Tag Archives: relationships

The half-life of a grievance

The half-life of a grievance

Every now and then, an old grievance comes to mind. There’s one about a guy who accused me of something I didn’t do, and whenever his name comes up, the grievance is right behind. Sometimes from out of nowhere the grievance enter’s the spotlight of my mind and a variation of the incident replays —one where I say something witty or clever and win the day. Sometimes the spotlight is on a completely invented future scene of me and my transgressor where I vanquish him in verbal combat.

In those moments I might find myself speaking out loud my victorious part, as my imaginary self turns and walks away with the bad guy’s house blowing up … in slow motion … only to have my girlfriend break my bubble by asking, “Who are you talking to?” “Oh, just rehearsing a speech dear,” I’d say, embarrassed.

Hot flashes

I don’t know how long these flashbacks or flash forwards take (flashes I’ll call them), but they add up in time, emotional and creative energy lost. I notice that the flashes often come with a vengeful thirst that never leaves me quenched, just agitated, and it’s a pattern that repeats itself for every grievance I have. In the hours and days after I’ve been “wronged” flashes occupy my mind, like a computer process using up the CPU with the fan spinning full speed. In those moments, I’m consumed, gripped by what I should have done and what I could do to avenge myself.

I get a perverse pleasure in indulging my flashes because they allow me to dominate, win and especially to punish the person who wronged me, but I’m clear that it’s a form of suffering, at least of wasted time and energy.

With time, the flashes diminish in frequency and duration, and with a lot of time they eventually lose most of their charge, even though they never seem to completely go away.

The half-life of a grievance

This gradual lessening of anger and hurt over time reminds me of a phenomenon in physics called ‘half-life’ which describes the length of time radioactive material takes to decay or breakdown by 50% of it’s original state.

One hundred grams of a radioactive material with a half-life of 1 year will decay to 50 grams after one year, and by year two will only be 25 grams,and so on.

The rate at which grievances gradually diminish over time and never disappear completely is like this half-life phenomenon.

Measured in flashes, if a grievance had a halt-life of one year, then one year after the incident-forming grievance you would experience half the flashes that you did in the first week after the incident; two years after you might experience only a quarter.

Now this is only an analogy and it doesn’t matter that we could never precisely measure those flashes over time. What matters is it describes a natural reduction in the suffering we experience from most grievances.

Long half-life bad

The main point is that if your grievances carry long half-lives then that’s bad. It means you suffer and hold grudges for very long, and the question becomes: is this due to the nature of your grievance, i.e. is it inherently true that particularly bad offences e.g. infidelity, wrongful imprisonment, murder of a loved one etc., come with longer half-lives than minor grievances eg a personal insult, being cut-off or ignored?

It seems not.

Many people carry minor grievances for a lifetime, while others, the Amish for example, seem adept at quickly forgiving the most horrific crimes. So the half-life of a grievance cannot be dependent on the nature of a grievance. Instead there is something about how we treat a grievance that affects its half-life; which means there is something we can do to reduce the half-life (or life span) of a grievance from months or years to days or even hours. What is it about a grievance that determines it’s half-life?

Your story

The half-life of any grievance suffering depends on the story you tell yourself about what happened, and you do tell yourself a story. Every time you indulge a flash you tell yourself a story of your beliefs and judgments about what happened. Your story is bigger than what actually happened because it contains all of your unmet expectations, judgments and beliefs. It’s also limited to a specific time frame which likely only includes the exact start and end time of the incident, and not what may or may not have occurred for each actor in the moments or years before.

Separating the incident from our story

We were never taught to distinguish an incident, something that happened, from the story we tell about it, and so we come to believe they’re the same thing. We combine the two. Noticing our tendency to do this gives us access to greater truth because it encourages us to widen our prospective, and opens us up to empathy and forgiveness. Creating different stories allow us to separate the incident from our story about it—our grievance.

Try telling a different story

One way to dramatically reduce the half-life of any grievance is to tell a different story about it. This is how the Amish are able to forgive even the most horrendous wrongs. The story they tell themselves about what happened is different fromwhat most people would, and it’s based on their religious belief. Suzanne woods Fisher in The Heart of the Amish: Life Lessons in Peacemaking and Forgiveness believes their story always include some version of ‘the Lord forgives as we forgive.’

