How much influence do others in our lives hold over us? How much influence do we hold over others? And where is the tipping point where trying to influence or persuade becomes trying to control or manipulate? Or are these different things that come from different motivations right out of the box? What to do when being a supportive, encouraging influence feels more like enabling and results in feeling discouraged and energy draining for us?
These are questions swirling in my mind lately. Not all the time, not obsessively, not urgently, but cropping up frequently enough that they become a recurring theme for me to explore.
I think about those who hold sway in my life for different reasons – M, my kids, my closest friends, my clients, my business associates, my village of experts and teachers. For the most part, these are people I trust, particularly or especially within their sphere of expertise or their place in my life. Some of those circles overlap – I have clients who I also consider friends, I have a village that I think of like extended family members. For all these sources no matter what their classification in my life, I listen to them, am keenly interested in what they share with me, want to know what they think and how they feel. I want to ensure they are okay and to help whenever appropriate and possible. And I absolutely believe in the integrity within our interactions.
In my real life as well as on several blogs I regularly read and follow, I see some form of disconnect between those who speak their truth, those who use ambiguity, and those who are outright lying for whatever reason. The last troubles me the most, obviously. Much of the time I do not understand why someone would lie about relatively trivial things, or even to get what they think they want. Which should be comforting to know that I have a functional moral compass. The most obvious liars and cheats are terrible people who should be avoided at all costs, but there is a much subtler version of truth-shading. I have mostly come to understand it stems from something amiss in the other party’s life. Depression. Anxiety. Insecurity. All of the above. Something else I know even less about much less how to identify it. And as much as I want to help, to be a good friend, to be a resource, I cannot help anyone who refuses to admit there could potentially be a truth and reality problem in our communications.
I understand boundaries very well, and in my world it is fine to tell me something is none of my business or that you are uncomfortable answering a question if it seems too personal or something else. I am not completely obtuse and do pick up on the subtleties of subject changing or not responding directly to a question. For me, this is how I discover boundaries and get to know people. Another lesson from being a parent that extends to the rest of my life. As my kids grew up and achieved more autonomy and assumed more responsibility for themselves, year-by-year letting go of a little more of the mom-who-controls-everything mode was a natural progression that I accepted and after awhile, truly embraced. It gave both kids room to experiment, make independent choices, make mistakes with those independent choices, learn about life knowing M and I were there, we had/have their backs. A few times I was disappointed and angry at dumb choices they made, but for the most part in those days they checked in before making a big decisions and allow me to weigh in with my thoughts or preferences, and they learned to listen and to trust me when I said it was their choice. From my own history growing up, I absolutely knew I would never become a parent who says “I told you so” or harp upon decisions they made that I suggested or plainly stated was a bad idea.
Does not mean that I do not feel the impulse sometimes to insist they do it my way or to try and take away some of their autonomy. I am not much of a spontaneous person, and when it comes to friends and family, I strive to be very careful with my words and actions. Sometimes our individual truths are hurtful and not what we and our partners in discussion each want to hear, and sometimes our truths are absolutely inaccurate when removed from our own context. Basically it’s tricky and it’s complicated even when it should not be all that difficult or challenging.
This same lessons apply to friendships, although I have a few examples littering my history that are train wrecks and nothing I say, nothing I do would prevent the same issues, same problems from recurring over and over again. In these situations it became obvious we should never discuss relationships, parenting, or financial matters, because I grew weary of seeing the same mistakes happen in a predictable cycle and they grew frustrated and defensive in light of my pained expressions and refusing to be supportive in their time of need.
Part of life is being let down and disappointed by actions, reactions, behaviors. In the last year I have discontinued regular contact with long-time close friends and chronicled it here on the blog. It has been a process that left me uncomfortable at first, but slowly I am coming to realize that not all painful change means it is bad or regretful change. Perhaps I am in a mental/emotional growth spurt and learning things that are obvious to just about everyone else.
My basic recent takeaway is that I value my time and have learned to prioritize it, which is likely the most benign way to express that my tolerance is limited with people who cannot or will not be straight with me. I love having friends, but how based in reality is a friendship when someone chooses to not be truthful? When I was a single parent, my free time was scarce with young children underfoot, so many of my friendships were with other mothers, other parents in similar situations. While our kids played we’d sit on park benches and talk and revel in some adult conversation that did not involve breaking up arguments or comforting frustrated toddlers. Same was true as the kids advanced in school grades; many of my friends were parents of their friends or people I saw at PTA meetings or band booster or parent athlete events. Never underestimate the bonds forged with other parents while manning a snackbar at a high school water polo event or a wresting tournament.
But I recognize the transitory nature of those relationships. My closest circle of friends are people I have met at various jobs throughout my career and/or that I met at some point and just clicked with on some real, raw level. Friend J – on the surface we have virtually nothing in common, yet after 20+ years we are still best of friends. Friend GS – who just resurfaced after a 2-year absence – is another who is 13 years younger than I am, lives on the east coast, and is now weaving his way through the single parent maze I was immersed in when we first met. There are others, people who I see once or twice a year, or maybe only ever 4 or 5 years, yet keep in regular, close touch via text and email because that’s what type of friends we are. These are in my phone favorites list and speed dial when something significant happens and I need to share the joy or an extra shoulder to lean on or arms for hugging support.
