Monthly Archives: April 2016

True Confessions

I’m a mom.  Mom’s have a way of becoming somewhat psychotic or at least neurotic when it comes to defending and protecting their children.  I am no exception.  I remember when my eldest son Alex was about 3 years old and I dropped him off at the play yard of his preschool.  A couple of 4 year olds came along and wanted to take a little tricycle away from him.  I had to hold myself back to keep from wanting to beat up his 4 year old school mates.

Fast forward to today where I’ve reached a supposed level of maturity, which I have actually but not always when it comes to my kids.  Recently there was a situation involving my younger son Andrew.  I felt like he wasn’t getting the kind of recognition I felt, or rather I KNEW he deserved.  I found myself behaving in a less than attractive way uttering unfortunate descriptions of his competition.  Even while I was doing it, I knew it felt wrong, but I let the criticism roll off my tongue.  At least I had the good sense to do it mostly in private.

And then I went back to reading Cheryl Strayed’s book “Dear Sugar: Advice on love and life”.  While I don’t agree with every single piece of the book, I found it to be generally lovely.  Strayed is a wonderful writer, an old soul and is a human being with more compassion in her bones then should be allowed.  I stumbled upon the following passage that had nothing to do with protecting your kids or permission to be a momma bear.  But here it is:

“When I feel jealous, I tell myself to stop feeling jealous and to stop being a jealous person.  The cure for feeling jealous is to stop being a jealous person.”

Profound rocket science right?  It is incredibly simple, and yet the key is not to simply utter magic words and the behavior stops.  It means to ACTUALLY CHANGE the behavior and then the feelings will stop because there is no behavior for them to take root within.

When I thought about what I was really feeling, I was behaving in my own child (me as a little person- not Andrew) voice.  I was feeling the many times that I didn’t win the prize or get picked for the team.  And by projecting that on to Andrew in that moment, I wasn’t thinking about teaching him that he could not win the prize and still be okay.  More importantly, I wasn’t thinking about how many times I DID win the prize, and did get picked by the team and someone else did not.  I don’t recall times when I got picked and I started feeling how unfair it was that someone else did not.

This realization allowed me to realize that to stop feeling jealous, I needed to stop looking at what the other kids had done or not done.  I needed to consider that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.  To not win doesn’t mean that you are a loser.  It simply means you didn’t win this time.  To stop being a jealous person, I needed to focus on Andrew’s many accomplishments and to realize the joy that those bring to both him and me.  With that in mind, it’s hard to behave in a jealous way, because there is nothing to be jealous about.  Jealousy is not a flattering emotion on anyone.  It speaks to a sense of lack, which is a condition created entirely from within rather than externally.

Our little selves are alive and well inside all of us.  We want them to be because they contain many wonderful memories, vulnerabilities, innocence and raw emotion.  But those parts of our selves also need to be parented by our more mature and wise self.  They need to be protected and treated with compassion and they do not like to have their left over wounds ignored or pushed away by our adult parts.

Any time we find ourselves operating in an irrational or overly emotional way, I believe it is our child self that just took the driver’s seat.  Rarely does this prove to be a good strategy. 

If The Shoe Fits

A number of years ago a woman came into see me because she was incredibly frustrated with her husband.  She sat down and began telling me that her husband recently told her she was crazy!  She obviously found this very hurtful.  I agreed and asked her to provide some context.

She went on to explain that they had been eating dinner at home.  When he finished his meal he pushed his plate forward a bit, stood up from his chair and began to leave the table.  She quickly told him that he needed to put his plate in the sink and that is when he told her she was crazy.

I asked her if this was an unusual act for him and if he normally put his own plate in the sink.  She quickly responded saying “NO! That’s the problem.  For twenty years he has been leaving his plate on the table for me to put it away.  But on that night I had had enough and told him he needed to do it himself.  And that is when he told me I was crazy!”

I looked at her and told her she was crazy!

I’m not usually so blunt, but this was so blatant, and yet she was unable to see what was happening.  For 20 years she had been teaching her husband that she would take care of his plate.  She may not have liked doing it; she may have thought it unfair, but she was actively maintaining an expectation for 20 years.  And then one day she changed the rules and became angry with HIM for not jumping on board when she changed her expectations and his.  She never considered the possibility that he may have some surprise, much less aversion to the new rule.

Everybody knows that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of crazy.  But another definition is abruptly changing the rule that you have personally contributed to designing and maintaining.  So is expecting everyone else to acquire the same level of motivation and commitment for that change by osmosis.

I am seeing a number of women in particular right now who seem to be struggling with getting their husbands to accept new rules because dynamics have changed for these women.  Some have gone back to work, others have started a family.  In some cases these women have simply matured in their needs. As they get more pressured for time, or simply grown tired of continuing to do for their husbands what they may have eagerly signed up for in the past, they want their husband to “want to change” in the way their wives want them to change.  What many women (and some men as well) fail to consider is that their partner was in part attracted to them because of the very behaviors they now want to abolish.  Imagine that you go to a store that gives you free stuff for years.  You love the store until one day they say no more free stuff, and let you know that you are greedy because you keep coming in and expecting them to continue the practice.  Maybe the store has a very good reason, like it can’t make a profit by giving away free stuff anymore.  Regardless of the rationale, you’re likely to feel a bit cheated or at very least surprised by the change in policy.  (If you want proof, talk to someone who is this week absorbing the new Starbucks rewards policy!)