How to tell a different story

It may be hard to accept that your grievance story is not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but … but it never is. And if you are suffering because of something that happened to you, it’s important to get that your suffering comes from the story you created about what happened; not what happened.

The key to your release is your willingness to see a different perspective, and to see a different perspective you need a new story.

The way to tell a different story is to do the following:

  1. First tell your reactive story, the story that immediately occurred to you as the truth. This is the story you retell; it is your grievance story.
  2. Identify all of the assumptions, beliefs, and judgments driving your story.
  3. Then change them. Challenge each assumption, each belief, each judgment and ask yourself how things might be different if your “bad guy” had different assumptions and beliefs; if you made different judgments.
  4. Expand the time frame. Go beyond the beginning of the incident and imagine what might have happened that would explain this person’s actions.

The key is to let your creative juices flow and treat this as a creative exercise designed to free you. It is not to discover the truth.

For the grievance I began this article with, I realized the story I created had me believing the “bad guy” was strong and me, weak. He was an ignorant bully and I was a helpless victim. Once I saw my beliefs and judgments in that story I could change them to have me be strong with his accusations becoming only rantings from a guy who felt he was no longer relevant, and who was just venting his own frustrations at me. This new story allowed some empathy for him and freed me from feeling “accused.”

We can all expand our capacities to choose the stories we tell ourselves, to reject the ones that revisit us in flashes that make us feel small, vengeful or afraid, and to invent new ones that allow us to stop feeling like victims. Choosing a different story to tell ourselves is how we can reduce the half-lives of our grievances and increase the fullness of our own lives.

How airports really connect us

How airports really connect us

It’s easy to believe that we’re surrounded by hate, mistrust, violence etc.  News reports often add the cute human or animal story at the end of their programs as an antidote to the poison they spread, but because it’s so clearly thrown in as the odd special interest story we don’t even consider that storiesContinue Reading

Controlling your Blame Reflex

Controlling your Blame Reflex

Most of us are quick to assign blame.  It’s like a reflex. At an instinctive level it seems right, even normal.   The murderer, burglar, rapist, swindler is a bad and evil person and should be punished. And the behaviour need not be criminal. The same phenomenon is in play in our everyday lives.  WeContinue Reading

Relationship lessons from Soap Operas

Relationship lessons from Soap Operas

TV soap operas are addictive because most people can’t resist being on the inside of people’s lives, knowing their dirty laundry and having someone—an arch villain to hate.  We somehow can’t pull ourselves away from watching a totally avoidable and needless drama unfold. One person does something, says something, or maybe doesn’t do or sayContinue Reading

Why we fail at making people change

Why we fail at making people change

People always seem to do or believe things that are destructive, inconsiderate, inefficient, ineffective, short-sighted, annoying, exasperating, etc., etc. Those of us who know better (ahem),… would like them to stop. But annoyingly, our efforts to cause change don’t work. Why won’t they change dammit! We make people wrong Because we make people feel stupid,badContinue Reading

Everybody wants to feel like they matter

Everybody wants to feel like they matter

Everybody wants to feel like they matter, that they are valued by other people.  Probably no other need is so overlooked as this. Hunger, shelter and sex call for attention in ways that are much easier to address.  These are probably the most instinctive human needs and knowing how to solve them seem also instinctive.Continue Reading

Resist the urge to react

Resist the urge to react

A few days ago I was standing with a friend at a dead-end looking at the sun go down when a couple with a dog emerged from a car. The man threw an empty one-litre water bottle down on the beach below as the woman gingerly proceeded down a very steep and almost dangerous embankmentContinue Reading

And you thought you’d grown

The other night I was having a drink with two friends who, like me, had spent most of their lives away from home. One of them expressed surprise and some disgust at how he still had those old, familiar, and un-evolved reactions to people who exhibited the same small mindedness and prejudice he experienced asContinue Reading

How a dream job is like a dream relationship

There’s a helluva difference between the idea of a romantic relationship and the reality of it, and there’s a helluva difference between the idea of your dream job, career, business and the reality of achieving/living it. They go through similar stages.Continue Reading

