Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Understanding Someone Else's Experience

Oh, how I feel for the mothers of teenage daughters--and for the daughters who don't feel understood.

In a column a while back, I confessed to investing a sizeable chunk of my life to blaming others for my misery, when the only one to blame was myself. It prompted a woman to write to me about her 15-year-old daughter, who she said seemed like my clone.

She wanted to know why, when her daughter had "experienced from birth in a loving family" the concepts of loving ourselves, others and forgiveness, she still chose to "walk the 'no one understands me' path."

And although I can't speak for her daughter, I know for me a lot of misunderstanding occurs because of that very word she mentions--that delicate, ever so unique thing known as our personal "experience".

Because as much as we may think we have demonstrated and communicated certain qualities or feelings with our actions, it doesn't mean others, including our family, will experience them the way we intend. We can't make people feel what we feel and we can't make them understand us.

Once, I remember being stopped at a red light as a woman proceeded slowly through the intersection toward me in my lane. When she tried to back up and redirect herself, she looked so out of sorts that I smiled in an attempt to show her that I identified and sympathized with her, that I also thought the intersection was confusing. But when her expression switched to anger, I felt my smile was misunderstood.

Looking back, I really don't know what caused her expression to change. Maybe it had nothing to do with me--or she wasn't even angry. It's not easy to distinguish my intuition from my assumptions, which tend to get me into trouble.

Nevertheless it taught me an important lesson. People don't always experience my actions the way I want, which can make me feel frustrated and powerless.

But that's a good thing. It reminds me that I have no control over anything but myself, and that it isn't my job to try to rescue emotionally wounded people. When I do try to interfere, they can react a lot like injured pets, who are already in so much pain, confusion and fear from their circumstances that they do the only thing they know to protect themselves--they growl, snap and bite to keep from getting hurt more.

For years I snapped and growled at my mother when she tried to help me with her advice. It wasn't until I was in my 40s that I realized that when I whined about my emotional pain and misunderstood-ness, it didn't mean I wanted to be rescued.

What I wanted, but didn't know, was for someone to identify with me, reassure me that my reactions to the world, if not the healthiest, were at least understandable. If others could understand and accept me, then maybe I could understand and accept myself--and accomplish my own rescuing.

Recently, a new friend told me how her child had communicated his own desire for self-sufficiency. Whenever she tried to feed this one-year old his bottle, he became crabby and angry and pushed it away. But when she finally handed him the bottle, he happily fed himself.

No matter what our age, instinct tells us when we're ready to do things on our own. But in my case, I lacked both the understanding and language to explain what I felt, so I vented and complained and pushed people away. I didn't consciously know what I needed until I was in the presence of it.

For me, that was to hear other people tell my story through their own story--people who had been where I was and could show me the tools they had learned to deal with the world in a healthier way.

I have to remember this each time I am faced with someone reacting to something in a way I may not immediately understand, especially if the person seems cantankerous. The best thing I can do is to accept and be compassionate of other people's experience--and to try to identify with them, instead of compare myself against them, so we can find a common ground.

And a measure of peace.

QUESTION: Is there someone in your life you find difficult to understand and, if so, might your relationship with that person benefit from trying to identify with him or her?

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