Wayne C. Allen's "Works in Progress"
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Patiently Seeing

Fairly quickly after last week's Into the Centre went out, a reader wrote with a question. Here it is:

First I would like to say your article on guilt is very good. It shows how selfish people can be when they develop what I call the "me" attitude and use it to the hilt.

My question is what do you do about the ultra selfish person that demands and attempts to press the guilt button with no success. I don't think you said anything about it unless I missed it.

Some years ago, a friend showed up on my doorstep. She's the mom of three daughters, and also taught with Dar for many years. Her eldest (whom we first "met" in the hospital hours after she was born) was in grade 8, puberty had hit, and times were getting interesting. By the time the mom showed up, several weeks of quite out of the ordinary lousy behaviour had happened. Which was the diametric opposite of how the daughter had behaved for the first 13 years.


Mom looked bedraggled and tired and stoop-shouldered. She asked me for a hug and a talk, and told me what was happening - about the yelling and confrontations about rules, clothes, behaviours. Mom was really twisting her knickers into a knot.

I remember saying something I say to parents all the time (usually after telling this story) - do what you can do to provide structure (curfews, minimal acceptable grades, for example). Let the kid do what they need to in their room. Meet their anger with calmness and focus, not yelling and confrontation (someone has to be the adult.) I reminded her that she was a teacher and that she dealt with weird behaviour for a living. Of course, she wanted to argue 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 control of behaviour. What I mean is that, with her daughter, the issue is 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 taking on blame when they misbehave.

I suggested that the mom simply listen and be understanding. 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 gain is a power struggle and more yelling. On the other hand, if the kid learns that yelling and screaming gets them nothing, they ultimately stop.

In this case, it took about 6 months. In many other cases, with clients, 6 months seems to be about right. Parents assume they can't put up with the weird behaviour for that long. So, they try to control their kids' behaviour. It 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 additional yelling?

While I haven't specifically answered the question, above, I actually have answered it in the abstract. What I'm getting at here is what the Buddhists call "detachment." Detachment is the skill (it is a skill, not a given) of letting go - of not tying my self-perception to what others are doing, saying, or even thinking. (I've heard tons of spouses say, "I know what you're thinking and I don't like it.")

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. Implied in the above question is this: "given that the "ultra selfish" person keeps pressing the guilt button with no success, how do I get them to cut it out?" The answer, which we don't want to hear, is that we can't.

I think I mentioned this a few issues ago, when I was discussing the work of Tolle in The Power of Now. He suggested that there were 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 of all, acceptance is required. The daughter is 13, and into her hormones and into her teen rebellion. Fighting against that is not going to change it.
  • Secondly, the mom changed her behaviour from trying to force her daughter to behave to the willingness to listen to her 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. I have 3 families in Port who have let their 16-year-olds know that certain behaviours (drug use, failing school) will result in the teens being turfed out. Parents have this right and need to use it, sparingly and compassionately, but use it none the less.

More often, the "leaving" piece needs to be used when parents won't get off their grown children's case. Many are the clients who have parents that have always criticized them, under the guise of "it's for your own good." They keep going back to their parents for advice, and get the same thing - "You're a failure, you're stupid and I can't believe you're my son or daughter." I encourage such people to stop going to their parents for pretty much of anything.

That being said, I mostly opt for acceptance and changing my 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 now write about in Into the Centre when I was 30. 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 and simply decided how much time I wanted to spend with my mom.

Now, interestingly, mom and dad followed us to Canada. They never lived more than 30 minutes away. When I took churches, they moved nearby and attended. Mom always introduced herself as, "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.) My decision was to love my mom for whom she was.

Not easy, some days, but I'm no prize some days, either. I learned to listen without attaching to what was being said. I learned that, forever, she was going to use guilt as a tool to try to get me (and my dad) to toe the line. Then, she was going to get frustrated and angry when we wouldn't comply. Finally, 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, is expecting her to change so I could be happy.

So, the short answer to the question is, 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.

See you all the weekend of June 3!

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