Communication: Speaking to Those Who ‘Define’ You

Perhaps it happens to men as much as to women. But, one thing is certain: most of us resent being defined by others — because the definition is rarely on-target. Former “Good Morning America” anchor Charlie Gibson asked a simple question many years ago that I’ve never forgotten. “When we go back home, why does everyone treat us like we’re 12 again?”

With a significant portion of adults living away from their families (i.e., parents and siblings), these dynamics have become more common. Adult children live in other cities, states or even in different countries. We assume major responsibilities as leaders in our homes, on our jobs and in our communities. Yet, we visit beloved aunts or darling dads, only to have our accomplishments pushed to the side, fitting us into a role we’ve outgrown many years ago.

Imagine being the oldest, the daughter, and coming back from college. You drive up, excited to see your family after being away for several months. You look forward to the home cooked meal, catching up on family stories and a “safe place” where you can share your own new experiences and have help interpreting them. After a treasured meal baked with Mom’s loving hands, one of your brothers gets up from the dinner table and begins to clear it. But your father says with a smile, “You don’t have to do that, now, Son. Your sister’s home.” According to The Washington Post article titled, “With More Sweat, More Equity,” this scenario is not as rare as we might think.

“Surprisingly, although men and women agreed they should have equal work opportunities, and men said they approved of women working outside the home, large majorities of both said it would be better if women could instead stay home and just take care of the house and children.”

The father in this scenario fits you into a traditional role while your expectations of your mother are quite similar. Surprisingly, household chores are still very genderized in many homes today. Although younger generations are now challenging those myths, women still do more of the household chores, according to the same article in The Washington Post.

Many of us endure similar scenarios, even in our mid-life and beyond. We return to the family with certain expectations but are often bitterly disappointed. Frustration grows as the once “safe place” has become a place which disrespects and diminishes us as adults. You may be tempted to simply assume the role while your anger or hurt intensifies. You might even confront the situation inappropriately and deepen the feelings of resentment.

What type of thought-provoking conversation can you engender that might invite the family to move beyond its current dynamics? Here are a few strategies to consider when attempting to change the family dynamics from an unhealthy to a healthy space.

1. Address your concerns as an observation and not an accusation. If you are perceived as “attacking” the person who has offended you, they will likely become defensive, often precluding their ability to listen.

2. Locate a humorous position to assist in making your point. With so many years of shared history, each family has its own private jokes and scenarios recalled from years past. Use this knowledge to your advantage as a means of diffusing both your own anger and the possible anger of those around you.

3. Consider a new location for family venues. It’s often hard to picture the dynamic changing when in the same location. Young adults may come back from college and ask the family to meet at a favorite restaurant, for example. Middle-aged women may invite parents to their own turf — especially if you live in another town or out of state.

4. Introduce your family to colleagues. Whether you are a minister, college professor or corporate communications specialist, you are no longer the little girl. Set up a dinner with a few colleagues to meet your family. If you are a church leader, then a local bishop or other pastors with whom you are friends will do. If you are a college professor, perhaps another instructor can join you. As you discuss your collegial relationship with the local dinner guest, this guest will often think of ways to sing your praises you probably never considered, sharing your achievements and even revealing the respect everyone has for you.

5. When alone, think of ways to reiterate your concerns with the family member(s). Let them know, gently, that you are always the daughter, younger sister, niece, etc. But you are no longer the child who can be slotted into a particular role. Try to identify one specific statement or action that caused discomfort in either your current or last visit as a point of reference.

6. Ensure you are always respectful of your listener. This means different things to different people. Some parents/families are sensitive to loud speech. So, if you are inclined to get louder with excitement, concentrate on speaking slowly and controlling the excitement. If you are likely to swear out of frustration but your parents don’t condone this, you might even practice your statements when alone in your own home. Speaking slowly and calmly often allows your listener to hear you without the frustration of being disrespected.

7. Suggest methods of change and be ready to listen. For the college student, the compromise may be to realize some mothers enjoy this nurturing role (such as cooking) but others find it exhausting. Mom may really need your first night at home to be a time when you’ve arranged for her to not cook. This could mean one of your siblings cook, you order take-out or you eat out. This may allow her to hear you more clearly when you address your concerns.

8. Prepare to start over. This is especially true if you’ve waited until 40-something to have this little talk. Old habits are hard to break. So, after you’ve had this difficult conversation and tried to steer the family away from treating you as though you are still 12, look for new examples allowing the family relationship to continue to grow and improve.

9. Be flexible. Sometimes, going back can be a good thing. There are times when, on the other side of the equation, you want your daughter to be your “little girl” again, just for a moment. You want to hold her close when she comes back and reassure yourself she’s safe. In the same way, many daughters do enjoy the comfort of being close to and around mom, even if the relationship is fraught with misunderstanding and disagreement.

Addressing the way others perceive you easily extends beyond family dynamics to our jobs and other aspects of our daily lives. Keeping your composure, speaking up for yourself and learning to also listen may take a bit of hard work at first, but it will soon pay off in dividends.

On a personal note and in keeping with “going back can be a good thing,” I have a wonderful memory of coming home one day from elementary school with a little craft I’d created. My teacher said it was the best she’d seen and I proudly presented it to my mother. She had it prominently displayed and talked about it for several days. I was beaming, giving my mother the “world” as I knew it. This year, I asked what she wanted for Mother’s Day. With a heavy sigh, my mother responded, “Peace.” I went thumbing through my favorite online catalogue and found two gifts. One was a tea set with butter cookies, a small teapot, mug and lovely teas. The other was a special bath salt guaranteed to help her relax. I recently went back to visit my parents. When alone with my mother, she picked up her little tea set and proudly held it close to her heart. One of her sisters recently visited. Beaming, Mother said, “I showed her your gifts.”

Once again, I felt like the little girl who had given her mother the world. This time, I didn’t mind one bit.

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