Whether a stranger comments negatively about what I wrote online or I have an argument with a friend I have to curb the instinct to be dismissive, and take time to truly understand and be curious.
Last week, my mom triggered a cathartic moment in our family. She did it by sending an email.
The way it started was…well…I went on a trip to California with my family, and I wrote this.
Ok…er…really, my family difficulties started at birth, and like most people, I have issues communicating with my folks. Over the past few years, I had almost completely shut down, and I was constantly reserved and resentful. I let it all build up, and blamed my parents for just about everything going on in my life. It wasn’t fair (comparatively, I have excellent parents who love my sister and I, and I was raised middle class and white…so I get it. But sometimes we still feel sad and resentful and have issues that seem petty from the outside, but are very real when you are going through them. It’s all well and good to say “oh, that’s just a first world problem, get over it”, but you still have to confront those issues), but I was in a cycle of resentment and frustration. I believe a lot of people have this kind of relationship with their parents, and sadly, I don’t know how many families ever take real steps to resolve these issues. But back to last week…
So my mom read the California piece I had written, and was not happy. Not happy at all. And she let me know it through email. I won’t go into the email itself, but suffice to say it was hard to read and, well, it made me pretty mad and resentful. I was triggered and responded viscerally. I channelled those feelings into one deeply emotional response.
You see d’evil got in me, and in one email (CCing my sister and dad), I vented years of resentment with my family. Through the process of venting, I shared a lot about my past that I had never shared with them. I gave them an overview of the depression I have been going through, some of the relationships (including one particularly abusive relationship) I have had, and some of the experiences I had in Vancouver they never knew about. Really, really bad experiences. I talked about our relationship, and our family, and the fractures in our family, and how I was feeling, and on and on and on. My email had some “excessive language”, but it was honest (well, from my perspective anyway). Brutally honest.
Now…this is where we talk about how email is the worst way to communicate, and how it can escalate, and honestly when I hit send, and the smoke cleared, I thought I had just royally fucked my relationship with my family forever. I was stunned by my own resentment, and scared to lose what I had been taking for granted for years. I thought…man, I should have just kept my mouth shut (or…you know, the equivalent thing to say for email. I should have kept my fingers up?). On the other hand, I felt a relief. “That’s everything,” I thought. “I just cleaned out my closet.” (Note: my mom is nothing like Eminem’s mom)
My dad, sister, and mom read the email, and processed it. I know they went through feeling just about every emotion, but to their credit, the responses I got back were filled with concern, and a desire to meet as soon as possible, one-on-one. They were generous and caring, and I agreed to meet on the weekend.
I needed a few days to process (and over-sleep and be anxious and depressed and worried). I booked an emergency appointment with my therapist, and talked about everything. I told him I was going to be meeting with my folks, and he gave me three pieces of advice:
- To know that everything I wrote and said came from a place of honesty
- To approach the conversation from a place of caring, and to make it clear that my primary goal is to do everything I can to repair our relationship
- To know that I cannot determine or affect how anyone reacts to what I say, write, or do. One person might laugh, while another might get angry. I am only able to control how I feel and react.
I am also exceptionally fortunate to have a wonderful and loving girlfriend who puts up with my neurosis to support me and provide practical and constructive advice. She’s the bomb, and helped me out. I prepared for the weekend, with my therapist’s tips chicken-scratched in my little brown idea book.
That weekend I walked around the ravine by my parents’ house with my dad and then with my mom (and, a few days later, I Skype’d with my sis). I took my therapist’s advice, and approached the conversations from the position of caring about our family, and being open and honest and respectful. I really listened to my mom and dad, for the first time in years, and I let them in. They did the same for me. We felt heard and we began the process of reconnection. My sister and I also really connected again, and I started taking down those barriers I had put up to protect myself, and honestly let my family in. We talked about our respective pasts, and our relationship. With my mom, I ate frozen yogurt and we helped an elderly man who had fallen get back up and into his house to wait for paramedics. With my dad, I jogged up and around the beautiful and sacred ravine, and told him how much I truly did worry about him. With my sister, we talked about the steps to take to get our family back. We cleared the air about some outstanding questions.
In a follow-up session shortly after these breakthrough conversations, my therapist advised me to really listen and be curious. To consider those triggers that cause me to be dismissive or angry, and view my parents’ actions and words from a place of compassion and curiosity.
A lot of this might sound hippy-dippy, but it works.
As I have begun looking at the rest of my life, I’ve realized that how I approach any encounter should be from a place of curiosity and compassion as much as possible. Whether a stranger comments negatively about what I wrote online or I have an argument with a friend. I have to curb the instinct to be dismissive, and take time to truly understand and be curious.
It takes a lot of mental energy to be angry and resentful. It takes a lot of energy to build a wall and to shut down. It takes energy to be negative and to be dishonest. It takes energy to live in past mistakes and hold on to past insult. It all catches up to you.
My family isn’t perfect. No family is. The thing is…my mom, dad, and sister are there for me, and love me unconditionally. I lost my uncle, and all of my grandparents over the past few years, and I am only really close to my immediate family. I owe them honesty. I need to let them in when times are good and when times are bad. I also owe them compassion, and to give back the love they give to me. To extend this thought, I owe the same to everyone in my life, and to myself most of all.
I think we all owe it to ourselves to break through our resentment and frustration and negativity, and take a new look at our families and the world around us. It’s surprising what comes out when you take the time to really listen and care about somebody and yourself.
Thanks mom, dad, sis, Laura, and the many people I call friends. I love you. If I never said it before…thanks.