Scene: Outside a movie theater where my friend shows up late to a movie:

          Me: “I can’t believe you’re late, AGAIN!”

          Friend: “I’m really sorry, but let’s go in so we’re not any later.”

          Me: “But, but how could you be so inconsiderate?”

          Friend: “I know, I am really, really sorry, let’s grab a seat.”

The two of us enter the theater and grab two seats to watch the move. After the movie:

          Me: “You make me so mad when you’re late—it’s really frustrating.”

          Friend: “I know, but we only missed the previews and got to see the 
          entire movie. Why are you still hanging on to it?”

Does hanging onto someone else’s perceived injustice feel at all familiar? If so, you’re in good company. It reminds me of one of my favorite stories about two Buddhist monks on a path by a river. A young woman holding her baby approached them, pleading for help to cross the waist high river. The younger monk turned his back on her, as his vows prohibited him from touching women. The other monk effortlessly picked her up and placed her gently on the other side. All during the walk back to their monastery, the younger monk kept badgering the older one by saying: “I can’t believe you broke your vows,” “You could be excommunicated,” “Why did you do such a thing?” After ten minutes of this, the older monk stopped and calmly said: “I only carried her across the river, why are you still carrying her and hanging on to it?”

Why do we continue to hang on to it? Could it be that by hanging on to it, we can continue to point a finger at others and keep the focus on them and their faults rather than our own? You’ll notice, when you are figuratively finger pointing at someone, that you start using a lot of “You” statements to describe what you are feeling—“How could you be so inconsiderate?” “You make me mad.” When you do this, it might feel good at first, as some friends shower sympathy on you and your problem—“That’s terrible that your friend was late! I agree they were so inconsiderate”—and you remain the center of their attention… for a while. But, you don’t move forward and you stay stuck in the victim role—continuing to hang onto the problem.

Have you ever noticed that when you point a finger at someone else, you also have three fingers pointing back at yourself? It’s a great visual to remind yourself that there are choices other than laying blame at another’s feet. Looking at yourself, rather than staying stuck in the victim role, can feel transformative as you realize you have choices. My friend had let it go and was able to enjoy the movie like the older Monk had moved on and was able to enjoy his walk. They made the choice to not dwell on the incident and enjoy the present moment.

Here are three key tools to get unstuck and reframe any future finger pointing conversations.

  1. Listen rather than Talk: While in a situation where you are feeling hurt or slighted, sometimes your emotions can get the better of you and you might say something that is not necessarily helpful to the situation. The best thing you can do is hold your tongue and let the other person share, while you actively listen with an open heart and mind. This helps to:
    1. Get some distance from your swirling emotions.
    2. Tune in to what’s going on for someone else.
    3. Calm your own feelings of frustration or disappointment.
  2. Use “I” Statements: When there is a tense or difficult situation, it helps to be as clear and direct as possible with what you need in the situation. Reframe your “You” statement and make it an “I” statement: “I feel upset that we might miss the beginning of the movie.” “I” statements also help differentiate the behavior from the person—you’re upset they are late, but you don’t think they’re a terrible person.
  3. How Important Is It?: When upset, you can create a mountain out of a molehill—or a tense situation when there isn’t one to begin with. By asking yourself “How important is this issue?” you can better assess if it’s necessary to delve into at that moment. When you ask yourself this question:
    1. Pause and take a deep breath to quiet the negative tapes in your head.
    2. Assess if this is the battle you want to pick.
    3. Move toward a solution rather than stay stuck in the problem.

Using these tools, I can now reframe the movie situation with my friend:

          Same scene: Outside a movie theater where my friend shows up late to a movie:

          Me: “I see that you’re late, is everything okay?”

          Friend: “No, my car wouldn’t start, I’m really sorry.”

          Me: “Oh, bummer! The movie’s about to start, so let’s go find seats and talk more about this later.”

          Friend: “Sounds good.”