Confronting the past

Nothing that I’ve come across in my studies on counselling has explicitly suggested that I need to do any of these things:

  • look specifically at the problems in my relationships
  • respond to people in a more grown up way
  • erect boundaries around unacceptable thinking and behaviour

However from the moment I started studying this subject I got a strong feeling that I needed to change, become more authentic (congruent as Carl Rogers would put it), and it seems that certain important things have stemmed from that vague notion. I’ve always seen change as a positive factor in my life, from a young age and especially from the beginning of my sobriety; but in counselling lessons it’s become even clearer what I need to do to effect the necessary changes, even though no one has said it. From a starting point of authenticity I naturally begin to understand where I’m going wrong in life and in relationships.

I was back at college yesterday for the start of level 3 training, which is essentially the six month access course I’ll need to complete if I want to go on to the full professional diploma. Last year’s introductory course was just a taster; now the real meat of the training begins. Keeping in mind that I was about to embark on what will surely be a challenging and life affirming course, on Friday night I was finally ready to introduce some reality into my relationship with my mother, and set a very firm boundary about what she can say to me regarding my diet.

I tried to set the boundary with her last week, when I asked her to stop knocking on my door to check whether I’d eaten that day. There was still one more boundary to set, though. Her fears that I may be eating too little had been allayed, but her strangely concurrent fear that I was eating too much hadn’t. It transpired that although she was now sure I was eating every day, she wasn’t sure that I was eating anything nutritious. On Friday her eyes turned to my stomach, which has remained stubbornly round for the past few years, and she asked whether I was planning to go to an exercise class soon.

This may sound like a strange question, given that we’ve never talked about exercise classes before, but I knew exactly where it was coming from. I went to my room, pondered the situation for a few minutes, then decided that I wasn’t going to bite my lip any more. She’s hinted before that she thinks I’m overweight, and she was hinting it again. I wasn’t prepared to put up with it.

“Do you think I’m still overweight, then?”

“Yes, I’m sorry, but I do.”

I couldn’t believe her audacity! If I were actually overweight she’d have a point, but I’m not! My tummy sticks out from certain angles, but I know I’m not fat. She doesn’t seem to grasp that a man in his mid thirties isn’t going to be as stick thin as he was in his twenties. Throughout childhood I was skinny; the sad fact is these days I’m just slim. To her, that means I’ve put on weight, I’m eating too much crap and I’m going to get diabetes.

“I don’t ever want to talk to you about this again. I’m thirty-four, I’m not a child any more. I’m not having you tell me what to eat, it’s not fair!”

“Oh, well, if you want to get diabetes and die then fine. I won’t bother you any more.”

I could have stopped there; normally I’d baulk at the confrontation. It’s been an incredibly long time since we had any serious discussions of this nature. Luckily we haven’t needed to until now. I was shaking and every part of me wanted to give in, to avoid upsetting her, but this was too important, it needed to be said.

“But I’m not going to get diabetes! OK I eat sugary snacks once, maybe twice a week as a treat. Everyone does! You do! I don’t tell you what to eat, do I? It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.”

“I said it’s fine! I don’t care any more.”

She’d had enough of listening to me. She was angry and I could tell I hadn’t really changed her mind. I left her to mull it over. Somehow I’ve acquired the skill of knowing when to back off. I went to my room, glad that I’d said my peace for once. I know my mother very well; I knew an old pattern would play itself out. She’d sleep on it, and she’d start to feel guilty; by the next day she wouldn’t be able to take the cold atmosphere any more and she would apologise. I felt terrible putting her through that; every part of me wanted to go back and tell her I was sorry for being sharp. But I knew if I gave in it would have all been for nothing. I needed these new rules in our relationship to stick. I couldn’t give an inch – I had to get her to see me as an adult capable of making these decisions for myself. Everything I had said to her was true and fair. When it comes to food, I’m too old to be dictated to.

Sure enough, on my way out to college the next morning she came and apologised, promised not to bring the subject up any more. I nearly pressed the point further by kindly reminding her that I hadn’t smoked, drunk or taken drugs in nearly ten years, that I was probably healthier than most people my age, but I didn’t say anything. I kissed and hugged her and agreed to put it behind me.

Recently I’ve noticed this tendency to react to difficult and stressful situations like a child. Yesterday it occurred to me I do that because deep down in the core of me I never believed I was really an adult. These bad dreams I’ve had since I was a teenager about going back to school, they terrify me with the message that my adult life hasn’t really happened, that it was all an elaborate dream and I’m still stuck in the misery of an unfree childhood. Doing things that an adult would do, like confronting my mother about unacceptable behaviour, must be the only thing that will convince me I am an adult, capable of doing the things that scare the child in me.

When I baulk at the confrontation it’s because the inner child is scared she won’t love me any more, that she’ll kick me out. The adult remembers that she’s highly unlikely to kick me out, since we’ve recovered from much worse arguments in the past, and even if she does kick me out I’ll be all right, I’ll have places to go. If she really wanted to throw me out on the street there’d be nothing I can do about it. The confrontation about food would still be worth having.

What’s clear is I can’t keep living by the old rules, where I gave into that fear all the time. It’s the same in all stressful situations involving other people and their feelings about me. The truly authentic, adult me will face the world and its opinions fearlessly, because I’m worth sticking up for.

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