— from Rosie Kuhn —
I’m working with a young woman, Carly, who is 15 years old. Her parents asked me to work with her because she is really frustrating to live with. They said she always seems to be unhappy, and her attitude is one of ‘pissed-off-smarty-pants.’ She believes she knows better than anyone else, and seems disgusted and judgmental about everything.
When first meeting Carly, she wouldn’t look at me. She hunkered into the corner of my couch with her big down jacket pulled around her securely. What I could only see was her jaws, aggressively chewing on a piece of hair hanging in front of her eyes.
Carly says “It’s not my fault I’m this way. There’s nothing I can do to please my parents, and so, I give up. In fact I’m going to make their lives as miserable as I can, because they have made my life a living HELL.”
Visiting Arnold in his home, he sits in his Barcalounger, staring out the window. He doesn’t want me there, and he doesn’t want to talk.
“It’s not my fault that I feel so crappy,” says Arnold, who is 83 and suffering from many, many afflictions. “My children and my caregiver want me to be happier, get out more, and find friends. They say I would feel better. What do they know about me? They don’t understand, and they don’t seem to want to understand. They just want me to be different so they don’t have to pay so much attention to me. Well, I’m going to make their lives a living HELL.”
The work I do as a life coach is to empower people who want to make changes in their lives; they willingly agree to participate in the process of fulfilling their goals – the ones they truly desire. This process takes self-discipline and self-accountability on the part of the client, and on my part, too.
At first glance, Carly and Arnold are very much the opposite of my ideal client. Neither of them want to be with me. Both only want me to bug-off. They don’t want to be anything but snarky, unavailable, and contemptuous. They figure I’d leave and let them continue to do what they do to make people go away.
But even though Carly and Arnold don’t seem like my ideal clients, in one particular way, they are. Here is how that’s true:
Very few people in the world are happy, peaceful, and content. Most people say they want to be happy but can’t find their way clear of the obstacles to happiness. What is the obstacle that stands in their way?
Each of them – each of us, have a Carly and Arnold within us: A snarky, unavailable, contemptuous aspect of ourselves, who refuses to give up their attitude for happiness. I see it all the time. And of course, I see it in myself as well. Who me?
Through our aging process, we have a multitude of opportunities to see those aspects of ourselves that interfere with truly enjoying life. We blame our circumstances, our parents, our political systems, our children, our bodies, . . . and the list goes on. As I mentioned in Ageism in the Aged – That’s Whacky, we project our unwanted “truths” about ourselves onto others. We don’t want to own what is really true within ourselves for many, many reasons.
Attitudes are ways of being that we cultivate ourselves, because we want to — not because we have to. (Well, for some, they have to, but we will leave that for another time.)
In a class I took, called Aging and Change, at Wilfred Laurier University, the old and wise professor said constantly – only to make his point – “As people age, they become more of who they already are. If you are a happy person in your youth, you’ll become happier as you age. If you are a grumpy person in your youth, you’ll become grumpier as you age.” These words have stuck with me for 35 years. I think about them when I’m feeling grumpy, pissed off, and contemptuous of the world. In those moments, I recognize that I haven’t let go of some of those people, places, and things that offended me in some way. I still hold a grudge against them. I still wish that things were different. And so, my ability to be happy is handicapped by my unwillingness to let go of what couldn’t be, or wouldn’t be, the way I wanted.
We cultivate attitudes and behaviors that serve a specific outcome for ourselves. Carly wants to punish her parents. Arnold wants to punish his children and caretaker. Other people use love to get what they want, others use humor, others use their intellect, others use emotions, some use all of the above. We are trying to get something that feels impossible to get, given that we feel powerless. So, we manufacture attitudes and behaviors that we believe will get us what we want. Most of the time, however, it doesn’t really work.
Though Carly was resistant to speak, when I asked her what she gets out of punishing her parents, I saw a little grimace cross her face. That little gesture spoke volumes. It reminded me of Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, when he was conniving to get something he wanted. What does Carly want, enough that she would commit to being miserable while happily punishing her parents? It is most likely the same thing Arnold wants. It’s the same thing so many of us want, enough that we destroy any possibility for fulfillment and happiness. What is that?
In a blog I wrote for my series Diet Like a Guru, I talked about how when we feel powerless, we empower ourselves the only way we can. We use substances, attitudes, and behaviors to get what we want, even if it’s only on the inside. If making other people miserable gives someone a sense of power, it’s probably what they learned to do, only to give themselves some sense of personal power. All of us, all of us, all of us do this, in one way or another. I can’t emphasize this enough. No kidding, Rosie.
People are brilliant when it comes to cultivating interpretations about life, and the survival strategies that align with those interpretations, especially when we are in our childhood. And, most of us still operate from those beliefs and interpretations, utilizing the same beliefs we created perhaps decades ago. Most of the time we don’t even know we did this creating back then. That is why change is so difficult, because our ways of being in the world are so entrenched in how we hold those moments when we perceived circumstances a certain way, then made meaning about that moment, which often lasts a lifetime.
So what does this mean? It means Carly can grow herself into an Arnold, if she isn’t willing to discover a different way to empower herself, other than to punish her parents.
And Arnold will continue to feel like a disempowered old guy until he owns his own reasons for wanting to punish the people who truly care about him. Both he and Carly empowered themselves to choose to be miserable and punishing. That tells me they have the capacity to empower themselves to choose something else – but only if they want to.
I’m glad to report that both Carly and Arnold were able to talk about what was missing in their lives that had them want to use their power to punish others. Openly revealing one’s truth is not only the first step but the most important step in cultivating a happier, more empowering relationship with oneself. At some point this does translate into creating happier relationships within the world we live in as well.
Aging is big, scary, and hairy work, regardless of how old we are. But it is so, so worth the adventure.
If you’d like to join Dr. Rosie in the AGING – Who Me in-person discussions at the Orcas Island Senior Center, we are meeting Tuesday – Mar. 28, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. If you’d like to read more from Dr. Rosie, visit her website www.theparadigmshifts.com, where you will find blogs, videos and her books. Or, if you’d like to set up a session, call me – Dr. Rosie Kuhn at 360-376-4323.
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