How to talk about the things that are most difficult? Choose one or more answers that apply.
A. Don’t. Keep it inside, and when a thought that pains or confuses you comes across your mind, wave it away like a fly.
B. Talk about it haphazardly. Talk about it when you don’t mean to, with people you don’t know or trust, and say things that you didn’t realize you thought, accidentally and without intention. Take the consequences and regret.
C. Talk about it awkwardly. Start to talk about it, then change your mind and see how the conversation partner responds. If they want to talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show, take it as a signal that they’re not ready, either. Talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show so neither of you has to act awkward in public. Or keep pushing until they hang up or become angry or stonewall. Feel sad that they won’t engage.
D. Talk about it thoughtfully. Mull your feelings over for a while first, write about it privately, decide how to open the topic and with whom you feel safe discussing it. Resolve not to become offended or hurt but to instead take new information in, like you’d feel a fabric before deciding to try it on. Feel grateful when the person(s) responds with thoughtfulness back, validating your feelings and telling you what they think. Feel more connected, trusting, and less alone.
There are so many topics that we would all like to pretend don’t hurt us. Catastrophic climate change, sexist family members, racism and police brutality, end of life decisions, second weddings, our personal writing. What are the consequences for not talking? Are they worse than trying B-D and going from there?
For Mother’s Day this year I would like to thank my mom for her ability to love.
I first learned about this idea of love from the special features following the film “Pieces of April.” Derek Luke, who plays Bobby in the film, says the movie is unique because of its message about love. Through the magnificent failings of all its quirky (did I say quirky? I meant dysfunctional) characters, the film shows that love is an ability, not a feeling. Which means it is something that can be learned, a word I usually associate with school.
While I learned about the importance of effort in academic pursuits in graduate school (and boy, did I!), it took me longer to realize that the same effort could be applied to learning emotional and relationship matters. And though I began my academic learning when attending school for the first time, my ways of feeling, reacting, and relating to others had been practiced and reinforced since I was born.
When certain behaviors, like a particular way of responding when another person speaks, are practiced over and over again, they create “super-highways” in the brain. After that, they become the default behavior – the impulse, the automatic response, or the thing that is easiest to do without thinking. For example, if a child is often hungry as an infant, that child will probably react to a snack by eating it immediately when it appears. If the child has never had the opportunity to practice waiting to eat snack, he probably won’t be very good at it: behaviors that aren’t practiced are like roads that don’t get driven on. They simply disappear.
When anything threatening or uncertain happens, my default reaction – my superhighway – is anger. Lashing out, raising my voice. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that I’ve been personally threatened – it could be something as simple as someone disagreeing with me. On the phone one night, my mom and I were discussing what I should do about my fatigue. I was (idiotically) trying to figure out a way to continue in my three after-work hobbies: a cappella chorus, weekly writer group, and monthly writer group. I’ve been on a schedule overload like this since high school, and my mom was trying to encourage me to rest:
My mom: “What if this is your window to rest and recover, and what if you spend it too busy? You may miss that window and end up tired…for the rest of your life.”
Me (angry): “What did you need to go and say that for? Don’t you think that’s what I’m worried about most?”
I was angry because my mom had said exactly what I was thinking. It’s kind of ironic to get mad at someone for essentially agreeing with me. But like many default reactions, anger is a defense mechanism meant to deflect other negative feelings like feeling scared (in this case), or ashamed or ignored. It is not a very useful response, because no matter what the anger is directed towards – a person, the store that’s out of a key ingredient, a flat tire – the anger usually shuts down the situation instead of resolving it.
In the past couple years, I decided that I needed to find a way to either avoid anger in the first place, or (more realistically) to do something besides go into attack mode when I felt it. The process was (is, I must admit) messy and stilted. In emotional conversations, I often become angry anyway, even after telling myself it won’t happen. (I once made myself a little note – a “yellow card” like in soccer – to use when I was feeling over the edge; I was in Italy during the World Cup at the time).
It helped when a teacher reminded me that “when under stress, regress,” which means, when a person is under stress, she reverts to her original ways of handling a situation. This helped me to have patience with myself when I was trying to lay down the new highway in my brain. It helped me to realize that even if I didn’t always succeed in managing anger, it was important that I was trying, and some day, I might succeed.
Eventually, after a much longer time than expected, I became able to feel anger and not do or say anything about it. I can “just be” and let the feeling occur. Sometimes, magically, I can even say, “I want to talk about this, but can we do it later?” Other times, it is like my car has stalled on the highway. I won’t let it go any further down the anger road, but it doesn’t have anywhere else to go. So I remain silent, staring, remembering my breath. And still other times, when I am at my most vulnerable, the anger still comes.
My mom has stuck by me in all of this. She has talked and listened on too many phone calls to count (though my cell phone company is delighted to count them). For several months last year, we talked on the phone every single night. I was going through a divorce, plus dealing with health problems, and was not the most cheerful of conversationalists. But my mom was there, putting in the time, listening and responding. Sometimes I even asked her for a different response, which she remarkably was able to give. And many, many times, my mom responded with wisdom and kindness, with words I didn’t even know would make me feel better and with stories that helped me see the strength and dignity in our human plight. She helped me see the value of having the world tumble down around our feet. She helped me find my own particular strength and dignity.
My mother is not a perfect person (I always wonder why that seems like a disclaimer. As far as I know, not one of us is perfect so this is a way of saying “she is a human being, not a robot” which is intended as a compliment). But my mom has a quality that I admire a lot: she tries, really hard, to love. She sees love as an ability and as something you can show a person through words and actions. She believes that people can change their words and actions, that she can change and I can change for the better – “for the healthier.” She is able to love me. And she succeeds.
Thank you, Mom, for all that you’ve done, to get me here, to today. I’m more grateful than words can say (But like the academic I am, I shall try).