‘Maisel on the family’ is a weekly column written by Eric Maisel in which he shares his insights about family life. This is part 3, being strong in your family.
Living in a family requires a lot of fortitude, stamina, and strength. Being criticized over and over again is more wearing and more tiring than a long march; feeling abandoned, misunderstood, or rejected is harder on the system than climbing a mountain. We need great strength to say what we mean, if saying what we mean feels threatening and comes with a history of retaliation. We need great strength to stay present through our teenager’s tantrums and rebellions. We need great strength to deal with a mate who envies our success, a parent who snickers at our life choices, or a child who requires our constant attention. Family life is nothing if not demanding.
This is not a strength that we can acquire in the gym (though being healthy and fit is a good thing!). This is an internal fortitude that we must muster and manifest. This is our instantly disputing self-talk like “I can’t do that” with a firm “Yes, I can!” When I work with the clients I coach, we often spend a lot of time focusing on mustering and manifesting this strength. Sometimes what’s required before a person can manifest her strength is rehearsing what she intends to say, visualizing the interaction in all its details, and picturing the possibly negative consequences (which more often than not are not that dire). This is the sort of work you can do to help yourself build inner fortitude.
One client hated it that her husband would not follow through on a “simple” household project. Their downstairs bathroom needed a new toilet and her husband had gotten as far as removing the old toilet, sitting it in the living room, and stopping there. That old toilet now sat in her living room and had sat there for months! Not only was it an eyesore and not only did it prevent her from socializing in her own home, it was living proof of the difficulties she was having in her marriage and a living reproach that screamed at her, “You are so weak!” It took all her strength to give her husband the ultimatum that this toilet-in-the-living-room was a marriage deal breaker. Even with that ultimatum, he still took his sweet time finishing the downstairs bathroom remodel—but at least a day did come when the old toilet finally left the living room!
Another client found that she was being held hostage by her mother’s will. She had turned over her life to caretaking her aged mother and each time she tried to discuss the possibility that some other arrangement had to be made so that she, the daughter, could have a life, her mother would threaten to remove her from her will. This threat had worked for many years. It took us some time to discern what concrete “strength” she needed to muster in order to free herself from the grip of that dangled legacy and finally we came upon it: she needed to buy a plane ticket to the place she intended to relocate. With that ticket in hand, she was finally able to have the conversation with her mother that she had needed to have for so long—one that she now felt strong enough to have no matter what her mother threatened about beneficiaries and bequests.
A third client needed to find the strength to continue with her writing even though her husband had grown very envious of her success. He craved the income but also belittled her efforts, which had caused her to block and stop writing. She came to me not understanding why she wasn’t writing, given that she loved writing, felt connected to her current writing project, had readers waiting for it, and could sense no earthly reason why she wasn’t writing a word. It became quickly clear that her husband’s passive-aggressive attitude toward her success had somehow crept into her psyche and caused the block. In her case, the strength she had to muster was the not inconsiderable strength to live with a passive-aggressive mate. She had to tune him out; call him on his behaviors (like filling up her writing study with “things we don’t have room for in the garage”); and speak to him clearly and directly about not belittling her readers, her genre, or her efforts.
A fourth client had to find the strength to send her teenager away to a therapeutic wilderness camp despite his loud unwillingness to go. For several years he’d been declining, doing progressively more poorly in school, picking up a drug and alcohol habit, and finally, as a last straw, dealing drugs. Now the law had gotten involved—and even that drama did not seem to wake her son up to his predicament. My client held this wilderness camp as her last hope and it took mustering all her strength to demand that he go and force him to go over his violent protestations and self-harm threats. In fact, the wilderness camp experience seemed to turn his life around—which is often the sort of blessing a person receives when she is able to manifest her strength within her troubled or difficult family.
Often we live as a weakened version of ourselves because life has beaten us down, because we’ve failed too many times and no longer trust ourselves to succeed, because we have trouble holding a clear vision of our life purposes and our most important intentions, or for some other reason or combination of reasons. If you are living a weakened version of yourself, you might want to create and enact a ceremony to strengthen yourself. For example, find or create a symbol of strength. What brings to mind the feeling of strength that I’ve been describing? A tiger? A tree bent by a constant wind that, though bent, is still sturdy and strong? Or something “gentle” such as a flower or a child’s smile? Find or create your personal symbol, have it fabricated into a piece of jewelry, wear it, and then ceremonially touch it regularly during the day, saying or thinking, “I am strong” or some other phrase that reminds you to live powerfully.
Living in a difficult family can weaken you tremendously. If it does, you will need to muster and manifest your strength right in the middle of those difficult circumstances. You will need to muster and manifest that strength even though your mother is making threats about disowning you, your husband is snickering at you, or your son is throwing a teenage-sized tantrum. You must muster and manifest that strength right where you are, right in the middle of the circumstances that are causing you to feel weakened. That effort requires its own sort of strength! Carve out time and space, create and enact a “ceremony of strength,” and begin the process of living strongly.