It was a Friday afternoon. I was working as a college administrator and had just overheard a department secretary address a professor as Mr. X instead of Dr. X. The professor arrogantly reprimanded the secretary in front of me, and I fired back a snide comment in her defense. Immediately embarrassed about what I had just blurted out, I rationalized my behavior and hurried off to my office.
When I returned home Sunday evening from a weekend getaway, I found a lengthy e-mail from Dr. X chastising me. Of course, my initial reaction was anger. My wounded pride justified my actions. Starting down the well-worn path of the victim, I began a scathing reply, all the while thinking, He started all this by being such an arrogant, self-absorbed ass. He may have a PhD, but he lacks the basics of civility. How in the world can he blame me for his rude, condescending behavior?
Suddenly, something deep within me shifted. I was not able to continue. In my honest heart of hearts, I knew the time had come to address some hard truths about my behavior:
- Had I treated Dr. X as I would want to be treated? No.
- Had my rudeness accomplished anything positive? No.
- Would I feel better now if I had chosen not to engage in the first place? Yes.
- Did Dr. X’s behavior change my responsibility for my own behavior? No.
- Doesn’t attempting to control others really mean I am not in control of myself? Yes.
I stopped typing and deliberately asked myself these questions. That, combined with genuinely wanting to get the answers, was the jump-start my heart needed to at last overrule my defensive and offended pride. Through candid self-evaluation, I admitted my anger was, once again, not about another’s behavior. Choosing to take my disappointment out on someone else was not assuming liability for my actions.
In spite of the familiar ways I tried to project my resentment and frustration onto Dr. X, the magnificent aha moment was realizing it was my guilt pointing the finger of blame in his direction. I discovered my guilt was rooted in shame for once again putting my angry, insecure, and immature side forward. I was really mad at me for not controlling myself.
To lead with my heart, I must take accountability for my actions. Turning the eye of evaluation in my own direction, I realized that everything I do is a choice.
Another weight lifted off me the moment I accepted it is not possible to control or change anyone else’s behavior. I may choose to reprimand the professor for being arrogant. However, changing his behavior is entirely his job.
When I left the college to move to California, the single parting gift I received was from Dr. X. Our interaction changed me, and he will remain close to my heart. I am deeply grateful to him for being part of a great life lesson. The box of chocolates was his way of saying it had been important for him, too.