Make-Believe Manners

When a new friend invited my clan to dinner, I was excited – for five minutes – until I realized how unfit my three meal-time barbarians were for communal dining.

“Listen up!”  I announced in my most authoritative voice at dinner that night.  “This is serious.  We have a dinner invite.  We need work on manners!”

Not sharing my sense of urgency, kids returned their focus to animated banter, interrupting each other with mouths full of food and greasy hands gesticulating their point.  The color drained from my face and panic set in.  What will the neighbors think of us?  Two minutes of this animalistic feeding frenzy and they’ll send us packing with a ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.’

“That’s it!” I shouted. (Ironically matching their primal behavior.)  “You need to shape up.  Starting right now, you are all enrolled in Manners Boot Camp.”  My voice assumed a  drill sergeant tone.  “I want to see a fork in every hand.  No fingers on food.  Sit up straight.  Close your mouth when you eat…”  The list of instructions was lengthy.

The more I pestered, the worse it got.  Littlest one was paralyzed with confusion and teens indulged in a game of mockery, competing for Most Uncivilized.  “We know this stuff, Mom.  We just don’t do it at home because it doesn’t matter.”  Unconvinced, I soldiered on.

One night, son queried, “Will you be telling the neighbors that we’ve been practicing for a month just to eat at their house?” Not likely. “And neither will you,” I threatened.  “I’d like them to believe you’ve been groomed well since birth.”

As we pulled into the neighbor’s driveway I couldn’t help but give a final review of manners material. A collective symphony roared back at me, “WE KNOW! JUST STOP!”

Nervous smile plastered to face, I ushered my students to the front door where they exchanged cordiality seamlessly. Phase One – check.  Hostess took drink orders and received ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ on cue. Phase Two – check.

Onward rolled the seamless evening with children playing and adults conversing.  Nary a warning glance was needed from Mom.  Dinner passed without incident….until dessert. By that point we had all relaxed enough to let our guard down and didn’t see Tom Foolery sneak in the back door.

I turned my head just in time to catch Prankster son mocking aristocracy with pinkie in air, pursed lips, and feigned British accent raving about the ‘delightful’ meal.  After dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin, he waved it ceremoniously in the air, fanning it out into a single sheet in order to be tucked into his shirt collar as a bib.

Teen daughter snickered, egging him on, and elbowed nine-year old Peach to join in the fun.  Unamused and preoccupied, Peach’s eyes grew wide as she declared with urgency, “I’m going to throw up!”

May Day, May Day!  We’re going down!

I shot a harsh glance at teen daughter which she understood immediately to mean ‘You and your brother regain control NOW!’  Daddy created a conversational diversion while I whisked pale-face off to the nearest bathroom.

“Did we pass?” asked a child when we arrived home.

“By the skin of your teeth.” I replied, and collapsed from exhaustion.

Silly isn’t it? This game of pretend we play.  ‘Look at me, a good mother, with good kids who have manners.’  Hah!  If the ruse could speak it would say something more accurate like, ‘look at me, pretending to have it all together.  Only a fool tries to cover up her family’s flaws. Everyone knows that real connection can only happen when people act as themselves, shortcomings and all.’

Yes, I know this, but press the right button and I am back in the third grade, wanting to be liked, wanting to be invited to the parties, and fearing that I’ll mess up my chances.  Truth is, that very fear is what could sabotage the deal. When we’re afraid to be who we are, afraid that we won’t be accepted, we act different. You know, like in an awkward way. That makes us, you know, like, stumble over our words and stuff.

The day after dinner, hosting friend dropped off our serving bowl with an encouraging note. Had a great time. Would love to have you over again soon.

Excellent.  Just not too soon, I thought.  I need time to recover from the stress of the first dinner.  Maybe next time we’ll try being ourselves and see how that goes.  How bad could it be?

A Sensitive Boy

Part I:  A Vicious Cycle

Once upon a time there was a sensitive boy.  He cried at the drop of a hat.  This annoyed the boy’s father who tried to toughen him up.  “Don’t be a sissy!” Dad said, which made the boy want to cry even more.  But he knew it wasn’t safe.  Instead, the boy choked back his feelings and hid them deep down in his belly where only he could feel the crying.

The crying worried mother, too.  “You’re too sensitive.” She said.  “You’ll get bullied.”  The boy believed her.  With practice, the boy became better at hiding his feelings.  But he didn’t stop feeling them.  Mother noticed that sometimes the boy’s face would turn red.  His lip would curl and tremble and his body would tense.  But he never cried again.

Over time, the boy would learn all sorts of tricks to hide his feelings.  He hid them so well, that even he couldn’t find them after a while.  One day, when the boy became a man, his wife would complain that he was devoid of emotion and unable to truly connect.  This confused the boy.

When the boy had a son of his own, he began to feel something stirring inside himself – something peculiar but familiar.  One day, the son got his feelings hurt and began to cry.  The boy, now a dad, wanted to cry too.  It hurt him to see his son hurting.  He remembered feeling that way when he was young.  But crying was wrong – dangerous even.  So the dad did what he thought was right and told the son to stop crying.  And the son did.

………

Part II – “My Son Is Too Sensitive”  – Is It True?

There is a story we tell ourselves about who we are and how it is.  We are too this.  Too that. Not enough of anything.  Every story is a variation of this shouldn’t be happening. Who would we be without that story?

Welcome to ‘The Work’ a la Byron Katie.  A process of inquiry.

I worry about my son because he’s too sensitive.  I want him to stop crying when his feelings are hurt.  And especially in public.  If he was tougher I wouldn’t worry about him being bullied.  I don’t want to see him hurting.  I don’t want him to get hurt because of the crying.

