I think it’s true to say that by the time our children leave home, we’d love to think that a few nuggets of our hard-won wisdom will go with them as they set sail out into the world.
My first-born son moved out of home just over a year ago, a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday. I hoped something useful had stuck. So it was that a question I saw on quora.com really piqued my interest: “What was the best advice your parents ever gave you?”.
Rather than consider this question for myself, instead I caught a sudden wave of narcisstic curiosity and decided to surf it all the way over to my Skype connection and I asked this question of my son (he was at work at the time). Just what was the best advice he felt I’d ever given him?
My now 19 year old told me to go away because he was too busy to think about it.
In fact, I imagined him eye-rolling.
I was grateful that he didn’t keep me waiting too long. It was a mere few minutes later that I heard that familiar skype ‘bing’. He said he’d been thinking and had an answer for me. What followed was a truly lovely few minutes in my life.
He told me that the best advice I’d passed on was “not to worry about what other people think of you”. This was great to hear, although also pretty ironic as this is something that I have truly struggled with for my entire adult life. For me this was yet another example of just how we teach our children even through (and often because of) the things we find the most difficult. Still, this felt good and after some skype smiley’s – and probably even a love-heart from me – I left the conversation.
Five minutes passed. ‘Bing’ went Skype once again. There was more. Something else had dawned upon him. And this time, he even went as far as to say that this thing was what he considered to be one of his most useful life skills.
As you might imagine I could barely wait to hear what he had to say next!
The jewel in the crown of all my parental advice (to date!) was this: the importance of being able to role reverse with other people… in other words, the skill of being able to see the world from another persons perspective. (Cue sainted-parent halo appearing above my head of my own imagining etc etc… you get the picture.)
As an aside, I was also aware of an inner compassionate yet wry smile as I recalled the many times I’ve seen him struggle to do this within our own family (with his younger siblings in particular, now aged 10 and 7). However, I think we can all appreciate how very difficult it can be to be to bring our more evolved selves to the party within our own families-of-origin.
My deepest response however was one of gratitude; reason being that I one-hundred-percent agree with him.
You see, I feel like this capacity IS one of the most valuable life skills we can possess and it felt great to know that “I got one through”.
And so it was, a few weeks ago as I watched my husband and 10 yr old son in conflict… saw them drift further and further away from each other… that I was reminded of the above Skype conversation. And of the difference that role reversing can make (‘cos it was sure not going on between them!).
I’d now like to talk about one of the primary adversaries of role-reversing: Our Reactivity. One of the best things we can do as parents is to seek clarity about just why we react to the things that we do. Truly, when we engage in this kind of discovery work, we are mining for some of life’s gold. At the end, we’ll look at some really simple techniques for staying connected & seeing another perspective.
Reactivity: Connection Killer
Back to the family drama. It’s a short performance piece in 5 acts. Just to make it more interesting, it was in public too. Scene: Family visit café, sits outside in sun and awaits food…
Act 1: 10 yr old son expresses his sensitivity about situation X. (dramatic tone: hungry / tired)
Act 2: Husband perceives this as outrageous selfishness and proceeds into full reactivity mode. (booming voice, shaming language etc)
Act 3: 10 yr old son now wildly upset; sad, angry. Mainly sad.
Act 4: Husband storms off. Wife (me) gets stuck in her own reacting (mainly to husband who is of course in this moment is entirely 100% in the wrong).
Act 5: Everyone is disconnected.
Lets be very clear about this. Reactivity is the enemy of role reversing. It’s the dark knight, chasing it down, and killing it dead on the road.
When we’re in our reactivity, there IS no other side. There is our side, our feelings, our needs and that’s all we can see. It severs the connective cord we have to the other, and maroons us on an island of our own making.
You might imagine it to be like grabbing yourself a metaphorical pile of C4, and sticking it on the bridge that connects us to the island of the other. Then, when you are right in the centre of some conflict you may be having with the inhabitant of some other island (your partner, child, colleague…) your reactivity gets a hold of that detonator and blows that bridge to kingdom come. You then retreat to your fortress of isolation, usually feeling very righteous and justified.
