I’m tired. I’m tired and I’ve had one of those weeks. You know the kind I’m talking about. The kind where you’re out of patience before you even get out of bed. The kind where your kid looks at you funny and you scream at him for his insolence. I like to think I’m above this kind of behavior. After all, I’m a therapist. I work with other people on their family issues – I’m not supposed to create my own, right? Aaah, children are humbling aren’t they? And none of us are perfect (I’ll save the topic of perfectionism for another issue).
So, why am I yelling at my children? Well, as I mentioned, I’m tired. (Aren’t all moms tired all the time?) Why am I tired? Not because I’m working long hours on a project that has an immediate deadline. Not because I’m trying to recapture my youth by partying with old friends. Not because I’m enjoying rare quality time with my spouse, and not because I’m a busy bee waxing my floors at all hours of the night. No. I’m tired because I’m too stubborn to go to bed. I have no other explanation. I’m not going to bed because I’m not going to bed. I’m also not eating nutritiously and not drinking enough water – just because. Why does this happen? Once again, I’m a therapist. I teach people to nurture themselves. I teach stress-reduction and self-care. Why on earth would I avoid looking after the basics like sleep, food and water? Obviously, I know better. I’m aware that I am not the only one who can get stuck in a self-destructive rut. And granted, this is pretty mild as far as self-destruction goes. Self-destructive behavior can look much, much worse. Alcohol and drug abuse, risky promiscuity, impulsive gambling and overspending can all have very serious, life-threatening, family-destroying consequences. But less extreme forms of sabotage have consequences too.
Two of my personal favorite methods of self-impediment are procrastination and self-neglect. When I say “self-neglect” I am not referring to severe neglect. I still dress and shower and eat. I just mean that I’m not eating well. I’m not pampering myself or tending to my own happiness. Now, even though these behaviors seem relatively innocuous, they still increase stress and lead to other problems. When my “inner brat” starts acting out like this, I’m more easily frustrated. I lack patience. I’m quick to anger. I speak before I think (this is hard on marriages and on the self-esteem of children). I lack self-control and self-regulation. I’m more easily overwhelmed. I cry at Hallmark Card commercials. I yell at my kids. I don’t play. All of these things impact, not just my own well-being, but the well-being of those around me.
I’d like to talk about this phenomenon in respect to the immediate moment, and regarding a larger life pattern. If you have a habit of “getting in your own way” or somehow damaging your own chance of success, then the saboteur is a bedmate of yours. This is usually a technique we develop in order to avoid something. We fear change, failure, rejection. We don’t want to take responsibility for ourselves, so we avoid taking action. In truth, the heart of this issue lies in a lack of self-worth. Somewhere, deep inside, we do not believe we are worthy of happiness.
In her book Dojo Wisdom, writer and martial arts teacher Jennifer Lawler addresses the trouble many women have when it comes to protecting themselves. She says that they are afraid of hurting their attacker. They hold a belief (usually unconsciously) that they are not worth protecting. Interestingly, most of them have no trouble describing the acts of violence they would commit if someone was hurting their children. But they do not find themselves worthy of the same kind of fierce protection.
Rooting out these deeply held, self-limiting beliefs is often not easy. It requires being brutally honest with yourself, and it usually involves facing whatever fears you have been steadfastly avoiding. This is not an “overnight” process. It took a lot of years to entrench these beliefs into your being. It will take time and patience (and support) to let them go. So, now that you begin to see the bigger picture and how some patterns of behavior work against your own best interest, you can make the commitment to start working on it. That brings us to the dilemma of the present moment. How do you deal with the saboteur who is taking over right now? In my experience, once people become aware of that little gremlin that lives inside their head they want to annihilate it; eliminate it from their personality. Unfortunately, that is rarely possible. Personality traits, beliefs, and inner gremlins rarely disappear on command. I liken this to the ineffectiveness of saying “cheer up” to someone who’s dog just died or “don’t be angry” to your spouse after backing over his new bike. Instead, I think the energy is better used making friends with this aspect of your personality and learning how to manage it so it does not take over and wreak havoc on all your relationships.
The first step is to know when your inner brat is starting to throw a tantrum. For me, yelling at my kids and picking fights with my spouse are indications that I’m under stress. What do you do when you are stressed-out? Overeat? Burst into tears at the drop of a hat? Develop insomnia?
Once you realize that your equilibrium is upset, you can start to examine why. All kinds of things cause stress. What you’re looking for are the things that are of your own doing. Not eating nutritious food, not sleeping (out of sheer stubbornness), procrastinating on responsibilities are some examples of the ways I personally contribute to my own stress and make it hard to maintain inner peace. The next step is two-fold. First, you must correct the behavior. Sometimes this means having a firm but loving conversation with that internal tantruming brat: “I can see that you are upset. I am interested in what you have to say but this behavior must stop. My job is to look out for your safety and well-being and right now you are making some bad choices” (Yes. I am suggesting that you have this conversation with yourself. I find it best to do this inside your head so your family does not think you’ve completely flipped. Alternatively, you can sequester yourself in the bathroom for a good heart-to-heart talk, or write in a journal).
Then, you must take positive action. For me, that means make a nutritious meal, have a drink of water and put myself to bed at a decent hour – even if I don’t want to. It might even be good to force myself to do a little pampering (oh the pain of it!) like a manicure or spending ten minutes reading a good book.
The other part of taking responsibility for your well-being is to take an honest look at what you may be trying to avoid with this behavior. It’s time to “listen to what that “brat” is trying to tell you. Is there a thought or a feeling that you are trying to “push away?” Now is the time to be very honest with yourself. This takes an act of courage.
Are you angry about something? Feeling taken advantage of? Sad or grieving? Do you feel lonely? Empty? Dissatisfied in your marriage? Are you angry with disrespecting parents or friends? Have your feelings been hurt by a friend? Are you worried about your health? Are you trying to convince yourself that something is ok that is truly not ok?
Whatever it is, nothing can change if you do not first acknowledge that there is a problem. This is where many moms struggle. You are programmed to look after everyone else. You mould yourself to fit what others expect of you. I challenge you to take the time to examine your own needs and to be honest about your own hurt. Then you can make an informed decision about what to do.
Physical pain is designed, paradoxically, to keep us from hurting ourselves. Otherwise, what would keep us from picking up a burning ember? Your five senses are continually feeding you information about the world. Feelings can serve a similar purpose. They, too, are providing you with information. But you must pay attention to them.
Many people have cultivated the ability to ignore their emotional responses to the world. The trouble is, the feelings still exist, even if one is not attuned to them. They spill out – sometimes at the most inopportune times. And when they do spill out, they often get attached to the wrong event.
So, it turns out that saboteur inside you can serve a positive purpose. The next time you find yourself reaching for your third piece of chocolate cake even though you’re stuffed, give that little gremlin a wink and say “Ok. Stop pitching a fit. I’ll listen to you.” Then give yourself some quiet space to tend to your inner world. Take note of what is bothering you. Only then can you take control of your happiness.
First published 2008