Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dealing with Difficult People

I don't know whether I've mentioned before, but my parents separated a few months ago. It's a strange thing to suddenly find myself from a broken family at the age of 38.

One of my sisters, known for being a mild drama queen, reacted to the news by bursting into hysterical tears for 5 minutes and then saying, 'I feel like I'm in Kramer vs Kramer!'

'Have you even read that book?' I asked. (I was the one breaking the news to her). 

'No,' she admitted. 'But I've seen the DVD cover and I feel like, well...I feel like I'm in it.'  

I think she was hoping my parents would end up in the Australian High Court in a landmark court case - sueing each other for custody of their 36 year old daughter. (I have 4 siblings, but  in my sister's 'Kramer vs Kramer' fantasy I'm sure my parents were only concerned with custody of her...)

I'm sad to say that when I was told about the separation all I felt was relief.  I thought I might feel something else, like sadness or loss. But, all I felt was relief and a bit of happiness that I'd never have to be in the same room as my parents again.

I won't go into the ins and outs of their relationship, becuase that's not really my business.  But, since the separation I've spent 4 months living with my mother in the family home.  (My father moved out). And, here's where I get to the main point of this post - dealing with difficult people. 

At the best of times I experience my mother as a difficult person, and this has certainly not been the best of times.  We have some similar traits; we can both be bossy and controlling and perfectionistic, so living together isn't easy. My mother also has some kind of  anxiety and hyperactivity disorder, which has never been treated.

Over the past months I've been very judgemental towards her. And then, because I'm into meditation and have this idea that if you are a good meditator you will always be peaceful and kind and compassionate towards other people, I then judge myself for being so judgemental towards her. 

Here's how the inner conversation goes after something happens between us.  I'll give you a little example...I put some rice to cook on the stove, and come into the kitchen 5 minutes later to find my mother has moved it to the microwave, becuase that's how she thinks it should be cooked. This is what I might say inside my head:

"Oh my GOD.  I feel like I am going to %^&* KILL her!...Can't I even put on a %^& saucepan of rice without her trying to control me...What am I?  Five years old?  I'm so angry...Oh no, I shouldn't be angry, she's really just a suffering person. She's just causing me pain and being controlling because she's in so much pain...I really should just be feeling compassion for her...resentment, resentment...I actually don't feel any compassion for her...she's a pain in the arse...but I should feel compassion..."

So, you get the general idea.  I feel angry, and then I try to 'should' myself into feeling compassion, when I actually don't feel any.  All I feel is that I want this person out of my life, and would not bat an eyelid if I never saw her again. (Which may or may not be true.)

So, this week I've really been focussing on allowing whatever feelings I have to rise up in me, and just to be aware of when I'm 'shoulding' myself into feeling something different.  I've noticed that when I 'should' myself I have this accompanying body sensation that feels like a kind of crunch in my stomach - it's like a block of concrete is sitting there.

I've been practicing noting the 'shoulds': "oh...I'm feeling like I should be feeling compassionate towards my mother, and I don't...oh...now I feel blame...now I feel a tightness in my stomach." I try to do this noting in a kind, understanding voice, just allowing the swirl of sensations and thoughts as I feel my anger and frustration.
I find that it helps me a lot.  I still don't feel much compassion towards my mother, but I feel a bit more compassion towards myself, and I think that might be an important first step. I feel like it's a good thing to just lower the expectations I have towards myself.  I'm no Mother Theresa or Kwan Yin, and expecting that I will feel incredibly caring and compassionate towards my mother is probably just expecting way too much of myself at the moment. 

So, it's been an interesting journey over the past few months and I feel like I'm learning a lot about being kind and understanding towards myself. Seeing the amount of self-judgement I have towards myself has made me reflect on who is the most difficult person in my life at the moment - my mother, or myself?

Poor little headless Buddha.  Taken in Luang Prabang, Laos.


  1. Okay that is just freaky. I just published a post about my childhood and my parents and how I relate to them now. And then I see your post and it just reverberates with me. Finding forgiveness for them, was a gift to myself. I'll never forget the past but I now accept it for what it is and I've changed how I view it and quelled a lot of those pesky 'shoulds' in the process. I'm so glad you're back writing here. :)

  2. Thanks Rusty. Your post is so beautiful. As I said underneath it - you're such an eloquent writer.


  3. I lived with my mother for several years after college. I get along pretty well with my mother, but even so, living with a parent as an adult can bring up a lot of muck.

    Compassion and forgiveness are good. It's also helpful, in my view, to stand up for yourself when need be, because compassion and forgiveness can easily slide into co-dependence if not payed close attention to.

  4. Real life, man. Samsara. I enjoyed your story, loved the little twinges of tongue-in-cheek humor which, if we're lucky, often go hand and hand with the annoyances. As practitioners, we all feel similar guilt. I struggle too, with my mother, although she is annoying in different ways. The worst is that I don't know if it will ever change. Her e-mails alone, with all the dots and exclamation points, are a huge challenge for me.

  5. Thanks for your comments DQ and Nathan - yes, it does feel like a massive dose of 'real life.'

    Interesting comment about co-dependence, although, since I feel pretty much zero compassion and forgiveness at the moment I don't think I'm in a high risk category for co-dependence. ha ha.

    It helped me to write that post yesterday, becuase when I got annoyed with my mum last night (I said I'd do dinner and she just couldn't help herself get everything ready - peeling potatos, even leaving out which pans she thought I should use!)...so I got really annoyed and frustrated but was able to have awareness around it and let it flow through me without trying to stop it by telling myself I 'shouldn't' feel it.

    So - writing as therapy!

  6. Your post spoke to me in several ways but the strongest was when you recognized that by feeling compassionate towards yourself you felt better about the situation. I think that I am the only one that changes my world and that begins inside me - it's really hard sometimes but when I remember to not the feelings and identify them then I can figure out where they're coming from and that helps me along the path of figuring out what to do about them.

  7. Hi Tim,

    I can really relate to what you wrote. It is quite a new thing for me to realise that the change begins inside me - not by 'fixing' or 'improving' myself, but by allowing myself to feel how I feel, which leads to awareness of where the feelings are coming from.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment!


  8. Emma, I had to live back with my parents for a few years in my twenties and it almost ruined our relationship - there were other factors too, but living with one's parents as an adult and I think ESPECIALLY when one's in a situation of dependence again due to illness is really REALLY hard.

    And look at what you wrote again - you're expecting yourself to be compassionate to somebody who's actively behaving in a way you personally find really obnoxious and difficult to deal with. If I came to you and said "My flatmate's being really obnoxious and difficult to deal with even though I've confronted her about how I feel, and I'm worried because I'm feeling angry/irritated instead of compassionate" what would your response be?

    I'm glad you're finding some compassion for yourself - look after yourself first. Sure, the Dali Lama's first response to the above situation may be compassion towards the antagonist but heck ... nobody expects me, or you, to be at that level of enlightenment!

  9. Hi Ricky,

    I think you picked up on a pertinent point which is that living at home when you're in a situation of dependence makes things SO much harder.

    My mum is a fairly controlling person, who likes to do things for other people so she feels needed. The fact that I'm sick plays into this and creates a dynamic that's not really helpful for her (or me!)

    But, things should be changing in a few weeks when my dad will come back here and my mum will be moving into town. The dynamic between my father and me is much different, so hopefully things will be a lot more relaxed around here!


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