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Example of Taking Action (with analysis)

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Bob and Sam are two friends who have known each other for years. One day, Bob realizes that he is angry with Sam and has been holding onto that anger for several days. It’s making him irritable and unhappy, so he decides to think the issue through further. He recalls that Sam borrowed his toolbox last week and said he would return it by Saturday, but he didn’t. On further reflection, Bob sees that his anger towards Sam has to do with that missing-in-action toolbox, and the disrespect that Sam's failure to return the toolbox on time seems to imply. Bob hasn’t said anything to Sam about the missing toolbox yet. He’s afraid he’ll blow up at Sam, since this isn’t the first time Sam has not returned something when he said he would. Bob realizes that he has been avoiding a talk with Sam about the problem for a long time. Finally, Bob thinks that, yes, he does have a valid complaint and that he will feel better if he speaks with Sam.

In this example, Bob's realization that his is upset with Sam because of Sam's failure to return the toolbox is an example of self-assessment and attention. The first component of mental health self-help involves your ability to realize that you, in fact, have problems. You cannot develop and put into action a self-help plan if you are not first aware that a problem exists and become willing to pay attention to that problem (to take responsibility for fixing that problem) in a sustained and serious way. You might think that this process of paying attention to problems is easy and automatic, but you'd be wrong about that. Many people have problems but are unaware of this fact. For one reason or another, they are in denial that they have problems. They are motivated to not know about their problems, or realize that problems exist, but blame those problems on other people rather than taking responsibility for them themselves. Only after you become aware that a problem exists, and take responsibility for that problem can you go to the next steps in the self-help process, which involve learning about the nature of your problem, and how that problem can be measured and fixed.

Bob's emotional investment in his relationship with Sam helps him become aware that he is upset with Sam and motivates him to do something to make that upset go away. He has realized that taking action now - talking to Sam about the missing toolbox now - will save him further anger over the toolbox later on. He doesn’t want to feel angry in the future at Sam doing the same thing again. The fact that he has been avoiding confrontation with Sam may also be a clue to Bob that he cares for Sam; that he doesn't want to alienate Sam or deliver this message in a way that cause Sam to stop being a friend. He just wants Sam to show proper respect and return things on time. This realization that he values Sam's friendship helps Bob to know that how he approaches Sam about the issue is important. It will better serve his purpose to speak carefully and assertively to Sam than to aggressively scream and yell at him. Mainly, though, Bob has become invested in relieving himself of his current anger. He has gotten clear on what he wants, which is to have his things return to him on time when they are borrowed and to preserve his relationship with Sam. Bob has become emotionally invested in solving his issue. His task now is to figure out the best way to take action.

Bob thinks over the possible ways he can deal with his anger. He knows he has the option to just ignore his anger. If he does ignore his anger, it is likely that his anger will diminish over time (at least until the next time he thinks of Sam's disrespect). He also considers alternative actions he might take. He can talk with Sam assertively, telling Sam that he is angry about the missing toolbox and has been angry in the past about similar items that were not returned as promised. He can also get aggressive with Sam and let himself yell and scream. He can tell Sam that he won’t loan him anything ever again. He can stay mad and shut Sam out of his life. He can borrow something of Sam’s and not return that thing when he said he would. He can booby-trap his back door so that the next time Sam comes over to borrow something, a bucket of water falls on his head.

Bob thinks about the pros and cons inherent in each of the options he has generated for handling his dispute with Sam, evaluating each one for how well it will help him get to his ideal outcome - where he is able to remain friends with Sam but still get Sam to realize that he needs to return things on time. Bob decides that his best option is to be assertive with Sam, telling Sam that he needs to return the missing toolbox now, and that he can still borrow tools in the future, but only if he returns those tools on the agreed date. He further decides to tell Sam that Sam's failure to return the toolbox on time has left him feeling taken advantage of and disrespected, that he has been inconvenienced at times in the past by not returning the tools on time, and that he has been feeling angry about Sam's repetitive pattern of not returning things on time. Bob decides he will talk to Sam this evening, when he goes over to Sam's house to watch the ball game on TV. He decides he’ll keep his voice calm and will sit while he talks to Sam. He decides that he will reassure Sam that they are still friends if Sam seems upset by the conversation, but that he’ll stay firm about the borrowing regardless of how Sam reacts. He decides to tell Sam that if he can’t be sure he’ll return an item when he says, he shouldn’t borrow it from Bob. He’ll also tell Sam that if he doesn’t return any item on time in the future, he’ll be saying no about any further borrowing, even though he hopes never to have to turn down a request from Sam.

All of this decision-making constitutes a plan, one that Bob is dedicated to implementing. If Sam is a reasonable person too and a friend, he’ll probably apologize and swear to return any borrowed items on time in the future. If he isn’t reasonable about the issue, though, at least Bob will have done the best he could and be rid of his uncomfortable pent up anger at Sam's irresponsible behavior. Bob need not make Sam’s reaction to the conversation his own concern. He chooses, instead, to practice what therapists call, "good boundaries," by realizing he can only be responsible for his own feelings.