To a person, there have been misunderstandings through the years, even hurtful things we have had to hash out and resolve in order to move forward. But to the best of my knowledge and instincts, they have never lied or misled me about anything. Sure they have disappointed me, and I them. Sometimes real life with close friends their own day-to-day lives are a more interesting priority that fulfilling a vague commitment for a friend who will ultimately forgive their thoughtlessness. Thing is, they know my priority and how my mind works. They say “I am doing this” then it clicks into a holding place in my head until concluded. If they fail to initiate the task, they come back and say “sorry, I got distracted with something else and have revised to this.” I am okay with that nearly all the time, because I get stuff happens.
But to say “I am doing this” and have it evolve into “I have done this” is like a done-deal. For me to learn through the passage of time and have my happy expectation dissolve into something else is huge for me. When the “I have done this” turns out to be a deliberate misleading statement – uber huge. The first time it happens, I explain my position very clearly: if you tell me you have done something, I believe you. If it turns out you told me you did something and you in fact did not, it’s a chink in the trust that is difficult to resolve. Just telling me is far better than just letting the situation unwind itself out, have me questioning you about it, being reassured that you don’t know what happened but it’s on the way. Or even worse, making an excuse, only to have me at some point call you on your bullshit, that is a really hard one for me to recover from.
There are extenuating circumstances. Life happens. But to ignore the problem and hope it goes away is not working on a communication issue or breach of trust between us.
I am dealing with a few such situations right now. And it completely sucks. Because while I hate conflict, I hate that trust shattered makes me feel like a shit-worthless friend. I hate having to separate myself from meaningful friendship.
I am very frustrated with the trivial matters that have been escalated into crisis-like situations. I am very frustrated with myself for being so trigger-happy as a coping mechanism based partly on intuition and instinct, but mostly on generous amounts of prior poor experiences. I am equally frustrated with friends who cannot or will not just tell me the truth and make some movement, take a small step to try and talk it out. Overall I am just disturbed and disgusted with myself for allowing it to send me into a tail-chasing spin cycle. In the bigger picture, the root cause of the breakdown does not matter. And from the the way things are progressing, neither I nor the offending parties matter much to each other either.
Which is why these situations are sucky and hurtful. I am trying to be careful and cautious about how I go forward and deal with what sits in my mind like a giant pink elephant, but it’s crowding me out my positive experiences. And lately I am all about embracing the positive
So let me just finish purging myself of this stuff and move back into my happy, less troubled self.
My old friend who is obsessed with weight and appearance finally responded to my email reply to her, and in typical fashion, turned it around and made this all about me and my overreaction to her concerns, even going so far as to say my better health objective has backfired and turned me into a raging bitch.
Huh. Really? Intriguing turn of events. In truth, the email made me laugh, probably inappropriately. But oh well. It is possible I should be more upset, but I am not. If this very old friend takes it upon herself to tell me who she is right now, I should simply believe her and let it go. I do value my time; arguing over the differences in our perspectives is completely pointless. If I used Facebook like normal people I would unfriend and block her, because that is apparently how these things are done anymore. Instead, I simply deleted the email without further response.
We are all now middle aged grown-ups. Despite how young or old we may feel inside, hopefully enough time has passed and enough experience accumulated to the point where we can be courteous and be kind to one another even if we have grown apart as friends and confidants. Or so goes my thinking on the subject. Possibly I am the delusional one.
There is another blogging community we both belong to with a larger, wider group of friends. For years we used it more like a message board for the group, where we would post news or vent about our spouses or dating or other aspects of our lives and receive support or a kick in the ass from the others with their comments and perspectives. Only we were all friends in real life and it was not at all anonymous. I think about my real-life friends who once participated on the community blog and now read this, my personal blog for updates, and occasionally react to it in email, text, or telephone. Nothing I write here is anything I would not repeat to them in a face-to-face conversation, so I never fear that I am stepping upon toes or being passive-aggressive in getting my point across. If that were the case I am extremely unlikely to leave a post up just long enough to be read by one or a few and then delete it and all the comments. Nor would I abandon my blog completely, delete it, and run from it and its history. That happened a lot off and on through the years in this other community and was the catalyst to beginning my own blog, my own safe space.
It is not my way to try and hide or wipe my past. I see the evolution of my thoughts, my life in the historical posts here. Some of it is truly cringe-worthy, and not just because of the typos and grammatical errors (because I rarely do more than a very superficial proofread and hardly ever edit). Despite my cringe-worthy personal content, I also see growth and maturity in my perspective. I see where I have abandoned any and all interest in being a good or popular blogger, I see the allure of audience blogging and my rejection of it. I treasure those who read and like and comment. Perhaps there is something in my posts that brings a new facet to their own journeys, or they find amusement in the slices of life and endless navel-gazing going on around here. Blogging life simply got better when this became more of a public journal than anything else.
On Sunday I got an email from another blogger who paid me this high compliment: “There is a ring of earnest authenticity in your writing that I find comforting.” I was and am hugely flattered by those words, because I am as real here as I am standing at my keyboard at home. It is that type of authenticity I desire in all my relationships, but particularly those where influence on either side is an option. Otherwise, what is the point?