“Paying Attention to What You’re Paying Attention To” Series
Three Things the Other Person Does Better
***To make sense of this post, first read: “How Orange Jell-O Changed My Life”
The habit of talking about ‘the other people’ in the family when leaving a family event is a fairly common way of dealing with post-visit anxiety. In fact, I have worked with people for whom the habit was so ingrained that I’m not sure they ever trusted the idea of going at life another way. Babies only do what they see humans do and the same is true for us through our lives. Discharging anxiety by criticizing others may be all we’ve ever seen and all we know.
Also, this method of ‘calming ourselves’ can feel like what we are doing is ‘trying to help’ people in the family who certainly need fixing. This helper stance can make it more difficult to shake off the old behavior with a different strategy. After all, “the people we’re talking about will ‘turn out’ to have all sorts of terrible problems if someone brilliant and caring like us doesn’t intervene.”
My strategy: I would find and note three things my mother-in-law did better than I did. I would report my admiration to her son on the trip home. Ridiculously simple. Most of what we know about psychology and relationships is simple.
It’s ‘change’ that’s the problem. That’s hard. Stop a train with the palm of your hand–hard.
My mother-in-law was a lovely woman I liked immediately. You’d think I would have focused on her strengths from the beginning and maybe I would have, if I hadn’t been so anxious to be accepted. Within the first hours of the visit after I made my strategy change, I had a half-dozen things for my list. My mother-in-law was a superior hostess, a fantastic cook (who took into account her guests’ preferences). She was much more generous with her time, using Sunday afternoons to copy the morning’s sermon onto cassettes to deliver to parishioners unable to attend. Before that visit I hadn’t inquired why she spent so much time back in her bedroom on Sunday afternoons. I’d assumed she was napping like the rest of us.
Now if a person is anxious enough, he or she could turn her cassette-making dedication into something negative. It’s fairly easy to do. I heard the words “It’s ridiculous for her to keep doing those tapes, you know those old people don’t listen.” And “Mom’s just a workaholic and wants to feel important.”
Ouch! Had that been me? Humility often precedes change.
As for the trip home, I shared these ‘discoveries’ with my husband. Surprisingly, I learned that a son enjoys hearing about his mother. He particularly enjoys his wife when she has seen those good features than he’d experienced growing up.
Here’s the kicker. I’d been keeping my husband up to date on perceived faults of his mother because I wanted to feel closer to him. My original efforts brought me the opposite. This often happens when we let our anxiety lead our behavior. How self-destruct a relationship–to come.