I recently participated in a difficult conversation. The conversation was difficult primarily because I responded badly to a remark made by the other person. Since this person is the one with whom I cohabit, it is not the first time I reacted in this way. Regrettably, it is also probably not the last time that I will react poorly to an insignificant remark.
That off-hand remark landed directly in a place where I am inordinately sensitive.
Here’s how it worked: first, I took offense. Instantaneously, I felt as if I had been accused of a particular bad behavior. Second, I came back with a defensive reaction. I got all up in his face, so to speak. In no time at all, a tiny aside became a heated argument.
A glance at the dog finally stopped me: when Dolly’s eyes get wide and her ears start to flatten, it’s bad. So I shut up, walked into my office, came out a minute later to apologize. Which I did. However, I went on to say, “But when you said…”
It took three tries to actually apologize without justifying my behavior. Why? It’s all about the wound.
A wisewoman said that you have to be careful not to keep guiding new arrows into old wounds. A wise man said that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In other words, anything can be construed as criticism if I try hard enough.
We’ve all got those wounds: memories of being shamed for being too loud, too quiet, too stupid, too smart-mouthed; social judgments we’ve taken to heart about our weight, our bank balance, our looks. Sometimes there’s someone to blame: here I remember without a lot of fondness the teacher who made me kneel in the hall and apologize for joking with an adult. Sometimes it’s just the damned milieu of western culture, which plays a relentless tune about what we should be and have and want.
But as grown-ups, we need to do more than remember the wounds. We need to figure out why they hurt, and learn how to avoid using those old wounds as the lens through which to interpret life. Being so sensitive that I expect bad treatment at every turn is a handicap in daily discourse, akin to handing our family and friends a ticking bomb. This is not great for intimacy!
Somebody doesn’t answer my e-mail? Maybe they’re not shunning me just like high school; maybe they’re simply busy. Somebody disagrees with my great idea? Maybe it’s just a difference of opinion, not a putdown “exactly like my ex.”
I don’t expect to get this right any time soon. One teacher of mine used to talk about waving goodbye to yourself as you go over the waterfall. Eventually, you get out of the boat before you go over. But everything starts with noticing you’re in the boat—or that you’ve got a hammer in your hand—or that you’re guiding that arrow straight in to dead centre.