Chapter 9: Grievances
When Chandra, age thirty-three, came to see me, she said that she was grieving the loss of her mother. Her mother had died a year and a half before. Chandra missed her mother’s jokes and culinary know-how. They had talked everyday, if not by telephone, then in the kitchen where they experimented with recipes together. Now, Chandra felt lost. She longed for her mother’s laughter and her advice about men, family and finances.
But life had not always been rosy. When Chandra was a girl, her parents fought constantly. Sometimes her father would criticize the dinner her mother had cooked and then storm out of the house. At night Chandra covered her ears and hid under the covers to drown out their shouting. On school days Chandra would feign being sick to stay home from school and be nearby while her mother slept.
Her brother was no help. He teased her mercilessly. One day he swiped a popsicle she was eating. She tried to grab his hands held high above her head. He tormented her by eating all of her treat, slowly, and, then, left her to cry by herself. When Chandra complained, her father laughed and her mother just shrugged. This injustice infuriated Chandra.
Chandra wished she could rescue her mother and join a different, nicer family like those she saw on TV. Often she ate to soothe her pain. She gained weight. She lost weight. She followed the latest weight-control fad. She even had her stomach stapled. Still she yo-yoed.
Chandra had taken two master’s degrees. She was quite intelligent. Yet she saw herself as incompetent, incapable and stupid. How could she make a living? Who would hire her? Working for a boss had ended in bad feelings. Working for someone else was out of the question.
What she loved to do was cook. One recent evening she told her father and brother of her idea to open a restaurant. They mocked her dream. What did she know about running a business? Money drained through her fingers like water. Who did she think would finance her project? Certainly not them.
She came away from that conversation furious, her blood pressure rising, her heart beating and her stomach in knots. She seethed for days. She thought about vengeful scenarios. She ruminated about how to make them feel guilty. She flipped through catalogues, looking for gifts to win them over. She whined to her friends. She was consumed by her mission to get back at them. But what she really wanted was their approval and permission. Her mood was more than frustration and disappointment, hers was a deep-seated rage.
This, then, was Chandra’s history when we first met. I listened to Chandra and knew I must introduce her to a recognition of her grievance system. Then she could develop a straight-forward way of dealing with her years of accumulated anger — and recognize that the loss of her mother was not the issue. The issue was how her grievances ruled her.
But where to begin?
Chandra’s current emotional state was not one of mourning as she had self-diagnosed. What bothered Chandra was a longer held mental condition of blame and anger. When Chandra pointed her finger at her father and brother for her problems, I heard the anger of childhood. Those “popsicles of outrageous fortune” became a mentally ingrained network, now drawn upon in adulthood. Chandra’s current gripes were the consequence and outward manifestation of her grievance system. I had to start by defining grievance system to her.
How do I convey this information?
I want Chandra to consider that her complaints are an expression of her pain, her dissatisfaction and her resentment. Her mother’s death is one of her complaints. That her parents shouted at each other is another. That her brother teased her unmercifully when they were children adds to the list.
Right now the circumstances surrounding these events do not matter. The conditions and facts attending her complaints could be anything. They could be any one of the many slights that she experienced in her life. What matters is that she has mentally rendered these events in a particular way. She has judged these circumstances as unjust, the participants as having wronged her. That is what matters. Now I want her to grasp that her current outrage results from her interpretation of those past events. Her bitter resentments, both her emotion and her behavior, are the conclusion or consequence of her personal version of those circumstances.
She has made judgements that her brother and father intentionally tormented her, that they are her enemies. Also, that she was not parented correctly, that no one cared about her. These are her truths. Now, stranded without her mother, she feels unable to look after herself. And Chandra operates from these judgements as if her interpretations were laws of reality as powerful as any law of physics.
All of us do this. We can interpret any event, large or small, as wrong or unjust. Incidents can be as common as the hot-shot driver who cut you off on the freeway or your child’s less-than-perfect report card or, even a friend forgetting your birthday. Your assessment of that incident determines your emotional response. The incident that triggered Chandra’s grievance system was her brother and father’s ridicule of her restaurant plan. That incident precipitated memories of past injustices such as the popsicle incident, her father’s derision and her mother’s impotence. Consider: She does not just remember the incident. She views her judgement as fact.
You can see how Chandra begins with ambiguous events and actions and balloons them into major issues when her grievance system dominates; how the influence of these judgements has resulted in her emotional turmoil. It is easy to be distracted and misled by the judgements. What is really important is when an incident fires off behavior based upon a judgement. Then you experience the emotional outcome. Over time, affronts and assaults can collect into a mental reservoir of “things gone wrong” and be held onto for life. Hence, the grievance system.
