Monthly Archives: July 2016

Ragamuffin Me

When my oldest daughter Alex was 5 years old and in kindergarten she finally had her first “best friend”.  Her friend’s name was Jessica, and Jessica was a beautiful little girl.  Black hair, bright blue eyes, big smile…Jessica was truly gorgeous.  She was popular too, and sometimes Alex competed for Jessica’s friendship and approval.  Some days Alex won and she came home from school feeling on top of the world.  Some days then other little girls won Jessica’s attention and Alex came home from school sad and quiet.  Then there were days when Alex came home sullen and silent, refusing to eat or be cuddled.  I finally got her to tell me what was going on: sometimes, when the other little girls won Jessica’s attention, Jessica would be mean to Alex and tell her that no one wanted to play with her.  She would tell Alex that her clothes were ugly and that she was stupid and that no one liked her.  And then Jessica and her friends-of-the-day would go off and play.

My heart broke.  I wanted Alex to hate this girl, to reject her, to refuse to have anything to do with her.  But that’s not how it works.  Alex desperately wanted to be her friend, and so all I could do was encourage my pretty little girl to stand up to her friend and tell her that she was being mean.  I told Alex to tell her that there is never any excuse for being mean.  But Alex refused to stand up for herself. Alex was terrified of what would happen, fearing that Jessica would reject her for good and never play with her again.  I told her that it was her choice, but that it made me sad to think she was friends with someone who made her feel so badly.

The funny thing is that I was having my own private battle with Jessica.  Actually, it was with Jessica’s mom.

You see, when I would take Alex to Jessica’s house for play dates, I would show up looking like the harried mother of two children who were both under six years old.  Because I was a full-time student in graduate school, I spent most of my days with my hair in a ponytail, wearing very little makeup and a t-shirt and shorts.  I’d get to Jessica’s house and there was Jessica’s 24 year-old mother, beautiful and young, wearing designer jeans and a delicate blouse, with her hair styled and spiked to match the latest trend. Her house was spotless. Her car was a Mercedes.  Her husband drove a Mercedes as well, and he looked just as perfectly dressed and styled as she did.

I’d walk into their home and instantly feel like an old rag: dirty and crumpled.

I’d sit and make conversation with Jessica’s mom…after all, that’s what moms do.  I’d be polite and ask her questions about herself and her spouse, about Jessica and their plans for other children, about her plans for her own life and career.  I’d shared with her that I was in school…in seminary, actually, and on my way to becoming a minister…and then I’d talk about my former career and how nice it had been to actually have money back when I was still working. We’d chat for a few minutes when I dropped Alex off to play, and then I’d head home only to make a return trip later to pick Alex up and bring her home.  I tried as best I could to be friendly and kind to Jessica’s parents, and to be patient with Alex’s desire to be Jessica’s friend.  I really understood her pain: Alex felt ‘less than’ around Jessica, and I felt ‘less than’ around Jessica’s mom.

One day Jessica’s parents came by our house to pick up Alex.  They were taking Jessica and Alex out for dinner and a movie to celebrate Jessica’s 6th birthday.  Jessica’s mom stood at my breakfast bar, watching me cut vegetables and meat as I prepared dinner for the rest of my family.  She stood there in silence, watching me, and then suddenly she proclaimed:

“God I wish I could be like you!”

My brain came to a sudden, screeching halt.

“You…want to be…like ME? Why?”

She looked me in the eye and spoke what appeared to be a very painful truth.  “You always know what you’re doing. You have a purpose and you’re doing things with your life.  I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.  You know who you are, and I have no idea who I’m supposed to be.  I look at you and you are so comfortable in your skin. You know what you’re about and why you’re here. I wish that I could be like that.”

Suddenly I realized that I had felt inadequate because I had been comparing my outside to her outside.  What an idiot I was!  She looked at me and looked right past my outside and through to my inside, where things actually matter.  It made me sad to realize just how empty she felt, especially in comparison with what I felt inside. The truth is that she was right. I knew exactly who I was and what I was about. I may have felt fat and kind of ugly when I compared myself to her, but the rest of the time I was truly comfortable in my own skin. I had a purpose and I knew where God was leading me.  I felt solid in all of the major choices in my life: my marriage, my children, and my choice to give up my career and become a minister.  In her eyes I had everything wrapped up in a neat little package and it was the perfect package.  I had everything she wanted to have and didn’t know how to get.  In her eyes, I had it all.

