Monday, October 18, 2010

What It's Really About

We all have at least one: a friend who tells us unpleasant things about ourselves for our "own good."  These friends are also authorities on issues in their own families, at least as far as the blinders everyone else in their clan are wearing.  Their own stuff, not so much. 

It's a old saw that it's easier to raise other people's kids than your own, and the same holds true for examining the mistakes each of us repeatedly make.  And, as Penelope Trunk points out in her latest post, almost everyone has a single issue that we struggle with throughout our lives.  She then goes on to talk about her personality type according to Myers-Briggs (she is an ENTJ or a Field Marshal, as am I) and that its particular trouble is that us ENTJs don't do tact.  Then she tries to analyze her husband's personality, writing that he can't plan for the future, but right then she allows her issue with him is that he can't separate from his mother.  Although she goes on to say she knows she, like everyone else with an intractable interpersonal problem, has to make peace with it--Shut up or get off the bus is how she puts it--it's still his issue that she sees as the primary mover in her marital conflict. 

In a more insightful column, Cary Tennis offered this to an advice seeker who felt he needed to tell his brother "the truth" about their father:

This is what I have learned. When you think you should really tell a person this thing or, This person really should know that, just stop first.  Just stop.

He goes on to explain that what really needs to happen, before we blurt out something like, "You let your kids run all over you and they are brats," or "You're depressed because your marriage is slowly and inexorably coming to an end," or "You should quit smoking, because it's going to kill you," you need to bite your tongue.  Not just because the person, at least at three in the morning when she can't sleep, already knows this--it's the elephant in the room, but she does, I guarantee, know this deep down already, and if she had the ability right now to deal with it, she would--but because your visceral need to explain this to them says more about you than about the other person.

In other words, what do you believe you'll get from telling this person their marriage is going to end?  A sense of, well, I've been through it, and let me tell you, this is how it's going to be, and you might think you're better than me but you're not.  Your marriage will end, too, and you'll know--like me--how it feels to have a public failure.  In still other words, we shouldn't tell this person what we really think they should know, because it's just mean. It's not coming from a good place within our ourselves. So unless she asks us again and again why she is unhappy (and even then it's not a good idea to come out with it) it's best to listen and nod, or quietly decide that she needs another friend to talk to. 

This insight from Tennis, I've decided, is a great tool for what I believe to be the first rule of adulthood: own your shit. If you're obsessing over another person's mistakes, why?  What buttons are they pushing?

Which brings me back to Penelope.  She is correct that we each have our own singular issue to grapple with as a life-long project.  Based on the Cary Tennis rule, I realized I needed to figure out why on earth her telling of it in what I believe is a misguided manner bugged the hell out of me.  I've been processing it all day in the back of my mind, and it's boiled down to this: as a fellow Field Marshal, I know that tact is only a very minor manifestation of our own dialogue at three in the morning.  (Do you suppose there are personality types that sleep well?)

No, my problem, as an Extroverted/iNtuitive/Thinking/Judging type, is that I fear chaos.  This is why I want, always, to do things properly.  If I don't, it's a pretty short ride down the slippery slope to my entire life, if not the universe itself, falling apart.  General Patton was an ENTJ, hence the nickname for the Type, and his fears, given that thousands of lives were in his hands, were certainly warranted.  I remember that when I look at my baseboards in need of paint and beat myself up because my oil change is 424 miles overdue, it's not life and death.  But my fear comes from the same place as Patton's--if I mess up, it will be a disaster.  And my ego is big enough to think I'll take a few people down with me.  After all, if I follow Cary Tennis' advice, it really is all about me. 

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