Having trouble improving a relationship? Try this:

A few days ago I listened to Doug Stevenson—teacher of the Story Theater Method—share how he improved his relationship with his young step-son. Doug related how hard he was trying to communicate with his teenage stepson and that nothing seemed to work. His communications were being ignored, or mis-understood and he was getting nowhere fast.Continue Reading

Use that video button more often—one day you’ll be happy you did

There’s a video feature on every modern day digital camera that most people don’t use. That’s a pity because it really takes no skill to shoot a video. You may not win any academy awards, but you could capture a moment that earns you a spot on America’s funniest videos, or better yet; capture aContinue Reading

One VEEERY useful tip for saving relationships

Relationships are hard—very hard in fact.  For many of us, the most important ones become strained, unhealthy, even toxic and we stay in them because we are connected through family bonds. Many others die over a period of time. Sometimes slowly, sometimes stunningly fast. What’s amazing to me, is that even when there’s distinct andContinue Reading

Do you practice (at) your relationships?

It might seem odd to associate the word practice with relationships, yet I think it’s appropriate.  You need to practice at whatever you want to be great at, and the fact is most people suck at relationships. Relationships (not just the romantic ones) end, sometimes bitterly, remain stagnant, or distant—without any passion, joy or excitement—andContinue Reading

“Shit Happens” as a course in high school

The earlier we learn to identify and deal with the non-organic poo in our lives the better off we will be. So perhaps we should offer a course in high school (secondary school) that gives kids an opportunity to observe this naturally occurring phenomenon, and to ponder the impact on their lives of not learningContinue Reading

Learn to identify the shit in your life

Learn to identify the shit in your life

The other day I was cleaning up after a dog and it occurred to me that this disgusting, foul smelling sh!t is a brilliant analogy for life. In life, we produce our own non-organic sh!t and we either develop practices to clean it up or it stays around and produces it’s non-organic equivalent of foulContinue Reading

How to NOT be a cry-baby

My last post dealt with the very real consequences to you of the bad habit – and it is a bad habit – of taking things personally. If you tend to take things personally, others around you will notice and will take care to either avoid sensitive topics or avoid you all together.  Either wayContinue Reading

The thing about taking things personally

The thing about taking things personally

Have you heard the old joke about the guy who walks into the doctors office and says, “Doc, it hurts everytime I do this,” as he demonstrates bending his arm at the elbow; to which the doctor replies “Well stop doing that.” Taking things personally is just like that. It hurts when we do itContinue Reading

Nothing is ever 100% anybody’s fault

Nothing is ever 100% anybody’s fault

If you find yourself blaming someone for some unwelcome outcome or a broken relationship, you might want to consider that nothing is ever 100% anybody’s fault. Accepting this requires an ability to expand your perspective on any situation. For example, in criminal justice it may be relatively easy to prove who robbed the convenience storeContinue Reading

Ever considered using Facebook to “Cultivate” your relationships?

I’m paying more attention to Facebook (FB) these days as I realize it’s an essential ingredient in not only staying connected with the people I’m close to, but also building an exploring all sorts of new relationships that could not exist without a medium like Facebook. I now have 413 “friends” on FB.  Impressive huh?Continue Reading

The Practice of Making People Wrong (Not)

I’m so proud of myself.  Today I came across an article explaining why it’s wasteful to “pre-wash” dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, and I DID NOT send it out to anyone.  Why is that noteworthy?  Because I realized that my sending it out was my way of being right about and making theContinue Reading

The Hug – the killer app of acknowledgments

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book on “The Practice of Acknowledgments”.  Hugs are to acknowledgments what wireless is to the internet.  Nothing quite says I see you and your being around means a lot to me than a hug.  As part of the human need to belong, to be acknowledged, we all needContinue Reading

Who is this person I’m in a relationship with?

I’m a big fan of the movie Crash because it did an excellent job of illustrating this point:the greatest good and the greatest evil lies within us all. What got me writing about it now is a couple that I know that is going through a rocky period. I’m not going to describe details …Continue Reading