I know my column is from my personal perspective, and often about my personal life. Yet I feel this topic is more confessional than many others and affects me too often. I take things too personally. Having this deficiency is truly toxic when you are raising kids or beginning a new marriage, both of which define my present state of affairs.
Let’s give some examples and see how many of you relate to them. Easy ones are when ShortRib (my wife) isn’t smiling, isn’t talking much, or doesn’t respond quickly to an e-mail, or text of mine. I always assume that it’s my fault or something I’ve done.
How about my boys. I have a teenager, GuitarHero. Am I crazy or what? Teenager; what do I expect? His interest in me is practically nil these days as his friends and music dominate his life. So, where I used to be the sun in his life, I may now just be the bank. My younger son, JugHead, is the one most attached to his new step-mom and has always had an affinity for women. Now, I feel neglected by both my boys. Thankfully, I still have my dogs that, at the very least, will lick me incessantly.
In all seriousness, I know this problem is ubiquitous, as it is so often a topic in my men’s group. I haven’t mentioned my men’s group in my column before, but will ultimately devote a full column to it and the value for men of having other men in their lives. As men grow older and have families, their relationships with other men tend to take a backseat to their work and immediate family. This is not good and I will write about this soon. Regarding this tendency to take things personally, our group regularly blasts each other for taking our wives’ reactions, our bosses’ reactions, friend and kids’ reactions, as personal attacks or reflections on ourselves.
Really, we’re not that important. More often than not, whatever is going on has nothing to do with you/me and that is an emphatic point in our group. I’m smart enough to get it, but too thin-skinned to let it sink in. And, the irony is that there’s an easy solution to this. Why not just ask? And, why is that so hard with our spouses, in particular?
Another example occurred on our recent Spring Break ski trip. One of the passions ShortRib and I share is skiing. It was the first thing she put in her profile, online:
“Do you ski?” Yeah, we met online which is another story for another time. She is actually a slightly better skier than I, though I tend to be faster (her reaction on reading this was to say “slightly” with heavy sarcasm). It was a cold day on the mountain and she seemed to be lagging behind, moody, and not skiing at her usual brisk and aggressive pace.
What do I do? I take it personally. I don’t ask (and she didn’t offer). We almost got in a fight when she said she was going to quit in a manner that just felt hurtful (I really am thin-skinned). It turns out, once we actually talked about it, that she was very tired from a lot of recent stress and her reactions to me, this day, had nothing to do with any feeling about or towards me nor was it the result of anything I’d done. But, I took it personally.
We realized, as a couple, how often we do this to each other and, again, this is where asking what’s up would have been easy and shown concern and compassion. I wish I could do it over again. Thankfully, she often comments on how we’re learning, growing, and getting better at communicating all the time. But, we’ve lived a lot of life before this second marriage and many years being single. Adjusting is our ongoing challenge, in addition to all the changes she’s had to make in marrying a man with two boys in the house full-time. Kudos to her. I need to acknowledge that more often.
The true goal for a parent should be to raise independent human beings that can ultimately survive and thrive in the world on their own. GuitarHero is mostly doing exactly what he should be doing at this age, learning his limits, stretching his boundaries, and not depending on me, except for moral and financial support, though I think only I care about the moral side of things. JugHead had been living without a mom for so long, as my ex-wife and his biological mom left years ago, that I should view his affinity for ShortRib as a wonderful blessing (and it is).
Early on in my parenting life, I had to let go of the dream that my kids would share my interests. This too, was another case of taking it personally, that they didn’t like my favorite foods, movies, music, and especially my avid interest in certain sports. Fortunately, I didn’t allow this disappointment to show up in my parenting so they were largely unaware of these unfulfilled hopes and expectations. My experience being a Big Brother really saved me in this area.
This is the risk that we parents take when we put too much of our heart, soul, and identity into our children. I have been and still am, at times, guilty of putting too much of myself into my boys. As I’m a man and was a full-time dad for so long, it was sort of natural that I take my identity from this job. Most men view themselves through the prism of their work and being a dad was my job for so long. Thankfully, I recognized what was happening and re-invented myself, career-wise, in the form of writing this column among other writing efforts and volunteer work. My identity no longer revolves totally around my boys and none too soon, with my boys growing up and needing me less and less.
The bottom line is don’t take it personally. I’m writing this to myself and to you, my readers. Ask the question when you think it’s personal; recognize that kids are completely self-centered and upon entering their teen years, completely out of control of their emotions, let alone their changing bodies. It usually isn’t about me/you. Get over yourself and be a better parent, spouse, or friend as the result.