Right Relations: Is My Reaction Your Fault?

by Louise Wilkinson

When we think about Right Relations, it’s easy to think our responsibility is only for our words and actions – what we initiate. If I say something hurtful and you are hurt, it’s my fault. I need to see that hurt, make amends, and be more careful in the future. I am accountable for my actions.

Is it really that simple? In some cases, it is. And in many cases, it is much more complicated. What hurtful looks like to you and me may be different. And if we are always so careful that we never offend anyone, we can get locked in a proverbial PC paralysis and may never speak the truths that need saying.

Right Relations asks us to take responsibility for our reactions as well as our actions. That may not seem fair, but let’s consider how interactions actually work.

I have been running some meetings. You come in one day and before we actually begin, you say, “We really need to get organized. I want to make a list of the things that need to get done and assign them so they don’t fall through the cracks. And I would like to do the communications.” My reaction? I’m hurt! I thought I had been very organized – had agendas, action items. I had been doing the communications. Did you think they were bad? Why are you attacking me?

Our brains are wired to protect our self-images. When we feel attacked, we tend to go into our automatic defensive brain – we shut down everything but the pain. So I go off hurt. I blame you. I tell someone else that you hurt me, that you are trying to take over the team I lead – I spread rumors of blame. I might resign from the team because I’m hurt – fight or flight. OR I can choose to respond instead of reacting. I can go to you and ask what you meant. Maybe your intent was very different from the impact on me. And I can reflect on my hurt and see how sensitive I am to criticism of my leadership style, and my writing style. I can learn that I have some blind spots in those areas and choose to recognize some truths I hadn’t seen before – that I could be more organized – and I could share the communications. And I can choose to be resilient – choose to react with strength, choose to focus on the work of the team rather than my individual feelings. This is the growth that comes from interacting with each other, and it is spiritual growth. Our reactions are usually the areas where we can learn the most – where we are challenged to overcome our defensive brain that blocks and blinds us, and open to learning about ourselves and others. Practicing this process of responding instead of reacting is practicing the ability to love.

This example is a small one. I’ve heard of much bigger ones. I’ve heard that some people think the whole Right Relations effort is an insult to them – that it implies that they didn’t have right relations before. I invite these people to examine their reactions – is that actually the case? No – Right Relations is here to help us all commit to growing spiritually from our interactions by practicing intentionally the Right Relations principles. So what vulnerabilities are revealed by this interpretation? What can people learn about themselves from the fact that they are focusing on blame and offense rather than learning from Right Relations guidelines? What truths are hidden from view in this reaction? Being too offended to consider possible areas of improvement is to be blocked to the openness and love that Right Relations promises our community.

I’ve heard that some people feel they have been called racist, or white supremacist. This is certainly a big one. But is that the case? Or is it an interpretation that needs examination? And what can we discover from seeing our vulnerability to those possible labels? There is the possibility of deep learning there. And how can we be resilient so that we can focus on the learning rather than the hurt?

If we do not take responsibility for our reactions as well as our actions, we can easily become locked in blame and blindness. These can circulate through the church spreading poison. Even when it is very difficult, we can transcend and use our higher brain to take control: a. take responsibility for the interpretations we’ve made and check them out; b. own our emotional reactions and learn about ourselves from them (this is most important) – be open to spiritual discovery; c. choose resilience and relationship – choose to focus on what we can do together rather than our own hurt.
Every challenging interaction is an opportunity for learning. Every desire to judge another person is an opportunity to challenge our interpretation, look at our tendencies to judge, and choose to open to discovery of what we don’t yet see about ourselves and each other. Each painful reaction is an opportunity to practice love, to practice being the best people we can be.