That was such an epiphany for me!  I wish I could say that I never compared my outside to anyone else’s outside ever again, but that would be a lie.  I did, however, learn to value and find greater joy in being me.  I had to learn to let being me be enough to establish my worth, no matter how I looked on the outside. The other lesson I learned was that being flawlessly beautiful doesn’t grant you any peace in this world. I should have known that intuitively, and I guess I knew it at an intellectual level, but I had never really accepted that truth all the way into my heart.  After that, I found myself looking at beautiful people and wondering if they felt like Jessica’s mother on the inside.   How horrible and painful it must be to feel empty, to feel no comfort in your own skin, no love for your innermost self.

I kept encouraging Alex to stand up for herself when Jessica was mean to her and one day she came home and told me exactly how she did it.  It was one of those days when the other girls had won Jessica’s favor and Jessica was busy telling Alex how stupid and ugly she was and how one liked her.  Alex said that she marched right to Jessica and told her that she was being mean, and that there was no excuse for being mean and then Alex said that she wouldn’t accept that behavior out of Jessica anymore.  She told Jessica that she could be kind and they could be friends, or Jessica could be mean and find her friends elsewhere.  I was so proud!  Then I asked Alex what happened, and she said that Jessica admitted to being jealous of Alex, specifically of how comfortable Alex was with playing by herself or sitting alone and reading a book.  Jessica admitted to being afraid of being alone, and Alex promised that if she wasn’t mean anymore, she wouldn’t have to be alone because Alex would be her friend.  Like mother, like daughter I guess.

I could tell you never to compare your outsides to someone else’s pretty, shiny outside, but I know that you will anyway.

Instead, I’m going to encourage you to spend time making your insides beautiful. Feed your spirit!  Spend time finding meaning and purpose in this life.  Spend time becoming comfortable with who you are as a human being, accepting yourself for both good and bad.  Do all you can to increase the good, and limit the bad.  Know who you are and what you are about, and invest in this.  Spend time cultivating yourself and your personality like a lovely garden, because once people look past your skin, they will see the garden that is you and want to wander inside that garden for hours and hours. They will find peace and refreshment in the garden that is you, and you will become a haven for everyone who loves you.

Never underestimate the power of a beautiful soul, and the allure that it has to others who need a little beauty in their life. And just as birds of a feather flock together, a beautiful soul tends to draw other beautiful souls to itself. What a way to find your friends!

I wish you beauty on the inside.

Oh my aching heart…

I mentioned in my last two posts that being tenderhearted can cause problems, that it can make it hard not to interfere where you shouldn’t.

The thing is that I should have said that it just doesn’t work to have strong feelings about things that you just cannot change: other people’s choices, other people’s lives, other people’s consequences, etc.  It doesn’t matter if the other person is your coworker, your neighbor, your sibling, or your adult child…if it is happening to another adult and you can’t do anything to change it, you probably shouldn’t be getting all worked up about it.

But what if you are worked up about it? What are you supposed to do now?

Let me start with an example out of my own life.

My youngest daughter K. had just turned 17 when she graduated from High School…a full year early.  She had worked hard to get through school and we were very proud of her.  She had a full ride scholarship to a local college and was certain to move on to great things in the coming years.

Or so we thought, her father and I.

And then K. met L.  He had long hair, no ambition, and fewer brains.  He was a nice enough boy, but dang that child was brainless and it made us crazy to see our daughter so smitten by him.  We figured she would quickly move beyond him…but instead K. became more and more involved with him, taking on some of his habits and beliefs, hanging out with his family, and taking up his habits…including the one where he smoked marijuana.  We were horrified!

Long story short, her grades weren’t terrible but they also weren’t high enough to maintain her scholarship, which meant that suddenly she had to find a way to pay for school.  Her father and I told her that her failure to maintain her scholarship was not going to become the occasion for us to be punished by having to pay for her tuition.  She had earned a scholarship that covered two full years of community college and she lost it because she wouldn’t focus on her schooling instead of her boyfriend… so we told K. that she would need to pay for her schooling herself. Let’s stop right here for a moment and take notice of a non-codependent behavior: my daughter’s consequences are not mine to absorb.  K. isn’t 12 years old anymore, and if she lost the scholarship, then she’s the one who has to find money for tuition now.  And isn’t it great that I didn’t behave codependently?  Uh, yeah, sure…but I still was all codependent emotionally.  Behaviorally I had gotten better.  Emotionally…not so much, and so the saga continues.