This is how I listen.
Chandra is not ready for the whole picture. So I must break down the parts of incident, judgement and outcome. I want her to discover how her grievance system runs her behavior.
To begin with, she wanted her mother back. Only Mother’s warmth and words could comfort Chandra and she would not feel so abandoned and scared. But Mother was gone. Who else could take care of her? Her ex-husband was an irresponsible alcoholic. She was sure no boyfriend would want her large body. Who could she turn to but her father and brother for security?
If Chandra could get them to assume her mother’s role, she would feel more secure. If only she could convince them that her restaurant plan was sound, she could proceed. Then she would forgive and forget that they had been mean to her.
Chandra lives a fantasy, of course. She does not see the role that her judgements play in her suffering.When her family does not comply with her agenda, a self-righteous indignation consumes her. When I hear Chandra talking, I sort out her complaints. But, she has no idea that she is complaining. She has no idea that she is talking her upset. She is too busy living her talk of dissatisfaction and resentment.
“What,” I ask, “set off this latest bout of fury, given your long-standing resentment of your father? What caught your attention? Was it his tone of voice, manner, attitude? How did you get hooked?”
I ask because I want her to learn to identify parts of her system and discover how these parts work in unison. Here I want her to recognize that something triggered her reaction, that she responded to her emotional environment.
“Father takes a holier-than-thou attitude, like he knows what’s best for me,” she says. “He makes me so mad I want to scream.”
“What message did you get from him?” I ask.
“He calls me a loser,” she says. “He’s always putting me down.”
“You interpreted criticism?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says as she fidgets and looks away.
“Then you got angry?” I ask.
“Well, sure” she says. “Wouldn’t you, if someone called you names?”
“Yes,” I say. “If I interpret attack or criticism, I react with anger. That’s perfectly normal. People react constantly, whether or not they recognize they are doing so. If I see a Bengal tiger coming through the wall, I’ll react. Most likely, I’ll run. If you don’t see that Bengal tiger, you’d think me strange. It wouldn’t matter to me, I’d still rush to protect myself. I’d still respond. How we interpret what is around us determines our behavior. No human can avoid responding to what’s around them. ”
Chandra intellectually knows the real information – that she is thirty-three years old and independent. Yet she is operating as if she were a child and needs a daddy. Hence she views the man whom she has known for a long time as if her were still her “daddy” and she were three and one-half years old. If she were mentally operating from real information, she would behave as a grown woman. She would view her father as someone boisterous and free with his bigoted opinions, not someone she to ???. But, for now, she is compelled to hold onto her outrage. She is stuck.
“Well, I’m mad a lot of the time,” she says.
“If you’re interpreting attack a lot of the time, you’re bound to feel defensive and mad ,” I say. “If you’re wanting a parent to look after you now at your age, you’re bound to feel persecuted and angry.”
I want her to get the point that she cannot cause her father to be different. Her father is her father and will act as himself for the rest of his life – no matter how peeved she gets. It is not possible for him to be different and she cannot transform him. The only person under Chandra’s control is Chandra. The only thing she can work with is her own reaction. But Chandra is having a tough time. She holds tightly to her grievances. This is how she keeps her anger alive.
“I remember other times he ridiculed me,” she says.
“Memories of other instances go through your head?” I ask.
“Oh, yes. I have a list,” she says. “He makes me so mad.”
“You have a list,” I say “That’s good. At what age did you start collecting?”
“As long as I can remember,” she says. “Since I was three, four or five.”
“Congratulations,” I say. “You’re discovered what everyone else has. You have a grievance system. Each of us has squawked about not getting our own way since we first did not get our blankie or milk at the moment we demanded. As people grow older, we add complaint upon complaint. We all collect complaints throughout life, beginning in childhood. While we all hold a list of grievances, yours is one of a kind, as is mine, as are our mothers’ and sisters.’ Having a grievance system is common to all people.”
How could Chandra (you or I) know when the grievance system is working?
We have three signals that tell us our grievance system is activated.
First, visceral sensations register as emotions. Visceral responses are the fluctuations in the rate of breathing, the amount of perspiration, and in the tension of muscles and organs. These changes reveal the impact mental interpretations and impressions have had on our physical self. These physical indicators may display themselves as low-key and elusive, such as, fatigue, annoyance, or rapid pulse rate. Or they may appear as heightened and profound such as Chandra’s pounding heart, churning stomach and flushing skin.
