It is always interesting how the process of trying to fix family dynamics usually backfires. Here’s the most recent example: An aged member of my family has profound hearing loss and a tendency, as the years go by, to personalize things in a morose way. The former condition has him missing out on the mundane conversations that make up much of family life and the latter has him sounding, at times, like a petulant child. He never used to be like this and alongside the hurt and dismay I feel at the loss of his emotional strength, I also feel frustrated and a little petulant myself: Why do I have to listen to this stuff?
Recently, at a major family event, he was involved in a miscommunication to which he felt slighted. I didn’t hear about it until a few hours later when he groused about it. The first time I heard him left me dumbfounded: did that really happen? Tired and not taking it too seriously, I brushed it off saying, it wasn’t intentional, don’t let it get to you. The second time, I realized my error and I validated his feelings but, once again, reemphasized there was nothing personal in what happened, it was human error. The third time, I validated, I reemphasized and got frustrated. I did not want to hear about it a fourth time, let alone a fifth or sixth. I took action.
I emailed the “offending” party, explained the situation and very gently asked if they could acknowledge what happened and apologize to this mutual relative. I said, “he’s older, has developed tunnel vision, and I know you didn’t mean for this to happen but this is how he took it”. I thought I did a good job. Seems like I didn’t. Short story? Big upheaval where I was portrayed as the instigator of familial riffs. And the gist of it was that the miscommunication was just a by-product of impaired hearing — there was no personal slight.
Okay, the riff is somewhat repaired — an apology was issued and I vowed never to take responsibility for this relative’s emotions again. But I think I missed the boat. Let’s review the facts: I knew he, the aged relative, wasn’t going to talk about the issue to the people who mattered. I knew the alleged offending party was ignorant of the situation and I knew I was dreading hearing about it for the rest of my life. The most important fact, however, and what experience has told me again and again, is that the only thing I can ever change is my attitude and thoughts.
The problem didn’t lie with anyone but me. I had two uncomfortable feelings that I was not taking responsibility for: One, I was frustrated and, two, I felt bad that my relative felt slighted.
Interdependence requires mutuality, respect and leadership. Underneath these requirements is honest communication and the profound right of choice. In relationship, we need to respectfully let others know how we feel or think so that the other can respond in a respectful manner — we take leadership over our emotions. This may or may not involve a change in the other’s behavior but, more importantly, it involves not hiding behind the fear of conflict or the desire of trying to make another feel okay. We can only change how we feel and how we act. In exercising that ability we acknowledge both the limit of our power with others and the abundance of our power in choosing how we live.
More facts: my aged relative has 85 years of experience not talking about his emotions. In the last few years he has made great strides in this but he is not yet at the head of the class. Stepping in like that, however, I took away his freedom of choice: I acted for him without his knowledge or blessings. Because of that I was accused, by the other party, of harsh judgment and condemnation. What I really should have been accused of was patronizing behavior.
In retrospect (and in an interdependent mind frame) I should have talked to my aged relative first. I could have helped him understand the options of how he could take care of his feelings and how it makes me feel when he complains yet does nothing. Perhaps we could have reached a solution even if it meant him continuing to grouse and me, letting him know I did not want to listen, walking away. The bottom line is that we are the only ones who can take care of our emotions.
In going behind his back, with whatever genuine and compassionate ideals, I disrespected him. I took away his rights by bypassing honest communication and thereby limiting the choices we had to deal with the situation.