The problem was that K. had no job and wasn’t really interested in getting a job.  We told her to get a job as soon as possible, and she pretended to apply to places and assured us that she was working really hard to get a job.  We weren’t fooled at all and expressed increasing amounts of frustration with her bad attitude and failure to get a job, and K. became more and more belligerent.  As soon as the spring semester was over, we told her that she had until August 1 to get a job or she would have to move out.  K. called our bluff and moved out before July 1st, choosing to move with L. and his brother N. to their grandfather’s abandoned home in a remote city we’ll call Crapville.  Gee…do you think I have negative feelings about Crapville?  Yes…yes I do.

Literally, my daughter was living rent-free in an unused home that had electricity but no hot water because they couldn’t afford to pay the gas bill.  Neither my daughter, her boyfriend L., or his brother N. had jobs, so they did their grocery shopping at the local food bank.  Essentially, K. was living by choice in relative poverty, in a home that lacked some of what I considered to be basic necessities.

My husband and I were horrified.  What could we do? They didn’t have jobs, they didn’t have hot water, they didn’t have enough food.  You cannot imagine how badly it messes with your head when you know that your daughter doesn’t have enough food!!  The more I thought about it, the more upset I became.

But I had to admit: K. had chosen this life.  She didn’t have to move out.  All K. had to do was get a part time job, which she steadfastly refused to do.  She could have gotten a part-time job and lived at home with free room and board while going to school. Apparently K. had decided that she’d rather live in poverty and skip the job.  Any time I thought about what she was doing, I became so upset that I got sick to my stomach.

I knew that I had to let it go.  Getting upset wasn’t solving anything.  Getting upset wasn’t changing K’s choices and it wasn’t helping me any.  Even worse, my attitude about K’s choices had the potential to do damage to our relationship.  I didn’t want to become one of those mothers who complained and criticized every time I had any interaction with my daughter.  I was upset enough that I knew my attitude would bleed into my voice whenever we spoke and I didn’t want to risk my relationship with K. for any reason.

In an attempt to get control of my feelings about K’s choices, I started forcing myself to admit that I had no idea what path God might have for her, and admitted to myself that perhaps my daughter’s time in Crapville was a major part of God’s plan. Parents often think that we know what is best for our children, and while they are under the age of 18 we are usually right (usually…not always).  However, my lovely daughter was over 18 and her life and future were in God’s hands, not mine.  After a bit of prayer, God assured me that He was more than capable of handling my daughter…and suggested that I might want to handle myself.  After that point, whenever I found myself thinking of her or complaining about K’s choices to another person, I would force myself to say out loud “I don’t know God’s path for her.”  It was a true statement: I truly didn’t know what plans God might have for my daughter, or what paths those holy plans would cause her to take, but I needed to trust that God could get her to where she needed to be. I found myself saying “I don’t know God’s path for her” over and over, sometimes multiple times a day, and to be honest it was soothing.  I actually felt a little better every time I said it.

Here’s the deal: lots of us start feeling all sorts of strong emotions when we start thinking about what is going on with our kids, or with our parents or our siblings, and sometimes even when we think of what’s happening to our friends or to our neighbors.  It’s easy to let those emotions run away with us and get us all worked up…but it’s incredibly UNWISE.  Remember, I’m not talking about a situation that actually impacts you, like when your best friend is diagnosed with cancer, or your spouse up and quits their job, or your children move across country.  Those things impact you quite a bit…and it’s still wise to be careful not to let the emotions you feel about those situations get so big that you forget that a) you don’t control the other person’s life, and b) they have decisions to make and your opinions and feelings don’t figure in those decisions.

What self-soothing phrase do you need to help yourself let go of your emotions? What do you need to remind yourself of so that you can stop being anxious/controlling and just let things happen naturally?

Here’s some ideas to get you started:

Ask yourself where God is in all this.  Ask yourself what responsibility you have regarding the issue.  Ask yourself if the issue is still unfolding (not yet finished.)  Questions like these may illuminate what you need to self-soothe and stop freaking out.

Here are a few suggestions to help you start calming yourself down.  It won’t stop you from being upset immediately, and you may need more than one phrase, but if you keep reminding yourself of the truth and of God’s presence, you may find yourself less upset about things than you think you are right now.

Try these:

God is still in control, no matter how bad it looks.

I don’t know what God’s plan is for them.

I am trusting God to somehow bring blessings out of this crazy situation.

Not my circus, not my monkeys.

This is not my problem to solve.

It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, and I don’t hear anyone singing.

If it’s not over, God hasn’t had His say yet.

And finally:  I didn’t cause this and I can’t fix it either.