Take yourself, for example. When you feel yourself getting emotionally wound up, do you feel your neck or your shoulders tightening? Or do you feel a headache coming on and sleep fitfully? When these physical signals are strong enough, they broadcast themselves as behavioral signposts of emotional turmoil. You feel your tension.
Second, visceral sensations convert into actions. You may find yourself talking in a certain way. Your agitation gets you darting from topic to topic, flitting from chore to chore. You readily curse out the driver honking behind you. You feel pushed to confront your neighbor over his dilapidated fence. You send angry letters to the newspaper that never get published. Disregard infuriates you. You make known your annoyance. We display our bitter resentments, acting in a way that others recognize as emotionally upset, our wrath visible to others. Our mental state, our mood, displays as behavior to which people witness and react. Behavioral signals, then, are overt and public.
If emotional and behavioral signals are public, the next one is private. This final indicator is the most significant and the most influential. Yet primary indicator is imperceptible to others because it is the action of your thought-voices. Chandra, for example, heard a barrage of thought-voices such as “Stupid people.” “Damn him.” “Why can’t daddy behave right?” Then a string of complaints followed — memories of her parents’ shouting, of her brother’s harassment. Ways to prove wrong her father’s criticism and get back at her brother consumed her. For you, perhaps, thought-voices center around: “Everyone is messing up.” “Nothing works.” “Life has let you down.” Your grievances drift on to how many people have disappointed you, beginning with your mother and father. Or you find yourself mentally preoccupied by injustices of a boss, a teacher or, even, the grocery clerk who carelessly packed your groceries and caused your eggs to break.
No one sees inside your head to view your thoughts. Only you have the ability to listen to them. You, alone. No one can read your mind. If someone hits upon what you are thinking, it is just blind luck, a coincidence. People witness your behavior, but they cannot and do not see or hear the mental action in your head. This internal world is all yours.
Now let us turn to you, the reader.
So, how do you know when your grievance system is working?
You know your grievance system is working when:
- Irritations get the better of you and make you act crazy mad.
Example: You are idle at a stop sign. The driver behind you honks. Without considering that the impatient driver might have a gun or be loaded on drugs, you jump out of your car, stomp over to his window, give him the finger and shout “Fuck you.”
- Minor nuisances get blown-up into major issues.
Example: You chaperone your youngster’s scout troop. You are arranging a cookie stand in the usual location outside of Safeway. But the store manager refuses to let the group occupy their old spot. You must move your table across the parking lot. You take offense. Your indignation grows.
- Nothing around you seems to please you.
Example: Your neighbor stops to chat when your arms are of full of groceries. You take his friendly chatter as him getting in your way.
Example: Your friend announces her engagement. You offer your best wishes but inside a bitterness lurks. Good fortune, it seems, comes to others but not to you.
- Impatience and sarcasm depict your current humor.
Example: You run into an old friend you have not seen for a long time. She asks, “How are you?” You answer with “Wouldn’t you like to know?” Your tone stops the conversation. She is being cordial. Your tone reflects your put-upon, agitated mood.
- You find fault with many people and events.
Example: You take many happy photos on your vacation. Yet you only recall the mishaps, the lost luggage, lumpy hotel bed, nagging relatives and cranky kids. Your mood locks you into remembering the inconveniences, rather than the adventures captured by your camera.
- Old angers well up and become current gripes.
Example: Each year your extended family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner. As the day approaches, you remember your brother’s whining, your distant Aunt Millie’s caustic remarks, and Great Uncle Jacob’s burps and smelly cigar. You feel yourself getting angry as you do each year that you are obligated to pack your kids into the car with your husband and drive miles to dinner with people you do not like.
- Innocent comment reaps an angry retort.
Example: You ask a friend if she likes your new hair cut. She said,”It’s okay, but why did you cut it short?” You bristle and reply, “Don’t you think I’ve got good taste?”
- Your aggravation does not warrant the amount of energy you are expending.
Example: On the tennis court, your opponent overlooks etiquette. As the game proceeds, your irritation grows. At dinner that night, talking about the incident, you get even more heated. The next day, your opponent’s graceless behavior still bothers you, even though it is a new day with new responsibilities and concerns.
- Your complaint does not diminish when you fix the problem.
Example: Your car gets a flat tire. You buy a new tire or fix the old one. End of story. If your grievance system has a hold on you, however, you itch to shout out about stupid tires and greedy tire companies. You gripe, “If it’s not one thing it’s another.”
- Your list of grievances is long and its power hooks you.
You are probably asking “Is my grievance system ever inactive?”
Yes, at times your grievance system may be less intrusive and consuming. Your grievance system is not driving your behavior when you.
- Take the mistakes of others in stride.
