Gently, I hold the box of tissues out to Sonya.* She is crying hard and doesn’t even see me. Finally she gives a long sigh and reaches for one. There is silence for a full minute as she wipes her nose and eyes. “What am I supposed to do?” she asks me.
We’ve been talking about her latest stress with her mother. The holiday get-togethers have been particularly tough for Sonya, as they are for many of us when we reunite with our families of origin and move right back into those old childhood patterns. Sonya is very attached to her mother, but “she drives me crazy,” explains Sonya. “The whole time I was there, she kept telling me what to do. As if I’m still a child of ten and not a parent myself! I just wanted to scream at her to leave me alone – but she’s 75 years old! So then I felt guilty for getting so triggered.”
I look at Sonya. Her face is pinker than usual and her eyes a bit swollen, and she is sitting crumpled (I can find no better word to describe it) in her chair. Her whole attitude is dejected.
“Sonya,” I say. “Do you have any food allergies?”
Sonya looks at me with surprise. “Yes, I can’t eat dairy.” As we talk more, she tells me that she did an elimination diet a while ago and found out that dairy affects her in many subtle ways. “I’m basically allergic to it.”
“Hmmm,” I murmur. Sonya looks puzzled. “I’m just wondering if you could be allergic to other things in your life.” She shakes her head.
“Nope, that’s the only thing that came up. I did blood tests, too.”
“I’m not talking about food, though. I’m wondering if what’s going on with your mom is affecting your health, kind of in the same way as dairy does.”
Sonya starts to laugh. “You mean I’m allergic to my mom?” Her laughter stops abruptly. “Are you recommending an elimination diet? Very funny.”
I’m not advocating to Sonya to cut herself off from her mother, as as she did with a food group, just because she’s stressed out now and then by her interactions with her. Who isn’t stressed after spending a week over the holidays with family? Who isn’t stressed when managing a two year old’s tantrum, or when caring for an aging parent? Who isn’t stressed when coming home from work to a messy house, with no food in the fridge, and an equally stressed partner?
The thing is, though, that constant levels of stress are not good for us. They just aren’t. Sure, sometimes we are going to be under a high volume of stress for a while depending on our situation and life stage. But years of the same stress is just not good for us.
Take a look at your own life. Let’s narrow it down to the last five years. Is there anything that has happened fairly regularly during that time period that has caused a predictable pattern of stress? Each one of us has our own symptoms of stress – it might be a headache, stomachache, a racing heart or a lack of energy, along with particular feelings – maybe of guilt, like in Sonya’s case, or the feeling of not being good enough, or of being overwhelmed. Maybe it happens every time you talk to your mom on the phone. Or whenever you bring up a certain topic with your partner. Maybe you get knots in your stomach whenever you interact with a sibling. Or maybe you have a constant level of fatigue from working long hours or from being overextended with obligations because it’s so difficult to say no, and you never have a free minute to yourself.
What if you could shift and release some of these longstanding things? This is the perfect time of year to ask this question, as we exit the old year and start a new one afresh.
Ask yourself, What if I didn’t feel so guilty every time I talked to my mom? What if my partner and I didn’t disconnect on this particular issue all the time? What if my sibling didn’t stress me to the degree of knots in my stomach every time I saw their number on my caller ID? What if I weren’t so tired and overextended year after year?
What if! There is power there. What if you felt calm and loved when you talked to your mom? What if your partner and you connected more on a regular basis? What if you and your sibling had a healthier relationship? What if you had more time to yourself? Sink into those “what ifs” and imagine, just for a moment, what that would be like.
I am here to tell you that this feeling – of liberation, of authenticity, of calm, of connection – is possible, that new patterns can be created, perhaps just by shifting a few behaviors.
Sonya proclaims her “what if”: What if she felt like an adult instead of a child when she interacted with her mother? Her whole attitude shifts when she asks this question – her face brightens and she sits taller. We explore the idea that often adult children and their parents (not to mention siblings) continue patterns set in childhood – not necessarily because they are working, but because that is what they’re used to. A mother might continue to think she knows what’s best for her child, for example, despite the fact that that child is now an independent adult, and might not be shy about saying so.
Sometimes it only takes a simple statement declaring (new) boundaries to shift these interactions. For example, Sonya could make the deliberate decision to simply say “Thank you for your advice” whenever her mom offers her unsolicited opinion. She could make the deliberate decision not to get sucked emotionally into the interaction (easier said than done, but definitely doable).
Sonya could say to her mom, “Mom, I love you very much, but I need to make my own decisions about x right now. So I’d appreciate you not bringing x up. If I want your input down the road, I will be sure to ask you.” Then they could discuss it a bit. If her mom respects her wish, then that will be that.
But what if she doesn’t? What if Sonya’s mother still gives her unsolicited advice about x? At that point, she could say, “Mom, remember when I asked you not to give me advice on x anymore unless I ask you for it?” Hopefully, at that point she will realize and stop.
But what if she doesn’t? At that point, she can say calmly, “Mom, I just can’t talk about this with you. Let’s chat later,” and she can end the conversation. She can change the subject. She can walk out of the room. The key, I tell Sonya, is to be consistent and calm. She might not feel that calm the first or second time it happens, but her mother will get her point. End result: their old interaction, the one which kept Sonya in her childhood, which kept her wrapped in anger and guilt, will shift into a healthier one.
Imagine the patterns that aren’t working in your life blowing away and leaving you unfettered and healthy. If that image makes you feel better, then it just might be time to take action. Sink into the “what if” question of your own. Make a few small changes, set a few boundaries, take initiative. If you’re feeling stuck, read some self-help books. Get one-on-one support from a therapist. There are resources out there for you. It is possible to grow into new ways of being in relationship with family, with partners, and with ourselves.
*a fictional client