A friend of mine recently said to me: “Parents. They sure know how to push your buttons. Which makes sense: they installed them.”
Uh, amen and shout that one from the rooftops.
I have four parents. They have nothing in common except a complete lack of boundaries and an innate inability to communicate in direct language. For this and many other reasons (admittedly not all having to do with my parents) I now live 3,000 miles away from where they are clustered in rural Western Massachusetts.
Now, my parents, they are really good people. I love them. My mom is a hardworking restaurant owner. My stepfather (long divorced from my mom) is a chef. My dad is a retired carpenter and musician. My stepmother is a housekeeper. They are salt of the earth sorts with genuine hearts. I look forward to spending time with them — once a year.
But it’s amazing to me how, despite my eager attempts to drop my expectations by the wayside when they visit, I always end up disappointed and frazzled. As an aspiring Buddhist, I am dismayed at how reactive I get when they push my buttons. I don’t even know how they do it, quite honestly. One minute I am being the perfect, equanamous daughter; the next I am screaming.
Here, for instance, is a recent exchange with my father, out visiting for five of the longest days of my life:
Setting: A windy, steep part of Route 1 with a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. I am driving my Subaru station wagon in the rain.
My father: JESUS CHRIST WILL YOU SLOW DOWN YOU’RE GOING TO GET US KILLED!!!
Me, in flat, emotionless tone: I am going 17mph.
My father: YOU JUST ALMOST DROVE OFF THE ROAD THERE!!!!!
Me, increasingly dejected but spookily calm: I didn’t.
My father: TURN AROUND RIGHT NOW!!! THIS IS DANGEROUS!
Me, calling on all my inner reserves and causing my tongue to bleed for the biting: This is a one-lane, one-way road and we’re already almost at the end of it.
My father: JESUS CHRIST IF YOUR STEPMOTHER WAS HERE SHE’D BE HIDING ON THE FLOOR OF THIS CAR!!!
Me, losing my sh*t: WILL YOU PLEASE STOP! YOU ARE MAKING ME ANXIOUS!!!
Ten minutes later, my father: Well, this certainly is beautiful. I’m so glad we came here.
I’ve noticed that I’m not alone. A lot of my friends have similar relationships with their parents. And interestingly, their parents always strike me as model human beings when I meet them. Last summer, I met Vanessa’s mom. I found her sweet and charming. But when I told Vanessa this, (“Dude, you’re mom is so sweet!”) she (or really, whoever) stabbed me through the heart with her eyeballs. Which is how I feel, exactly, when my friends say, for example: “Your father is not nearly as bad as you made it seem.”
Yes, he is that bad. And so are my mom/stepfather/stepmother. And so am I. Because we are our worst selves around each other. I, for one, am a seven-year-old again. A spiteful, bratty, temperamental seven-year-old with zero patience and limited compassion. How does this happen?
I’ve been a practicing yogi for over fifteen years. I actually taught yoga for close to a decade. I have an on/off meditation practice. I’ve sat through weeklong silent mindfulness retreats. I did the Landmark Forum. I’ve consulted repeatedly with a shamanic healer known for being able to clear generational angst from one’s psyche. I’ve been in traditional therapy. I’ve adopted a forgiveness practice. I’ve practiced metta. I was a waitress, for Godsakes. I know how to keep my cool.
Every time a visit looms, I brace myself to set proper expectations (in other words, none) and to re-calibrate my reactivity to it’s most possible low. But give me a few days with a parent, and that all goes out the window. Once again I become a reactive child with anger issues and an inability to talk about my feelings.
I had a recent exchange with one of my parents that shed a little bit of light on this dynamic.
Without getting into the gory details, let’s just say that I had an opportunity to stand up for something I needed. It was a boundary-tunity. I took my time crafting a well-worded email that would—I hoped—sound firm and clear, yet kind and loving. I was proud of myself for choosing to be clear about my needs rather than simply cave in to what was expected of me. However, it did not go well. The parent in question did not like my sudden acquisition of the word “no” and shot down my empowered moment with a wounded, defensive reply. Which, naturally, made me feel like a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad daughter.
In the end, though, I once again realized humbly that I am only in charge of myself, and what other people think of me, well, it’s none of my business, and it’s certainly out of my dharmic realm to control.