New Year’s Eve, one of my three favorite granddaughters got married to Steven, one of my two favorite grandsons-in-law. When the ceremony was over, I looked at my wife of 61 years and we exchanged smiles, because at that moment, for a brief second in time, everything was good. Not perfect, but close to it. That’s not to say that during our years together that we haven’t experienced bad times. Life for everyone of us is always a series of ups and downs. But, despite the bad times, we have been fortunate to be able to see two of our granddaughters happily married to wonderful guys, and a third granddaughter halfway through college and doing equally well. We, also, have two younger grandchildren, ages 11 and 12 who, we pray, will follow in their cousin’s footsteps.
It’s important to state, however, that the joy we shared at that moment didn’t stem from the achievements of our grandchildren – because their accomplishments are theirs, for them to take pride in. Our joy came from the fact that we are an intricate part of our daughter’s, sons-in-law’s and grandchildren’s lives. They are, thank goodness, all independent, self-sufficient adults who choose, of their own accord, to be with us, and to interact with us as equals around whom they can freely say what they think and feel. In effect, they can be themselves. They needn’t walk on egg shells, live up to our expectations, or feel manipulated or controlled by us.
That’s the source of the pride Harriet and I shared during our brief exchange New Year’s Eve. To be honest, I believe we earned that status, not by virtue of buying them financially or guilting them to be involved with us out of responsibility or obligation toward “old folks.” But instead, because we somehow learned over the years to share who we truly are on the inside with them. We never tried or claimed to be perfect. We didn’t attempt to control them (well, maybe a little but it rarely worked). Essentially, we let them see us with our shortcomings, scars and quirks, and they came to love us in spite of them, and because of who we are.
Sadly, I know far too many grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren who aren’t as fortunate as we are to have the relationship we all share. One particular individual who comes to my mind is Carl. He is one of the more intelligent, down-to-earth, warm, introspective and humorous individuals, I have ever had the pleasure to see in therapy. I genuinely like and enjoy being with him. But, if you are one of his children, grandchildren or a close member of his family, you probably wouldn’t know him for those qualities. Until only recently, you probably would have described him as that non-communicative, non-emotionally involved individual who divorced your mother years ago and who, even when he’s around, really isn’t there. You might go so far as to say that you have doubts as to whether he cared for you and that, if he did, you saw little evidence to support that fact.
The truth is, however, that Carl is an extremely sensitive human being who, ever since early childhood, so strongly desired to please others. Or I, more accurately, should say he was so frightened of not living up to the expectations of any individual he loved that he closed down behaviorally, verbally and emotionally. His defense was the total opposite of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” It was “do, say and feel nothing.” That way, you may never be recognized for being right, but you’ll never error, get criticized or be rejected.
It’s sad to say, but he isn’t alone. More of you than I’d like to think, do the same or similar things to protect yourself emotionally, and only wind up hurting yourselves. That’s certainly the case for most addicts, whether they are alcoholics, drug, sex, gambling, or food addicts. In every instance, the behavior they unconsciously select to aid them to hide from and quell their fears is what causes others to distance themselves from them. The same scenario is frequently evidenced by individuals who demonstrate excessive angry, depression, control or emotional withdrawal. Similar to Carl, these persons unconsciously choose to play the game of life so safely that they frequently wind up playing alone.
In the end, if your choice contributes to your living a life filled with stress, conflict and estrangement from others, you need to stop looking at the facts and deal with your half of the problem. You must recognize that, by virtue of your reluctance to be hurt again, you miss the opportunity to get involved with, or genuinely getting to know your spouse, children and grandchildren. You wind up living life by going through the motions but not experiencing the emotions. The benefit you derive from this approach is that you are rarely devastated emotionally or have to admit feeling fearful or rejected. You get to blame others and to find them lacking, but the price you pay is that you rarely experience genuine feelings of love and care. Why would you settle for this arrangement? Because you are terrified – whether you are aware of it or not – of being vulnerable.
I feel sorry for you but, at the same time, I believe that it’s never too late to change and/or modify your heretofore self-destructive coping technique. The first and most essential step you must take is to honestly share you and your feelings with everyone whose love you desire. The problem is that before you can do so, you must have the courage to be honest with yourself. Think about it. How can you share your humanness, fears and shortcomings with others if you’re unable to share them with yourself first? That being the case, I ask you to please consider taking this first step. If need be, get help. See a professional. Carl did, and so far it’s working very well for him and can for you. Hopefully, you will choose to follow in his footsteps. It is a scary thing to do, but the reward you can experience eventually is priceless.