Relationships, You & Your Family

I picked a bone

I picked a bone

“I picked a bone,” my client admitted with some hesitation.

We had been talking and trying to understand a recent argument with his wife. My work with him focused on helping him manage his propensity to escalate from irritation to anger and then rage.

That morning, he could not find something he wanted. At the back of his mind, he knew that his spouse had probably put it away when tidying the home. Knowing this was, however, not enough to stem his rising annoyance. As they looked for the item, my client acknowledged that he started bringing up other things that annoyed him—recent points of conflict as well as things from long ago. While recounting their argument, “I picked a bone” came up.

This account may sound familiar to some of us. When unhappy with someone or something, instead of picking ourselves up and moving on, we seem to wallow in that emotional state. We let our disgruntled or unsettled emotions gnaw at us. Like a hungry dog with his bone, we keep chewing and chewing on it. In the process, our emotional state spirals downwards.

Why we do it may be hard to understand. It could be that our hurt feelings resonate with our particular way of seeing the world, of thinking about another and of viewing ourselves. We may often have experienced being hurt unjustly, perhaps even by family members or close friends we trust. We then try to make sense of it, even if it means assuming that we somehow deserve such hurtful treatment. When this happens, the individual feels unworthy and this can in turn impact their self-image and their capacity to form close relationships. They adopt a “I am not OK but you (persons around them) are OK” perspective of self and others.

For those who “pick a bone”, their interpretation of the world and of themselves is largely negative. It involves a “I am not OK and you are also not OK” position. It begins with thinking that the world is unfair or downright hateful to them. “Picking a bone” is their attempt to confirm their negative assumptions and the subsequent anger outburst is their “protest” against such treatment. Unfortunately, after repeated rounds of such angry escalations, the negative self-perception of both others and self gets entrenched.

What is the alternative to such a destructive cycle? When we experience an unpleasant exchange, we should first pause and examine what happened. Could there be some misunderstanding? Is what I thought the other person may have said or done out of character or is there a repeated pattern?  Before responding, I might look for more evidence of any ill intent on the part of the other person.

If the unpleasant encounter is indeed part of a pattern, we may choose to clarify and check if the hurt we felt was intentionally inflicted. The hope is that the conversation may lead to an apology or some clarification. We may do this with relationships that matter to us and when we do not want to let the hurt we feel spoil a good relationship.

Another option is to drop it and not pursue trying to get an apology or redress. This may be in situations where previous attempts have failed or the other stubbornly holds their ground. Choosing to let the matter drop does not equate to surrender. We recognise the fact of unjust treatment, but just because there is no apology, it does not mean that we do not heal from the hurt. We take such a position because we treasure and want to preserve our emotional and mental health.

To those who make it a habit of “picking bones”, is it time to stop doing it? Instead of being a rag and bone person, a collector of hurts and disappointment, start collecting good memories and experiences. Recall Philippians 4:8 and “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.