In my life, anger is the emotion that’s the most difficult one to work with and the one that is most likely to completely compromise my ability to role reverse. I also think that anger gets a pretty bad rap in our culture. Most of the examples we see around us – both in the media and in real life – often tend to be of the C4 variety. When it comes down to it, most of us are shit scared of it and have no idea how to use it effectively. But now, let us be brave. It’s something we need to learn to use well.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
Whilst I retain a great deal of respect for much of Buddhist philosophy, I no longer align with their position on anger – that it is an emotion we need to transcend. Instead, I believe that it’s a potent and cleansing force; a messenger here to tell me in no uncertain terms that something needs to change. In rejecting my own anger (and that of my children: yes I’m damn uncomfortable with their anger as well as my own) I am robbing us all of vital information, and of many opportunities to learn to use it. With something so difficult, we ALL need practice!
Most of the time, we think we need to make the change that anger calls for by bringing out the C4, blowing up the bridge, and retreating to our island of self-righteous isolation. We feel the charge inside of us, and we blow it out. Unfortunately, in doing so we usually miss the chance to discover the information it’s trying to bring. Our reactive self isolates us, and it isolates us far more than you may realise. Not only does it isolate you from the other, it also isolates you from yourself.
The Hidden Agenda of Your Reactivity
Your reactive self has its own hidden agenda. It is there to keep you isolated and it does so by using another secret store of C4. It uses this to blow a really important bridge, and believe me when I say that this bridge is one you never, ever want to blow.
It’s the bridge to yourself.
When your reactivity takes hold and you proceed to cut your connection to the other, what you are really doing is cutting yourself off from yourself. I sure know how that feels. I am usually left feeling angry, uncentered and alone.
The bottom line with reactivity is that it takes away our power to choose. It’s a little like being a puppet whose strings are being pulled by deep inner forces we may know little about. Conversely, when we are able to respond we are actually making a choice – and we have our power back. Reacting can feel like a choice, but if you dissect any family drama after the fact, it’s hard to find one where we didn’t wish that we had acted in a different way.
Teaching Role Reversing to Your Kids
Human beings are social animals, and we find some of our greatest opportunities to learn about ourselves within the container of our relationship to others. The more we practise the skill of being in ‘right relationship’ (including the one we have with ourselves!) the more at ease we tend to feel in our lives.
Conversely, when we struggle in relationships (whether with self, partners, friends, family, children, colleagues) we tend to expend tremendous amounts of life energy in defence mode. That means defending our island, blowing the bridges, and losing touch with self in the process.
Because we live in such a reactive world, all of us are well trained in the ways of reactivity. It can feel pretty uncomfortable when we try a different way. In making attempts to derail our reactivity, some of the discomforts we might encounter could include: seeing that our position was not as ‘right’ as we thought it was (and learning how attached we are to being right). Perhaps we may find we need to compromise. There are many discomforts.
The bottom line is this: it takes courage to take the relationship-supporting action of seeing things from someone else’s perspective. Being willing to back down from one of our many ‘positions’ means being vulnerable – indeed our ticket to being fully human. Being vulnerable in itself is an act of great courage.
As with everything, the best way to teach this to our kids is for them to experience us doing it with them. And for them to see us doing it out in the world with others. Even hearing us talk about it in connection to events in our communities and in the world around us.
To role reverse with someone means that we offer them our respect. Most of us grew up in a world where children were seen as deserving of less respect than adults and in fact this still holds true for many people. I personally believe they deserve this respect as much as any other human being.
“…even if I can’t see it yet”
The best way to learn a new thing is to start small. A simple place to begin next time you feel the anger and reactivity building up in response to your child is just to simply say to yourself “I know there is another side to this, even if I can’t see it yet”. Just trust that it will emerge. The very fact that you are even trying to see it means that the bridge is safe. Imagine knowing that someone you are having conflict with is actually wanting to see things from your side! It changes everything.
Just uttering these words may well stop the C4 from even making it out of the box… and it may not. There are times where the bridge suffers some damage. And still other times when it may need some major repairs. But these things can be done. We’re all human and we slip up. It’s OK.
Saying that sentence right out loud to your kids can be really powerful. If you are feeling angry, just say it! If you’re really feeling reactive perhaps add “…and, I need some space right now to help me try to see it!” and just walk away. Maybe into the garden or another room. Taking some time out to center yourself again allows you to come back to your responding self. It protects your all-important connection to yourself.. and to your kids. It’s an important thing to make a stand for in your life. Don’t let the bridge blower take it out. Even if you say the words imperfectly, just trust that you are finding your way. Your kids will feel your intent and you’ll all get better with practice.
Approach it all with great kindness and compassion. Really learning to live in your own skin is truly a life’s work. I reckon it’s the most important work of all, and your kids will learn to do this by watching you. Working to transform your own reactivity is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your children.
And to yourself.
First Published in The Natural Parent Magazine