Don’t Repeat Your Past

If you’ve watched enough news commentary on any media channel, you’ve most likely heard the some variation of the adage, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

This sentiment is especially true about relationships.  There may or may not be a genetic component to dysfunction, but it certainly is hereditary.

If your goal is to have a emotionally healthy relationship with anybody, you have to do a lot of work on yourself.  I say this because I firmly believe that it’s impossible to have a healthy dynamic with anybody until you have a healthy relationship with yourself.  It all comes down to self esteem.

If you don’t have the ability to love yourself, you cannot truly love someone else.  We first get our ability to love ourselves from our family of origin.  We develop our sense of Self from our initial care givers.  We learn what type of World it is “out there” by the people who first create the environment we explored as babies and toddlers.

It’s a deep concept, but if you are still operating as an adult based upon your first three years, then you are letting your inner child still cry for validation, and that is NOT a good way to deal with anybody.

Child development experts say that 80% of our psyche is created in the first three years of our lives and we spend the REST of our lives developing the remaining 20%.  Sometimes, we have to go back to our past to retrain that 80% to instill in us the confidence, security and sense that we are valued as a person.  We have to heal that inner child so we are no longer operating from a repressed toddler temper tantrum.

How to do that?  There’s tons of books out there to help you, but what worked for me is to list all the stuff that I didn’t like about my present life and work it backward.  How did I get there?  How is what’s going on today ultimately linked to my past?  And how is that linked to my parents?  I also learned about THEIR pasts and understood what motivated THER behaviors as well.  Think of it as a Freudian Family Tree…  only the descendants are maladjustments to one’s surroundings.

I’ll give you just one small example of the insights I got from doing my work: decisions.  I’m very bad at making them.  Mainly because my father was hyper critical when I was growing up and I learned that whatever I DID do was probably wrong.  Therefore, any choices I was faced with as an adult was met with a lot of anxiety on my part because I did not want to repeat that feeling I had as a child of doing something wrong, thereby confirming that my father (and later on, peers) were actually right: that I was a deeply flawed human being.  Therefore, any time I was faced with making any type of choice, I’d have a meltdown.  I remember crying in the mall because I needed shoes but couldn’t decide between the black or brown ones.  I left in tears with nothing.

Or I’d get myself so worked up when someone would ask me, “What do you want to do for dinner tonight” and I’d just say, “Nothing,” just to avoid making a decision- I couldn’t possibly articulate my needs because I didn’t even know what they were.  So then the well-adjusted person would actually believe me… and do nothing!  I’d then feel invalidated and spin things around on THEM and make them out to be the enemy… only because they put me in the position that reminded me of being a kid, and I had cast them in the role of my father.  I’d be triggered as an abuse survivor and I’d be lashing out at a friend and they were like, “What the heck?  I was just trying to be nice to her!”

Pretty messed up, huh?  Now imagine if I had pulled that illogical nonsense with my child…  But people do that all the time.  And so the cycle continues.

So it’s ESSENTIAL to really examine your behavior, identify patterns and figure out the causes so you do not operate from a position of dysfunction and inability to regulate your emotions; otherwise you will take all your baggage and pack it even tighter for your loved ones and they will be stuck carrying that heavy load and somehow believe that they asked for it and deserved it.

Imagine a happy childhood, how yours was not, and make the changes you need to make so you can give to your child what you did not get from your own caregivers when you were a kid.

Sometimes, your 153Promise can be in the form of loving your own inner child so you can do the same with the next generation.

It’s Never Too Late: Part Two

So, how is it that I can now have a relationship with the same man — my father — who caused me so much pain that I had put a gun to my head?  The answer is in my acronym for LOVE.

He listened to how much pain I had been in.  He observed what I was doing with the rest of my life as an adult.  He validated my position by not making excuses, and he empathized by making a change in his behavior from my perspective.

That last step took several attempts, I gotta tell ya.  He had to say he was sorry several times until I actually believed him.  The reason being, he’d sometimes revert back to his behaviors when I was a kid.  As a child, I didn’t say anything.  But as an adult, it would HIGHLY trigger me and I’d blow up and estrange myself from him… for years.  I was not the most graceful about it and I’m sure I caused him pain, as well.  I will own that piece.  It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation for my behavior when I say that I had developed CPTSD from my childhood so I had difficulty regulating my emotions… I still do.  But I’m much better with it today.

