August 4, 2015

One Step Forward, One Step Backward

Have you ever felt like you were doing the Two-Step in life? Always taking one step forward, and two steps backwards (or side to side)? I know that feeling…I know that feeling well. Lately, I have been doing this same dance, moving my feet, but not feeling like I am getting anywhere. It is like I am constantly moving -- which is a good thing -- but in rear view, the landscape doesn't much look changed. Sigh!

Today is a perfect example. I woke up feeling the same, sort of half-way refreshed but still kind of unwell. I am not sleeping well due to perimenopause and stress (worry, anxiety, fear, doubt…you name it…I am experiencing it!) I am trying hard to get a good 8 hours of sleep each night, eat well (less junk, less processed foods), and exercise (Jillian Michael's "30 Day Shred" is kicking my butt, no pun intended). I go to bed tired, but my night seems to be filled with odd dreams, bits and pieces of film, like the leftovers on the cutting room floor. Nothing really makes sense to me, but it seems my mind cannot shut the movie projector off. On top of that, I am having night sweats and hot flashes (mild). I wake up because I am hot, and then I uncover myself, roll over, only to find that in 5-10 minutes I am chilled (a common complaint). UGH!

After I got up this morning, I headed out to the family room/kitchen for my daily cup of coffee. It is my normal routine, and my boys (Ike and Winston) know the drill well. I stop in the bathroom before heading to the laundry room to scoop their litter box. Then it is out to the kitchen where I make my coffee and give the boys some treats. They know this part because by the time I have given them treats, they have already had treats from my Mom. Usually, they are "treated" twice, sometimes three times, before the morning ends. With my coffee in hand, I sit in the recliner and watch the news along with my parents. I check my iPhone so I can keep on with social media and other "important" events (sarcasm). After about 30 minutes of news watching, I usually get up and head back to my room where I login to my computer and start my day. Every day, except for early work days, this is my normal routine. Rarely do I deviate from it, and for the most part, it is a good way for me to start the day. Unless. Unless something stirs my emotions, and then, well, I tend to either sulk or explode. It is a morning thing, really. It is just that I don't handle this kind of emotional upset well when it hits me first thing in the morning. I am so much better suited to dealing with trauma or drama AFTER I have had my cup of coffee and had time to wake up.

This morning, I experienced emotional upset. I should mention that living with my parents has been a joy and a trial, and even though I do love them, at times, I find them frustrating and difficult. Mostly it is my dad. My mom is pretty much a delight, even when she forgets details and struggles to manage her day now (due to her CLL and dementia). My father, on the other hand, has always been difficult -- always, always, always. I care for them both, but the pressure of living together is getting to me, and at times, it takes all my energy not to snap, to pop off, and to remain calm. I hate feeling this way, and in truth, I would so much prefer to live on my own again, just to keep myself from getting angry.

My parents are dear, sweet people. I know they love me, and they care for me and my son. My parents are dealing with some major issues in their lives right now, namely my Mom's ongoing care and their impending financial crisis (running out of money). I know the stress and burden on my Dad is high, yet still, I wonder if he realizes that his actions towards me and my son, how he questions us, demands things from us, and generally accuses us of not meeting expectations, serves any good purpose?

Role-Playing and Expectations

I have blogged about this topic before, and I realize that I am not alone in my experiences. For the most part, family communication study seems to be centered on two things: role-playing (and reversal) and expectations. It is true, most scholarly study looks at how relationships develop and are maintained within the family unit. Family relationships are unique -- you cannot choose your family -- so managing relationships becomes vitally important to create successful and harmonious environments.
Unfortunately, many relationships are fraught with dysfunctionality. It is commonly stated that parenting comes with no user guide -- meaning of course -- that it is all on-the-job-training. The problem with OJT is that for many adults, learning how to parent requires that they first detach themselves from their own parents and family structure. You see, to be a good parent, one must be ready to function as a parent. Adults who identify as parent/child struggle to parent their own children. They role-play with their parents (living as a child), and then try to role-play with their children (living as the adult).

Instead, adults who are separated from their parents and who have managed to adapt their role from child to adult, fare much better in the long run. They parent autonomously and that means that they can function as an adult, can take on adult responsibilities, and generally can live in such a way that they can engage in parenting activities with their own children. Adults who struggle with separation from their parents often end up being tied between two needs: managing the needs of their parents with the needs of their own family (spouse and children). It is a push-pull scenario that constantly requires them to shift roles, put on different hats, just to keep everyone happy.

