Our experience of other people has much less to do with their objective behavior and much more to do with how we see them and their behavior.
This is a lesson I learned from my relationship with my dad, may he rest in peace, who was one of my greatest teachers.
Dad was an amazing handyman who served as the unofficial handyman for the neighbors, two of which were my grandparents and great grandparents. He loved to fix things and always whistled a tune from the 20’s as he worked. Bicycle Built for Two was his favorite song.
All summer long, the kids around the block would line up on their bikes for an adjustment. That was a weekly Sunday offering, one that led to many of the sweet and loving comments on the Facebook post announcing his death.
He knew how to write and was my best teacher over the years. We would labor for hours over my papers and school newspaper articles, studying the power of visual, succinct language though I am still working to master the succinct part.
He had art talents which he would use to help me with projects and posters. He understood math and helped me in that arena as well.
He could be very funny and fun. I have lots of memories of going to South Park swimming pool in our hometown of Pittsburgh, PA where he threw us across the pool and we yelled “again” after every time. And his imitation of Gomer Pyle was impeccable. He would stand in front of the mirror to get it right and he always did. He was, in those moments, relaxed, funny, and in his element of performing for his family, the loves of his life.
In the early 60’s his mom and his closest uncle died and my dad spent a time in the hospital quite ill, according to my mom, but he completely recovered. That is all I know about that and anyone alive at that time who could tell me more about it has most likely passed away as well. Soon after, he lost the business he had built over a 10 year period when the steel mills in McKeesport closed and with that loss, he appeared to lose his joie de vivre.
Through the eyes of a child, of course, none of that mattered except that dad was different…not as much fun and very grumpy a lot of the time, impatient, and often mean to my mom, sister, and me…
I felt and was put down and diminished by his put downs and name calling. Some of his favorite lines were: - I forget more than you will ever know. - You are an idiot. - Stop being a moron.
These he gave generously to my mom, my sister, and me, and they left their mark as scars on our hearts and minds over the years.
And yet, he had that wonderful, smart side that mentored me to be a person of integrity and honesty, a good writer, and someone who cared about others. Like most of us, he was a multifaceted person.
My dad was a shy man. He would open up at home, not in public. Others saw him as quiet, reserved. When someone from outside of our household called him on the phone, he exhibited an amazingly consistent calm that I both admired and resented.
We could be in the middle of a chase around the dining room table where he was about to catch and spank me. The phone would ring, it would be for him, and all the rage he had been directing toward my behavior turned to polite, soft spoken, rational conversation.
The good news was it gave me time to hide or escape! The bad news? My despair that he couldn’t deal with my shortcomings as lovingly as he did with a neighbor or a customer’s issues.
I was wounded by his words, as well as by other experiences I had with peers and others who dealt me harm. Many hours and years of therapy, journaling, and 12-Step programs later, I did recover from the pains of childhood trauma and continue to do so as I continue to grow.
By the time I was a wife and a parent, and was able to see the world through the ups and downs of adulthood, I was able to see my dad differently. I had always had compassion for his traumas, but as an adult, I could empathize with his suffering, and also that of the child within me.
As a grown up, I could see him as the wounded person he was without feeling afraid of him. After all, we were almost the same size. Over time, I started to shift my view of him as a x8$%#2 (insert the epithet of your choice), to someone who had habits of thought and speech which were ingrained in ways that hurt him more than they could ever hurt me.
We became close as adults. I saw him more as Eeyore than as a monster, and came to call him my Curmudgeon.
I loved my dad. Though in some ways he let me down, in others he gave me the gift of having to dig deep to find a deeper truth than that which I had absorbed as a child.
This morning, I was thinking about how long it took me to gain a new perspective on his and other people’s ‘bad’ behaviors…
Today, I see people as more than the words that come out of their mouths and the actions they take. I see them all as souls doing their best to handle their lives just as I am doing my best to handle mine. And when their words or actions seem aimed to pierce me, I remember that their true aim is always themselves. Hurt boomerangs. Pain inflicted boomerang and it is always a reflection of the person doling out the pain, not the one their initial target.
Once we are grownups, how much we choose to dwell on the impact of their behaviors in the past and the present and take it personally is really up to us… though it does require inner work to make a new choice.
It hurts when others behave badly and we appear to be their target. But knowing that we are neither the cause of their bad behavior nor their true target does help us find a new way of looking at the situation.
There are people who come into the BALM at the end of their rope with their loved one. Beginning the work of the BALM often allows for a new beginning, a salvaging of the relationship along and an opportunity to help oneself and the loved one begin anew.
Sometimes, they have already split before coming into the BALM and the challenge is to be loving in the midst of separation.
The challenge with choosing an ending without doing the inner work to gain a new perspective is that without the inner work, it is possible to repeat the pattern with someone else.
You may never figure out the other person’s motive or struggle. You can, however, experience peace around your experience of their behavior toward you, and your inner and outer changes can help them change as well.
This is the work of BALM.
About the author
Beverly Buncher, MA, PCC, CBFRLC, CTPC, known as the "Foremost Family Recovery Life Coach in the Nation", is the Founder and CEO of Family Recovery Resources, LLC, and the BALM® (Be A Loving Mirror®) Institutes for Family Recovery Coach Training and Family Recovery Education.