 

And if you are wondering: K. lived in Crapville for two years. She ended up getting a job and actually doing quite well at her job…then lost that job and really hustled to get another job so that she could pay her bills.  After two years, she broke it off with the guy she started dating after she kicked L. to the curb and moved home.  K was so much more mature I couldn’t believe it!  She was so helpful around the house and so incredibly calm and wise that I loved having K. live with us.  She learned a lot from those two years in Crapville…and I never could have seen that coming when she first moved out.  Truly, God did use that time to grow and mold K. into a wonderful woman!  She moved in with her sister almost a year ago now and is engaged to be married to a sweet young man.  I did not know God’s path for her and God knew far better than I did what K. needed.

Dear Parent of an Adult Child…PART II

Last week I wrote about dealing with adult children and codependent behaviors.  This week I want to make things a little clearer because it’s hard to change behaviors when you don’t know what you’re aiming to eliminate, and if you don’t have anything healthy to substitute in its place.

Let’s return to our initial example, that of my client and her mom, after my client’s breakup from the unbalanced boyfriend that her mom really liked.  What could mom have done instead that would have been emotionally healthy?

To make this discussion clearer and easier, let’s give these people names:

My client:  Trina               Her mom:  Mabel               Trina’s unbalanced boyfriend: Fred

Let’s break this down (and no, it’s not Hammer Time):

Until a month ago, 22 year-old Trina was living with 23 year-old Fred, who recently moved to the state where his parents live so that he can pursue an externship in his field.  He graduated a year ago and was unable to find an externship in Arizona.  After Fred moved back to his home state, Trina moved back home and is living with 48 year-old Mabel.

About two weeks ago, Trina admitted to herself she wasn’t in love with Fred anymore and broke up with him.  Fred didn’t handle it well, threatening suicide, which freaked Trina out pretty badly.  Not knowing what to do, she asked her mom Mabel for help, and Mabel ended up on the phone with Fred.  Mabel spoke to Fred and couldn’t calm him down.  During the phone conversation, Fred reiterated his desire to commit suicide.

So…what should Mabel do?

Before Fred threatened suicide, the proper response to Fred is listening. Listening is always good. We are always free to be a soft shoulder for someone to cry on, but listening and attempting to fix their problem are not the same thing. For that reason, Mabel should not offer her opinions about what should be happening between Fred and Trina in regard to their relationship.  Letting another adult unload their feelings and struggles to you should be an “in one ear and out the other” kind of moment.  Not that you should forget their concerns, but that you shouldn’t let yourself get emotionally invested in what happens next. If it’s not your life, don’t get emotionally invested.  The best thing that Mabel can do in this situation (if she’s going to talk to Fred at all) is to listen to Fred’s concerns, let him unload, maybe encourage him to express his feelings (some folks have trouble with that), and then listen some more.

Once Fred expressed a desire to commit suicide, everything changed. Always take threats of suicide seriously, and don’t allow yourself to be manipulated by them.  In other words, call 911 and let the police handle the person threatening suicide.  People who are seriously threatening suicide need immediate help, and you are not qualified to determine what constitutes a serious threat of suicide. Even mental health professionals and police officers struggle with that.  Finally, anyone who threatens suicide but isn’t serious about it is using the threat to manipulate you into doing what they want you to do.  Refuse to be manipulated by taking all suicide threats seriously and refusing to intervene except by calling 911.

What would a codependent response look like?

  • Begging Fred not to commit suicide and giving him a list of reasons he should live.
  • Agreeing to talk to Trina and convince her that she shouldn’t break up with Fred.
  • Agreeing to intervene with Trina at all, in any way.
  • Yelling at Fred for being over-emotional and encouraging him to “man up” or “get a grip”.
  • Doing anything other than listening to Fred and calling 911 after he threatened suicide.
  • Getting emotionally invested in the outcome…in other words, getting emotionally involved with what happens after the phone call with Fred ends.

Let’s take a moment to talk about getting emotionally invested in the outcome.  Please note that calling 911 to stop Fred from committing suicide is not ‘getting emotionally invested in the outcome’.  It is an ethical action required to save a life.  You don’t have to be emotionally invested in the outcome in order to care about a stranger enough to call 911.

Getting back to the point: we love our families and friends and of course we will have feelings and emotions about the things that happen to them.  Your daughter gets a promotion and a raise?  You will probably feel happy.  She has a breakup with her husband? You will probably feel sad and anxious about what will happen next.  That’s normal.

