turn reveals some character defects that have brought on needless angst. You now know how to avoid this self-defeating pattern, and spare yourself a great deal of discomfort.
Character defects are a lot like cockroaches: they prefer to operate in the darkness of real or imagined wrongs of others. They die in the light of self-examination.