Recently I tried a little exercise on an acquaintance. She's one of those people who just seems to take everything personally. It used to get under my skin quite a bit, especially when she would lose her temper at people for imagined slights. She'd been nitpicking at me for a couple of weeks, and I hadn't been responding. Instead, I took the intiative one day and told her I thought she was a wonderful person, and that I was sorry if people had been too hard on her lately. I was being sincere. As irritated as I'd been about her backbiting, I do feel she's done her duties well at work, and has been a supportive mom to her son. She seemed a little surprised, but above all, relieved. She thanked me, and said she was a little shocked, but that she appreciated hearing that. She said, I know I'm not Attilah the hun, that I've painted me as -- not that "you" or "they" -- she actually used the word "I." I don't know if it was a Freudian slip, but she didn't correct herself.
I didn't really expect her to suddenly change personality, and she didn't. But she's been a lot less strident since. And the people who dislike her still dislike her, but they're not getting into arguments with her. At least not this week. A few asked me what I was up to, but I just explained that I had realized that people who feel better do better, and that being mad at this lady wasn't helping, so maybe helping her to feel better might make a difference.
I bring this experience with adults to my advice column because this bit of advice is actually taken from Adlerian based child therapy. Positive discipline asks: where did we get the idea that we have to make children feel worse to get them to do better? In my parenting classes we spend a bit of time examining this idea. Many parents don't realize that discipline isn't just about punishment. Discipline is teaching, and every time we speak to another person, including our children, we're teaching them: who we are, how they are expected to act, and how we feel about them. What have you been teaching your family? Take some time to look at your interactions over the day. Have you been kind, firm, fair and consistent? Are you taking care of yourself so you can take care of others? Have you been respectful, and insistent on respect in return?