Belief:  My son will get hurt if he cries

  1. Is it true?   Yes
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true, that your son will get hurt if he cries?  No
  3.  How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? I get scared and angry and worried.  I try to toughen him up.  I try to help him not to feel.  I feel like it’s my job to change him.
  4.  Who would you be without the thought ‘my son will get hurt if he cries.’  I’d relax about him.  I’d comfort him instead of yell at him to stop crying when he’s hurting.  I’d be a parent who loves her sensitive son because I do love him so much.  I’d see how caring he is.  How he can sense what other people are feeling – which is a gift. I’d be able to love him and not worry about how sensitive he is. I’d support him.

Turn the thought around (to statements that are as true or truer): ‘My son will get hurt if he cries’

  1.  To the self:  I get hurt when he cries.’  (True.  I suffer with worry when I think of what his crying means.)
  2. To the opposite:  ‘My son won’t get hurt if he cries.’  (Might be true.  I don’t know how people will react.  Maybe he’ll meet with sympathy and understanding.)
  3.  To the other:  ‘I hurt my son when he cries.’  (True!  I disrespect his feelings.  I dishonor him when I tell him he shouldn’t feel the way he feels. I do what I’m afraid others will do to him – I hurt him when he cries!)

……

I realize I have two sons in my mind – the son I have and the son I think I want him to be.  The real one and the one I imagine to be better and safer.  I try to change him because there’s fear inside that I don’t know what to do with.  When I question my thoughts and meet my fear, I see that in my desire to protect him, I am actually hurting him.  Where is the love in that?

I don’t have to change what I believe. But I can, and should, question it.   Because if I don’t challenge my thoughts, they plague me.  So I ask myself again, who would I be, who would he be, without these thoughts? Can I find one stress-free reason to keep my thoughts?  In the questioning, I begin to see that none of my thoughts are true.  On the other side of the questions is freedom – for both of us.

It turns out, the world is perfect.  It’s what I think about the world that needs work.

 

The Perfect Post

(image credit Lama Jigme)

(image credit Lama Jigme)

I’ve been accused of appearing perfect.  BA-HA-HA-HA! (Excuse me while I ROFLMAO.)

It seems that this alleged perfection of mine can be intimidating.  This concerns me on several levels.  Primarily because if I’m supposed to be this ‘perfect’ person,  I’d like to enjoy it.  Perfection must have a benefits package that includes perks like flawless fingernails and the ability to walk gracefully in stiletto heels – neither of which I currently possess.  (Point me to Human Resources;  I’ve been gypped.)

The idea of my perfection is as absurd a notion as the misconception that my children eat liver.  It’s just not true.  All the same, I’ve amassed enough of these false accusations  that I must set the record straight.  Because I believe I’m being set up.  (I do hope someone from the FBI is reading this post.  I could use help debunking this conspiracy theory.)

You see, I am a perfectionist.  Or as I like to think of myself, a recovering not-good-enougher.  This is not to be mistaken for actual perfection.  Allow me to explain.

There is a demon inside of me who set up camp many, MANY, moons ago.  This demon believes it is protecting me from the pain of judgment and shame.  It thinks itself a shield – a very heavy one – that needs to be carried around constantly in order to earn approval.  Without this shield, I risk death.

Ok, that’s a little dramatic.  But to the hyper-sensitive little girl inside, not being enough is a death sentence.  And the world is a very scary place.

The irony is, the perfectionism shield scares people away.  It makes them defensive.  And they, too, prepare for a fight.  Only, they have swords.  And daggers that come out of their eyes – especially when I show up at the morning bus stop showered, groomed, and ready for the day after a 5 a.m. workout.

Sometimes they throw stones when they see what I eat – a wide array of healthy fare – because it makes them feel bad about their own choices.  So they try to hurt me without noticing that I’m already hurting from the dietary restrictions my body demands.

On occasion, they get their big guns out and attack where it hurts most – my parenting standards.  They see that I’ve written a book for tweens and equate that with a claim that I am a perfect parent. Deep down, beyond their own fear of being imperfect, they know – and I know – that there is no perfect parent.  But the wanting to be one, that does exist.  And it causes a whole mess of disappointment and misunderstanding.

If one really needs proof, I’m happy to pull out a file box of imperfections.  Just this week I’ve filled up an entire drawer with mistakes.  BIG ones like forgetting my BFF’s 40th birthday.  Ouch!  And medium ones like mistakenly ripping off daughter’s ski club ticket that was supposed to remain on her coat for the season.  (Then having to swallow my pride and admit that I am that parent that didn’t follow simple instructions.) And little mistakes like missing a doctor’s appointment.  All in one week!  In fact, I’ve noticed such a sudden increase in personal imperfection that I’m wondering if someone is in possession of a voodoo doll named Deb.  If you are, I beg you, leave her alone.  She needs a rest.

She, the perfectionist, works really hard at not wanting to be perfect.  She considers perfectionism an affliction, a cross she bears.  This cross is not one she would have chosen had she known how heavy it would be, or how many miles she’d have to carry it.  There are times it makes her fall to her knees and her loved ones have to peel her off the ground.  They might even offer to carry the cross for a while.  But the fact is, the cross belongs to her.  She will be crucified on it, I’m afraid.

For now, she walks on, practicing self-love, learning how to trust herself and to trust life.  Trying, and often failing, to show herself a bit of compassion.

Please, do not envy the perfectionist.  Do not mistakenly label her as perfect.  That label hurts more than you know.  She is not only wildly imperfect like the rest, but also acutely affected by imperfection, and incapable of embracing it in herself.

Most importantly – LISTEN UP – she doesn’t think she’s better than you.  Nor does she want you to feel bad about yourself.  She only wants to protect herself in a world that, long ago, taught her it wasn’t safe to make mistakes.

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