From the moment Mary Lou’s parent’s announced they were coming, she felt emotionally exhausted. When they arrived, it was exactly as she anticipated. Her parents related each tragedy that occurred on their way to Houston: flat tire, traffic, and the weather. She said, “That is the way they always react. It’s the reason I didn’t tell them that, months earlier, we, unknowingly, purchased theater tickets for the second night after their arrival. She was absolutely right, with regard to their reaction. They said, “If we had known, we would’ve come later. We didn’t drive here to sit alone.” Mary Lou added, “They could’ve taken the opportunity to spend time with their grandchildren but, despite that incident, Mary Lou said, “her parents visit wasn’t bad.” She noted that Mother did try to talk to her, but she wasn’t about to deal with “Mother’s criticism and complaints.” Nor was she willing to tell Mother where she was coming from.
Harry lost his job due to a lay off. He felt depressed and a failure. Then, one day he thought, “I need to do something I can be excited about.” He decided it was a perfect time to plant the trees he and his wife had talked about. He told his wife about his decision, but her reaction wasn’t what he hoped for. In his mind, she wasn’t sufficiently enthusiastic or appreciative. He said, “If all you’re going to do is be negative, you can plant the trees yourself.” His wife’s retort was, “That’s you, if I’m not a cheerleader, agreeing and telling you how wonderful you are, then I’m not a loving wife. So, plant your trees wherever you want. I have a suggestion, but I’m not going to say it in front of the kids.”
Despite the fact that Elaine is a professionally successful, intelligent, emotionally warm woman, she is terrified to tell her fiancé she wants a prenuptial agreement. “It’s not as though he’s similar to my previous husband, who talked big, accomplished little, and lived off of her earnings. He’s the opposite. He earns more than I do, owns his own home, and never allows me to pay for anything. Nevertheless, something inside her says, “I don’t want to lose half of everything I’ve saved, when he leaves me. After all, that’s what happened the last time.” Intellectually, she knows better, but it doesn’t assuage her fear that he’ll leave her, because he’ll view her desire for a prenuptial as an indication she doesn’t trust him.
Let me give you one last example. While in graduate school, I was frightened, insecure and fearful, that I wouldn’t make it. It wasn’t a pathological fear, since in my mind I was still the ADD kid, who quit high school and only got into college on the basis of a GED test. As a result, if I saw two professors speaking to each other, there were times I was certain they were talking about me. Even more, that the context of their conversation was, “he doesn’t measure up, can’t spell, reverses words and numbers and has little knowledge of literature.” In most instances, I didn’t know the professors and, in all likelihood, they didn’t know me.
Nevertheless, I projected my own fears onto them. Nevertheless, my fears were as genuine as: Mary Lou’s assumption that her parents would find fault and reject her; Harry’s belief that his wife didn’t care and saw him as a failure; and Elaine’s belief that her fiancé wouldn’t love her because she wanted a prenuptial. None of those assumptions were accurate. What is accurate is that when you feel badly about yourself, you tend to perceive and act badly toward others.
The thread that connects these stories is that what matters in life is the way you perceive yourself, because it determines how you react toward others. Think of it this way: You’re looking at a bird and it’s beautiful, so you pick up a pair of binoculars to view it closer. What happens? You see the bird as nearer to you. Conversely, if you turn the binoculars around and look through the other end, what happens? The bird appears further away. You see, how you look at someone contributes to the way you perceive them, the attitude you have toward them and the feelings you have for them.
For example, if Mary Lou had looked at her mother through the right end of her binoculars, she might have seen that Mother was behaving out of her own feelings of insufficiency. Her statements about flat tires, traffic, the weather and sitting alone, were her way of saying, “I’ve always felt I wasn’t a good parent, and I probably treated your sister and brother better, but I didn’t walk on eggshells around them. With you, I was always afraid of how you would react to me. So, I tell you all these problems to get your attention.”
I have two suggestions, which I believe can help you, me, and the Mary Lous, Harrys, and Elaines in the world, to “see” better. Always make sure you look through the right end of your binoculars and, before you look at someone else, focus the binoculars on yourself in order to determine if you’re coming from a healthy place, because if you are, your attitude, relationships and emotions will be healthy, as well.