Managing Our Reactions to the Excesses of Others

Excess is one of the pleasures and pains of the human experience—it’s why in the midst of the severely moralistic Victorian era, men would visit prostitutes 2-3 times per week. In a manner reminiscent of the fishes and the loaves, my father feels compelled to purchase endless amounts of fish and rice. We now have so much that we’ve run out of freezer space (farm raised in China, so no way am I eating that). I can assert with utter confidence that, if needed, I have on hand sufficient quantities of rice to feed five hundred people this very instant. No problem. Right now. Bring it.

This domestic debacle reminds me, as well, of Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice which alluded to the idea of tapping into a power without the ability to fully control it—it’s how I feel about the unknown quantities of fish and rice that continue to flow through my kitchen. Unstoppable and terrifying. Repeatedly, I have tried impressing upon my dad to halt this assault, but he ignores my pleas. The truth is he forgets—it’s a reflection of the dementia, but it’s also how he’s always been. I am confounded by his ability to recall with precise detail the names and dates of players involved in Tennessee politics leading up to the Civil War, but unable to remember that we already have six industrial sized packages of tilapia waiting to be consumed. So, our Long March continues as his fish purchases remain unaBAITed (ha ha)…

As this is a situation utterly out of my control, I have struggled with how to manage my reactions to it. It serves no purpose to get mad and almost none to point out (again) how well stocked we are. A friend suggested I start throwing the stuff out, but the idea of wasting food feels like an anathema, so I resist. What this example highlights is the situation we all can find ourselves, in which someone close to us insists on repeating behaviors that don’t serve themselves or the greater good—be that any of the garden variety of addictions, bad relationships, credit card debt, hoarding, or getting themselves overextended in some other manner. Whatever it is, their excess impacts us.

The sense of resulting helplessness played out over time is universal. Until the other person learns to control their own impulses, the situation will not improve. Fortunately, for me, no innocent bystander is harmed in my Wagnerian fish opera, but that may not be the case for you. Like the apprentice whose spell results in endlessly multiplying pails of water, the spillover effect/unintended consequences can directly impact others. What do we do when we see the locomotive bearing down?

According to Murray Bowen’s systems theory of psychology, the core unit of interpersonal dynamics begins with the family as the emotional unit, not the individual. Within our families we operate as part of a system, adjusting our behaviors to counterbalance those of others. If I were to stretch this theory out to its maximum, I’d liken it to quantum mechanics (where previously entangled objects can instantaneously affect each other’s behavior, even from a great distance). This can easily be seen in families of alcoholics where the various players adapt certain roles to compensate for the chronic underperformance of the addicted member. An integral part of breaking away from such chronic dynamics is for the individual to step out of these carefully choreographed family ballets by no longer engaging in the expected steps.

Growing up with my dad, yelling was his modus operandi. He is a big man with a fierce temper from which the rest of us could not escape. To be fair, he grew up in a family where this excruciating behavior occurred regularly, so he was simply repeating the pattern. Fortunately, my mom didn’t do this, but it’s taken me a long, long time to recognize that there are better alternatives to yelling or inflicting the silent treatment on those with whom I am displeased or frustrated. Not easy stuff.

So, as re-booters, how do we do it? How do we learn to create sufficient distance from those we care about that we don’t upset ourselves when we see them being destructive–especially when those pails of water start washing around our ankles? How do we remain constructively engaged without getting washed away?

Here are my recommendations. The first and most important thing we can do is to remember that most of what happens to them is out of our control. We can’t do it for them. Second, we need to recognize and respect that this is their journey, not ours; it’s not about us, even when we become collateral damage. Such recognition can be terribly painful. Third, we need to leave enough room and compassion in our hearts that we are able to step in and help pick up the pieces should they ever reach a point where doing so would be productive. This third one is particularly tricky since so often it is less painful for us to cut them off rather than continue to witness their dissolution. And fourth, if we can find something funny about it–do so. Humor goes a long, long way in terms of preserving our sanity.

As re-booters, it is our challenge and responsibility to seek out a better way to manage our reaction to such scenarios. What comes up for you when you think about this? What new approach might release some of the pressure? How might you manage it better?

An endless abundance

An endless abundance

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