I am a product of moderately dysfunctional family life. I admit it. I have no issue stating that right up front. I was raised in a home with loving parents, but with parents that sought to control their children through subtle forms of manipulation. My parents used their love, their approval, to guide us into right-choices that they preferred. When we refused to obey, we were subjected to manipulation that often resorted to tactics such as removal of permissions, reframing of the situation, and emotional distancing in the relationship.

Likewise, when I married, I married into a highly dysfunctional family. I had never met such dysfunctionality as my ex-husband's family, and when I did, I was overwhelmed and subsumed by the layers of rules for behavioral expectation, and the myriad of role-playing games used to manipulate and control outcomes. Yes, my life for 26 years was filled with role-playing and expectations that rivaled any reality TV show.

I have been out of that life for five years now, but I still struggle with expectations and role-playing. In fact, since I moved back in with my parents in 2013, I have been pushed back into the game by my father. My dad, as I mentioned, is a good man and I know that he loves me and my son. Yet, he was a product of his own dysfunctional family, and as a result, he has used subtle manipulation to get results in his own family. I know he has done this with my older brothers, but to their credit, all of them left the home right after high school. My youngest brother moved out for a time during high school, then moved back in for a short time, before he left for good. I, on the other hand, stayed in the home until I married. Once I left my parents home, I moved into my husbands home, and well, that has been the written story of my life (and this blog) for almost 10 years now.

I know that some of the issues I face with my father stem from my current predicament. In truth, if I wasn't a full time student, there would be relatively little issue. My parents would be living in a rented apartment down the street and they would be stressing over their financial situation -- without -- me being any real part of it all. I would be supporting them from a distance, a close distance, but I wouldn't be in the middle of everything where I am a moving target (and a slow one at that).
Yes, because of our close proximity to one another, I have found that more times than not, I am the target my father aims at and hits. I know he probably doesn't mean to hit me this way, and that out of his frustration, he shoots arrows of displeasure. Yet, because I am here (as is my son), we do seem to get the brunt of his anger and frustration. I personally am tired of being that target. I have a lot on my plate, and I don't need to be anyone's target. In fact, in family communication studies, redirected anger is often the outcome of miscommunication. My father fails to communicate his needs, his feelings, his wants and desires, and what happens? He fires missiles at the very people with whom he wants to communicate.

Interrupting the Pattern

In good measure, learning how to interrupt this behavioral pattern takes practice. It takes a concerted effort to recognize the flaming arrows before they are shot off the bow. What's more, it is vitally important to know and to understand where the arrow is directed, and why it is being misfired at you. This means that one must be in touch, in communication with their surroundings, and they must know communication patterns that trigger such a misfire. For example, in my scenario today, the conversation turned toward my son's new job. My mother cannot remember where he works, even though I have told her now at least two dozen times over the past two weeks. She asks the same questions, and then tries to put the connections together in order to understand what I am saying. It is heart breaking to watch because it means that her short term memory is quickly fading, and that in time, probably soon, she will not be able to take care of herself or her home.

Point 1: this is the real issue behind all the misfires in my dad's communication attempts.

So, after we established the fact that my son works at our church's new cafe, the conversation turned toward the merger of AT&T and DirecTV. Yes, a commercial came on TV and the conversation shifted because I happen to have both of these services. The question was asked whether I was going to "bundle" my services. I said that there would be little to no advantage in me doing that so I would just "wait and see" what happens in the near future (keeping in mind that I am not changing services where I have to agree to a two-year contract -- I don't know where I will be in two years -- so I am not going to agree to anything that could bind me to a service provider that doesn't cover the area where the Lord may take me).

