This is part of my series on Mental Models to Understand Yourself

Sow a thought and you reap an action;
sow an act and you reap a habit;
sow a habit and you reap a character;
sow a character and you reap a destiny.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our minds are a private place, and no one knows what we’re thinking or feeling. No one sees the anger brewing inside us, nor the failed relationship we fixate on. And no one can peer into our soul and behold our craving for attention, approval, and adulation.

And that’s a good thing.

But our thoughts have consequences. What we think about determines the options we consider and what we do. When we have trouble with another person, we focus on the things they’re doing wrong: every hurtful word, unkind gesture, and negative tone. We take tiny incidents and craft a narrative, wherein they’re a horrible human, hellbent on making our life miserable. And we may imagine that they were always like this, invent stories about their childhood, and conjure up a long list of adolescent offenses and victims.

Rampant thoughts, like these, cause us to believe that the other person is like the man-eating Grendel (i.e., the monster from Beowulf). And the monster must be slain.

This leads to a narrow view of potential remedies. We banish all thoughts that hint that we may not be the picture of perfection. We relish thoughts of revenge and retribution. And we fantasize about the folks who will thank us when we destroy the demon.

These thoughts, left unchecked, spur pint-sized acts of aggression. It may start with a hurtful word, unkind gesture, or negative tone. Our thoughts whisper, “That felt good!” If we don’t temper ourselves, our acts graduate to predilections. And in turn, those escalate to vicious acts of violence.

We become the monster.

We all know this. We’ve seen it happen: a feud erupts over something trivial. Eventually, the warring parties have no recollection of the inciting incident. And we wonder, How could they be so petty?

But we are them. More often than we admit.

So, how do we prevent this? The answer is to contemplate a few questions:

  • What kind of relationship do I want with the people closest to me?
  • What do I want to do with my life?
  • And how will my relationships play a role?

These questions help us to look forward and reason backward, i.e., figure out what we want, long term, and then work backward to uncover all dependencies. Thinking this way reminds us that we don’t operate in a vacuum; we need other people. Thinking this way makes it easier to overlook the slights of others.

We can also ask questions to quell our anger:

  • What part did I play in this?
  • How did the other person feel?
  • What needs are they trying to meet?
  • What do I genuinely like about the other person?

Now, I’d be lying if I said this was easy. It’s not. But it’s possible.

Through practice, we can ask these critical questions before our emotions overtake our command centers, and we do something irreversible. We can see other people as more than monsters; we can see them as human beings with their own set of worries and hurt feelings.

When we consistently practice this, something magical occurs: the majority of conflicts evaporate. When we choose to step outside of ourselves, we discover that we, ourselves, are agents of chaos. Only then can we accept responsibility for our relationship problems.

Accepting responsibility is terrifying. But it’s a place a power: if we are the problem, then we can fix it. We are in the driver’s seat. We can rehabilitate damaged connections by changing how we think of others.