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Consider what may have made mother so insufferable

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Consider what may have made mother so insufferable

Emotional Abu, SE Again: You've often mentioned the importance of acknowledging someone else's (and our own) humanity. (It also came up again in Monday's column.) Can you elaborate on what that means and how to achieve it? It's always been a weakness of mine.

In this context, I understand that Susie's mom is human . . . a human who treats her terribly and who often, ostensibly, feels no need for basic human decency. I suspect this is not what you meant by acknowledging humanity. I hope it's not, because it's neither a fun nor helpful attitude to have.

Carolyn: Susie's mom did not get this way in a vacuum. Did her own mother/father/siblings treat her like this? Did they neglect her to the extent that "treatment" itself is a euphemism? In a more general sense, what kind of life has she known?

When people become adults, they are, of course, responsible for their own behavior. But if you look closely at someone who behaves badly, often you'll see explanations fall into place: say, someone who's too emotionally stunted to connect that she's doing exactly what her parents did to her. Or, someone who's so afraid — of losing people, of being wrong, of his own shadow — that he barrels through life insisting on having everything his way, as if that will somehow prevent scary things from happening. The most despicably selfish people are often, upon close inspection, feral — they're consumed by self-preservation, and don't have the courage or even the capacity to take the emotional risks that are the hallmark of civilized behavior.

Giving is a risk. Loving is a risk. Kindness is a risk. All demand that we drop our defenses; all allow the recipients of these gifts the opportunity to hurt us.

So, this is what I mean by acknowledging people's humanity: It's training your eyes to see not just the offenses, but the frailties those offenses are intended to cover up.

This isn't to say that you should handle the feral without gloves. Sometimes the best thing to do is to have nothing to do with them. But with loved ones, that's a decision people should come to only after seeing the whole person, and seeing whether there is a way to cultivate empathy or compassion, a way to communicate with that person that bypasses (or at least keeps you arm's-length away from) these bad behaviors.

What I'm describing is what people mean when they say they've come to terms or learned to deal with someone. It's a matter of adjusting your own expectations ("This is the way she is, this is why, and this is why it won't change . . . ") and then adjusting your behavior (" . . . so now when I visit, I stay no longer than two hours/two nights, and I don't discuss my weight/job/relationship.").

To bring this back to Monday's column: Whether Susie makes peace with her mother will depend on her willingness, and ability, to see her mom clearly enough to limit her vulnerability to Mom's attacks. Whether you make peace with Susie will depend on your willingness, and ability, to respect Susie's approach.

Consider what may have made mother so insufferable 04/06/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 6, 2009 5:14pm]

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