A few years ago, after another failed relationship, I sought counseling. It was not to make myself feel better in the midst of my pain, but to figure out what I was doing to contribute to the breakdown of the communication that is the life blood of interpersonal relationships.
When you are ready to be honest with yourself, you have to be willing to hear the truth, even if that truth embarrasses you and makes you ashamed. If you start to peel back the layers, you have to be prepared for whatever you find.
One thing I’ve always known, and disliked, about myself is that I get defensive at the first sniff of blame or accusation coming my way. I personalize the criticism, even if it is legitimate and constructive.
It shows up in every area of my life. But the one that crystallized it for me was a romantic relationship. She had some well-known baggage: an alcoholic and untreated bipolar mother, she had never known who her father was, a mentally abusive ex-husband, and her own bipolar diagnosis. That’s quite a cocktail of psychological ingredients. So, she wasn’t coming into the relationship with a healthy and balanced perspective. She was wounded.
As for me… well, I figured to be the hero in the situation. I’m such a good guy, she’s gonna be eternally grateful just to be with a guy like me, I’m gonna shine!! And I made about as big of a mess out of everything as I could. Instead of being the heroic fireman putting out the blazing fires, the hose I was using originated at a gas pump instead of a fire hydrant!
You see, I expected her to behave appropriately at all times. I expected her to act as though she were healthy and whole. When her brokenness and vulnerability presented itself in unattractive ways, I refused to acknowledge anything other than the brokenness and misguided ways it was being communicated. I overlooked the heart she was extending to me because, in my opinion, her hands were dirty.
The way it happened most often was when her wound was pricked by some unseen trigger, she would come to me and say, “You did that thing just to make me feel insecure!” Or maybe, “You said that just to make me feel stupid!” Or, “The reason you did what you did was so I would feel worse about myself!” Obviously, she was using far more specific language, but that was the gist of it. On my side of the conversation, I checked out as soon as the accusation came my way. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I had not done the thing of which I was being accused. Therefore, I was completely innocent.
For the purpose of context, I’m a big guy. I’m loud, opinionated, and forceful in my voice, both literal and figurative. It’s well established that I tend to use a backhoe when a teaspoon will suffice. As you might imagine, when I defended myself, it was worthy of a closing statement in some musty courtroom.
So, when that relationship understandably failed, I hit my wall. I knew that I could not continue to live that way. It wasn’t working for me. I knew it. Everyone knew it. Things had to change.
When I first spoke to my new counselor, I laid it out exactly as I saw it, and I made sure that he knew I wanted to only address my deficits. I was willing to talk about particular circumstances from my recent failed relationship, but only as context for understanding the depth of my own brokenness. I understood what she brought to the table, but I couldn’t affect that. The ONLY thing I could have controlled was fully contained in my reaction to the situation. And that was most definitely “out of control.”
One of the first things he did was suggest a book whose very title irritated me: “It’s (Mostly) His Fault: For women who are fed up and the men who love them.”(Newer editions were renamed “Good Husband, Great Marriage.”) However, since I was honestly wanting to change, I read it. It was eye-opening. You can read it on your own (I recommend that you do), but the gist of it is that it empowered me to take ownership of how MY behavior affects our relationship. It taught me to actually LISTEN to what the other person is saying. And it taught me that I need to assume a larger responsibility for the tone of the conversation. I need to guide the relationship toward the healthy behaviors instead of responding “in kind” when I felt under attack. It’s basically leading by example. I have to model the desired behavior before I can expect it.
The next milestone in my journey came after I married Kerri. It was experiencing the “Keep Your Love On” book and seminar by Danny Silk. My wife and I read that book with a small group of friends and attended a weekend seminar given by the author. The central theme of that one is to protect our connection and our relationship at all times. When we are in disagreement, the goal is not to find agreement. Rather, it is to find connection, to protect the relationship.
Out of all of this, one of the main things I learned to do is see past my defense mechanisms. Here’s how I experienced that:
Actually said: “You did that thing just to make me feel insecure!”
Previously I would hear: “YOU DID THAT THING -------!”
Now I hear: “----I FEEL INSECURE!”
That small change completely changes the focus of the conversation. It costs me nothing to ignore the part about me. I simply remove my own feelings, reactions, etc… and actually hear what emotion they are expressing. By doing that, I can focus on finding a way to address their actual need. When I focused on the part of the statement that was about me (“YOU DID THAT THING”), I immediately changed the conversation to what I did or did not do. In other words, I put the focus on me. Not the pain that was motivating them to express it. Rather, it became about me, what I did right, what I didn’t do wrong, and how poorly they were communicating to me. It’s pretty easy to see that nothing is going to get better that way. But when I was able to take my SELF out of the equation and actually hear what was being said (“I FEEL INSECURE”), it was much easier to find the right path to take.
There. Right there’s where it intersects with the racial climate in our country right now.
For instance, take your own temperature. What do you feel when someone says, “Black lives matter!”? Do you feel that it somehow takes something away from you? Does that make you feel like what they’re REALLY saying is that they matter more than you? Or do you feel like it’s saying that your life doesn’t matter quite as much as maybe you think it should? It doesn’t. When you hear black people say that they just want equal treatment, do you truly think that maybe you’re just a little more equal than they are? Do you feel compelled to give your own anecdotal evidence of mistreatment at the hands of the police? Why?
I heard a white lady ask an audience of almost all white people, “If you would like to be treated like black people are treated, please stand up.” Needless to say, no one stood up. And that should tell you all you need to know. If you wouldn’t stand up, you recognize there’s inequality. What are you going to do about it?
I’ll be honest… sometimes I get overwhelmed by the immensity of the problem. I’m not in a position of power to be able to affect any change. It would be easy to shrug it off and post a meme and feel better about myself. But what can I really DO?? I don’t know. But I know where to start.
I can start by removing my SELF from the conversation. I can start by listening to what a large segment of our population is telling us about how they are experiencing life. I can keep my personal experiences to myself and actually HEAR what they are telling me is their reality. I don’t care what the anecdotal evidence is that some may offer to refute the particulars. For every Tawanna Brawley, there are many Alton Sterlings… many Philando Castiles. For every stupid “fact” you want to give me about some founder or some advisor of the actual organization… or for every stupid example of fools behaving badly while carrying the Black Lives Matter banner, I personally know actual people who feel the pain contained in that 3-word phrase. This is way bigger than any particular example you may try to give to discredit some of them.
Enough with the misdirection. Enough with the superiority complex. Enough! It’s time we remove our own feelings from the conversation and actually listen to the emotion behind the words, regardless of whether they are expressed in a socially acceptable manner. It’s not about White Guilt. That’s a foolish notion designed to be the magician’s “other hand.” It’s simply a tool to distract you.
The real issue is that a large portion of our society feels targeted and unequal in every way. There are a million reasons for that. I don’t need to know all of them. Or agree with all of them. I don’t have to justify every circumstance or understand every circumstance or KNOW every circumstance. All I have to know is that they feel less than equal. That’s it. That’s all that matters. That’s wrong and it has to change!
So, yeah… Black Lives Matter!!
Christopher “I’m-A-White-Guy” Wyant
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13 (NIV)
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”