You could have the patience of Job. You could be helpful, kind and polite. You could be a good listener. You could be the nicest person in the world. And there are still going to be people you’d rather avoid.
You know what I’m talking about. You’re halfway down the aisle at the supermarket, and there they are. They’ve just rounded the corner and haven’t seen you yet. Or maybe they have. What do you do?
You leave, of course. You hold your breath, turn your shopping cart around, murmur apologetically to a clerk something about not feeling well. And you hightail it out of there.
Maybe for you, it’s perpetually ignoring calls, texts or emails from someone. Or maybe you don’t attend a party or family gathering because this person will be there.
Putting on the shades. Pulling up the hood. Hanging your hair in front of your face. Flat out bolting. I refer to all of these tactics as ducking. I know them well, because I used to do them a lot. And why not, really? If it’s going to save you some stress, isn’t it worth avoiding certain people? Preferring flight over fight, and all that?
Sounds good. I used to tell myself the same thing. But I’ve found that ducking as a lifestyle actually creates its own stress, even when you’re not ducking in the moment.
When it comes to people we duck from, they don’t just cease to exist when they are not in our immediate space. We either think about them too much – replaying that last argument, imagining what we should have said, ruminating on the audacity of how they treated us – or we expend considerable effort trying not to think of them. And that is a whole lot like trying not to think of the red fox (go ahead and try it: whatever you do, don’t think about a red fox). Or trying to win “The Game.” You can’t. And all of this is using up mental and emotional space.
Now, there are certainly people that we’d like to avoid and whom we don’t think about in between. The relative who corners victims at family picnics and talks their ear off, prattling on about nothing. The too-loud laugher. The guy whose face is pinned up at the post office. I’m not talking about these people. I’m talking about people with whom we have a history. The estranged brother. The friend who betrayed you. The boss who fired you or the co-worker who spread lies about you. The ex. Or the ex’s new love interest.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there are essentially three reasons why we might duck from someone:
1. We did something wrong to them (or someone they love) and have not made it right.
2. They did something wrong to us (or someone we love) and have not made it right.
3. Something about our history together just makes it awkward to see them.
Let’s take a look at each.
If we are ducking because we’ve wronged or hurt someone, there’s a fairly straightforward solution: make it right. Apologize without equivocation or excuse. While this may make you sweat to even think about it, it’s fairly simple to do, at least in the mechanics of it. Think about it like getting a shot at the doctor’s. It’s a few moments of pain. Then you’re all better. You can even go buy yourself a lollipop afterward, if you like. But do it.
Unloading this kind of baggage is completely within your control. It’s a choice. And the benefits to your peace of mind – not to mention your character – are astounding. Imagine that sleeping in an 80-degree room in the summer time is the coolest you’ve ever known. You’ve adapted. But then you suddenly experience bedtime at 70 degrees. Ahhh. You never want to go back to the 80-degrees you thought was the best it gets.
While you have 100% control over the choice to apologize, you have 0% control over the reaction you will get. So don’t let it be about that. Keep it simple and sincere. Then let the cards fall where they may. Most often, people will accept a sincere apology. Some may pontificate about how you darn-well ought to be apologizing. A few may greet your apology with open disdain and tell you that it just isn’t good enough. Whatever the case, stand there and take it. Say little beyond what you came to say. Of course, if there is some actual damage you’ve done, do your best to right it. And that’s it. There is no more need to duck from this person. If you see them in the future, hold your head high, smile pleasantly and say hi, then go about your business, knowing you’ve set things right as far as was within your power.
In the case of the person who has hurt you or someone you love, they took control in the past when they hurt you. But every time you avoid them – and even in holding onto the bitterness you feel toward them – you are giving them the power. Over and over. Take it back. There’s no need to have a conversation. You don’t need to stare them down, mentally reminding them of what a dirty so-and-so they were. By all appearances, passing this person in the aisle at the supermarket should appear much like passing your bank teller. Hold your head high. Nod politely. And move on.
Obviously, there is more to dealing with hurt and pain from the past than can be covered here. But I highly recommend taking measures to free yourself from it. Again, every day that the pain continues to be part of your life is another day you give away. A counselor could be helpful, or talking openly with a trusted friend. I know one brave young woman who wrote a letter to her sexually abusive step brother, telling him in her own words how much he hurt her. She ended the letter telling him, at least in words for the time being, “I forgive you. And now I’m moving on.” But in live situations, don’t duck. If you have done nothing wrong, remind yourself of that and decide that you will not allow this person to alter your life in the present.
Where a history with someone is simply awkward, and not a matter of right and wrong, I am a big fan of just putting the awkwardness out there on the table: “Hi. It’s a little weird running into you, but hey, whatever, right?” While this may seem counterintuitive, simply mentioning that a situation is awkward takes most of the awkwardness out of it immediately.
I decided many years back that I would no longer duck around corners in life. I really do practice what I preach here. It’s not always easy. But I stick to it, almost formulaically. And the rewards in terms of freedom and peace of mind have been enormous.