Just Finished, part one
Brainstorm, The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.
Back when I chose Brainstorm, I had not read Dr. Siegel’s previous works and had no idea that the crux of his point of view is what he calls “mindsight.” “Mindsight is the ability to truly ‘see’ or know the mind.” (p. 39) In other words, he is a staunch proponent of the use of mindfulness techniques to help us in our interactions with ourselves and others, especially our teens. If you read my post on Brené Brown’s talk in Santa Monica, you’ll be sensing a theme here! (Read that gratitude post here.) Mindfulness is one of the tools I learned about and then used to navigate difficult times during the course of my daughter’s illness, and it continues to enhance my life today. I will be writing more about mindsight and mindfulness in my next post about Brainstorm.
First, I want to employ Dr. Siegel’s help to address a couple of questions I received on the Just Finished post I wrote about empathy and Paolina Milana’s book, The S Word (read full text here.) I provided the following definition of empathy out of the NAMI Family To Family material: Empathy is “The intimate comprehension of another person’s thoughts and feelings, without imposing our own judgment or expectations.” The questions were specifically related to judgment.
This is tough stuff, I think, and why I wanted to address it further. One reader asked, “I feel there is a fine line between empathy and being judgmental. If we are that which we have experienced, where do those lines intersect?” And the second reader asked, “Is it ever okay to be judgmental? Like when someone says, ‘We ate at Outback on Friday night, CPK on Saturday night and on Sunday we saw a movie at the theater and then ate at the Lazy Dog Cafe. Oh, and did I tell you that the phone company turned off my service because I hadn't paid my bill on time?’”
I logged into dictionary.com to double check judgment’s definition and found several, most of which did not carry negative connotations — i.e., the ability to form an opinion objectively (objectively being the key word), and the exercise of capacity. However, one word that also popped up as related to judgment was “doom.” When we apply judgments relative to another person’s thoughts or actions we get into trouble because judgment implies comparison to a moral standard, a standard to which the other person might not ascribe. Usually, even if we don’t admit it, when we judge we think we are taking the moral high ground. I can’t think of a single time I judged someone that had a positive connotation. When I inflict my judgments onto another person, I doom our relationship to be one of distance and distrust not one of connection and intimacy.
Now, relative to the first question and being that which we have experienced: We sure are; we cannot be otherwise. The answer to where those lines intersect is, in the Siegel – Yokas model, reflection and awareness. To be truly empathetic, we first have to understand our biases. To understand our biases we have to study our thinking; to reflect on where we come from, the lessons we’ve learned, and the meaning we make from those lessons. “Self-understanding,” Siegel writes, “is how you connect your past from memory with your present experience.” (p. 163) Making sense of our history, he goes on to say, is how we can be as fully present as possible in our relationships. Only by being acutely aware of how we got to be who we are can we lift that veil of perception from our relationships.
For example, I have a bias, because of my upbringing, against the use of religion as a tool to tell people they are evil or wrong. I’ve reflected long on hard on where this bias comes from and why I have it. I am not talking here about a difference of opinion. I am talking about the attitude of superiority. Right and wrong. Good and evil. It is equally judgmental of me to think negative thoughts toward those who embrace this point of view. So what do I do? First, I make the thoughts conscious. I acknowledge them, and why I have them. I don’t try to squash them because that would only make them stronger. Then, in my mind’s eye, I envision those thoughts as fiery embers, like coals in a barbeque. I watch the glow of the embers turn from red to neutral grey and watch the embers disintegrate into dust. I change my self-talk. Sometimes this practice works to eradicate my judgmental thoughts and sometimes it does not, but it’s a start. The work is to keep at it.