At the start of this type of discussion with me, a woman usually wants me to help her figure out how to get her husband to change.  It doesn’t take long for me to help her understand that the only one who she is capable of changing is herself.

I’ve made this discussion gender biased for the sake of expedience, but the reality is that the dilemma is gender neutral.  We all begin teaching others what our rules for engagement are from our very first meeting.  If a pattern is embedded in our relationship that no longer works for us, it is up to us to take responsibility for how it began.  Our partners (romantic or otherwise) can always introduce a behavior to us, but we are the ones who give it permission to stay in place by what we do in response to the introduction.  When we make room for it to stay, stay it will.  And when we are the initiators of a behavior because we want the other person to think about us in a particular way, then we alone are the ones responsible for maintaining that behavior.  We are responsible for coming come clean about our motives and make recommendations openly and honestly about having changed our willingness to continue the practice.  We also have to be willing to accept the consequences of changing expectations for both us and our partner.  If I have always been willing to work overtime off the clock because I wanted my boss to think I’m a great employee and I elect to stop that one day, my boss may change his opinion of me, or even worse.  I have to be willing to accept that possibility.

How about taking a look at some of the patterns that, you may be less than thrilled with in your relationships?  Can you identify how you either initiated them or made them possible to stick by your behavior?

The young, the old and the truth

Last weekend we went to visit my father in law who is now in an assisted living facility.   Our son Andrew took along his cello and played a mini concert for the residents just before their lunch.  Now that my father in law has been living  there a few months, my sister in law Cristie has become a staple in their community as well.  She introduced us to all of the other residents, clearly knowing them each by name and story.

In Tuesday’s with Morrie, there is a point in which Morrie realizing his condition has deteriorated to the stage where he now needs help in the bathroom to wipe himself.  He says to Mitch that we come into the world needing help wiping and we go out the same way.  The only difference in between is that we have the illusion that we don’t need the help.  The point is we all need relationships including those where we are vulnerable.

Morrie’s wisdom came back to me again this weekend as I watched the residents.  While I’m a proud mother, I realize objectively that Andrew is not playing at the level that should have garnered the excitement and praise he received from the residents.  But like little children excited about someone dressed up in a dinosaur costume, the residents were delighted by Andrew’s performance.  And I don’t think it’s because they are losing their faculties and lost the ability to discern.  It’s because they are now not encumbered with all of the gazillion tasks that those of us in between childhood and aging call life.  We are focused on getting the dog to the vet, cleaning the house, mowing the grass, getting our nails done and working to support all of those privileges.  So often, we prioritize these tasks over relationship.  And more often, we complete them to show we are competent, and sufficient without the help of others.

Younger people see old people as a group different from themselves.  Older people see themselves as the same as they always were.  They know their bodies have aged and they may perhaps even feel a bit wiser, and possibly more content.  But they don’t see themselves as “old”.  More specifically, they include an identity of the young men or women who hung out with friends, danced at parties, liked a particular kind of music.  They reminisce about the things they once did not as something long ago forgotten, but as a part of themselves they still know, and more importantly part of themselves they still want to know. 

I watched the residents form into social groups over the course of the visit and remember similar observations from when my own mother was in a nursing home.  The women still group together in little clicks.  They talk about relationships, updating each other on who is who and what “who” is doing now.  The men are more likely to couple of in pairs or remain single.  They watch TV or read.  But if you look at the same gender distribution of a gathering of younger people, you would probably see similar patterns. 

A little later in the weekend Bens father asked my brother in law about a recent handy man project they had previously discussed.  My father in law wanted to know where his bucket of tools was so he could join right in.  The reality is that his bucket has been gone for some time; it was sold with his house.  But in his mind, he still sees himself as capable, ready to grab a screwdriver and do what he has always done when the need arose.  He wanted to put into motion the feeling he has in his mind’s eye.  He sees himself not as a man hanging out in a “home” until he dies.  He sees himself as productive, useful and resourceful and still important to his son in law.

Children make a picture with their hands and they too feel productive.  And most of the time, we encourage these feelings through our praise.  We hang the picture on our refrigerator and say good job. 

But in the middle of our lives we have the illusion that we have only so much time to “get it right or get it done”.  We rarely stop to recognize that we are the same as we were as children.   We need the same encouragement and permission to allow relationships to take precedence over accomplishment.   We ignore this fact out of fear that our significance will fade into old age where we will be relegated to the home of productive lives passed.  We defend against the fear that our vulnerability might be exposed.

Perhaps the alternative lies in seeing ourselves less as separate entities that shift from one stage to the next measured by our achievements and milestones.  Perhaps there is value in retaining the child and younger parts of ourselves in our current states.  Doing so would surely increase our vulnerabilities, but it would also afford us a proportionate amount of authenticity.