When do people learn to own their responses to things? And when do we all learn to not put others into lose-lose situations?
I ask because there’s a things my kids both do, in slightly different ways. That is, get mad for being reminded to do something they are failing to do.
My daughter has a tendency to trail personal possessions through the house like a wake. When reminded to pick them up, she gets terrifically pissy. When I ask her what other approach she would prefer, she has no response. Should I throw out her things? No. Should I step on them, vacuum them, or otherwise ruin them? No. Should she do all the tidying in the house? No. Should she do extra chores to make up for the extra work I have to do to clean up after her? No.
My son zones completely out, and fails to hear requests or instructions. He goes non-responsive. This is irritating to dangerous. Yesterday, walking across the parking lot at circus in the dark, it was dangerous. He did not move out of the way of cars, but continued to walk directly into traffic. The first time, I grabbed his arm when he did not respond. He shouted furiously that I was GRABBING him, and you NEVER GRAB PEOPLE. The second time he walked into traffic I shouted his name. He burst into tears, furious and scared. When I asked him what he wanted me to do instead, he had no suggestions.
Thinking of solutions is hard. It’s a skill we all have to learn. Some people — my partner, for instance — are very good at it. Others are not. I have gotten much better at it in the ten years I’ve lived with J. Yet I still remember being terrible at thinking of solutions. I remember being told that I was doing something wrong, something minor or major, it didn’t matter, and my response was, “okay, I will both never do that thing again and I will know for the rest of my life that you are disappointed in me.”
I humbly submit that this emotional response to being corrected is useless and incredibly selfish.
Here’s the thing. I’ve said it before in this blog and I will say it again in the future.
It’s not about you.
When my ex asked me to not eat with my elbows on the table, she was not saying I was a horrible person. She was saying that I was not participating in cultural expectations, and for my own benefit I might want to do something about that. When J told me I left a lot of the kids’ scheduling to her, this was not a call for me beat my chest and sob bitter tears of failure. This is a cue to ask, “what can I do differently that would be helpful?” When I grab M’s jacket I do not want him to shriek at me, I want him to consider that I likely have good reasons for my actions. I want him to acknowledge that he sometimes spaces out, and make some effort to pay attention in parking lots. When I tell K to pick up her [expletive deleted before I speak to her] hairbands one more time, I do not want her to sob that she can NEVER REMEMBER ANYTHING AND EVERYONE IS MAD AT HER ALL THE TIME.
I want her to pick up the hairbands.
The thing about correction is, in healthy relationships it’s honestly not about you. (Caveat: yes, obviously correction can be used as a very effective tool of emotional manipulation, abuse, belittling, and gaslighting. I’m not talking about that here.) When someone tells you you’ve forgotten something, or you are doing something in a way that is not working for them, your feelings may be hurt. Honestly, your feelings are just about the least important part of this. The important part is, how can we solve the problem? Can I pick up the wet towel I left in the dining room? Certainly. Can I devise a system whereby I remember to not leave wet towels on the nice wooden dining room chairs? Why is my wet towel even making it as far as the dining room? Can we adjust some system or habit to make the changes easier for everyone, while effecting results?
The dramatics may be how you honestly feel. I went through five years during which I could not process anything resembling criticism without feeling these omgfeelings of failure and shame. But there are more-useful and less-useful ways I could deal with this. More-useful was to go away for an hour and wallow and listen to Korn and Linkin Park and then come back ready to negotiate or correct things. Less-useful was abjectly promising I would do everything better, everything, all the time, if you would just not be mad at me anymore because if you are mad at me I am a worthless failure.
Note the presence of the words “I” and “me” in that second response.
Wallowing does something really crappy. It ignores everything about the other party in the interaction. It says, “my emotions are more important than our relationship,” whatever that relationship might be. What a shitty thing to do to someone you have, presumably, done something negative to. Whether it was an accident or not, whether it is a big thing or a triviality, the other party is correcting you or reminding you of something because it has affected them in some way they did not appreciate.
The rule is, if you have done harm, you say “I’m sorry,” and you try to either fix it or make up for it. You don’t say “my emotions are more important than what I did to you.”
I did not really learn this until the age of twenty-seven. I am certain that the people in my life found my response to correction very, very tiresome. I would really like my kids to learn this earlier than I did. I think it will make their path through the world easier. I think it will be easier on their future friends and lovers, certainly! And I think it will make them happier, in the long run. Wallowing doesn’t affect change. If you wallow, you end up making the same mistakes and having the same damn fight/conversation over and over again. Processing how you feel and searching for solutions can lead to not having that fight anymore; and then there’s no reason to wallow.
I want my kids to learn this, I truly do. I expect it will be the work of a lifetime. Meanwhile, I will accept if they simply stop leaving hairbands in every room of the house, and no longer walk into traffic..