Day 22 – A Sensitive Cynic’s Christmas Survival Guide.
The title of this survival guide gives it away, but I am a highly sensitive person – or HSP for short. This means that when I’m around people all the time, I need to de-socialise afterwards. If you’re like me, you’ll understand the overwhelming need to withdraw into solitude when you’re knee deep in visitors and noisy kids, toys and chatter.
I LOVE being with people. I really do. But my system just gets a bit “overheated” if there’s no break from company – it needs to be given some space to cool down periodically.
If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself tuning into the almost imperceptible ripples of tension and anxiety running beneath the surface of social interactions. I’m all too acutely aware when someone is hiding their true feelings from me and it puts me on edge. I’ve often been guilty of trying too hard to please everyone and to keep the peace (a common trait of us HSPs). It’s all a bit too exhausting and can drive me a little bit crazy.
But, there is hope. After many years of praying and reflecting on the matter, it has recently become very clear to me what’s actually going on for me, and how I can cut out all that social stress.
Here’s how I’m going to survive Christmas. I’m going to be heading off to the middle of nowhere on Christmas Eve for a few days, alone, and have my blue skies Christmas. So, au revoir friends. See you in the New Year!
Aha, I had you there for a minute right? Like I said, I love spending time with people. I’m not trying to get away from them.
Firstly, being open and honest about needing to find my head is really important. Thankfully my family do understand. If they didn’t understand, it would be a lot harder.
Secondly, I learned that the thing that is causing me the most stress is my own need for control. I used to spend way too much energy trying to control other people’s perceptions of me, trying to control their opinion of me, trying to control the dynamics between everyone to ensure there was no strife or conflict.
Ironically, I think I caused the very things I was trying to prevent, by trying to control them.
And so now, I’m in a process of letting go. Letting go of fear, pride, control, and the need to police, please and appease.
I am done with being the person other people want me to be, just so that they feel more comfortable. I’m done with minutely over-editing what I say before I say it, just so that I don’t offend. I’m done with modifying my behaviour to gain points at the Bank of Approval. I’m done with giving people a more palatable version of myself, a version which is about 3% of who I am, because the remaining 97% makes them uncomfortable and doesn’t match up with who they want me to be.
And it’s not just me I’ve been guilty of modifying. I confess I’ve done the same with Jesus in the past. I mean, let’s be honest, he’s a bit like that larger-than-life friend who you love to bits, but wouldn’t invite along to your works “do” or your mate’s wedding. The type who are just too unpredictable and say stuff that makes people choke on their drinks in disbelief. The “marmite” type of friend, who people either love or hate.
In times past, I’ve been guilty of giving people a safe, comfortable version of Jesus because I was afraid that they might get a bit scared off if they knew some of the stuff he came out with. It’s a little close to the mark. Not very politically correct. Not really what people want to hear. Well, I’m done with that too.
I’m not saying that I’m going to be rude. Quite the opposite. I’m not going to start telling everyone my inner monologue – “Hey, great to see you, looking rough today aren’t you?” or “yes, your bum does indeed look big in that dress hun. Huge!!! Find another dress…please, for the love of sunlight!”
No, that’s not the kind of authenticity I’m talking about. You see, there’s this verse in the bible that mentions “speaking the truth in love”.
Yesterday I had a little conversation with my children about how to respond when someone gives you a gift you don’t want. I explained that sometimes, although we don’t want to lie, we need to be careful about people’s feelings before we give them the whole truth. I explained that it’s ok to just say “thank you” and just describe what they see.
“Oh thank you, it’s a neon-green sweater with “I love neon green stuff” across the front. It looks very bright! Cool! So thoughtful of you”.
It’s the whole “treat others how you wish to be treated” rule of thumb.
Its’s just about being honest and real while being sensitive to other people. And I do think we have to be careful who we share our hopes, our dreams, our joys and sorrows with. But If my words and actions are motivated from a place of trying to control other people’s perceptions and judgements about me, then I’m heading for a very miserable time indeed.
So how do we “speak the truth in love”? I have one word for you.
