Remember when you were a kid and your mom told you to count to ten before saying anything when you were angry? Or maybe she was a ‘think before you speak’ kind of woman, instead. Basically the same thing. If you’re like me, you probably scoffed it off as trite. Well, it is trite, but I’m finding value in it these days. Sort of. I’ll explain.
In the past, my relationship with my parents consisted of them saying something and me immediately snapping back defensively. It didn’t matter what they said–I would take it as an attack and respond accordingly. It’s partly because my family is highly critical is the way we talk to each other (me included), so there is a sense of being on the defensive baked into any conversation between any of us. In addition, I have PTSD for several reasons, so I’m prone to lashing out, anyway.
The basis of taiji is to respond to any action with an appropriate reaction, using just enough force to repel the attack and nothing more. It’s called the lazy martial arts because you want to expel the least amount of energy possible for the biggest result. It’s not something I consciously dwell on, but after eight or nine years of study, I’ve soaked it in. In the past, I was near suicidal when one or both of my parents would come visit. You might think it hyperbole, but it isn’t. I couldn’t sleep for days before they came*, and I thought about killing myself to get out of it. I was tense the whole time, and I felt as if I had no control over my anger. I would tell myself to be chill, and next thing I knew, I’d be flying off the handle over the stupidest thing. That would make me feel worse about myself, and I would quickly spiral downwards into the abyss.
Now, I’m tense before they come, but not to the point of wanting to kill myself. It’s more because I really, really, REALLY like to be alone. I’m a happy single, which is one reason I never want to cohabitate with someone, not even a partner. Come to think of it, especially not a partner. A friend, maybe, but not a romantic partner–hell no!
The thing is, I’ve noticed that while I still get irritated by my parents, I’m not flying off the handle nearly as much. I may snap at them one out of ten times, but that’s better than ten out of ten. Half the time, I can give them a calm and reasonable response, and the other forty-percent is filled with a terse, but not angry answer. I find that after they say something, my brain automatically tells me just to digest it a second without saying anything. I’m not consciously telling myself to count to ten or to think before I speak–I’m just automatically doing it. It’s one thing I’ve learned about the way I learn things. I think/work hard about/on it for years, and then it just ‘suddenly’ takes. I don’t consciously decide to do it–it just becomes a part of me.
Same with my interactions with my parents. I’m more able to be calm and to give a reasoned response. Even when I’m upset about something, I’m mostly able to talk about it without shouting. I’m using my words finally! It’s easier with my mother because she’s a psychologist and I was a psych major. We speak the same language, even if it’s her third language and not her first. We can talk about projection and codependency and shit without having to explain the terms. It really is easier when you have the jargon in common.
In addition, I’ve accepted that my parents are the way they are, and they aren’t going to change much. I’ve written about how this sounds like it’s a defeatist attitude, but it really isn’t. It freed me from trying to impress them or live up to what they think I should be, and I can just be me. More or less. I don’t swear around them, and I don’t talk about certain issues, but we all do that for our families. I still sometimes feel like the scapegoat or the left-out child, but it’s not nearly as bad as it has been in the past. I did mention to my mother that I get frustrated with making plans for the family, only to have them change in the blink of my eye when my brother suggests something different. I realize he’s a busy man and he has a family, but my time is not meaningless.
I think it helps that I’m less invested in the idea of family togetherness. We’re fed this pablum (in both my cultures) about family being more important than anything. However, many of us have difficulties with our families in part because our parents are flawed human being, just as we are. Some are deeply flawed and should never have been parents (such as my father). The fact that they have children doesn’t automatically make them good parents.
Side note: One thing I never completely understood when I was young and clear about not wanting children is why other people took it so damn personally. Intellectually, I knew they were upset about me rattling the status quo, but emotionally, I didn’t see how it was any of their damn business. As I said then and I’ll repeat it now, my decision not to have children doesn’t affect anyone other than me. I’m not hurting anyone with it, unlike parents who inflict a great deal of pain on their children. I’m not talking about the daily conflicts that we all have with each other, but the abuse, neglect, etc.
I was talking about this with my taiji teacher (she’s child-free, too), and she said, “There’s downsides to every decision”, but I honestly can’t think of a downside to not having children. It’s all donuts and Dark Souls to me, and that’s another reason it’s a good thing I don’t have children. I think of them as a burden and an intrusion, and as I’ve often joked, I don’t want to have to pay for a lifetime of therapy because I’m constantly screaming at them to get the fuck away from mommy because she doesn’t want to deal with their shit right now.
