Paying Attention to What You’re Paying Attention To:
The Orange Jello Incident
My in-laws lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is about a nine-hour drive from Austin. Why do I mention the length of the trip? Because, nine hours is a long time for a husband to listen to his wife reminisce about the weekend sprinkling in unflattering anecdotes about his mother. You know, things she said or did that he might not have noticed because, unlike me, he wasn’t ‘paying attention.’
I was so good at ‘paying attention’ to any slip or perceived slip made by my mother-in-law, I behaved as if it was my job to re-edit the narrative he had in his head about the woman who raised him. As if, after every visit, I had to convince my husband one more time that he was better off living with me than returning home to live with his mother. I know. Nuts.
Breathes there anyone out there who hasn’t used this technique to calm anxiety? This same anxiety-reducing game occurs when you and your spouse or friend leave a gathering and discuss how every other person or couple there is making huge mistakes with money, parenting, spiritual choices, and lawn care. We verbally pat each other on the back agreeing, “We are so lucky to be the only people who are doing everything right.”
This anxiety-reducing technique is called a triangle. Triangles are over the place in your life. You will hear much more about triangles as we continue with ‘Paying Attention to What You Are Paying Attention To.’ For now, think of a triangle as a temporary ‘solution’ that reduces the anxiety of two people at the expense of a third party. A triangle brings two people closer and distances a third.
How Orange Jell-O Changed My Life
During my first dinner with my in-laws, I was exceptionally anxious for a list of reasons, starting with the fact that, while we’d been married a few months, that sit-down was the first time I met my husband’s parents. (What can I say? It was the seventies. My mother had just died and my family had crashed and burned. I have lots of excuses for that uncourageous decision.) Also, for my husband’s parents, my presence made clear that my husband’s first marriage was definitely over.
The orange Jell-O became the star of the weekend because my fear-of-rejection anxiety had to go somewhere and I happened to be ‘paying attention’ to the orange Jell-O as a way to calm myself down
As always, my mother-in-law had presented a wonderful meal. Around the table were her sisters and their husbands, my husband’s brother and wife and three children and all sorts of other relatives who all knew each other. I was the invader. I was attempting to conceal my anxiety by over-praising everything, as if I’d never seen roasted chicken or potatoes in my life. I particularly latched onto the orange Jell-O with shredded carrots and raisins like a lifeline, exclaiming several times that the dish was my favorite.
After that first meal, every time we visited Tulsa, orange Jell-O with the trimmings was on the table. And, while my husband was more focused on having a good time, I’d been careful to ‘pay attention’ to the pluses and minuses of his family that he should ‘pay attention to.‘ Always, I would refer to the persistent presence of the Jell-O as proof that there was something strange and sadly unsophisticated about my mother-in-law.
**Please note. I actually liked my mother-in-law. I came to love her for the kind and loving woman she was. I would have flinched if someone else disparaged her. So, why then would I criticize her? Because anxiety is powerful and often motivates us act in ways directly opposed to our true feelings. My goal in keeping my husband up-to-date on his mother’s lack of perfection was to bring him closer to me. And, yep, you know what happens when you criticize someone the other person loves . . . they don’t exactly want to cozy up to you. What you get is distance.
Then I Learned Bowen Family Systems Theory and My Whole Show Was in Ruins
When I understood something about systems and managing anxiety, the wheels came flying off my belief that I’d been clever and maybe even helpful (??) pointing out the faithful orange Jell-O appearances. When I could step back and see what I was doing in the system, I could see what kind of position my little reporting efforts put my husband in. Somehow I’d tangled myself in some kind of cartoon-like contest with his mother which had backfired since I was the only one playing.
My mother-in-law did not have to do anything special for me. But she did. She welcomed me to the family by serving the dish she believed to be my favorite on every visit. By choosing to ‘pay attention’ differently, I saw my mother-in-law differently. That’s how big ‘paying attention to what you’re paying attention to’ can be in your life.
When I chose to ‘paid attention’ the orange Jell-O for the gift it was, my relationship with my mother-in-law changed. You can bet that my husband was more likely pondering how fortunate he was to have married me, than he had on those trips home when I’d been so clever.
**Okay, this process wasn’t as easy and clear cut as I’ve made it sound. And I haven’t given you an idea on1) how to stop the focus; and, 2) what to ‘pay attention’ to instead. The truth is, shifting out of well-worn patterns is difficult. You can’t just ‘make up your mind’ a new way. I worked this magic with a little strategy which will be explained in the next post, the ‘Stuff You Do Better Than Me.