Second, relative to the question, “Is it ever okay to judge?” Well, I think answering that would be judgmental! Look, the bottom line here is that we’re all human. It’s not okay to judge people, but we’re going to do it anyway because judging is human nature. The key is to own up to it and to work on doing it less, and, if we judge the people in our lives, to make the effort to excavate our vulnerability and offer it up in the form of an apology. I have learned over the last couple of years that I sure don’t like feeling judged (I don’t know anyone who does), and I feel just as bad when I engage in it. Afterwards, I almost always learn about extenuating circumstances that change my original perception of the person and the situation that precipitated my judgment.
If someone had told me the story about eating out all week and not having enough money for bills, before I could stop myself, I’d probably have made unkind assumptions about the scenario and the person telling it to me. I’d have wondered why she wasn’t more responsible with money, and why she didn’t make better choices. Even with a friend I may have thought, Why can’t you get your shit together? Now, I try to interrupt that pattern by remembering the too numerous to count crappy choices I’ve made, the reasons I made them, and what I needed from the people I talked to about them. I don’t have to agree with someone’s choices to listen empathetically and compassionately, and you never know what positive influence kindness may engender in the person who receives it. Aside, that is, from a deeper connection and a stronger relationship.
One final point from Dr. Siegel on judgment as it relates to parenting. He writes, “We as parents need to be very conscious of the depths of our responses to unexpected developments with our children so that we don’t unwittingly make them feel judged, condemned, or even invisible. . . Studies of temperament, for example, reveal that the ultimate developmental outcome for children is not what temperament the child has, but how accepting the parent is to that child’s individual characteristics.”
Let me tell you, not judging our kids can be harder than it sounds. We parents have expectations for our children, and we think we have control over the people they will become. I know I had and did both relative to my daughter. I expected her to be able to go to school every day, do her best, and to have fun. I expected that she would grow up and go to college, and that eventually she’d get married and have a family of her own. I expected her to want to be alive. When her illness threatened these expectations, I got scared and sad and angry. I didn’t understand that depression was consuming her mind; I just wanted the behaviors to stop, and I told her so in every way I could think of. I made every mistake in the book, literally.
On page 218, Dr. Siegel writes, “So often we want to help the people we love fix their problems. We want to show them how to solve a dilemma, resolve a conflict, or get rid of painful emotions. But in order to give them what they need most of all, which is to make them feel felt and connected with us, we need to not do these well-intended things first and instead simply be present for our loved one.” What parent doesn’t want to fix or solve problems for their child? I sure did, and it took a long time for me to realize that my desire to do so blocked my ability to be present for my daughter when she needed me the most. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read these lines, if Dr. Siegel ever had to “simply be present” for his child in the face of brutal self-destructive behavior, because I can tell you that to do so challenges every thought and feeling you ever had about what it means to be a parent.
I think the fix-it/solve-it trap is one that every parent can fall in to, but there is an extra terrifying tightrope that parents with mentally ill kids must walk between safety and acceptance. It feels impossible to accept behavior you know can land your kid in the hospital or worse. The two are not, however, mutually exclusive. I learned the veracity of Dr. Siegel’s lesson the hard way, after much trial and error. My well-intentioned demands that she stop doing “bad” things and start doing “good” ones did nothing but exacerbate the emotional void between us. I didn’t use those exact words, but my meaning was clear. I can’t fathom how alone and afraid she must have felt during those days.
The foundation to rebuilding my relationship with my daughter was to understand her illness for the biological condition it was, and to do the work to put my judgment of her behaviors aside. I had to understand the behaviors as symptoms of her illness and learn how to look deeper, to the root causes of those behaviors and to understand what they meant to her. Accepting her need for them and the comfort they gave her were the necessary precursors for me to stop trying to control her. I had to let go of my assumptions about what was right and wrong and from this common ground we began to rebuild. This is not a one and done. The balancing act in our interactions between what, as her mother, I think is beneficial for her and what isn’t continues today. The key, as is often the case, is all in the presentation.
That’s my two cents. What’s yours? Do you feel you’ve been judged? If so, how did it affect you and what, if anything, did you do about it?