Mark Twain once wrote something that makes me laugh every time I read it:
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”
In keeping with Twain’s mastery of irony and the art of getting us to laugh at ourselves, this quote is funny to just about anyone who reads it – but only because the behavior it describes is at once so universal and so unhelpful.
It’s a clever illustration of something we all do, which is to give in to the tendency to think we’re right and others are wrong whenever we disagree about anything – and in particular when it’s a disagreement with a family member!
All humans have a natural inclination to become entrenched in our own opinions for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it keeps the chaotic world around us more understandable and predictable. Add to that urges like competition and the desire to settle old scores, and the result can be knee-jerk negative reactions to even the most innocent remark by someone close to us.
The great news is, you can avoid having that knee-jerk reaction completely if you’re willing to give up being right, and instead select what communications you allow in by applying conscious filters. And by filters I don’t mean you should “tune them out” and ignore them, or stick your fingers in your ears while they’re talking and say, “LA LA LA LA LA!” to drown them out.
Just as it’s true that someone else’s opinion of you is “none of your business” (for more on that topic, see my post from last February), it’s also true that whatever words come out of their mouths are not about you. And I mean, even if they think their words are about you, they’re not! That’s an important distinction, since our biggest reactions tend to be triggered by our perception of their presumed intent, more so than the words themselves.
A perfect example in many families is the question, “Why did you do it that way?” Sound familiar? Whether coming from a parent or a sibling (or even a child!), our immediate assumption is that 1) the questioner thinks they know a better way to have done whatever it is, and 2) we aren’t smart/wise/savvy/experienced enough (fill in your trigger word!) to have known it. Irritation or anger kick in, and suddenly we’re fully invested an us-vs.-them moment. Even if we don’t react outwardly, any loving connection we felt in the moment just prior has been severed.
So…what if we instead imagined that their question arose from their being curious, or even impressed? What if they were impressed and admiring us for doing the thing that way? We would smile, and feel all warm inside, and maybe puff up with a sense of our own accomplishment. Wouldn’t that be more enjoyable than becoming irritated, aggravated and reactive?
So here’s my radical suggestion: next time you get that question, I want you to say to yourself, “Aw, he/she thinks I’m really smart!” Don’ worry if you believe it’s “true” or not – just pretend it is in that moment.
That’s one possible filter that is completely within our control to create in our minds, thus turning any potential insult into a compliment. “But,” you may ask, “Wouldn’t we be making it up?” Sure! But that’s the point I want you to realize – we’re always making it up, no matter which filter we use! So why not use one that empowers you?
It’s not about the “truth,” it’s about how you feel and being able to respond in a way that supports your self-esteem. You can’t change them – they will think whatever they think, and say whatever they say. But you can change how you respond. And not adding fuel to the fire – not joining in to the perceived insult/reaction pattern, because you choose not to – will allow you to feel more self-assured, composed, and unaffected by their words.
A whole new way to look at things, I know – but an extremely powerful one if you want to create the best possible life experience for yourself.
Another filter that comes in very handy is to imagine that the other person is feeling “lesser than” and unconsciously striving to feel better about themselves. You could, if you choose to, receive their misguided effort to boost their own self-esteem with empathy, and reflect back to them only love and the hope that they can find a way to be truly happy.
Can you see how incredibly powerful such filters can be? They give you the power to create interactions that make you feel positive, secure and connected to others. And no one will know that’s what you’re doing – they’ll just know they really like talking to you!
So throughout your family gatherings, just keep in mind that the motivation, sense of freedom (or even entitlement) and ultimately the choice to utter any communication is always ALL about the person saying it. And if you can manage the first step of detaching yourself from the feeling that it’s about you, try to have some compassion for what’s driving the other person to say something that feels competitive, snarky or less than loving. They are having their own struggles with self-worth and maintaining their self-esteem.
If you can hold the thought that everyone around you is doing their best (even if their best doesn’t sound so great to you in that moment!), you can let words wash over you in complete neutrality, and respond to them with gentleness and generosity.
And isn’t that how you’d like to be with your family members, really? If you can manage to give up the traditional pattern of verbal “combat” for the limited time you will be together, both of you will have a more peaceful, loving and fulfilling – and maybe even joyful! – holiday experience.
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Don’t forget! If you haven’t already done so, be sure to download your copy of my mini-poster, “Making the Transition from 2014 to 2015: Messages of Inspiration and Motivation” from last week’s blog post!
Wishing you love and happiness in abundance,