‘Maisel on the family’ is a weekly column written by Eric Maisel in which he shares his insights about family life. This is part 6, being aware in your family.
Family difficulties tend to continue to grow if no one is paying attention to their existence or to their growth. It is one thing, and relatively easy, to remove an unwanted sapling from your garden. It is another thing, and much harder and more expensive, to remove an unwanted full-grown tree. In order for that sapling to be removed while it is still a sapling, someone has to both notice its existence and realize that it will grow into a tree that may threaten the house’s foundation. There is a noticing component and also a predicting component to awareness: being aware means both spotting something and also predicting its importance.
Here are four areas of family life where you will want to pay close attention:
1. Are core values at play or are only little things?
If you’re looking for things to be upset about, you can always find them. You could spend your whole life upset with your husband’s unwillingness to clean out the garage, your wife’s anxiety attacks when company is due, your sister’s way of “borrowing” your clothes, or the face your dad makes when you don’t get your chores done.
It really doesn’t pay to sweat the small things. On the other hand, it is vital that you speak and act when your core values are involved. Do you know what your core values are? One might be that you refuse to be physically abused or verbally abused or abused in any way. If and when that happens, you’d want to speak up immediately or take some appropriate action.
Sometimes we think that our core values are involved because of the way we construct our inner language. When a chore doesn’t get done by a family member we may feel “betrayed,” but while chores not getting done constitute a problem, speaking to yourself in that way is a bigger problem. It leads to a sense of outrage and other catastrophic feelings when only a misdemeanor has occurred. Make sure that your core values really have been violated before you jump to high drama.
2. Is everyone in the family getting a chance to speak and be heard?
It isn’t that you have sole responsibility to be alert to family dynamics of this sort. But if no one else is watching out for them, you may have to take the lead. Maybe your youngest child feels that what she has to say is never taken seriously or maybe Dad feels that he isn’t as articulate as other family members. These simmering resentments are bound to boil over and might be nipped in the bud if you took some action now.
What sort of action? Say that the issue is where to take your family vacation. Try the following. Have everyone write down his or her ideas. Then give the family copies of all of the sheets of paper and enough time to think about them. When they’ve had enough time, call a family meeting and make sure that everyone’s ideas are treated respectfully.
If someone isn’t speaking, ask that person for his or her thoughts and feelings. It may be that the final decision necessarily rests with Mom and Dad but it’s still empowering for everyone to feel that they’ve had their say. Occasionally ask yourself, “Does it feel like everybody in this household is being heard?” If some voice is being silenced or if some voice is dominating, pay attention to that and do something about it.
3. Pay attention when and if stress is doing the talking.
One of the biggest problems that families face is trying to communicate lovingly and effectively when everyone is stressed out. Mom may be stressed by the demands of her job; Dad may be stressed by the demands of his job; both may be stressed by their commutes and their money worries; the kids may be stressed by school and also stressed because their parents are stressed. Given this sort of scenario is it any wonder that angry outbursts often make up the lion’s share of family communication?
Be alert to the ways that stress may be doing the talking in your family and try the following to create more patient interchanges:
- Get centered before you speak, especially before you’re about to say something that you suspect will come out abrasive or critical.
- Think before you speak: what are you really trying to say and how do you want to say it?
- Try to speak from a place of love and not irritation.
- Be empathic and try to care about your listener, even if you are feeling stressed out over something
- Admit to being stressed—let family members know your reality.
Try to reduce the stress in your life. Try to learn a few stress management techniques and be alert to the amount of stress circulating in your household.
4. Be aware whether or not family fears are being acknowledged.
People fear all sorts of things—public speaking, flying, driving at night, or even just going out alone. They fear upcoming exams, evaluations by their boss, losing their job, or even a visit from the in-laws. You and the members of your family all have fears—and those fears may be causing or exacerbating your current family difficulties.
Let’s say that you’re paying good attention and become aware that someone in your family is afraid of something. What should you do? What rarely helps is to say to someone who is anxious or afraid, “Don’t worry” or “There’s nothing to fear.” It’s better to ask if there’s anything you can do to help; wonder aloud if talking about it might be of some use; share your own fears; or describe a technique you use to manage your anxiety. All of these are better than telling your loved one that he or she is “wrong” to be afraid.
Many difficult family situations occur because someone in the family is afraid of something and doesn’t want to communicate that fact to anyone else. Your daughter, for all of her bravado, may be afraid of getting behind the wheel for the first time. Your son may be afraid that his grades, while still excellent, have fallen down just far enough that he’s ruined his chances of getting into his first choice college. Your husband may be afraid that his failure to adequately prepare for retirement means that he’ll have to keep working forever. These fears affect family life tremendously—and they are among the hardest things for people, even those who love one another, to talk about.
You can help in all these regards by being aware. Yes, paying this much attention sets the bar very high. But it is also a family blessing for someone to pay this much good attention—a blessing that will serve your family and, in turn, serve you.