Surely, being thrown together with our extended families, at the most tension-filled time of year makes for more conflagrations than any other time. These family blow-ups throw us for a loop, because we often go into these family reunions with high hopes for Hallmark-like family harmony. (Oh, how hope triumphs over experience!…) Like hangovers from alcoholic over-indulgence, we can “overdose” on family and be left reeling, sickened, regretful and even committed to swearing off all future contact, after family visits that have gone grotesquely awry.
How do we cope with egregious verbal blows delivered by those who supposedly love us? How do we live with ourselves if we delivered them? We tend to suffer privately over these injurious conflicts, casting about in a sea of pain, indignation, remorse and outrage. But perhaps there are clarifying questions and considerations that could settle our inner turmoil and guide our responses. To lend dimension to the discussion, consider the two anecdotes below, which are composites of several situations, reduced to a two-dimensional simplicity to illustrate the extremes.
Laurie was at a formal restaurant for a holiday family dinner, when her sister turned to her and said; “in the name of sister-to-sister honesty, I have to say, Laurie, that I really think you’re a phony and a hypocrite talking about your valuing family closeness when you never really reach out to me, and you pawn your kids off to sitters the first chance you get, and you nag them constantly about proper manners when you’re with them. I don’t think your kids have a very good relationship with you, and probably won’t either when they’re grown up, just like us with Mom and Dad. Furthermore, I’ll bet your students don’t find you to be the kind of teacher they can connect with either, at least if you teach the same way you parent…I’m just being honest here. Isn’t it better to be forthright about our true feelings than keeping them inside and acting falsely with each other?
Laurie felt so viciously attacked she felt, like a victim of a “rope-a-dope” pummeling, doubled over and still the blows raining down on her. When tears stung her eyes, her sister scornfully said “go ahead and cry- that’s all you’ve ever been good at.”
David confessed with great shame, that he grew so frustrated with his mother’s frequent references to his brother’s achievements that he blurted out “I’m sick to *!#!*#!! death of your going on and on about how wonderful Robert is, what a perfect son he is. If he’s so *#!!*#!” perfect, why didn’t he offer to take you on his trip to the Bahamas for Christmas rather than leaving you with ME to be saddled with!” His mother’s face fell to a contorted pained expression, and she abruptly got up to gather her things and leave.
Laurie and David both reported having a surreal slow-motion reaction after the outburst, rather like decelerated time following a traumatically violent explosion. First there was the deafening “bam” of impact, then the eerie silent delay of sound waves radiating outward (during which they emotionally gasped, aghast), then the crashing, shattering, thundering sound of collapse. For Laurie, as she retreated to the ladies room after the verbal blows, paroxysms of nausea and sobbing coursed through her body, like a revulsive reaction to a toxic agent in her system. Her reflexive body response preceded her brain’s registering what she’d just experienced. She was in such stunned shock, she could not get her brain online to help her compute what just happened. It was all she could do to soldier on through the meal, avoiding verbal and eye engagement with her increasingly drunken sister. “All I could think was, if this was anyone but a family member, I would leave the table, and arrange my life so as to NEVER EVER come face to face with this person again; EVER.“ The wretched distress preyed on her heart and soul like maggots on rotten meat.
For David, just seconds after his outburst, he was wracked with a sickened twisting in his gut, not from revulsion like Laurie, but from self-loathing for cutting down his mother so heartlessly. His wrath erupted so spontaneously, like lava from the volcanic depths, and now her mother was scathed. Witnessing her devastated reaction was agonizing for him.
So now what? Where do we go from here? We get so spun around by dizzying extremes of fury and distress that we’re disoriented and don’t know how to think about what happened, nor what to do or say next. Like surveying post-explosion destruction, we have to take inventory of the personal damage and decide whether to rebuild or take a wrecking ball to it. In Laurie’s case, her dilemma was whether to forgive her brother, or succumb to the delicious itch of vindictiveness and punish him with either hostile silence, or shredding retaliative criticism. The choice in David’s case, was between apologizing to his mother and attempting to make amends, or leaving the wound unattended, to fester and poison the relationship all the more.
There is, of course, no single quick and easy answer. These incidents are always embedded in complex relationships with complicated histories, strained contexts and wildcard personality factors, preventing tidy formulaic prescriptions. But we can help ourselves arrive at our ultimate resolution by considering certain questions that lend clarifying perspective to the whole dilemma.
A) What the heck just happened? In our stunned distress-reactions, our brains effectively disconnect from our bodily responses, leaving us devoid of mental clarity. We have to rewind the situation to recapture precisely what transpired. “Did my sister REALLY accuse me of being a lousy parent and teacher, both my most valued life missions? And she kicked me when I was down, by scorning me when I was crying?” “Did I REALLY just bash my mother for loving my brother better than me AND convey her very presence is sheer burden?” We cannot plan a response if we’re fuzzy on what exactly we’re planning a response TO.
B) What the heck was THAT about? Once we have our brains back “online” after being disabled from the emotional ambush, we can employ it to understand where the assault came from, what the context and contributing factors were. What just preceded the outburst? What forces underlie the vicious communications? Laurie might wonder if her sister’s outburst had to do with the preceding dinner conversation about joblessness, which her sister now must confront having been laid off; or if it was alcoholism speaking. David had to ask himself if he was really so mired in ancient issues of sibling rivalry that his jealousy could so destructively derail him; or if his mother’s emotionally limited ability to show him affection was something he still couldn’t accept, and was trying to extract from her what he’d never receive.
