Back to the Cradle

A gargantuan challenge for any re-booter is to unlearn and overcome the maladaptive behaviors we picked up as kids. I declare with utter confidence that 99% of the world’s population fails to meet this goal. For those who struggle to break free of such bonds, the stakes gets higher when we find ourselves, years later, forced to deal with these same, regressive relatives about a matter that’s important to us. Talk about PTSD! Why is it that our hard won, mature coping skills have a tendency to fly out the window when confronted by our kin? It’s happened to all of us. There we are, having worked so hard to unlearn bad habits and develop better ones when our best intentions get shot to hell by a few, well chosen snarky remarks or aggressive action by a family member.


Don’t you hate it when that happens?


Recently, a kerfuffle in my family erupted where my discipline and coping skills are being tested. So far, I have wriggled my way over to the sidelines, but I could be called back into the scrum at any moment. Witnessing the well known tactics and counter-tactics employed by my fuming and self-consumed relatives triggers all sorts of unattractive instincts in me which I am determined to squash. I know I am vulnerable to a certain amount of reversion and will work hard to avoid doing so. I don’t want to be like them. In an effort to calm down, I remind myself that I have alternatives to choosing between being a doormat or participating in WWIII; I can set out different terms for our interactions (or at least I can try). This drama is ongoing and I’m not sure how it will get resolved, but what I am sure of is that how I behave and think about this conflict is way more important than whether or not I get “my way.”


For those of us who have not been brought up seeing healthy models of Alternative Dispute Resolution, understanding that disagreements don’t have to be toxic is very hard. We might accept it in theory, but the practice seems highly improbable. When confronted by Bad Family Behavior, a useful distancing technique is to remind yourself that what is occurring is an excellent example of what not to do. For instance, when someone is impatient with us, we learn how important it is to be patient ourselves. If we are the subject of unkind gossip, perhaps this will persuade us to keep our lips zipped next time we are tempted to pass along a rumor. Oh, and as a baseline premise: yelling never enhances the effectiveness of an exchange.


This is not to say that we won’t be tempted to backslide; eruptions can occur. But, the more we practice demonstrating sane and safe negotiating techniques, the more natural they’ll start to feel. It’s hard to master new habits! It’s even harder when we’re called upon to practice with people who have no such skills and lack any desire to promote comity or peace. They’d much prefer to draw us back into their toxic territory.


Any of this sound familiar? How well did you handle your last family feud?


Our combatants intend to provoke us—I remind myself that this is the only tool in their tool box. They are unpleasant because they see no other way to win. (I’ve recently started to liken certain bad behaviors amongst my relatives as akin to being an epileptic—they cannot help themselves. Somehow, framing the issue this way has lessened the sting.) I know from personal experience how unsatisfying it can be to allow insults to lay there, unanswered. This is when it becomes critical that we keep our long game in mind by asking ourselves questions such as: Do I want to be like them? Am I willing to stoop to their level? Is this battle worth the cost? Will my fighting back make any difference? Lord knows, they won’t respect you for holding your temper. But I will, and you will. As well as anyone else who’s been on the receiving end of this sort of puerile volatility.


Why am I saying all this? I’m saying it to acknowledge that it is really hard to draw on new techniques and approaches when the stakes feel so high, and what stakes are higher than those when dealing with our relatives? The higher the stakes, the more important it is that re-booters try to hew closely to our new selves. It won’t always feel good at the time, but this sort of progress is worth the sacrifice. Paragons of peace manifest in many forms.


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One Response to “Back to the Cradle”

  1. Jim Patterson Says:

    Some good points Chrisanna. This is the entire focus of the new book I have started. I have titled it but it will not be ready until later this year. This is the facebook link.

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