‘Maisel on the family’ is a weekly column written by Eric Maisel in which he shares his insights about family life. This is part 7, being brave in your family.
Sometimes we feel weak. Then we need to manifest our strength. Other times we feel afraid. Then we need to manifest our courage. Many people feel afraid inside their own family. The fear may arise because they are physically abused or verbally abused. The fear may arise because they feel like they have to walk on eggshells or else provoke criticism or an outburst, so they move through their house—and their life—silently and stealthily. Sometimes the fear is rather odd-sounding indeed, as with the following case.
I had a client who was afraid to come home from work. He wasn’t physically afraid of his wife—it was nothing like that. What he feared was realizing all over again that he didn’t love her or even like her, that they weren’t suited to be together, and that sooner or later, and despite the fact that they had two small children, they would have to divorce. It may seem odd to call this “fear” but that’s exactly what it felt like to my client. The prospect of going home each day—or rather, the prospect of what he would realize the instant he stepped inside the door—terrified him.
When we began working together he didn’t understand that he had this issue. He described his problems in other ways: that he was a workaholic who put in the most hours of any lawyer at his law firm; that he was overly obsessed with his fitness and as a result spent too many hours at the gym, thus “neglecting his home life”; that, like so many of his fellow lawyers, he had great difficulty “balancing work and family”; and that he had “trouble making and keeping friends,” which problem he had made an effort to solve by setting up frequent after-work social events at one or another local watering hole.
Nowhere in the presentation of his perceived difficulties was there a hint of any fear of going home—or any hint of fear at all. Yet after just a session or two it became clear to both of us that not only did he hate going home, he actually feared going home. He could feel the anxiety and fear well up in him as the day progressed and quitting time approached. To deal with that fear he would keep working and stay as late as possible at the office; or he would leave work and go to a bar and socialize; or he would leave work and go directly to the gym. This new knowledge shed a bright light on his “troublesome” behaviors, like working too much or spending too much time at the gym, putting them in their proper perspective.
Once he understood what was going on, he then had to face it. He had to face the fact that he hated his marriage and that it terrified him to own up to that truth. We worked on him manifesting his courage in two specific ways. First, he had to bravely go home at an appropriate time every day, if for no other reason than that his children needed him to be a parent. Second, he had to bravely broach the “our marriage isn’t working” subject with his wife—and also more fully with himself. Neither proved easy. He found it hard to go home at an appropriate time because, to name one of his reasons, “my annual review is approaching and my bonus hinges on how many hours I put in.” Likewise, he found it hard to muster the courage to look at the prospect of his marriage actually ending. Manifesting that courage in both ways became the work of our next couple of months together.
You may have the same sort of trouble even knowing that something inside your family life is frightening you. You may have framed your reluctance to come home from school as dread of the walk home rather than as fear of coming home to an empty, too-quiet house. You may have named your inability to get work done at home as your “attention deficit disorder” rather than as your fear of asking family members to be quiet. How, then, can you come to know that you are frightened of something if you don’t currently have access to that knowledge? One way to make this important discovery is to patiently ask yourself and endeavor to answer the following question: “Might there be something that I’m afraid of that I don’t know that I’m afraid of?” That’s one effective starting point!
If you learn that there’s indeed something scaring you in your family life, how might you become braver? Try the following. Get two small scatter rugs and place them a few inches apart. Stand at the edge of one rug facing the second rug and imagine that you are standing at the edge of cliff with a deep gorge between you and the second rug. Feel the depth of that gorge and how terrifying it would be to fall that far down. But as deep and as frightening as that gorge is, it only takes a small step to cross it. Take that small step across while at the same thinking “Many fears are like this.” Feel the deep comfort of arriving safely on the other side. A given fear may run deep and may have run deep for years and years—may run as deep and wide as the fear that your marriage is untenable—but enacting this ceremony can help remind you that you can “step right over” your fear by using this ceremonial bridge—and move on then to the hard work that may follow.
You want to be brave but you also want to be safe. This is an enduring conflict in human life, to stand up to a danger or to opt for discretion over valor. If, for example, you’re in a physically abusive relationship, leaving is likely far wiser than “being brave” in a confrontational way. Or rather, leaving may in fact be the act of courage: it may require all of your courage to accept the consequences of leaving, which might include lost financial security and the complete uprooting of your life. The bravery that we need to manifest with respect to our family life may not necessarily take the form of physical courage. Instead it may take the form of saying something that scares us to say, making a hard decision that terrifies us to contemplate, or penetrating our defenses and looking courageously at something that frightens us to see. This is the courage that we are obliged to manifest.