Outsized Reaction

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Yesterday I wrote about having an “outsized reaction” to my adult son being angry with me and how this helped me recognize it as a trauma response (or what’s also known as a trigger) and I wanted to write about it more. (By the way, I’m giving myself a 30-day blogging challenged to help me get back in the groove and I’m sharing that with you so that I have to follow through!)

Having a bigger reaction than a situation warrants or a reaction that seems somehow disconnected from the reality of a situation means something else is going on. When my son told me he was angry and needed a break my fear went into absolute overload, completely unhitched from what was actually going on. Here are the facts:

  • My son was mad about something I said;
  • He let me know;
  • He appropriately informed me he’d be taking a step back.

And here are background facts:

  • We have a genuinely good relationship 99% of the time;
  • We’re a family who has been able as a whole to handle conflict;
  • His anger as a child and as a teen never freaked me out.

So why this? Why now? Well, obviously it was related to my own family estrangement exacerbated by navigating new ground as the parent to an adult child.

It reminded me of when I was a young married person and I was terrified that we’d get divorced even though there was no indication that our marriage would end in divorce except that divorce runs in my family even more than estrangement does. I mean, practically everyone in my family tree (other than my paternal grandparents) has gotten divorced. E.V.E.R.Y.O.N.E. I felt like divorce would be my legacy whether I’d like it to be or not. And I felt so dang sad about that because I really liked my husband (still do, in fact). It was my then therapist who helped me understand that actually I get to choose the course of my life, more or less, and that divorce would not just drop down out of the blue and inflict itself on me.

Likewise with estrangement.

Obviously I have no control over what my husband and children might choose but I do have control over my half of the relationship and I can bring my healthiest self to it, which requires work and self-awareness and recognizing what’s mine and what’s not mine.

Which goes back to my outsized reaction.

So my son says he wants a break and I say I understand and then as soon as he’s out the door I lose my damn mind because I was scared. And as I’m losing my damn mind I’m thinking about how much I would love to chase my son down for reassurance: “You still love me though, right? You aren’t going to quit showing up for Sunday dinner, right? You’re not going to stay mad at me forever, are you?” But of course I do NOT do this because my fear belongs to me and it’s not his responsibility to assuage it.

Now when I was a young married (and before we got married) I would totally do this to my husband. I’d chase him all over the place trying to get him to calm this fear in me. I made my panic his responsibility. So I’d do something stupid, he’d get annoyed and say, “I need to go for a walk” and I’d lose it. I’d either stop him from going for a walk and make him stay and reassure me or I’d metaphorically burn the house down while he was gone. You know, lock him out. Or leave myself (without a note because that’ll show him!) or just sob myself into hysterics.

Good times.

Eventually (and with therapy) I was able to take responsibility for my reactions and my behaviors and recognize that my feelings are not his problem. Same goes for my kids.

Parenting is triggering, I say this all of the time. Your kids will do things that will drive you crazy because 1) that’s what they do; and 2) because they will rub up against all of your unresolved grief and trauma. If you find yourself reacting in outsized ways, it’s time to step back and recognize that this belongs to you and NOT your kid.

Sometimes it’s hard to see it, to understand that the reaction is too big. Sometimes you can’t tell that the monster is pretend and not a real threat, which is why it’s so important to get other eyes on it. The other eyes can be a supportive partner (oh my darling husband who had to listen to me lose my mind so I would NOT pick up the phone and lose my mind at my son, which certainly would have made things worse). It can also be a therapist and it can also be a group of supportive peers.

This triggering stuff always comes up in the parenting class I’ve taught for several years, which I’m also teaching in the membership site. It’s why I love the curriculum. It’s not just, “What’s the problem and let’s fix it.” It’s, “Wait, tell me more. Why is this a problem? What’s happening for you here?” This is because when we’re having a parenting challenge sometimes it’s a challenge we can address with problem-solving and sometimes it goes deeper. Sometimes it’s not a problem to be SOLVED; it’s a problem to be ADDRESSED. Sometimes your child does need to hunker down and do their homework and sometimes what actually has to happen is that you need to process some heavy baggage you’ve got over academia or responsibility or what have you. Knowing the difference ain’t always easy.

And sometimes, of course, it’s both so the solution is going to be a lot more complicated.

My goal with the membership site is to create a safe place where we can do this hard work of not just figuring out how to handle this or that parenting problem but also to figure out how to grow through it because, as I’ve said, I believe that parenting can be transformative. I believe the parenting has more self-growth to offer than a zillion yoga retreats or self-help books or what have you. And I wanted to create a community where engaging with our selves as parents and as people in this way is the norm.

So do you want to know how the story with my son ended? We made up. Within a week. It was fine. He took a break and came to dinner the next weekend. BECAUSE OF COURSE HE DID. Because I am not my mother and he is not me and we have our own relationship that we are doing differently.

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