Wednesday, May 5, 2010

When Someone Else is My Problem…

“Why should I pick up the phone and burden someone else with my troubles?” one woman asked in the middle of our last Big Book study. After all, the speaker reasoned, “I already know that I just need to get over myself.”

The speaker talked for several minutes about being raised to be self-sufficient and non-complaining. It was the way she was taught. She was 61 and had operated like this all of her life. Picking up the phone went against everything she had ever believed or known.

“Just like if someone asks how I am,” she continued. “What benefit is there in saying I’ve had a really crummy day?”

“You call someone to get it up and out,” our most senior member explained.

When something is in your head, it can grow and fester. You don’t tell anyone about it because you think it’s nothing. Then before you know it, it can grow into a huge resentment. It happens so gradually that you don’t realize how big it’s become until you can’t see around it.

It happened to her, she said. After seven years of recovery, a tiny resentment grew until it nearly knocked her out of the program.

The idea is to reason things out with someone else in the program, to vent to someone who understands—so you don’t have to vent to the person whose behavior is causing you grief.

We were still talking about that on the way home. My car mates thought it was important not to stuff feelings down. By why not address them to the source?

“Because when someone else is my problem, my problem is me,” I said.

“So are you taking responsibility for what happened?”

“No,” I said. “I’m only taking responsibility for my part.”

“Well, what about the other person?”

“I’m powerless over the other person,” I said. “I can’t control what they do or think. I can only control how I feel about it and the choices I make as a result.”

It felt confusion hanging in the silence that followed. I wanted to explain by way of example. Because I had my own resentment tale.

Before Al-Anon, a member of my husband’s family moved into town. She and I had always gotten along well, but when she was living just a couple of miles away, little things started to get under my skin. They seemed like no big deal. Bringing them up would sound petty. But they grew and festered. Just like the woman at the Big Book study, pretty soon my resentment got so big it was all I could see. Just the mention of this person got me agitated, and she was around almost constantly.

I started complaining to my husband, who was understandably distraught. Eventually, we agreed that I had to do something. I had to address this. Get it up and out.

I wrote down what I wanted to say, making it as kind as possible and making it about me, not her. I rehearsed it with my husband. We invited her to dinner.

After dinner, I swallowed hard and delivered my spiel. I thought it went very well. She seemed to take it well. New boundaries were set. Things got better.

Then I got into Al-Anon. The incident came up in my fourth step. Because I still harbored a resentment, this family member came up in my eighth step. I had a resentment, yes, I said, but I didn’t believe I owed this family member an amends. I had, after all, been gallant and noble in all my dealings with her, despite my feelings. We had to have that unfortunate conversation, but I delivered it as kindly as possible.

My sponsor was having none of it. I had to make an amends.

I didn’t agree, but did as I was told. I hadn’t gotten half-way though before this family member stopped me.

“You know me,” she said. “I’m like a duck. Things like that roll right off my back.”

Only she was crying as she said this and ran out of the room.

I was stunned. I had hurt her. I had no idea.

A few days later, I finished my amends. As is required of me, I listened to her response without comment. She brought up that conversation. Only she remembered it differently. My words sounded twisted around and decidedly unkind.

It didn’t matter that I felt she had taken what I said the wrong way. The point wasn't what I said. The point is that’s what she heard. I was filled with compassion. We hugged. It was the beginning of a new relationship for us.

The point, though, is that the problem was never with her. She triggered something inside me that made me react that way. The issues were mine to resolve.

“When someone else is my problem, my problem is with me.”

Today, I know there are tools I could use to cure my resentment. I could have resolved my problem with out involving the people I loved.
Instead, I caused harm to two key relationships in my life unnecessarily.

But when we know better, we do better.

Today, I try to remember to T.H.I.N.K. before I speak. I ask myself is what I’m about to say Thoughtful, Honest, Intelligent, Necessary and Kind.

I don’t usually have much trouble with THIK. It’s the Necessary part that gets me every time. Is what I want to say really necessary? Will it help or just make matters worse?


  1. God-things still amaze me... I just finished having a conversation with my husband about a series of events that occurred last night. I have been going to Al-Anon since Nov 2009 so I am new to the program, but not the problems. I grew up as ACOA and my husband of 35 yrs has been in AA since Nov also. This all to say I have been doing things one way for a while. Anyway, back to my conversation, I had felt all day I needed to tell him how I felt about something he said last night. I told him, he didn't see that there had been a problem. I was thinking maybe the problem was with me, then I came to check my emails and read THIS POST. Now I have something to talk to my sponsor about this evening. THANKS so much for sharing this. I needed it today, right this minute.

  2. Oh yeah, this is a good one for me too. I get a feeling like I don't like the way hubby said something to me for instance and my first reaction is to be sure he knows how I feel. Waiting awhile and thinking it through and seeing it clearly and not just reacting to it makes so much difference in my recovery.

  3. I so needed to read this today. I am in a situation that is tough. I just sent two emails in two days going over how I think things should be with a certain person. It is a complicated situation, with two children involved, and I have been torn between what my program tells me to do...which is mind my own business, and my alarm over this situation. I have been brought into the situation so the rationale is that it *is* my business now. So complicated and I really don't know if I have caused more harm than good by sharing my opinion. Time will tell...your post gave me a lot to think about. Thank you.

  4. What a great post and I got a chuckle at the end with the THIK :)
    This is a lesson my Mom actually told me about 4 years ago and I have thought about it often, but forget to apply it to MOST situations. It is a difficult lesson to learn, but you are right.
    I also recently realized what "Let it Begin with Me" truly means when reading the Al-Anon book "How Al-Anon Works".
    I wish I could print out your whole blog, bind it and give it an index. So I could highlight and have easy reference. As it is, I just print out individual posts to refer back to or to leisurely read again downstairs in the kitchen.
    Thank you for all the love & support (and experience, strength & hope!) you provide to me! :)
    God bless.
    Printer is running...

  5. Sometimes we need to vent. I try to do that with my wife (AA) or sponsor rather than in meetings, but that's just me. It's often a struggle, but I increasingly try just not to take offense. I know that I don't handle resentments well and it's not worth giving up my serenity. Best case, I'm likely to feel better for a little while and then have to make an amend!

  6. this was just what i needed to read today. i'm so glad i stopped by your blog kathy.

    thank you times a million. big hugs!

  7. this is a good one for me also. i do have to get better at sharing with my sponsor. like the woman you mentioned, i'm programmed to keep thoughts to myself. this is a helpful reminder about how to avoid build up. thanks so much for sharing!

  8. Kathy, I found this post very intriguing. Thank you for sharing. I am just trying to catch up on some of my blog reading. Thank you for your support as always. Blessings.

  9. I think that sponsors have a unique way to helping to determine whether someone is ready to make those amends. It may take years for all to be made. God's timing and not mine. Yet, I knew when it was time.