I’ve also admitted that I could see myself snapping and hitting my child, which is something most people don’t want to see in themselves. I think it’s better to know it, though, and deal with it honestly than deny that it’s there. Twenty years ago, I was in no shape to take care of myself, let alone a little crying, drooling, shitting, squalling human being. When I was in my early twenties, any time I heard a baby crying, it would send me in an immediate rage. I just wanted that noise to shut the fuck up, and if I had had to be around it twenty-four/seven, I would have done anything to silence it. I knew this at the time, but I never voiced it, because I knew how it’d be received. Any time I voiced a milder version of this opinion, I was immediately met with, “Oh, it’s different when it’s your own child” and, “You wouldn’t really hit your child.” Both of these responses were dumb to me because there are many abused children, and not all abusers are complete monsters.
Anyway, as the child of someone who should not have been a parent, it’s taken me forty years to realize that much of my childhood was because of my parents inability to parent, not because of me being an awful, terrible child. Truly absorbing the fact that my parents are who they are keeps me from banging my head against the wall, thinking, “If I was just a better daughter, they would love me in the way I want them to love me.” It’s not going to happen, so it’s best if I just accept their version of love and move on.
I think realizing that has also helped me become less defensive in my interactions with them. I still have to find a way to talk about certain topics without getting sucked into the drama, though. My mom is an accomplished woman with some really impressive credits to her name. However, the most important thing in her life is my father, who can’t even come close to reciprocating her feelings. I think he loves her in his own fashion, but it’s only because of what she does for him. Just like he loves me because I’m his daughter, but he doesn’t love ME because he doesn’t know me at all. He’s a classic narcissist, and I’ve given up trying to interest him in any part of my life. Right now, I’m limiting myself to not getting massively annoyed when I have to explain the same thing to him for the millionth time.
It’s complicated because English is his third language, and he doesn’t speak it unless he’s visiting, which is once a year at the most. In addition, he’s always had a habit of only hearing what he wants to hear. If he believes something, then good luck trying to change his mind. His hearing is going, too. And, he has distractions that I’m not supposed to know about, but I do, that keep him from being fully present. He’s always been a hypochondriac, and now he’s totally embroiled in his own physical pain–and I don’t know how much of it is legit. He’s always had a good memory, but now it’s shit. This paragraph is to explain why I’m not sure what’s behind it. I think it might be the start of dementia, but there are other factors that don’t fit neatly into that explanation.
It’s hard because my mom is obsessed with talking about him. I sympathize as she’s his primary caretaker, but she’s also enabled many of his worse traits so she can feel needed (one of her psychological issues). I’ve said that they’re a unit, but it’s partly because their dysfunctions have neatly aligned. They’ve worked hard for almost fifty years to make their relationship what it is. So while I’m ninety percent on my mom’s side, I’m also irritated because she chose this knowingly. She’s known for decades that my father is a self-absorbed, unemotional, touchy, prideful, incurious narcissist, and she chose to stay with him. Not only that, she’s nurtured many of those traits by catering to his every whim. I told her frankly during our last conversation that I felt she deserved better than how he treats her, but I don’t think she heard me. I mean, I know she heard the words, but I don’t think she truly listened. I’ve been telling her this since I was twelve, which I also reminded her of. I begged her to divorce him when I was a teen because she was so miserable and depressed, but she just fobbed it off.
It’s one reason I don’t have any tolerance now for endless complaining. I’m willing to put endless work in someone if that person is working on themselves. However, if they just want to complain about something and not actually do something about it, then I’m done. I told my mom that as well that one of her issues is that she’ll complain about something but not want to actually change it. I know she needs validation for her feelings concerning my father, which I’m willing to give, but I don’t think I’m doing her any favors if I don’t point out her part in the dysfunction as well.
The bottom line is that taiji has given me a sense of self that isn’t as shaky as it used to be. I have a center, though it’s still quite small. When I used to deal with my parents, I felt rootless and constantly shaking. Now, I can stand on that base, even if it’s not completely solid. I still get frustrated, and I still can’t wait until I have my space once again, but it helps to remember how awful it was in order to appreciate how far I’ve come.
*Well, I didn’t sleep much or well in general in those days, but it was even worse before a parental visit.