Why standing in your own mess is the the best way forward.
My phone rattles. A text drops in: Don’t bother to come up. I have no interest in this connection.
It is 9:20pm New Year’s Eve. I’m burrowed into my jacket, my feet stinging with cold, sitting on a plastic chair in a mechanic’s shop that has a generation’s worth of axel grease and lube oil rubbed into the walls. There’s a scattering of years old car magazines on the waiting room table with improbably buxom women on their covers. In the shop, the guts of my car are scattered on work benches and the shop floor. Someone needed my skis out of the way and stuck them in the center hole of a stack of worn tires. They look out of place and forlorn--there’s a metaphor there if you want to dig for it.
The mechanic promised one hour, we were closing in on five.
I call Megan, get her voice mail and leave a message asking her to call.
Twenty minutes later, she calls. And lays into me. She is so upset she has trouble inhaling. The kernel is that I have abandoned her on New Year’s Eve and she will not be stood up by any man. This connection (we’re buddies) is over. My adrenals rev up. But I stay cool enough to ask if we can talk in the morning. OK, she says, and Instead of her swank condo up on the mountain, I spend the night in a creepy Motel 6.
I lie on the bed and listen to cars slick by on the highway outside the window and the desultory pop of fireworks somewhere in the distance. And inside my sorry brain a snarling fur-flying dogfight begins. I lay into her.
We all have our stuff, which we manage well or not so well. Here’s what I was managing—and not very well:
- I was making her wrong—totally. She went nuclear when the situation warranted at worst, mild irritation. Like a child throwing a tantrum—whatever button got pushed or soft spot got kicked—she was unable to put any distance between it and herself so, for her, her understanding of the event was as real and as justified as if I’d come at her with a knife.
- My habitual behavior when I feel attacked is to withdraw; to say, screw you sister, I am out of here.
- My story, my key understanding of myself, is that I am weak; that I can’t stick up for myself. (Brené Brown, in her work on shame, claims that fear of being weak is the core shame of men; for women, it’s body image.)
- My arrogance. She doesn’t know how to manage her stuff while I do.
Each one of those dogs was in the fight—and it was nasty.
For those of you who are wondering: Well, did you stand her up or not? Consider that it doesn’t matter. We all have circumstances, we all do what we do in life—it’s how we respond to them that determines whether we thrive or suffer.
For those of you who are judging—he’s right or she’s right—stop. Nothing sucks the juice out of a relationship faster than right/wrong, guilty/innocent, or jerk/victim thinking. Even if god were to lean out of the clouds and say, “Russell, you are so right and she is so wrong”, the relationship loses. Because if you’re right, then she’s wrong and how much fun and joy is she going to bring to a relationship if she’s dealing with that?
Back to my dogfight. I know the poison that right/wrong thinking brings to a relationship; I know the consequences of my arrogance (I am so much more evolved than you); of my shame at being weak (defending myself to prove I’m not) and my own nuclear weapon, withdrawal.
I know all this stuff. I have been trained to be present and responsible; to come from heart and spirit and not ego and defense. And, yet, as I lay on that bed in the Motel 6 surrounded by institutional-green walls, I lose it. I build my case against her.
Every once and a while, I come up for air and say: whoa, you (meaning me) are one triggered sorry-assed coach. And then I rip back into my maelstrom.
This story has two endings. Ending #1: I call in the morning. We have both calmed down, we do some tepid relationship repair, and, as planned, we ski together that day.
Ending #2: I’m a coach; I work with people who get triggered—by their spouses or lovers, by their kids or parents, by their bosses or colleagues—and as I work them through their triggers that voice in my head whispers: get over it, it’s just your story, you’re making it all up, get a grip!
But here, in a relatively low-stakes relationship, I lost it.
As I ski icy runs that Megan abandoned hours ago in favor of hot chocolate and a book, I understand that I needed my upset. I needed it to reconnect me to my own human messiness. As I see it, only when we stand knee-deep in our messiness is our arrogance checked, our humility rediscovered, and our connection to the rest of humanity is made apparent.
It’s that connection that nurtures compassion and empathy. Never let it go.
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