What’s not normal is getting emotional at the level you would be emotional if these things were happening to you.  The emotions we feel about our own lives are necessary to help us take action on our own behalf.  So…if our emotions are there to help us take action…what action can we take if the emotions we feel are about someone else’s life?  It can be very hard to restrain yourself when the impulse to act is driven by such strong emotion…and in the attempt to stop ourselves from taking actual action, we often try to emotionally influence the other person to do what we want.  This is called manipulation. The word manipulation is defined by Webster as to “control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.”  In my counseling practice I define manipulation to my clients as “using emotions or words to try and force other people to do what you want them to do.”  Force?  Dang…that’s a strong word, but that’s exactly what it feels like when someone is manipulating you.  You might think that getting emotionally invested in the outcome is an innocent thing that happens when you have a tender heart or you are a very caring person, but tender hearts don’t force people do things and caring persons don’t attempt to control or influence unfairly or unscrupulously.  If you are actually a caring and tender hearted person, take steps to protect your tender heart and care enough to control yourself (the only thing you actually control) and let others do the same.   We’ll talk about how to protect your tender heart next week.  Wow…it turns out that this codependency and adult children thing is going to take a while to discuss.

Now let’s talk about the furniture.

Fred called Trina and said that he had resigned himself to losing her and needs to move on.  He asked Trina to send him certain items that he left with her when he moved, thinking that she would move to his home state after graduation so they could continue living together. Fred only wanted the smaller items sent to him and was not interested in having Trina ship the furniture to him; those he wanted donated to Goodwill.  Then Fred called Mabel and said pretty much the same thing to her. He requested that his bed and desk be donated to Goodwill because he no longer wanted them and then he told Mabel that he could not bear the idea that Trina might sleep with another man in that bed.

What should Mabel do?

Let’s start with the fact that Mabel doesn’t need to be involved in this at all.  The fact that Fred called her after giving Trina instructions is a clear sign that Fred is up to another act of manipulation.  Remember how we defined that earlier as using words or emotions to try and force other people to do what you want them to do.  Do you get the picture now?

Let me remind you that Trina is a 22 year-old adult.  Other than the moral issue of keeping things that Fred requested be sent to him, Mabel has no reason to interfere with this situation.  She is free to ask Trina if she needs help getting things gathered up and mailed off, just as Mabel might help any other adult who needs to get a large number of items to the UPS store.  But what if Trina refuses to mail Fred his possessions?  That’s a little stickier, but we aren’t talking about criminal activity, just ethically and morally reprehensible actions.  If Trina decides to be unethical, then Mabel is free to share her disappointment and disapproval of Trina’s actions…and then Mabel needs to shut up.  Trina is an adult, and her choice to be moral or ethical is her own.  We don’t go next door to monitor our neighbor and make sure they return all their spouse’s property when they get divorced, and we need to be careful what we say to our adult children for the same reason.  If you disapprove of another adult’s choice, you are free to tell them so, but it is wise to shut up and let it go after you tell them the first time.  Anything more than that is harping and nagging…and a direct attempt to force them to behave according to your will…and that is manipulative and codependent.**

What about the bed and desk?  Fred doesn’t want them…so Trina is free to do whatever she wishes.  If Trina wants to follow Fred’s wishes, she can donate the bed and desk to Goodwill.  If she decides that she needs those items right now, she is free to donate them to herself (after all, Fred has requested that she donate them to charity…he doesn’t need them.)  If Mabel wants to follow through with Trina about that, she may want to ask Trina what she’s going to do…and Mabel is even free to have an opinion about what is the right thing to do. Let’s remember that Fred doesn’t want the bed or the desk.  Now you might think that perhaps Fred was trying to be charitable and would not be okay with Trina keeping those items because of their value.  If Mabel thinks that charity was Fred’s goal then she is free to suggest that Trina donate a certain amount to Goodwill to make up for what Goodwill could have gained by selling those items.  Then again, Mabel might want to tell Trina that she thinks it would be wise to get rid of those items, but no matter what Mabel thinks, it is Trina’s to decide what happens with the bed and the desk. Unless Mabel paid for the bed and the desk (which would make them her property) what happens with them is not her decision and she has no right to force Trina to do anything.  Then again, Trina is an adult…so Mabel never has the right to force Trina to do anything.  She can refuse to let Trina live in her house, but that’s about all the leverage she has when it comes to Trina’s behavior, and it is not okay to threaten to throw someone out of your house just because they won’t do what you tell them to do…that’s manipulative and codependent.  We will deal with adult children in your house who are out of control and have no respect for your boundaries two weeks from now.  Again, this adult children thing is going to take a while to discuss.