We’ve been okay for the past three years or so, and I think it’s pretty stable now.  I’ve learned; he’s learned, and we’ve moved from living in the past to trying to stay in the moment.  (He is a big worrier about the future.)  There was a big symbolic moment when I knew he had actually changed.  My son was two at the time.  He had picked up a candle.  I could tell it made my dad nervous: would my son break the candle?  Would he bang it on something and break that other thing?  I just held my breath as I looked to my dad and what he’d do…  He just looked at me, looked at my son, took a deep breath… and laughed!  He got it!!!  He understood the present moment and what was most important.  Not the candle, not the table or whatever… his daughter and his grandson.

So that’s how it can happen.  If you have a history of a strained relationship with someone due to unresolved tension in the past, go to that person.  Tell them you’re sorry.  List what you did so they know that you “get” it.  Then say that they deserve better and you are going to do better.  Admit that you need help in doing that by asking them what you can do from now on.  Then listen to them.  Don’t defend or excuse.  Observe what they do- not only what they say.  Validate their point of view.  And finally, empathize and make decisions from their perspective.  Ask yourself, “What would they want me to be doing right now so they know they are loved?”  Then do that thing.

Granted, this is NOT easy to do.  You have to put your heart on your sleeve.  They may not be ready because trust has been violated in the past.  But if you make the 153Promise to do things in a loving way, they’ll come around.  I did… because my dad did.

If you get rejected at first, make the 153Promise to love YOURSELF every day by working on improving your own life.  Do the work.  After a while, they’ll notice the change and they’ll come to trust it because they’ll see that you are doing it not to get anything from the deal, but because you realize it’s just the healthy, right thing to do.

You may need outside resources.  Seek out therapy.  If you can’t afford it, find group meetings in your area.  Research online.  Join an internet forum.  Get a self-help book on Amazon, or go to the local library and ask for a good book to check out.  I’ll even make a list of books/resources on a page here… I’ll update it as I get suggestions, so if you know of a great resource, email me at jennyontheshelf@gmail.com.

You’ll notice that I don’t mention my mother in part of this healing process.  That’s because even though she was not the active abuser, she’s always maintained that she was a good mom.  MY version of reality is that a good mother’s first job is to protect… and in that respect, she failed.  Cleaning up the mess after the damage does not win any awards in my book.  She’s failed to convince me that she’s really listened, observed, validated, or empathized.  I’ve heard the word “love” come out of her mouth countless times, but I’ve never felt it the way I need to in order to believe it.  It saddens me to say this, but she may not even be capable of that due to her own issues.  I’ve stopped interpreting this as my shortcoming, and I’m working on making my peace with this.  In that way, I’m making that 153Promise to her… to stop judging her for her inabilities.

It’s my wish for all of you reading this post that you are inspired to acknowledge the past to those you love, make positive choices in the present, and look toward the future with hope and optimism.  I sincerely believe that in taking this approach, we can heal a lot of our own wounds and help in repairing others’ we may have contributed in causing.

In doing this work, it’s not too late to attain “One Million Kisses” with those whom you want to show healthy love.  Who’s to say you can’t “kiss” retroactively???  Maybe taking that one step to make it right can get you half way there!  Maybe doing your work on the past while making changes today can double up your “Kissing Kounter!”

When I first thought about the possibility of literally kissing my child a million times, I thought it would be impossible; NOT SO!  The secret lies in taking one day at a time… it’s best way to live life, isn’t it?

Make that first step today…  It’s NEVER too late!

 

What is “Love,” Anyway???

What a crazy question, right?  Yet I find a lot of instances where people do not know what it looks or even feels like.

Yes, there’s romantic love, familial love, platonic love… but what they all should have in common is respect for the individual.  It is not about controlling the other, or giving into the other person’s desires despite your own.  That enmeshment creates a very unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship, also known as codependency.

Rather, there should be a very clear boundary between where one person ends and another begins.  (The only exception is in very young children, before they even have a sense of themselves verses the outside world.  More on this later in a post about “Attachment Parenting.”)  These boundaries should be clearly articulated with expectations and follow through when they are violated so the love is not given or withheld as punishment.  That would be very cruel and would teach someone that your love is conditional to meeting certain criteria.  It would damage someone’s self esteem to think that they are not essentially loveable enough just for who they are as a person.

