You’re at a family dinner. Things are winding down, most everyone’s done eating, and they’re talking about the movie “No Country for Old Men.” Your brother talks about how great it was, how much he liked it. He says, “Pure genius.” Your sister’s boyfriend sits back and says, “Pure garbage. I hated it.” Silence falls. Your sister hopes that your brother doesn’t get defensive and start a verbal fight. And she hopes her boyfriend will quickly say something else, something nice.
Growing up, when we disagreed with our alcoholic parent’s opinions, he or she accused us of being an enemy, of hating him, or of conspiring against him – simply because our opinion differed from his or hers. What our alcoholic parent wanted was for us to support his or her opinon…at the expense of expresing our own opinion (that is, they rejected the free expression of our self). In doing so they taught us to believe that when someone disagrees with us they are, in essence, rejecting us. Part of growing up and outgrowing one’s alcoholic upbringing is knowing that differences of opinion are not personal attacks.
In a sick family, your brother would feel defensive (as if his taste in movies was being evaluated) and say, “Whoa! Garbage? What’s your deal – you got something against me?”
Your sister’s boyfriend says, “I don’t have anything against you – I just hated the movie.”
Your brother says, “Sounds like you’re calling my taste in movies garbage.”
Sister’s boyfriend says, “No, I never said that.”
Brother says, “That’s not what I heard you say.”
Pretty much everyone around the dinner table is uncomfortable and wishing they’d been born into a different family.
That’s not what he heard his sister’s boyfriend say because the brother is listening with old, sick ears. He can’t hear actual words – he hears only insults. Because his father didn’t tolerate freedom of opinion, he doesn’t understand how oppposing opinions can coexist.
I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU JUST SAID THAT…OR, DID YOU?
A lot of us don’t really hear what people are saying to us, we listen for subtext. If a stranger suggests that our tires need more air and look like they’re getting flat, we’re insulted rather than thankful. We hear, “You’re a negligent car owner,” rather than the helpful words. We assume they are judging us, but we have absolutely no indication of that.
As people raised by alcoholics, we often fail to hear the actual words being spoken to us, and we react to our interpretation of what’s “behind” the things people say rather than what people are actually saying. When we’re emotional, it becomes extremely hard for us to hear people’s words at all – it’s habit for us to listen for subtext.
I CAN’T BELIEVE I JUST THOUGHT MYSELF INTO A STATE OF ANGER (OR FEAR)
The other behavior that we have in common, which is related to listening with our fear rather than our ears, is the thoughts we think. We often scare ourselves with our thoughts – totally made-up scenes that are not actually happening.
For example, you’re driving home and you’re late. You stopped at the grocery store and Walgreens, too, but you spent a lot of time at Walgreens looking around and you’re making it home later than expected and later than you said you’d be home. If you’re the child of alcoholics, you’re likely going to imagine the conversation when you get home – because you think you’re going to be in trouble for being late. (People who grew up like us are always worried about getting yelled at or ‘in trouble’ when least expected – so we try to be on guard, at all times.)
In the car, you might role-play the conversation you’ll have when you arrive home, putting imagined words into the mouth of your children or partner (“I can’t belive you’re so late.” “Why didn’t you think to call?” “Daddy, you’re late again!” “Dinner is cold, but it wasn’t fifteen minutes ago.” “I don’t feel like going out to dinner if you don’t respect me enough to be on time.”) How awful. Why do we think these things?
It’s as if we’re so used to hearing the mean words of our self-centered, childish parents that we imagine the words that we no longer hear – out of habit.
Start to catch yourself having these negative, fake conversations. Catch yourself putting words in other people’s mouths. Catch yourself imagining scenarios.
GET A NEW SCRIPT
Then replace the script with wonderful lines, realistic lines. Or, simply skip imagining conversations altogether. Start taking control of what you’re thinking – use your thinking time to come up with ways to grow.
SEEK GROWTH AND HEALTHY SOIL
When you’re in living situation in which your fear is not greeted by anger and unexpected dark moods, but by love and appreciation, you’ll know you’re in a good spot and one in which you’ll have room to grow and grow and grow. That’s healthy soil. And you don’t have to wait for another person to begin – you can create that loving and respectful environment for yourself.