Several times in this post and the last, I have said that Mabel needed to ask Trina what Trina wants to do.  This is called respecting the agency of another person. Then again, you can just call it respect, and respect is always a good idea in theory and in practice.

What to take away from this if you want to be healthy:

  • Just listen…don’t fix. When other people are talking to you, listen! Don’t tell them what to do, and don’t attempt to fix their problem unless they ask for your assistance. Listening is kind and loving and lets the person talk through the situation until they come to a better understanding of it.  Telling them what to do or ‘fixing’ things by intervening without their direct request tells them that you think they are too stupid or utterly incapable of handling things on their own.  Just listen…don’t fix.
  • Ask before acting. You are always free to offer assistance, but ask the person what they want from you.  You have no idea what someone else really needs until you ask them, and it is possible any ‘help’ you would offer will be experienced as interference by the person you are trying to help.  Don’t assume you know what someone else needs. Ask before acting.
  • Don’t insert yourself into someone else’s drama. It doesn’t matter if they are your child, your friend, your sibling, or your parents…if the issue is theirs, let it stay that way. This includes practicing “in one ear and out the other” listening, as well as not allowing anyone to manipulate you into entering their drama (think: Fred calling Mabel about the bed and desk.) No matter how dire they say their situation is, no matter how upset they are at this moment, you don’t have the answers to someone else’s problems. In the end, all you are doing is creating a mess that will make a great episode of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich. Don’t insert yourself into someone else’s drama.
  • Don’t get emotionally invested in the outcome. I know I said this earlier but it bears repeating.  No one wants to be called controlling or manipulative, but that will be the label you get if you allow yourself to get emotionally invested in the outcome of things you do not actually control.

While we didn’t talk about these specific things in this post, here are two more things crucial to avoiding codependency and manipulative behaviors.

  • Let people screw up and make bad decisions. Essentially, let people fail. Failures can lead to all sorts of good things!  The inventor of vulcanized rubber was trying to do something else entirely and accidentally invented the rubber used in your car tires. Technically, his experiment failed, but I’m betting you’re not going to give your tires back.  You might think that failure is not always so positive in our personal lives, and you would be right. Failure is not always positive and good things don’t always come from failure.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that you can list quite a few failures in your own life right now as you read this…and you are still here, breathing, reading, and learning. Apparently, failure isn’t fatal.  So don’t freak out when someone you love makes a choice that you fear will lead to epic failure.  You are always free to tell them that you don’t think they’re being wise, but don’t try to stop them. Failure is often the doorway to great things and it always leads to learning important lessons. Let people screw up and made bad decisions. Let people fail.
  • Don’t save people from the consequences of their own bad actions and failures. This one is hard.  When you love someone, you don’t want them to suffer…but sometimes suffering is exactly what we need to cause us to change.  Consequences are our best teacher!  And it is really uncomfortable watching someone go through the consequences of a DUI, or of an affair, or of a failed marriage.  It is going to cause you pain to watch this person you love experience their consequences…and if you love them, you will suck it up and feel the pain—both yours and theirs.  If you love them, you will let them learn this lesson this time so they don’t have to go through this twice…or three times…or more.  Far worse than suffering through this pain with them this once would be suffering through it with them two or more times because you prevented them from feeling the pain the first time.  Don’t save people from the consequences of their own bad actions and failures.

Next week I am going to address the issue of being tender hearted.  Remember that a huge part of codependency is being unable to deal with emotions that other people’s actions cause you.  It is really hard sitting back and watching your child make a foolish decision with their life or their career.  It is painful to watch your sibling deal with the consequences of their DUI.  In general, the behavior of our friends and family can cause us to feel overwhelming amounts of anxiety, pain, shame, and anger…and what do you do with all those feelings?  Let’s discuss that next week, because dealing with the feelings was the hardest part for me to conquer, and it was the key to ending my own codependent and manipulative behavior.

**If you are having problems with letting an immoral / unethical person live in your house, please see last week’s post for a short comment, and then come back for the next two week’s posts.  I promise that we’ll work our way through the whole thing before we’re done.

Dear Parent of an Adult Child…

Every parent eventually ends up as the parent of adult children.  You know, those little guys grow up and become big guys.  One minute they are smearing chocolate frosting all over their toddler face and then BAM! Out of nowhere, your little boy is a man or your little girl grows into a beautiful woman.