It’s been said by relationship gurus that “Love” is a verb, not a noun.  It’s what we DO to show love to the other person.  And how we love tells a lot about who we are as a person.

Therefore, I think it’s necessary to define my version of love since the 153Promise is all about reminding your child/significant other or anybody else in your life that you love them.  I’ve thought about it, and I think I can boil it down to a very simple acronym… LOVE.

(As if you didn’t see that coming…)

Love is: Listening     Observing     Validating     Empathizing*

Listening is a lot harder than you think.  It requires time and attention.  It means stopping what you are doing and really making them top priority.  It’s not multi-tasking, like letting them talk while you are folding the laundry, or patiently waiting while they talk so you don’t interrupt them, all the while trying not to forget what YOU want to say next.  Rather, listening requires taking yourself out of the equation while you only regard what they are saying.  It is trying to learn who they are as a person as they share their thoughts with you.  It is silently communicating with your eyes that you care what is coming out of the person’s mouth.  (Has anybody ever said to you, “Are you even listening to me?”  Chance are, you violated one of my definitions above…

Observing means realizing that to really love a person, you need to regard not just what they say, but how they say it, what they look like, and all the other clues they leave for you… either consciously or unknowingly.

Percentages differ upon the research, but it’s widely accepted that the vast majority of communication is non-verbal.  Therefore, we need to be hyper vigilant in reading all the signals in a relationship. If a husband asks the wife if it’s okay to go out with the boys instead of making good on his promise to take her out for dinner and she says, “That’s fine,” look at her face.  If she’s not sincerely smiling, and you take her response as a green light, you will be one sorry husband.

If you ask your son at the dinner table if anything interesting happened in school that day and he keeps looking down at his plate and is covering his peas with his mashed potatoes, you should know that he’s withholding something.

Or if you teenage daughter suddenly starts doing her own laundry when she always used to complain about it as a chore, you may want to beat her at switching it over to the drier.  Chance are, she’s wearing things you didn’t buy.

I’m not suggesting being a helicopter parent or a controlling partner.  But it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a lot more to showing love than giving them a chance to talk to (or at) you.  You do NOT want to be that parent whose kids say to their friends, “Nah… my parents won’t even know/notice” when confronted with a temptation.

Validating is one of my favorite words.  It means that you respect their point of view because you took the time to empathize with them.  They feel like you really “get” them and that true communication occurred.  It can be done through using phrases like, “What I hear you saying is…” or you can confirm that you understood by respecting their wishes or honoring their requests, as long as they are healthy and reasonable.  It also establishes trust because if they come to you and you basically say, “I understand,” they will keep coming back to you.

Think of how many times couples fight because one comes to the other just to vent about a problem and the other responds with, “Well, you should have….” or “Here’s what you should do.”  Did the person with the problem ask for a solution or criticism?  Of course not.  And the other person gets his or her feelings hurt because they thought they were helping, and it was not well receive.  Double invalidation.  Really, the first person should say, “I really need you to be my support right now and hear what happened to me.”  And the other person only needs to say, “I’m so sorry you are hurting.”  To which the first will say, “Thank you.  I knew I could come to you.”  Warm fuzzies all around.  The same holds true with toddlers.

A little kid just wants validation that they are being heard.  It’s not even that they really need to get what they want; they just want to know that you understood what they said.  Once you validate a person, everything afterword becomes less crucial.  There are not more battles of will or hurt feelings.  It’s actually pretty magical when you start making validation a top priority in a relationship.

Encouraging has the word “courage” in it.  (I am a self-confessed Word Nerd!)  But that’s not all- “courage” has its roots from the French “couer,” or “heart.”  That means when you encourage someone, you are actually helping them to believe it in their heart.

If your daughter doesn’t make the volleyball team, you encourage her that she’s still a great kid and that if she practices over the course of the year, maybe she’ll make it next time.  Or you can encourage your friend to keep looking for a job, even though he’s not getting any bites and you may even introduce him to your neighbor whom you know is hiring.

So, that’s it: listening, observing, validating, and encouraging.  If you do practice those four verbs, I truly believe that you will be fostering a healthy relationship and be well on your way to your daily 153.

*In later posts, I changed “Encourage” to “Empathize”