But empathy is not just about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It requires us to do something that many of us find really hard, but it has so much power:
Just shut up, shut up. It’s the latest Doctor Who’s phrase. It’s the Black-Eyed Peas’ best advice (along with the question “Where is the love?”). I know, we all like to get things off our chest. But, nobody likes a conversation hijacker. And people who have had a nice big chance to speak already are better at listening back than those who don’t feel heard. So shutting your mouth for a while to give your brain a chance to engage is a wise move. And while you’re shutting up, breathe deeply and…
Shut up and listen for a minute to the advice of the disciple James:
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:18-20)
He also said “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison”. Ooh, strong stuff. But it rings true to me. He’s essentially saying :
Active listening requires us to take a moment to reign-in our need to launch a verbal tirade against the person we are upset with. Instead of immediately defending our position, the alternative is to get vulnerable, and take the bullet of criticism being aimed at us. It hurts, but it’s not fatal. In the end it can lead to dialogue and hopefully, with prayer and patience, new connection and healing. Just listen to what they have to say.
Let the dialogue commence with you lovingly shutting up, listening and empathising. It’s better than getting lost in a stalemate of smiles and silences. It’s the best way I know to manage conflict peacefully. And as we listen, it’s good to affirm that we understand. That’s the “active part”….
“So, Aunty Ethel, when you asked me if mushy sprouts were the new Christmas trend – it sounded like you were hoping for the sprouts to be a little firmer, would you agree?”.
Wait for the response, SHUT UP, and listen further.
Then, to EMPATHISE with them, verbally –
“How disappointing for you, as you really do love firm sprouts, and were expecting them not to be so er… soggy, as you put it”. (NB: there must be no trace of sarcasm detected in your voice).
At this point here is a very important rule:
DO NOT TRY TO FIX THE SITUATION!!!!
It’s no good offering to cook more sprouts. Don’t try to minimise her sprout sadness either. “Oh, Aunty Ethel, they’re not that bad, I actually think they taste good. Don’t start crying over soggy sprouts, for goodness sake”.
Aunty Ethel just wants to get that sprout-frustration off her chest and know I’ve heard her, and I mean really understood, really heard. And then guess what? (Here’s the good bit). With a bit of luck, she’ll be the one to shut up. It’s the people who don’t feel heard who just go on and on and on and on….
Once Aunty Ethel feels heard, she may then be in a position (but I won’t bank on it!) to listen to me. At which point, when I sense the opportunity to speak and be heard, I could use what are commonly labelled “I messages“.
“I messages” are not loaded with blame, unlike “you messages”. A “you-message” would be something like this:
“Aunty Ethel, you are always criticising my cooking. You upset me every time you visit because you just have to find something to moan about. I try so hard to get those sprouts just right, but it’s never enough for you is it? I mean, what’s your middle name? Goldilocks? I am so fed up with it.”
Let me be clear – that last sentence was not an I message.
I messages contain plenty of “you’s” but they are not loaded with blame-casting “you”s. The minute someone feels attacked and blamed, they go on the defensive, and things get real ugly real quick. Do you really want that to happen at the dinner table on Christmas Day? Didn’t think so.
So then, an I-message:
“Aunty Ethel, when you tell me that the sprouts are not firm enough, I feel upset, because I really did try to make sure the sprouts were just right to suit everyone at the table, and that’s not easy. Would you be willing to leave them on the side of your plate?”
She might say “no”, in which case, we go around again, with the listening and the empathising, until she really is as done as a soggy sprout.
Ok, so option 2 sounds a little wooden and long-winded, and it requires the patience of a saint, but it sure beats option 1.
The difference between the two is merely the absence of blaming and fixing, and the presence of grace, respect, empathy and love. Notice that in option 1 I blamed Aunty Ethel for me getting upset about the criticism, whereas in the I message, option 2, I took full responsibility for my own upset feelings. That’s the key to the I-message.
No-one can “make” me feel upset. I can, however, feel upset because of someone else’s words or actions. There is a whole world of difference. And if I’ve let go of my need to control Aunty Ethel’s perception of me, then I can be at peace with that fact that she does in fact perceive me as some lame-ass, absent-minded waste-of-space who can’t even remember to take the sprouts off the boil on time, rather than a very capable cook and a worthwhile and good person. I know what the truth is and I know God loves me however I cook my sprouts, and that’s the most important thing.
