Synopsis: More on Letting Go — letting go is detaching from the need to either be right or to control. It’s dealing with the situation at hand, and with compassion.
Also mentioned in today’s post:
Many moons ago, a friend showed up on our doorstep. The mom of three daughters, sha had also taught with Darbella for many years. Her eldest (whom we first “met” in the hospital hours after she was born) was then in grade 8, puberty had hit, and things were getting interesting.
By the time the mom showed up, there had been several weeks of quite out-of-the-ordinary lousy behaviour from the 13-year-old. The “bad” behaviour was the absolute opposite of how the daughter had behaved for the first 13 years.
Mom looked bedraggled and tired and stoop-shouldered. She asked me if had time for a talk, and soon had told me what was happening — about the yelling and confrontations about rules, clothes, the teen’s attitudes and behaviours.
In other words, mom was really twisting her knickers into a knot.
The upshot of what I said to her was this:
- do what you can do to give structure (curfews, minimal acceptable grades, for example)
- let the kid do what she needed to in her room (puberty, remember? — without breaking house rules about smoking and drugs, boys in the room, etc.)
- meet her anger with calmness and focus, not with yelling and confrontation (someone has to be the adult)
- recognise that this, like everything, is a stage, and it will be something else soon.
I reminded my friend that she was a teacher (of this exact age-group) and that she dealt with weird behaviour for a living.
Of course, she immediately argued that it was “different” because it was her own kid.
Well, no, it isn’t.
It’s just that with her own kid, she wanted to control her daughter’s personality. With her students, her goal was behaviour modification.
What I mean is that, with her daughter, the issue was all around the mother’s judgement about how her daughter “should be.” With her students, there was much more acceptance of the shifting personalities of the students, and no getting furious or taking on blame when they misbehaved.
Or, more directly, I’d say, “OK, so you treat your students with dignity and respect, and with your daughter, you yell, then ream her a new one?”
Mom: “But I don’t love my students!!!”
I suggested that the mom simply listen and be understanding of the monumental changes her daughter was going through. Also, I reminded her that there’s nothing inherently terrible about kids yelling at adults. Many seem to go through this stage. If you try to force them not to, all you end up with is a power struggle and more yelling.
On the other hand, if the kid learns that yelling and screaming gets them nothing, (or even negative results, like getting grounded) they ultimately stop.
In this case, it took about 6 months for the young woman to figure her adult self out. And similarly, in many other cases I saw over the years, 6 months seemed to be about right.
Parents tell themselves that they can’t (or better, shouldn’t have to) put up with the weird behaviour for six whole months. So, they try to control their kids. Try to force them to behave. I remember seeing a mom, in a mall, screaming at her daughter, “Don’t you raise your voice to me, young lady!” Not helpful.
This approach doesn’t work, of course, and then the “cure” takes about 6 months. So, the only real question is, do you want to get the 6 months out of the way now, or start after 6 months of fighting?
Let me insert my favourite caveat: this is not about sanctioning negative behaviour. It’s about not getting caught in the kid’s drama (or the adult’s, or the ex-spouse’s… etc.)
In other words, it’s not about the conflict: it’s about your response.
Here’s a quote:
Like a Dream
To learn to transform conflict, we must let go of the notion that something or someone is wrong or bad. This belief creates fundamental resistance, and it is the first obstacle to working with conflict. We can shift our point of view to see that conflicts, like dreams, may possess an elegant intelligence that expresses truths we may not want to see clearly. For example, an old pattern needs to be abandoned or a relationship needs to grow or change. We can, with practice, learn to see this intelligence at work and respond creatively and constructively. The conflict isn’t the problem; our response to it is.
Everything is Workable: A Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution
by Diane Musho Hamilton, page 3
What I’m getting at here is what the Buddhists call “detachment.” Detachment is the skill (it is a skill, and has to be learned, then practiced) of letting go — for example, letting go of tying my self-perception to what others are doing, saying, or even what I imagine they are thinking.
Detachment means that I keep my attention on myself and on how I am acting and responding to the situations around me. I have no expectation that anyone else on the planet is going to cooperate with me, just because I want him or her to. We can’t control others, or situations, but, and here’s the kicker: we have total control over our response.
Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now, wrote that there are 4 ways to deal with uncomfortable situations: The least effective (and not worth talking about) is griping about the situation. The other 3 are: acceptance, changing the situation (from your side) or leaving.
The illustration above, with my friend and her daughter, demonstrates acceptance and change.
First, acceptance is required. The daughter was 13, and into her hormones, into trying on being an adult, and into teen rebellion. Fighting against that was not going to change this reality. It’s there; you accept that this is so.
Second, the mom changed her behaviour from trying to force her daughter to behave to the mom’s willingness to listen to her daughter vent and dump and hurt and cry and scream.
While she never liked listening to the 13-year-old harpy emerging from the depths of her “perfect” daughter, she learned to accept it. Through detachment.
She made her daughter’s behaviour about her daughter,
and her own behaviour about herself.
The third option, leaving, is difficult but available. Parents have to let their teens know that certain behaviours (drug use, failing school, criminality, violence are a few that would not happen in my home) will result in the teens being turfed out. Parents have this right and need to use it as a last resort — sparingly and compassionately, but use it none the less.
That’s, though, the nuclear option.
Letting Go by Stepping Back
For most parent / child situations, another leaving happens when the child reaches, say, 18. Or, at least it “should.” And it’s actually more of an acceptance and shifting of behaviour.
In my 20’s I actively tried to get my mom to stop trying to run my life. I’d yell and insist that I was capable of making my own decisions. She’d pull out the “I’m your mother. Look what I sacrificed for you. Do what I want, for me,” bit. I’d bridle and argue and defend myself, and she’d sit there and look injured.
I began to understand what I write about in The Pathless Path when I was 32. I realized that what I wanted was for my mother to behave the way that would make is easy for me, and my motivation was exactly the same as hers. “If you loved me, you’d do it my way.”
So, I gave up trying to control her.
Now, interestingly, right after that, mom and dad moved to Canada. They never lived more than 30 minutes away. When I did the minister thing, they attended. Mom introduced herself, “Hi. I’m Erma Allen, the Minister’s mother.” She had an opinion about everything I did, what I wore, and how I cut my hair. (My ponytail used to drive her nuts. When she complained, I’d take out the elastic and let it hang loose.)
She never changed, not one iota.
And I had no right to expect her to. So, from when I first understood this until she died 20 or so years later, I just loved my mom for who she was.
Not easy, but as Darbella reminded me only last night, I’m no prize some days, either.
I learned to listen without attaching to what was being said. I accepted that she was going to use guilt as a tool to try to get me to toe her line. I accepted that she was going to get frustrated and angry when I wouldn’t comply.
But if I didn’t bite… if I waited her out… she’d shake her head resignedly and say, “Well, I guess you’ll never change.” And I’d agree.
Because of my shift in approach and my refusal to engage in “guilt-motivated behaviour,” the last 20 years with mom were the best they could have been. We had much quality time together, and I’d just smile and go home if she got too deeply “into herself.” Which I suppose means I was using all three behaviours. What I wasn’t doing, emphatically, was expecting her to change so I could be happy.
So, today’s lesson is this: in a challenging situation, accept, change your behaviour, or leave. Making yourself miserable over the behaviour of another is really the last choice.
And no, no one is going to change to make you happy.
And it doesn’t matter, anyway, because letting go is the name of the game.