When I first started writing this post, I wasn’t sure if it would be useful to anyone. But I went ahead and wrote it. If it helps even one person, I figure it’s worth posting.
We all have our character defects. One of mine is a reactive temperament. Although I have done a lot of work and made a lot of progress over the years, I’m still too prone to speak harsh words to people, make snappish responses.
A harsh word at the wrong time can instantly vaporize a friendship, or snap it like a twig. Not that there’s ever a good time to speak harsh words, but some times are worse than others. And with the wrong words or tone at those brittle junctures, even a friendship that was longstanding and seemingly pretty solid might not recover.
That’s where duct tape comes in. Duct tape? Yes, duct tape! “One of the great cohesive forces of the universe,” I’ve heard it referred to tongue-in-cheek. As one who’s often used duct tape to patch or hold things together, I love this.
Another way I think of duct tape is metaphorical rather than tangible: A way to express the value of keeping my mouth shut instead of letting harsh words come out. It’s remarkable, really, how many harsh interactions I’ve had with people over the years, that would have gone fine if only I’d remembered to bring my mental “roll of duct tape” to tape my mouth shut. It’s in the same genre as counting to ten, taking a walk around the block, and other cool-off buffer strategies.
Yesterday with a friend was one such time. Connection snapped like a twig; friendship may or may not recover.
In some of my friendships that have ended over the years, there were such differences in our core values that there may have been a built-in expiration date all along. But it’s better for a friendship to run its course naturally than to be killed by harsh words.
(Note: I’m not talking about the strong words that are necessary sometimes as we assert our boundaries and call out abusive behavior in a personal or professional relationship. Those are healthy strong words. Here I’m talking about needless harsh words.)
Rather than cry over spilt milk, I’m determined to learn from this and never do it again to another person. I see where I first went wrong by introducing a topic of conversation where this friend and I have many differences of opinion. There was really no reason to bring it up; I was “venting”; engaging in the kind of idle chatter that seems harmless but can quickly stray into complaining and gossiping and other negativity. The Buddhists counsel against idle chatter; categorize it as one type of “wrong speech.”
And when my friend then pointed out something that brought up feelings of shame in me, I reacted by lashing out at her. Another big pattern of mine I’ve become more aware of in recent years: For me, feelings of shame are very intense, and all too often still (even though I’ve done a lot of work in this area, had some great therapists and teachers), I push away the feelings and react by lashing out, instead of being quietly present with those feelings til they subside.
I’ve learned some really effective techniques for being present with uncomfortable feelings; abiding in silence til they pass. I just really need to be heads-up so I feel those feelings coming on, and put that “duct tape” around my mouth and walk around the block or do whatever it takes to avoid polluting the space between another person and me with harsh words.
Another thing I’ve learned, but sometimes temporarily forget til it’s too late, is to become conscious of when I’m feeling chronically put-down or suppressed in a relationship, and either deal with those feelings within myself; talk with the other person about patterns I notice between us; or take a break from the friendship. Sometimes it ends up being all three.
Yet another thing I’ve learned over the years: Don’t assume that a friendship is over; try to apologize or make amends. But also I’ve learned not to assume that, by apologizing, I can repair damage and patch things up as good as they were before I let slip the harsh words. Those times when my apologies have not been accepted, I just move forward and focus on making amends to society in general by changing the problematic behavior pattern. Shifting these problematic patterns is its own reward, as well as being the right thing to do. And oftentimes an alienated friend will end up coming back into one’s life after awhile too, and that’s a bonus.
In my mental purse, I now have a roll of beautiful golden duct-tape, and I aspire to never again leave home without it. Silence is golden, especially when it creates space for anger and tension to subside so harsh words are never spoken.
Tools for communicating nonviolently, and for processing feelings, are essential to human civilization. Below, I’m starting a list of some of my favorites.
• The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering (book by Bhikkhu Bodhi).
• Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (book by Marshall Rosenberg, PhD).
• The Avatar® Course. I took this course back in 2005 and it has helped me become a lot more peaceful and less reactive. Though I still have a long way to go, you should see how I was before! The course has been around since 1980. It’s a nine-day course typically offered in person in a group setting, but recently has begun to be available by Zoom! The next course is September 11-20. If you want to get a quick idea of what the course is like, there are free intros and minicourses available via the link above, as well as talks on streaming video by Harry Palmer, author of the Avatar Course materials.