C) Is it a simple victim-attacker dynamic, or do both people have a role and responsibility to claim? Ultimately, what matters here is that we adopt a fair-minded, balanced perspective on the conflict, admitting our own participation in the larger relationship dysfunction, (if we felt like the assaultee), or acknowledging the other person’s role in provoking the outburst (if we were the assaulter). In Laurie’s case, she might ask herself if she had provoked her sister in some way, perhaps been competitive with or diminishing of her. The answer may well be “no” but it’s a service to herself, her sister and to their relationship to pose this honest question. In David’s case, he might recall how relentlessly his mother was bragging about his brother while offering only criticisms of David. Additionally, his brother’s gloating holiday phone call from his cruise ship could have churned up his envy.
D) Is there truth in the barbed words that are hard to admit? This can be the most challenging question of all, because when we’re the victim, it requires viewing ourselves in a negative light. It hurts, like salt on a wound, to find merit in the injurious betrayal. The challenge to the assaulter is parsing out what was truth, cruelly relayed, versus ugly harder truths to admit; that what was speaking was actually our envy, bitterness, inferiority, insecurity, longing, neediness or jealousy. If we’re “big enough” (i.e. mature, just and honest with ourselves) the outgrowths of these lines of inquiry can deepen and enrich reconciliation discussions with our family members. We can, in other words, stand our ground with our family members, while also allowing that there is indeed truth to their words, worthy of reflecting seriously upon.
E) How can we view ourselves with compassionate understanding in all this? Regardless of the role we played, we are suffering right now; from betrayed injury, from deep remorse and shame, from burning anger, from estrangement from one of the few people we’re bound to for life as a family member. Without compassion for our own pain, we risk compounding our suffering further with harsh self-condemnation, cold indifference, and ultimate self-re-injury. How? Because we end up treating ourselves with the same close-hearted insensitivity we’re feeling so bad about in the first place. By permitting ourselves to open our hearts to compassionate appreciation of the pain we’re suffering and, on some level, that of the involved family member as well, we then release our guard of reactive defensiveness. This enables us to expand into a centered calm state in which we can best call up the full range of our resources, including: our big-picture, “when all is said and done” philosophical perspective; our more attuned emotional insightfulness; our creative strategizing and even our bridge-building (i.e. all those evolved resources we find a way to employ in contexts outside our family!). It is in this state of self-possessed calm that we are best positioned to reflect on what course of action to pursue. (See blog 9/2/11 for guidance on self-relaxation and breathing techniques.) We can then contemplate what course to take, while pondering the following questions:
1) Do I want to confront this head-on, and prevent its malignant effects from growing?
2) Do I want to buy time and circle back only after I’ve gathered my thoughts? Perhaps even state explicitly “we need to talk about what happened here but I need some time first; I’ll get back to you when I’m ready to talk.”
3) Do I want to leave it alone for now and see how my feelings and our relationship evolve… knowing that probably leads to greater estrangement?
4) Do I want to never discuss the incident because the turmoil would be too great, even though that may well mean permanent damage to the already frayed bond?
5) Do I want to act out of “my highest best self” or let my angry reflexes drive my behavior? (The latter may indeed be coincident with the former, by the way…)
6) Do I want to unleash my vindictiveness, uncensored, which, in effect, is to engage in the same hurtful way as the very person I’m in conflict with?
7) Might it help to confide my pain or remorse with a nonjudgmental non-family member, who could help me think about how to proceed?
8) Do I harbor that faulty delusion that I can actually change others? The truth is, we cannot change others; we can only change ourselves and hope the change evokes a better reaction in others. (“When people show you who they are…believe it!”)
9) What course of action serves me best, ultimately? Would saying nothing help me avoid dreaded conflict now, but then communicate that I’ll put up with shabby abuse, unprotestingly, again in the future? Would shunning the other, avoiding communication, feel vindictively gratifying? But would refusing to forgive the other leave me with a corner of my heart shut down and closed off, not only to others in my life, but to myself as well?
10) If the tables were turned, how would I want the issue managed?
These kind of probing reflections never yield clear direction on a single pass or even on multiple passes and re-workings. The weeds of family tensions are too deeply and widely rooted to be unearthed with one yank. Sometimes, however (to change-up metaphors), these dilemmas become like rocks in a rock-tumbler. The more we toss around all the craggy edges, the more polished and smooth our final position becomes. In the end, all we can ask of ourselves is that we bring our best selves to those family conflicts in which we get snagged, to at least do damage control, if not even elevate the discourse to a more evolved, kinder level.
That requires a stop-drop-and roll kind of new reflex: a) refrain from reactive responding (which takes Herculean restraint) b) settle one’s agitated system to a calmer set-point (via self-soothing measures like deep breathing), and THEN c) draw on all our higher resources of self and interpersonal awareness, compassion, humor and the large-scope perspective to guide our response to the discord.
I ain’t saying it’s easy folks. But lashing back vindictively, immediately gratifying as that can be, is no bargain either. In the long run, like a boomerang of retaliation, it comes right back at us.
As for Laurie and David: what would you advise if they came to you seeking guidance as their wise nonjudgemental friend? And what would you do if you yourself were Laurie and David? (The difference between your two answers can be illuminating!)