Okay, so everything so far was going well. I mentioned that my son wanted an upgrade to his phone. This was the first trigger for the emotional blow up that followed. I mentioned that my son wanted an upgrade for his phone. See -- not really inflammatory at all -- but it was fraught with expectations (unspoken) that drove the conversation into a heated exchange. This point was taken wrong by my father, and along with his disapproving look, he stated that in no uncertain terms was my son to upgrade his phone because his priorities were: 1) graduating from college, 2) getting a full-time job, and 3) paying his debts. I tried to downplay the seriousness of the tone of the conversation at that point by saying that my son had a good plan for his life, had made some good choices in saving, and was generally heading in a good direction (after all, he is 22). My father stated that his car needed repair, to which I replied, that it didn't. I mean -- I have put more money into that car and frankly it is as good as it is going to get. Yes, he does need A/C, but that is an expense not worth pursuing. I said that perhaps in the spring we would attempt to get him a different car. This was a second trigger point in the conversation. With that remark, my father asked what my intentions were for paying for my Kia. Okay, that caught me off-guard since my Kia was totaled in a 2013 crash. I now have a Nissan. I said, "You mean my Nissan, dad?" Oh, my goodness no! The rest of the conversation was about me not paying him back for my Kia, which he bought for me back in 2010, and my son wrecked accidentally in 2013. Okay, blindsided by that one, because I don't recall my dad saying I needed to pay him back. In fact, as I recall he said something to the affect of "don't worry about it."

Point 2: Miscommunication most often happens when the one or both parties are not clear in their expectations.

As I sat there for a moment, my mind flooded back to that point in time when my father offered to purchase a car for me. This was January of 2010, and my life was in the proverbial dumper. My ex-husband had just told me that he was not interested in restoring our marriage, and that he was in love with his college girlfriend. He stated that even though she was married, he would "wait for her for the rest of his life." He didn't want a divorce, but he wanted me to accept that he loved her more than me, and that he thought we could somehow be "friends." Of course, this was a huge blow to me, and after I gained my composure, I issued the ultimatum that resulted in our separation (decision time: me or her. He chose her).
I had no means of income, no car, no bank account, no nothing. My father and my uncle came to my rescue and with their help, I was able to get a car that made it possible for me to get a job. Baby steps. One step forward at a time. The car was a used 2004 Kia. I loved it, and it was a good car for me. I took very good care of it, and for three years, it was my dependable means of transportation. It was on a wet January Sunday when my son called to say he had a slight accident with the car. Of course, it wasn't a slight accident. It was a bent frame, and a totaled car. The Lord provided, though, and within a week's time, I had purchased my 2011, Nissan Sentra from our local Nissan dealer. I did it all on my own, and praise be to God, I got myself a smoking hot deal and a fancy car to boot (I digress!)

All this aside, the point here is that accidents happen in life. We may be prepared or unprepared for them, but without any warning, they happen.

Interpreting the Message

In communication study, understanding the message is as important as how the message was transmitted. Researchers are either interesting in the message channel or they are interested in the message itself. As I thought about the conversation, and even now, as I reflect on it, I realize several things:
  1. Analysis of the message almost always leads to introspection and reflection predicated on intent (motivation).
  2. Message mishaps occur as a result of unmet needs and unstated expectations.
  3. Clarity is confused when emotions are interjected, and when driven by #2, almost always lead to dissension.
  4. Communication effectiveness must be the result of one, understanding the channel (how the message is transmitted), and two, the intention of the sender.
Therefore, as I consider the conversation between my dad and myself today, I realize that his needs and expectations were the driving force behind it. My father is in a difficult position as he cares for my mother's needs with his dwindling resources. This creates a stressful environment for him, and as he attempts to communicate these needs and expectations he misfires when his emotions are interjected. In short, emotions can send an arrow off-the-mark.

The good news is that I prayed about my answer before I said anything. The Lord graciously gave me space, and I was able to utter something that diffused the situation. I said softly, "I don't recall that paying off the Kia was part of my long-term plan. However, since you say that it is, I will add it to my plans." This shut down the conversation, and gave me an exit strategy whereby I got up to head toward my room. 

I don't take pleasure in seeing my dad challenged, but in truth, there was nothing I could say that would have had any better outcome. You see, right now, I am not in a position to pay this debt off. Moreover, unless I take a series of steps outside of what I believe the Lord's will is for my life, there is no way I will pay this debt off soon. Thus, in order to interpret this message, one must look at the person sending the message, and then study their intention to determine what the goal was of the initial transmission. In clinical terms, one must always go to the source!

The nature of our psyche is to stay with our emotional state -- after all -- we were the one affronted, wounded, chastised. If we stay with our own emotional state, then we focus all our energy on ourselves. In some cases, this is fine, but most of the time, it puts us on the defense, and then without care, we will fire back at the person who has offended us. The end result is disharmony, disunity, and division among the body -- the family, the couple, the church, etc.

