I was using the restroom at Wawa the other day (Wawa is God’s gift to convenience stores), and someone came into the stall next to me. She was talking on the phone, which is always a little bit of a marvel to me – people talking on the phone while using the bathroom, and, to add to the situational awkwardness, she proceeded to put her phone on speaker. In the public bathroom. Where other people were also using the bathroom.
Okay, actually, that’s not the embarrassing anecdote I came here to share, but it did happen and it was awkward. That was three days ago and I’m still struggling.
The post-winning event has to do with a series of communications I had recently with someone very important in my life. They turned disastrous, not because autocorrect said something I didn’t mean or because I sent the wrong text to the wrong person – though both have definitely happened (like recently when I was kvetching about something harmless my daughter had done and sent the text to her instead of the friend I was talking to… #truestory) – but because in my humanness and, probably more to the point, my brokenness, I heard things that were not said and reacted reflexively to past situations instead of responding to the one at hand. The nature of the conversation triggered an ancient file in an equally ancient operating system, which resulted in a series of default and categorically unhelpful reactions. Somehow, a single interaction became representative of every similar interaction I’ve ever had that ended poorly, and this other person became representative of every person in said interactions who behaved badly – one in particular. One moment in time rapidly turned into a trial to confirm my bungled-up narrative with the worst judge ever (raises hand, covers face).
As stated in my previous post, I’ve been on a journey to leave behind dysfunctional behavior and beliefs. I knew going into the initial conversation mentioned above that I was carrying a lot of luggage into the interaction, and it would (did) impact how I heard things. It was loaded. It’s too much to go into now and I’m not ready anyway, but here is my point: our experiences, history, emotional well-being, environment and other factors determine how we communicate (or don’t), and how we respond (or react). Actually, side note: if you ever want to read in incredibly helpful book on communication, I highly recommend Thanks For The Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. Anyway, conversations are rarely experienced at face value, because both/all parties are coming from different places. You can say something in a meeting with eight other people, ask them afterwards what they heard you say, and you will get varying responses. Some of this may have to do with what you said and how you said it, and plenty will have to do with people’s unique sets of filters. This is inherent to being human and fallible, but when you add the trauma of similar previous situations that had poor outcomes (and the corresponding unresolved emotional responses), injured trust, fear, or anger, your odds of hearing something loaded as it was intended and without any hitchhikers is unlikely.
Enter my mess.
This relationship is of a critical nature in my life, and, thankfully, the individual is patient, gracious, and equally motivated to help me sort out where things went south. As we have been in ongoing conversation about it and its effects, I realized I needed to map it out on paper. That might sound nuts to you, don’t judge, but I’m very visual and kinetic, and sometimes, when I can’t get something worked out clearly in my mind, I can make a sort of map with paper and markers. So, the other day I headed to Staples and got a package of medium posters, printed off all related texts and emails, and went to work. I made a timeline, both of the communications and what was going on for me in other news at the same time. Then, I made columns for what I heard, what I felt, what I was thinking, and what buttons were already, or got, pushed. Over the next two days, I worked my way through each communication and asked myself those four questions. Writing what I was feeling wasn’t all that bad, and even listing triggers was okay, if but a bit disheartening. But “What I Heard” had my cheeks turning red in the privacy of my own empty home; it was embarrassing to see in black and white (and consistently, in this conversation) how much what I heard veered from what was actually said. Worse, I knew it when it was happening, but I couldn’t gain control of my mental runaway train. As a result, the “What I Was Thinking” column brought a fair amount of shame with it as well. So much of it was just downright immature. Again, I knew this when it was happening, but was powerless to redirect it.
I’m pleased with this experiment in that it has provided a very helpful diagram for me in looking at the trail my mind takes when a certain part of me gets activated. (And no, I’m not showing you pictures.)
There is a clear line of dominoes and a consistent path they take, and once that first one is flicked, it’s almost impossible to stop the cascade of tumbling tiles. The work, then, is to unpack (and hopefully deactivate) that first domino; if I can cut the wires to that emotional bomb, I can navigate within this particularly complex space inside without ridiculous amounts of collateral damage. (In poster talk, two and a half of the three medium posters would be blank. Unnecessary. Free for other, more fun, uses!)
It’s not easy to look at these significantly flawed parts of myself. I want you to believe I have better control of my thoughts and heart than I actually do. I want to have better control than I actually do. I want you to see a clean house when you walk through, and I’ll thank you not to open any cupboards or closets or, god forbid, wander up to the attic or down to the basement. (And for cryin’ out loud, do NOT put the phone on speaker if you’re in the stall next to me!) Really, though, it’s hard to dissect an argument or misunderstanding and see how much of the fallout is actually due to your own faulty wiring. Your own brokenness. Your own stunted mental and emotional growth. It has the potential to pass Humbling and slide right on into Humiliating, except for the fact that the intention in parsing through this rubble is to find life. And there is life there. And that’s the good news: I can change. I am changing. Learning.
The incredible part of seeing (literally, since I created a visual) where things go wrong in my mind, and what happens as a result, is that I can change the tapes. I have the chance and the choice to recreate that first domino; I can learn to discern the disparity between what is being said and what I am hearing, and to keep the train from derailing by cutting the wires to what I hear.
As the saying goes, “You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” I can work at removing my filters. It’s hard work, but it can be done. I can strengthen my weaknesses and change how I hear. I can, eventually, deactivate my triggers. Remove the dominoes, or at least make it a shorter line of them. There is a lot of history to why I struggle the way I do, but I am learning.
I am looking forward to the unicorn of a day when a conversation postmortem will show all green checkmarks and appropriate responses and molten chocolate center-filled cupcakes. Or, at the very least, when I can go into a potentially loaded situation without suitcases and steamer trunks, walk away having heard only what was actually said, respond instead of react, and have few or no dominoes toppled over. Bucket list.
Until then, I’ll keep studying my embarrassing poster project, keep deconstructing interactions or events that cause discomfort, keep working to make new tapes and to change the wiring in my brain, and perhaps avoid public restrooms …….