“I Love These People… who keep stressing me out”
By Dr. Mike Simpson
In May 2005, my mother and her siblings had a triumphant meeting with my grandmother’s neurologist. Six weeks before, Grandma had suffered a stroke of such magnitude that she was not placed in the intensive care unit. She was expected to die. When she didn’t, doctors warned her family she would not leave the hospital alive. Tough pioneer woman she was, Grandma survived and made gradual physical and mental gains to the point she could be discharged.
“We told you she was going to live,” Mom said joyfully. “Yes,” the doctor replied, “but from now on she’ll need permanent nursing care beyond what your family can provide.”
Grandma’s case sums up both sides of what it means to be family. From the moment of birth until our final breath, typically our families are our first and most enduring sources of love, nurture, encouragement and hope. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Our families are the root of the greatest struggles, conflicts and stress we experience over the course of our lives.
Perhaps we assume these negative aspects “come with the territory,” that nothing can be done about them. We assume we must endure whatever stress erupts in our families. Actually, that isn’t true. This brief article is intended to offer one simple insight anyone can use to diminish the inevitable stress that’s part of being a family.
The key to coping is understanding our families from an emotional rather than an intellectual viewpoint. While human beings possess intellect greater than any other living creature, the fact is we are not rational beings; we are emotional beings. Virtually every action we take, every decision we make is emotionally rather than intellectually driven. Once we make decisions, we automatically enlist the services of our large brains to justify what we’ve decided and done.
Typically, whenever someone in our family does something that confounds or upsets us, we try to understand it logically, asking: “Why did you do that?”
Instead of asking rational questions, we need to ask emotionally-based questions. Instead of, “Why do Uncle Doug and Cousin Phil always get in political arguments at Thanksgiving,” the question should be, “What do Doug and Phil feel toward each other so they are always looking for a reason to disagree?” With very little effort, you can almost always sleuth out the sources for the emotions that cause family members to act in certain ways in certain situations.
If we view family members through an emotional rather than logical filter, their motives become clear—as do our possible responses. Family members tend to become “transparent” to us when we grasp their true motivation. In turn, our best responses to them become clearer and the stress we feel is greatly diminished.
I’m reminded of a crisis in which a daughter feared she would lose both her parents. Her mother suffered from a blood disorder, a condition made worse by her anxiety over her husband, who refused to give up chain smoking despite grave heart disease. Sitting in an exam room with her parents, weeping in frustration, the daughter explained the situation to the medical technician. The tech calmly remarked that the father wasn’t going to quit smoking because no husband who loves his wife wants to outlive her. The stunning moment of emotional revelation immediately relieved the stress and gave each of them new insight into their relationships.
Recognizing, embracing and illuminating the emotions in our families is the key to peace of mind.
Dr. Mike Simpson, author of Fix Your Family, will present three sessions, April 25-27, on understanding and healing the emotional processes of families for senior adults at Adventures in Learning, sponsored by the Shepherd’s Center of Greater Winston-Salem, to be held at the Ardmore United Methodist Church, Winston-Salem. For information or to register, call 336-748-0217.
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