Example: A clerk short changes you. You call his attention to the error without taking the event personally and without getting indignant.
- Overlook people’s funny habits and peculiar manners.
Example: Your student taps his pencil while you tutor him. If your tension were high, you would get distracted by your thought-voices that accuse you of being “a boring teacher.” This time you feel good and see your pupil’s action as a nervous habit, an action you hardly notice.
- Brush off irritations.
Example: You’re pregnant. A teen says to his buddy, “She got knocked up.”
- You hear the comment but don’t take it as an insult.
Example: You just got a manicure when your nail breaks. This incident could throw you into a funk when you are in a bad mood.
- But when your spirits are high, you regard it up as one of life’s little inconveniences.
Whether or not your grievance is inactive implies a sub-text.“How do I avoid my reactions? Avoid thinking angry thoughts? How do I perform or behave correctly? “How do I not get angry and feel aggravated?” These questions suggest you can find and have a correct grievance system.
You cannot because you carry a reservoir of complaints to which you cannot avoid reacting. I take for granted that you have a grievance system, as do I and all other people. I start from the position that the right way for you to be you already exists. It is you, you as you are, equipped with mental and emotional conditioning. Consequently, you cannot sidestep your thoughts or visceral responses. These functions, critical to your survival, represent one individual among the other six billion on this earth. That is why we are not judging or eliminating your grievance system or creating a mythical perfect person. That is why these examples serve only as general indicators. And that is why to work with yourself, you need to get in touch with your own select and specific signals.
How To Manage
Okay, so you have a grievance system. Everyone does. So what? The challene is how do you work with it?
First, you must discover the action and its separate parts – incident, judgement and then the emotional response. Keep in mind that the action of the parts happens so rapidly that they seem to blend together. Hence, you may notice only the after parts — your disappointment, frustration, irritation, annoyance, impatience — rather than what happens beforehand. Right now identifying emotions such as aggravation is easier for you than detecting the mental action that preceded your emotion, so we start there, slowing down the process.
Here is a simple way to get in touch with emotion. Over the next week:
- Make a deliberate attempt to discover changes in your tension level. Use physical signs such as increases in muscle tightness, in heart beat, in breathing, clenching your jaw or fist to alert you to your emotions.
- Note these particular signals of changing tension level because they convert into behavior.
- Continue recognizing these sensations your body gives you. They tell you when you are aggravated, irritated, annoyed, frustrated.
- Steer clear of any habit to judge your emotions.
- Accept that will get angry, as it is a long-held habit. Instead of fighting the habit, identify anger and its variations as a signal.
- Check into your head. Ask yourself, what are my thought-voices saying? When you get a chance, write these thoughts in your notebook under the heading…
When you can recognize these changes as they happen, you are on your way to uncovering the reactive sequence which causes you to act. You are building your own measure of your emotion and how it runs you – your own emotional pressure gauge.
While today your own grievance system might be taking too much of your attention, you can reduce its influence. You can learn to lighten up on your self and not fall for your protestations. Although you cannot eliminate the past, you can learn to recognize when your long-held resentments are doing a number on you. Discovering the action of your frustration, disappointment, irritation, aggravation, annoyed, agitation marks the first step.
You might be wondering why you have not heard of the grievance system before. The reason is that the popular media does not know about this feature or how it can run you. [more?]
?????Yes, but where does this system come from? Why does it affect me?
Grievance system is not arbitrary or aberrant. It does not come “out of the blue.” Grievances rise from a reservoir of complaints you have collected since birth. You have the ability to collect resentment stemming from a feeling of having been wronged, whether or not you want it, because you are a human being. As are all people, you are conditionable. Mental conditioning starts at birth. Because you are conditionable, you have accumulated protests and objections which comprise the reservoir of your grievance system. This capacity is so for all humans, that is it is a universal characteristic. This function is normal. It is habit-based. It is not pathological. It is useful to note that our parents complain and their parents complain and so forth down the ancestral chain. What we are looking at is the fact that complaints form into a system of grievances from which mental agitation stems. ?????
Other actions people interpret as an affront are as ordinary as someone didn’t look at you in the right way or didn’t respect your opinion or didn’t give you candy when you wanted it.
I must impress upon Chandra that we are not moralizing about the rightness or wrongness of her mother, father, or brother. Nor are we evaluating, assessing or ascribing judgement to the incident. We’re identifying complaint items so we can learn what triggers her grievance system. Everyone has experienced slights since they were children. Grievances become a common feature in human development. She and I are going to take this common feature and learn from it. Our objective, ultimately, is to neutralize its stranglehold over her.