What’s the matter with my daughter? All I did was ask her if she had responded to a family invite and the next thing I know she’s rolling her eyes, telling me (with dripping sarcasm), “What do you think I don’t know anything; why do you think so little of me?”
What did I do wrong? Why do I have to tip-toe around my own daughter, making sure I always say the “right” thing? “Yes,” Liz told her daughter Lori, “I don’t think you know anything if that’s the way you talk to your mother.
What’s the matter with you?” Lori lashed back. “Nothing’s the matter with me. I’m 25 years old and I don’t need you to keep telling me what to do. Butt out! I’m perfectly capable of handling my own life.
I’m your mother. You just remember that and show some respect.”
What’s going on here? Why are mother and daughter so steamed up over a seemingly innocuous question? Why do so many talks between family members deteriorate into anguished attacks?
Often, it’s because a button has been pushed that’s tied to your identity. By identity, I mean how you view yourself and how you want others to view you. In this situation, mom’s identity is strongly tied to being a person who is “caring and considerate and does the right thing.” So when Liz asked her daughter if she had responded to the invite, she felt she was just being a caring and considerate person.
Lori obviously interpreted the whole interaction differently. Lori’s identity is strongly tied to being “an independent, competent adult who can handle things on her own.” Hence, her mom’s question, which might have been perceived as innocuous by someone else, was insulting to Lori.
Then, when Lori told her mom to butt out, Liz was wounded to her core. Liz felt she was a loving mother who had devoted the better part of her life to raising her daughter. And now she was being told to “butt out!!” Butt out of her daughter’s life? Unthinkable; her daughter was her life!
Wow! How easily a simple question can morph into an anguished assault. So what’s a person to do?
Here are three suggestions.
1. Recognize your vulnerabilities
Know what triggers an instant insult for you. Will it be an attack on your competence? Your looks? Your strength? Your importance in the family? Your worth in the outside world? Your parenting skills? Once you know your vulnerabilities, work to strengthen your core. Be secure in who you are. That way, you won’t be thrown off balance if someone says something that’s hurtful to you. Or, if you are thrown off balance, you’ll be able to quickly recover without counter-attacking and escalating the whole episode.
2. Be aware of what you say that’s hurtful to another in a way you might not have ever imagined.
Of course, it’s easy to think, “she shouldn’t be so sensitive” or “he should know I don’t mean any harm.” But she is sensitive in this area (just like you’re sensitive in another area).And he doesn’t know that you don’t mean any harm. Indeed, if you keep saying what you say, he might indeed believe you do want to undermine him.
3. Instead of continuing to hurl insults, stop. Take a deep breath. Try backtracking rather than going full throttle ahead.
It’s seductive to keep trading barbs when you’re feeling hurt. After all, you’ve got to defend yourself. And continue to show the other how wrong he/she is. But where does this get you? Nowhere. For it’s not an honest discussion. It’s not designed to clarify what was meant. It doesn’t help you understand the other person’s position better. It’s simply a way to continue the assault until both parties retreat to their respective corners to heal their wounds, and perhaps plan a counter-attack.