And for some parents, this is the moment when they rejoice.  Done!  Completed!  Empty nest and all that!  I totally get the joy of that moment and how much fun it is to be able to put yourself and your spouse as the top priorities in the household. Being an empty nester is quite a lot of fun…if you know how to let your kids be adults.

Let me give you an example: Monday morning my oldest daughter Alex walked out of her condo to her car and found the remnants of a ‘smash and grab’.  Her driver’s side window was shattered. Her pack of cigarettes and a bag of clothes were missing. Her passenger side window was no longer functional.  This is no way to start your Monday morning.

You can guess what happened next: she called her mom and dad and asked what to do.  We encouraged her to call State Farm immediately and let her know that she’d probably have to file a police report.  Then we told her to keep us informed about what happened and then we hung up the phone.  You have no idea how hard it was for me to not cancel all my clients for the day and help my daughter handle her disaster…but I didn’t.  I told her that I was available if she needed me and then I hung up the phone.  Her father also went to work, but encouraged Alex to call or text if she needed him.

What’s the big deal, you ask?

Well, Alex called at 8am…and at 11am I had an appointment with a 22 year-old client of mine who recently broke up with her boyfriend.  Since the breakup, this young man has threatened suicide, driven from another state to show up at her front door unannounced and unwelcome, feigned amnesia so that he could deny the breakup, posted unreasonable requests and private information on her social media pages to cause humiliation and drama, and finally attempted suicide just last week.  Clearly this young man is unbalanced, and you’d think my client would be beside herself just trying to deal with the results of the breakup.

Nope.

She’s in my office overwhelmed and crying because her mother keeps interfering in the breakup, taking sides with the young man and yelling at her daughter for all the distress she’s caused him and stating that she knew her daughter would ‘screw up’ the relationship.  The fact that her daughter doesn’t love the young man anymore apparently doesn’t figure into the equation.

That’s right: her mother wants her to stay with the unbalanced young man even though she doesn’t love him anymore!  But that’s not all:

Mom takes calls from the young man and has interfered in the splitting up of property her daughter and this young man owned while living together, leaving her daughter with no bed and no desk simply because they young man requested that the furniture that he no longer wanted be donated to Goodwill…even though my client would have no bed otherwise.

Now…mom is free to think that her daughter has made a mistake in breaking up with this young man.  Mom is free to mourn the fact that she thought her daughter had finally found the one and let him get away.  Mom is even free to tell her daughter that she thinks her daughter is making a huge mistake that she will deeply regret later.

But all that interference?  Really?

Imagine if my client was 42 instead of 22.  Imagine she lived next door to the woman who is actually her mother, and imagine that they are not related but simply neighbors.

Would you view the mother’s behavior differently if I told you that she took calls from her neighbor’s ex-boyfriend and then went next door and yelled at her neighbor, swearing that she knew her neighbor would ‘screw up’ the relationship? Would it be inappropriate if she went next door and demanded that her neighbor get rid of her bed just because the ex-boyfriend didn’t want her to keep it—and then hauled the bed out the door to take it to Goodwill?

Can you hear the police sirens yet?

Long about the moment that mom showed up at her neighbor’s house to verbally harangue her neighbor, things would have gotten problematic.  Forcing her neighbor to get rid of furniture? That’s where the police show up.

Remember: this furniture doesn’t belong to mom.  She didn’t buy it.  So she has no right to decide what happens with this furniture.  And this young man is not requesting that the furniture be shipped to where he is living. He wanted the furniture donated to Goodwill—except that if he actually doesn’t want the furniture, why should he care whether his ex-girlfriend keeps it or donates it?  What business is it of his what happens to things he no longer wants?

Why am I detailing this mess for you?

Simple.

Listen closely, parents.  When your children are adults, you need to remember that healthy adults do not allow random outside people to interfere in their relationships or with their possessions or in their decisions.  Adults like to be allowed to decide what is best for themselves.

This is true for your children!  Once your children turn 18, they are adults.  I know that 18 isn’t very old, and that they may still be living with you, but by law your 18 year old child is an ADULT.  This means that you have to allow them autonomy in making decisions about their own life and their own possessions (and if you are supplying their furniture, car, etc…those are not their possessions. They are your possessions that you are letting them use temporarily.  Your child owns something when they buy it for themselves or you put the object in their name, i.e. a car.)

If you wouldn’t do it to your neighbor…if you wouldn’t speak those words to your neighbor…if you wouldn’t take that action with your neighbor…DON’T DO IT WITH YOUR ADULT CHILD.

