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Therapist Corner: Making Generous Assumptions Towards Difficult People

Hello, my name is Keith Haar, and I am a therapist and supervisor here at Kids in the Middle. I want to talk a little about how we perceive and manage those difficult people in our lives.

True or False: There are people in your life whose main goal (at least some of the time) is to get under your skin. If you answered ‘False,’ good for you! You’ve learned to set boundaries with folks and have kept toxic people out of your life. Now, for the other 99% of us who answered ‘True,’ I want you to picture one such person. Picture in your mind that one person who loves to bother you. Someone who acts clueless on purpose because they know it gets a rise out of you. Feel that heat rising in your body? Notice your brow furrowing and your face tightening? That feeling is resentment. And resentment is an immense feeling.

A simple web search gives us a pretty intense definition of resentment: Bitter indignation at being mistreated. The article “Resentment and Forgiveness” from the University of New Hampshire states, “To experience resentment is to relive an offense that injured you in the past.” In other words, resentment is a backpack full of bricks, and it’s one that many of us wear day in and day out. Today, I invite you to take that backpack off.

When you have people who are, as Brené Brown puts it, “sucking on purpose just to tick me off,” it’s natural to feel resentment. But what if they’re actually trying the best they can? I work with many co-parents who would scoff at this idea (and often for a good reason). Still, I encourage you to give it a try. Picture that person from above again and ask yourself if they might be doing the best they know how. I know; they probably aren’t. They probably have done you wrong and do not deserve to have such a generous assumption made towards them. But here’s the kicker: our kind thoughts are completely selfish. They may not deserve the benefit of the doubt, but you deserve the benefit of not having to carry that backpack around all day! We become lighter when we allow ourselves to shed the extra weight of our animosity.

When we accept that our co-parent might be trying, we open ourselves up to a path forward – a path toward a better life for ourselves and our children. A struggle I see all too often with the kids I work with is the internal struggle between the innate love they have for their parents and the hurtful things they hear about them. Parents who are stuck in their pain often implicitly pass on their ideas about their co-parent to their children, affecting their image and relationship with that parent. So, to help make sure your feelings about your co-parent don’t influence your children’s vision of them, I offer you these tips:

  1. If you don’t have anything nice to say about your co-parent, don’t say anything at all.
  2. Be willing to point out your co-parent’s strengths (e.g., “Let’s call mom for help with this homework. She’s very good at math.”).
  3. Follow The Warshak Test to help you differentiate between bothering and harmful co-parent behaviors.
  4. Seek your own space to tell your story. Kids in the Middle offers counseling services for adults trying to support their children and their emotional health.

To the folks out there that find themselves struggling with resentment, I want you to know: Your pain is real. Your anger is justified. And you don’t have to carry that around with you forever. You don’t deserve to carry that around with you. I encourage you to try it every once in a while. See what it’s like to make these generous assumptions about the difficult people in our lives.

SOC & Clinical Operations Supervisor & Therapist
Keith Haar, MA, PLPC, NCC