It has been a good hour since that conversation ended, and I retreated to my study to begin my work for the day. I ate some breakfast, had my coffee, and began to think through what happened in order to analyze it correctly. As I did this, I prayed and I asked the Lord for clarification on the matter. I said, "Lord, what was this emotional blow up really about?" The Lord responded with something I had not considered, but now I am meditating on it, and I think it has great value and merit, especially when considering issues in communication. The Lord said to me, "the problem is never about money." Okay, that was really my follow up question to Him ("was it just about the debt?") The Lord reminded me that in almost all cases the problem is relational. He said, "money is a cover for the real issue, which is personal." As I thought about that, I started to consider how this might be, and then it was as if a lightbulb went off in my head and I said "Yes, I get it!" You see, if the problem is always relational, then in this case, the real root cause of the emotional blow up was not the fact that my son wasn't meeting his grandfather's expectations or that I hadn't paid for the car he financed, but rather it was all about my mothers health and her long term care. It was personal. It was about my father's inability to stop the progression of Alzheimers, and the fact that he was losing the person he has shared his life with for the past 56 years. Throughout those years, the moves, and the upheavals, my mother has always been a constant source of happiness and joy in my father's life. She has been the "life of the party" and she has always taken good care of their home. My mother has cared for my father, my siblings and me, and her friends (her multitude of friends). Now she is facing memory loss and cancer and Leukemia. Her life is leaving her steadily, day by day, and my father can do nothing about it, nothing to stop it.

So yes, the cover story was money and the lack of it or need of it. I get that, I do. I am struggling in the same way -- I need money too. I know many people who are barely making ends meet, and they need money, more of it, right now as well. The backstory as they say was really personal. It was all about my mom and the challenges she faces as she deals with these various life-changing illnesses.

The Result

I am thankful for this communication experience today. Yes, at first, I was put off, really offended, and my initial response was to stay with my wound. I started to think about my father's expectations for me, how he would prefer I leave teaching and find a full-time job, how I could then live with them through the end, paying for or picking up the slack in their resources. This is what I believed he was saying to me. In short, I felt he was intentionally saying,
"If you only would do the right thing, quit teaching (which will never provide for you) and get a regular job with benefits. Then you will be able to have a secure future, a good retirement, and good plan. Plus you will be able to take care of your mother, which is what you really want to do. Furthermore, you will be able to help DJ, show him how to be responsible. In all of this, you will keep me from worrying, from stressing over the care of your mother, and you will make me very, very happy."
Of course, this isn't what he said to me at all. No. This conversation was made up, in my head and my heart, and was put there by the enemy for one purpose, one result, and that was to pull me off the path I am on, the path that I believe and am confirmed in as the Lord's will for my life. You see, just the other day, I asked the Lord for confirmation on my path. I asked Him to make it clear to me that I was to stay on this path, the path of teaching full-time. I wanted to be confirmed in His will for me, in knowing that I am to follow this plan until otherwise noted. I wanted to know that there is no other job out there for me -- that teaching was it -- and that while I am struggling to manage everything well -- this is the provision of the Lord.

My take-away from this morning is this -- be careful what you read into the conversation -- because often the interpretation is incorrect, especially if the focus is inward on your self. The only way to interpret a conversation correctly is to consider the source, to consider the intention and motivation of the sender. In doing so, the truth of the conversation is often revealed. Moreover, remember that in almost all cases, when emotions are running high, the sender will use a cover story to hide the real story, the real root of their pain, and that this root is almost always personal.

Dear Lord,

As I struggle to figure out my place in this world, and as I come to understand your will for my life, help me to be a relational minister -- to relate to people as redeemed souls -- instead of as difficult, disagreeable, and depressing individuals with problems, personalities, and perception issues. I ask now that you will fill me with your grace so that I can begin to see the world through your eyes, through a biblical lens, that understands the true nature of mankind and that accepts the sinfulness of that nature. May I become one of your ministers who seeks to bring hope, encouragement and edification through the reconciliation message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I trust you, Lord, for you are a reconciler of people. May my life be transformed by this focus so that I begin to live my life in a way that seeks to reconcile the lost to you, their loving Savior. May your Name be praised on my lips, and may your way be championed through my life as I live out my days seeking to do your work, in your way, and according to your word this good day. I ask all this in Jesus' Name. Amen! So be it, thy will be done. Selah!

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