This week I had an unfortunate experience at work with someone who I was forewarned was ‘difficult.’ Despite my inner alarm bells going off, I approached the person, confident (smug?) that my social work skills would make it easy to get the verbal information I needed and be on my way.
Two hours later, I was sitting in my supervisor’s office, explaining what happened. While being supportive, he asserted that I had allowed the conflict to go too far.
That evening, I sent an email to a trusted person with whom I know I can be myself. I also know that he will be honest with me. He agreed the day had been difficult for me. He also said something that really made me think. He said, “I’m glad you were able to make it productive and recovered your sanity.”
I quickly understood. When we are confronted, regardless of how we get there, our choices can lead us into something a lot like…insanity.
Especially, when I left the high road and started being as unprofessional as I perceived my ‘opponent’ to be.
It quickly became…insane.
Now, let’s look at that word. When one uses ‘insanity’ we think of all sorts of images. Being a bit on the dramatic side, I visualize frothing at the mouth, Bedlam, all sorts of mental health nightmares.
However, what is insanity? I’ve heard a simple, but apt definition.
Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome.
That’s what happened to me in my conflict. The moment it looked confrontational, the most wise course was to have retreated and handled things a different way.
Instead, I went straight into battle. Ultimately, I was able to prove that I was, by policy, doing things correctly. However, it took time to wage that battle. None of it served the client, or ultimately me or the professional with whom I battled.
It started with me feeling blindsided with antagonism. It worsened when the person adeptly twisted nearly everything I said to try to make herself right, and me wrong. She went back 15 or more years and quoted outdated policy. She threw out comments that sounded like she was a therapist dealing with a unreasonable client. It felt like being sucked into a whirlpool of…you guessed it, insanity.
I got angry, defensive, and became determined to prove that I was right. Maybe, in part, I ultimately succeeded. But what was gained? My sparring partner was difficult by reputation, difficult with me, and likely will continue to be that way with others.
Why? Because it works for her.
It may only work in her very distorted way of feeling okay about herself and her actions, but it nonetheless works for her. Otherwise, she would have changed it. As dysfunctional as our lives can become, when something no longer serves our needs, we change it.
When I was addicted (a lesser word does not suffice) to unhealthy relationships with men who were stubbornly unwilling to act in healthy and respectful ways with women, I went through decades of misery. I was determined that my love would show them a better way to live.
During my last unhealthy attempt at ‘relationship by being a therapist,’ I was shocked by a sudden insight into the character of my would be ‘love.’ The way he behaved, pushing love from himself and treating women as objects to use and abandon while calling himself a nice man. It was hypocritical behavior that most everyone around him saw through.
People who had known him much longer accepted him as he was. If he truly wanted to be different, he would have been. However, his self-deception worked for him. It worked. And until he got sick of the lies he told himself, he wouldn’t change. Why should he?
Going back to my recent conflict, the similarities are amazing. My community partner is about the same age as my former love interest. They have years in the professional world. Lots of education. To hear them talk, lots of insight and wisdom. Just not much evidence that any of it shows in their dealings with others.
Now, about how I responded.
For years I struggled to help my would be ‘love’ acknowledge the deep wounds that caused him to behave as he did. To grieve those wounds, and move forward. He resisted with a vengeance. The adult ‘dirty diaper’ he wore was very comfortable.
Ultimately, with regret, I moved forward. Left him ‘stuck’ as it seemed he wanted to be stuck.
I wanted to grow, and could not do so trying to weed an unproductive garden.
It wasn’t easy, and I’ll probably always be worried about him, concerned about the barren way he lives his life. However, my 12 step experience reminds me that he chooses this life.
Healthy love inspires both parties to grow and become. Co-dependency brings both people down.
My community partner also chooses her life, even if it regularly plunges her into conflict with others. Even if it makes most of her time likely about those conflicts and not about serving her clients. It is a waste of God-given gifts, time and talent. However, it is her choice. Whether she actively recognizes it or not—she chooses.
I had a choice, too.
That day, I chose insanity.
That day, once I blundered into the orbit of an antagonistic person, I chose to try to fight a war that I could not really win.
To ‘win’ would have meant that I helped my community partner to see my good intentions, and for her to follow existing policy. It might have even led to an apology from her for being adversarial in a way that did not serve our mutual client or agencies.
To ‘win’ (if such a win was needed) would have meant that neither of our supervisors would have had to get involved to mediate.
To truly win would have meant that the conflict didn’t need happen at all.
Could I have done it differently? I’m not sure. It was later easy to sit with a supervisor who knows me well, wants to see me succeed, and who wasn’t being adversarial, and do a situation ‘autopsy’ if you will. To calmly discuss what might have been done differently.
I want to do better should there be a future encounter with this worker. To do that, I have to be rational, and yes, sane, no matter how tempted I am to act otherwise.
Embracing sanity is choosing rational behavior. I don’t have to like, or be best buddies with my adversary, whoever they are in life. I do need to, with knowledge of who I am and what my motives are, walk into situations with truth. Let that truth be what defines me, not my reaction to unexpected moments of push-back.
When I choose sanity, I choose to take a deep breath, step back and choose the high road. Will I do any better next time? I don’t know. As this situation retreats into memory, I may forget. But what I can’t forget is this—as others have a choice, so do I.
Today, I choose to behave sanely in an often insane world.