Once when I was about sixteen, I was walking up Columbus Avenue with my dad. We were having a conversation about something I can’t remember, and suddenly, my dad lashed out and hit me on the side of my head with the back of his hand, hard. I was completely stunned, because I hadn’t said anything of note, and I turned to him and asked why he’d done it. It turned out he’d misheard me, and had thought I’d said something disrespectful. I know he’d take that moment back if he could. It’s one of those things I hope he’s forgotten, but to me, it stood out. The other thing that stands out for me is that I squelched my feelings about what had happened. I didn’t want him to feel any more terrible about what he’d done than he already did, so I blinked back my tears, and tried to make my voice sound normal, but I had this wave of deep pain, as low in your body as you can feel something. Even though our conversation continued, part of me was back in the middle of that block, getting smacked on the side of the head, again and again. Like instant replay in slow motion, my brain and my heart trying to make sense out of it.
Life is like that sometimes. We’re going along, doing our best to put one foot in front of the other and stay open, and BAM! We get hit upside the head, out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, or because we’ve been misunderstood. Maybe we’ve crossed paths with someone at a time when s/he is full of anger or pain or confusion. Maybe you came into your parents’ lives when they were in the midst of chaos like that. It’s so hard not to take things personally, especially when our ears are ringing or we feel we’re on the wrong end of someone’s unjustified attack.
People can only be where they are, and they can only use the tools they’ve got. If someone lashes out at you, it’s an expression of pain that exists within them, and there’s nothing you can do to fix that or cure that. You can care, and you can try to get them some help if they’re open to that, but you have to take care of your own tender heart. You are not here to be anyone’s punching bag while they figure out their stuff. We all have our stuff. It’s what we do about it that matters. When we try to take the hit for someone else’s bad behavior, we do ourselves, and them, a disservice. It would have been completely appropriate for me to tell my dad I wanted to go home, or be by myself. It would have been fine for me to hail a cab. It would have been okay for me to allow him to see how much I was hurt, but I didn’t do any of those things. I tried to spare him the consequences of what he’d done, and in doing so, I absorbed that pain and robbed him of a chance to grow. I told him it was okay, even though it was not.
If you’re like me, you feel awful when you make a mistake. I can forgive other people pretty easily, but man, do I put myself through the wringer when I don’t show up the way I want to. Part of that is appropriate, but some of it is not good. It’s taken me years to shorten the time I beat myself up when I blow it. It used to be days I’d replay a thing. Eventually I got it down to a day, then an afternoon, then a few hours. These days, I remind myself regularly that I’m a human being, and as such, I will make mistakes. I examine what was happening for me when I let myself down, so I can be more aware of who I am, and do it differently next time. When someone around me makes a mistake, I assume they’ll also have to go through this tedious and uncomfortable process of forgiving themselves, which really might not be the case.
This desire to prevent those we love from having to deal with the consequences of their own actions is not actually a loving impulse, although it feels like one. Sometimes a person needs to see the pain they’ve caused in order to make a change. Robbing them of that process is not a loving act. Forgiving someone for lacking the tools to show up for you in a different way might be a loving act, as long as you don’t forget to love yourself as you do that.
When we take a thing personally, we internalize it. We process what’s happened in terms of cause and effect. If Y happened, X must have happened first, and we start to examine ourselves to see what we’ve done to cause this event, or what we haven’t done. What we are, or what we’re lacking. When really, it may have nothing at all to do with us. When we try to manage another person’s path by sparing them the suffering they might need to feel in order to grow, we are also internalizing pain. Internalized pain leads to rage and sadness. Don’t get me wrong, here. I am not talking about times when we’ve done something to hurt someone and they’ve lashed out. I’m not saying we’re always blameless. I’m saying in those situations when you really feel blindsided, when you are not guilty of doing anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time, that is not a moment when you need to swallow the monster of someone else’s rage, and carry it with you.
Sending you love,