On Day 7, I told you of the Tale of Two Sisters, Martha and Mary, who were friends with Jesus. The tale is told that Jesus popped in to visit them one day and while Martha rushed around the kitchen trying to cook up a storm, Mary sat at his feet hanging off his every word, completely oblivious to her sister’s sky-rocketing stress levels.
Let’s imagine that Martha and Mary had read this blog post and learned all about empathic, active listening, using I-messages, taking responsibility for their own feelings, not trying to control the perceptions and reactions of others.
Instead of Martha storming out of the kitchen and tattling on her sister to Jesus, saying “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”…. things could have been so different:
Realising that her expectation of having Mary’s help was way off the mark, and that she hadn’t actually communicated that need to her, Martha has a quiet word with her sister:
“Mary, I’m really struggling on my own in the kitchen, would you be willing to come and help me?”
Mary: “You seem really overwhelmed and frustrated that you’re on your own. I can imagine you just want to do something really fancy for Jesus, because you love him so much. You’re a more practical person than I am. My concern is that this might be the only opportunity I have to listen to him. I don’t want you to miss it either. Is there any way that we can both get to spend time with Jesus, and make sure we feed him as well?”
Martha, taking responsibility for her feelings, says: “I’m finding it really difficult to stay calm. When you are out here sitting with Jesus, I feel abandoned in the kitchen. But I understand how important it is for you to listen to his teaching. I realise we have different priorities. I’ll see if I can simplify the meal a bit. I guess I did get a bit overambitious and I really thought you would be in the kitchen with me, which was a bit presumptive.”
“Ok, I really appreciate that. I’ll serve the food and clear up while you chat with Jesus if you like”.
Jesus overhears the conversation and tells Martha not to worry about food because he’s really not hungry. He can eat later. He urges her to just sit down and rest, and spend time with him for a while. Eventually she decides to take his advice, and later on, both sisters prepare a simple meal.
Happy families eh? To be fair though, my alternative ending was a lot less gripping than the original. Probably wouldn’t make good viewing material in a soap opera. But in real life, with real people and real feelings, if I was Martha or Mary I’d rather have my version. In my version, Martha doesn’t wind up bitter and Mary doesn’t have to live with the aftermath of her sister’s anger and jealousy. Martha doesn’t have to see the smug look on Mary’s face when Jesus said she had made the right choice. Don’t you just hate it when you tattle on someone and you end up being the one having to eat humble pie?
Yes, my version is a bit boring, and long-winded, but much more peaceful. Much more “happily ever after”. We have to work for peace in relationships, but in the end, we reap the many rewards for our labours.
(I need to say here that there are of course some relationships which are plain abusive. In those situations I would urge you to get to a place of safety and get help. It’s important for me to add that).
Thought for today:
So now, I can be aware of underlying social tensions and messages of disapproval during social situations, without feeling the need to control and fix. Letting go of control means I hope to come away from social situations without feeling edgy and stressed out.
Task for today:
In order to remain calm enough to shut up and listen, I need to make sure I am feeling heard by those closest to me. Firstly, I need to find pockets of time, in the busyness, to get alone with God and get things off my chest. After all, he is “quick to listen”. Jesus often got away from the crowds and withdrew to lonely places to pray and re-charge.
The only true way I know to be patient, empathic, forgiving and full of grace, is to lean hard on God for help. But it’s also a good idea to know who I can go to when I need a person to just listen and not fix. I need to be aware of my needs, and be kind to myself.
And if I blow it and find myself yelling in Aunty Ethel’s face, tipping the plate of unwanted sprouts in her lap in a momentary loss of self-control, then I won’t be too hard on myself. An authentic, heart-felt apology and a good cry in the bathroom afterwards will help….
And looking on the bright side, it’d make a juicy tale to tell every Christmas for the next 50 odd years.
The Centre for Non-Violent Communication: http://www.cnvc.org/
Parent Effectiveness Training: http://www.gordontraining.com/parent-programs/parent-effectiveness-training-p-e-t/
The Way of the Peaceful Parent: http://www.peacefulparent.com/
(The parenting websites are great ways to learn about all aspects of healthy, peaceful ways to communicate with people of all ages, and are not just helpful for parents and children).