“What were you thinking?!” It’s not a question, really. It’s more like a steep cliff, a chasm between two minds expressed, with exasperation at the bottom. The perplexed inquisitor doesn’t want to hear your reasons. The reasons aren’t, in their mind, substantial enough to contribute to your behavior–even if those reasons were substantial enough to you in that moment. At least, that was my experience.
My mom had been supportive of my decision at 17 to enlist in the Air Force. While submitting to a medical examination, there was a snag on the questionnaire. The doctor asked, “How much milk can you eat without a negative reaction?” I thought in terms of scoops of ice-cream. “No more than a teaspoon?” Yes, I said, thinking of my mom, what she would want me to say. She’s always telling me I’m allergic and those puking incidents are due to milk. But my attempt to please her didn’t.
That night, my mom stood outside the MEPS office, yelling, “What on earth were you thinking, telling them that you cannot eat a teaspoon of milk?!” I told her I was only thinking of her with my answer. But she didn’t hear it. “You want to ruin your chances!” she raved. “I know you. You sabotage yourself. You always do. Keep this up, Tiffany, you will never…”
It isn’t pretty when someone angrily re-interprets you in the worst possible light. Mistakes, the things you want to forget or hide are fashioned into a whip, flying with the quick force of fear. Each verbal slash may be an attempt to scare you out of failure, but it honestly doesn’t help. The next day, the seemingly colossal problem blew over. My milk allergy (which is actually an intolerance) was straightened out and I got a departure date for basic training. I wanted to leave home more than ever.
Not only do people help create our experiences in life, they also try to tell us how to interpret them. You got a medal, but you failed because it’s only a bronze. Or you did a great job, you got the bronze medal! Someone can put you into a box, coming to see you as something you’re not, but still demanding that you live up to their expectations. When that happens, you will wish to hide from their attention, because it’s so hard to please them.
We want friends to see us in a good light. We want to be able to break away from our mistakes, not be chained to them, under an absolute of “this is who you are forever.” (Virginia Satir makes a point like this in her book, The New People Making.) If someone wants to see you this way, there’s no stopping them. But it’s unfair to have to listen to that all the time. Humans are dynamic creatures, capable of change should we seek it. And sometimes we have to seek change by choosing a new environment; we have to escape the shapes someone else has drawn for us, because we can’t be happy if we stay there. We have to find friends who will view our mistakes, yes, but who may help you understand them, get past them, and put them into perspective. Reiterating worries and fears will only amplify your problems.
When I left home, I did so not only in hopes of a new life, but for people in my life. An environment. I believed that I could get over my problems, and build on my strengths. And I would be someone reinterpreted in light of brave attempts and successes, not just failures.
Virginia Satir wrote, “In troubled families, people’s bodies and faces tell of their plight. Bodies are either stiff and tight, or slouchy. Faces look sullen, or sad, or blank like masks. Eyes look down and past people. Ears obviously don’t hear. Voices are either harsh and strident or barely audible.” (p11)
She goes on, “How different it is to be in a nurturing family!…” … “I feel that if I lived in a nurturing family, I would be listened to and would be interested in listening to others; I should be considered and would wish to consider others. I could openly show my affection as well as my pain and disapproval. I wouldn’t be afraid to take risks because everyone in my family would realize that some mistakes are bound to come with my risk-taking. I would feel like a person in my own right—noticed, valued, loved, and clearly asked to notice, value, and love others.”
Also check out this song with lyrics: