In any endeavor, anything we’re trying to accomplish, there are often red flags along the way that we learn to pay attention to. They tell us to stop, re-evaluate and then proceed with caution or maybe choose a different direction altogether. It’s easy to spot the red flags once we know what they look like, but it can be difficult to see them if we don’t know what to look for.

Often we have a clear sense of what we want or need to do, but get stuck because we don’t know how to do it without triggering a certain undesirable consequence. “How can I say no without him getting angry?” “How can I turn her down without her thinking I don’t care about her?” “How can I sign up for that class without feeling guilty about the cost?” How can I not invite them without them feeling rejected?” “How can I give the presentation without looking like I’m not sure what I’m talking about?”

In each of these, the red flag is the phrase, “How can I . . . .without . . . ?” The problem embedded in these questions is that we’re trying to control something we probably can’t. We’re trying to control what people think, feel, believe, interpret and perceive. We’re trying to prevent unpleasant experiences, for others or ourselves, which may be unavoidable parts of life. We may have the best of intentions—we truly don’t want anyone to feel upset, disappointed, hurt or left out—but we may be doing a disservice to ourselves and others by trying to over-protect from natural life consequences.

Take a moment to consider whether you believe that, within reason and the realm of safety, people have the right to think, feel, believe, interpret and perceive what they choose to. We may not like it or agree, but we can, if we choose to, adopt a philosophy which recognizes that people have a right to their emotions, cognitions and perceptions in response to life events.

Take it with you

So perhaps the answer to the question, “How can I cancel the date without them being mad and me feeling guilty?” is that you can’t and don’t need to. You can cancel the date and allow them to be mad and yourself to feel guilty. Others feeling mad and you feeling guilty does not have to be an unacceptable and intolerable outcome. Perhaps you can live with it and move on anyway.

This, as is so often the case, is the challenge of acceptance. “They’re mad and I feel guilty. (Pause.) Okay, let’s have lunch.”

The silver lining

Beyond accepting the unpleasantness, you can probably even learn from it. If there is a pattern, and it’s likely that there is, to your “How can I . . . .without . . . ?” predicaments, this pattern is probably trying to get you to see an area that you need to work on. The pattern may be highlighting that you have a fear of disappointing or being disappointed, a fear of rejecting or of being rejected, a fear of other’s anger or your own anger. Fears like this can make us feel paralyzed and our lives constricted. Understanding and moving through these fears can free us up and bring the quality of life up a notch.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of ratch0013/