Please understand: it’s your house, and if they are living in it, they are like any adult living in the house.  The owner of the house determines what behaviors are acceptable in the house…behavior outside the house is none of your business unless it’s criminal.  And when I say criminal I mean against the law, not outside of your moral code.

Seriously, I spend more time in my office trying to get people to stop inappropriately interfering with other people.  The funny thing is that no one comes in my office and says to me “Today I inappropriately interfered with my spouse/child/sister/mom by …blah blah blah.”  Nope, they come in and say things like:

“I just don’t want him to feel bad so I told him that he can come by the house anytime, even though we’re divorcing.  I just don’t want him to feel alone. And then he goes off on me because I changed the living room!”

I just don’t want him to feel…   Stop right there. What do you mean that you don’t want someone to feel?  That’s strange. Do you want someone telling you how to feel? Do you want someone attempting to control your emotions? What if you need those feelings to help you move on? To help you get over the loss?

This is not merciful. It is attempting to control another person’s experience emotionally, and it is unhealthy and unwise.  It is also codependent.

“If she doesn’t go to school now she’s not going to be able to do it later.  She’ll end up married and having kids and then she’ll never get an education.  She has to go to college now while she’s young.”

She has to (do this thing I want her to do)…  Stop right there.  What do you mean that you know what is the best course of action for this person?  That’s strange. You can’t possibly know what is best for another person because you can’t accurately predict the outcome of this decision.  Do you want someone else making major decisions for your life? Do you want to be forced into certain actions and choices by a third party that doesn’t have to carry the burden of that action/choice?

This isn’t wisdom.  It is attempting to control another person’s life journey, and it is unhealthy and unwise. It is also codependent.

“He can’t divorce her. She’s the best he’s ever had and he isn’t going to find anyone else to put up with his crap.  If he divorces her, he’ll end up alone for the rest of his life. Besides, the whole family loves her!”

He can’t divorce…  Stop right there.  Do you really want him to stay with someone that he doesn’t love? Do you really want them together if they fight constantly?  That can’t be good for anyone in the relationship.  Do you want someone else choosing your life partner? Do you want to be forced to stay in a loveless marriage? And if you know so much about what’s right for the relationship, why didn’t you step in and help them before they got to the point where they want to divorce?  Maybe you don’t know so much after all.

This isn’t helpful. It’s requesting that someone else remain miserable so that you don’t have to endure loss or discomfort or shame or whatever. This isn’t you knowing what’s best for them, it’s you wanting to do what is most comfortable for you.

And that’s what codependency comes down to over and over.  The codependent person/parent wants to be comfortable, pain-free, and anxiety-free.  And in order for that to happen, the adult child/other person has to make sure that they don’t do anything that makes the codependent person/parent uncomfortable, sad, disappointed, anxious, fearful, sorrowful, frightened, frustrated, or angry.  Dear God!  How the heck is anyone supposed to control their behavior sufficiently to prevent another person from feeling anything uncomfortable?

It’s not possible. That’s the whole point.  And attempting to do so…is codependent in and of itself.

Life is uncomfortable.  Life is filled with things that make us anxious and fearful.  Life is also filled with things that are exhilarating and surprising…and if you ever want exhilaration or surprise, you are going to have to endure some anxiety and fear.  Do you see my point?  All the negative emotions have their positive counterpart, and getting to that positive counterpart usually involves enduring a certain amount of the negative.  You can’t fall in love without enduring the uncertainty and fear that you will not be loved back. You can’t have a child without enduring the discomfort of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth. You can’t raise a child to adulthood without a few sleepless nights…okay, a lot of sleepless nights…and tears, and fears, and anxiety, and anger, and sorrow.  But let’s admit it: raising children is worth everything you go through because the joy and love you get back from those children is stunning and powerful and one of the most amazing things you’ve ever experienced.  In other words the gain is worth the pain.

Please, for the love of God, if you are a parent, stop acting in codependent ways with your adult children. If you are behaving like this with others who you love but who aren’t your children, stop! Stop interfering in their decisions, in their emotions, and in their actions.  Give them the same respect and autonomy that you want to have in this world.  And when you think they’re being stupid or doing the wrong thing, tell them honestly and directly how you feel ONCE…and only once, and then shut up about it.

Being healthy is hard work but it is worth all the effort that you’ll put into it.  Emotional health is no different than physical health, in that it pays off in the best ways when things are the most difficult.  I promise that I’ll be saying more about this next week, and I’ll even have some examples about how you practice emotional health, especially with adult friends and family members.