I recently bumped into an old acquaintance. Let’s call him Matt. Matt is a skilled electrician who had much to do with the building of our home, many years ago. Since the project took over a year, I had many opportunities to chat with him about matters outside the construction business. When Matt learned that much of my professional life revolved around the treatment of addictions, he candidly shared that he has been sober for over twenty years. He recounted past behaviors and mistakes that eventually led him to an inpatient facility. Matt credits his personal and career success over the last two decades to what he learned during his 28-day stay at the rehab center.

Matt reflected how one of his counselors shared this “pearl” that had greater (and more insightful) implications and applications than addiction itself. The memorable quote was:

“We train people how to treat us.”

Matt then went on to explain how that simple remark re-shaped his life by changing how he viewed his relationships with others. “He added, “instead of blaming and resenting others for what they said or did to me, I started to realize that I had encouraged, or at least allowed, their actions by the way I was behaving.” I had “taught” my old bosses not to trust me by being late or by underperforming due to a hangover. I was irritable because I needed a drink; they learned never to leave me in charge because I would alienate my co-workers.” I had “trained” my wife to be distant and unemotional with me by breaking so many promises I’d made to her.” I had “educated” my children to ignore or mistrust me because I was such a poor role model because of my drinking.”

In my education as a counselor, many eminent theorists have shared their wisdom via books and lectures, but nothing struck me with greater clarity than Matt’s simple, shared piece of insight about “training.” Have we “instructed “ former friends to avoid us because of casual, but hurtful, cracks aimed at entertaining some audience at their expense? Have we “schooled” our children to realize that acting-out rants will eventually be rewarded if their tantrum persists? Have we “conditioned” our acquaintances to be silent and distant from us by not listening to their words?

To go back to my sober electrician, Matt, he learned that the road to recovery, in all ways, was always under construction.

And that he was the builder.

Be careful what you tolerate; you’re training others how to treat you.