It is amazing how much we unconsciously “choose” to forget – until something brings it back. Reading Laura Gray’s The Weight-ing Game, a memory flashed back from my early 20s.
Throughout my upbringing, and particularly memorable after our yelling contests during my teenage years, my mother lamented that I was way too sensitive, just like her. “Don’t be like me!” she said. Consequently, I had taken away that being like my father was much better. Only decades later, I realized that I had also taken away the message that to her, being me was not good enough. (And only as I write this, do I realize that it probably meant that to her, being her was not good enough, either. Thanks, Laura, that is why we write these stories down; to process.)
I got an apprenticeship as a computer programmer in a big insurance company right out of high school. I didn’t know a thing about computing and very little about insurance, but I was good at math. As I started my new job, I also started an evening course in accounting that many evenings classes, home-work assignments, and years later turned into a BA in Business with a concentration in accounting. Just like dad.
During the time I was going to business school, the company sent their young tech apprentices to classes at IBM and to the Insurance Industry School – the idea being that “you can’t teach all the employees about computers, but you can teach the tech employees about insurance” – so they could speak the language of their company-internal customers. Safe to say, spending weeks at Insurance School with homework assignments in between, while becoming an accountant and a software engineer working full time, was a bit stressful. Good thing, I was stoic like my father…
For the first years of my career, I still lived with my parents. Just as I turned 21, I got a good scoop for leaving home, moving to an old apartment in central Copenhagen, five minutes from my office. A family friend had bought a 17th-century building that needed renovating, and I could get this place with the condition that once he was ready to renovate my apartment in 3 to 6 months, I would move out without a fuss. 13 rent-free months later I got notice. During much of this time, when I came back to my place after visiting my parents for dinner, the contents of my stomach ended up in the toilet. As my diet now differed from what my mother used to serve, I thought this was my body saying “no, thank you” to her cooking. Today, I am not so sure. Could it be my first rejection of whatever my mother was serving up, literally or figuratively?
Even when I later vacationed with a group of friends and found out that one of them had bulimia, I didn’t make any connection to my own pattern. After all, bulimia was for unhealthy people, not something that happened to stoics like my father and me. By then, I had stopped my own purging – just as I had purged spending much time with my parents.
One of my friends had several mental breakdowns and I regularly visited her in a place where door handles are only on one side of the door. Listening to her story, I realized that I could also talk to somebody because, by then, it was evident, that it took me a lot of energy faking to be like my father. Also, I didn’t know what I was like?
I had a good relationship with my dad while my relationship with my mother always was volatile. What really helped me during this phase was that he asked me what was really going on and how he could help. As I told him how mom had always scolded me that I was too sensitive, too much like her, he said: “Sure, you are sensitive like her. That is one of the reasons I love you so much.” Being sensitive could be a good thing? That was news. It gave me stamina.
But how to embrace my sensitivity? That was the big question for decades and I saw nothing offered in the business world that could prove my father right. Until I coincidentally bumped into T-groups.
In the communication trainings Stanford provides, their metaphor is that our rational thought is the rider on our emotional elephant.
As long as our emotions are not stirred, the rider is in control. But when the elephant stampedes, it doesn’t care about what the rider wants – and there is not much the rider can do about it.
Today, I am an older wiser big elephant. Her knowledge is based on many million years of experience – much, much longer than the rider – that is also me – has been around. The two have a dialogue in mutual respect. The rider has learned better to translate the vibrations coming from the elephant’s rumblings and can speak up for her. Yes, she can become agitated, but once she hears the rider is aware she is upset, she calms down. And, as memories are often attached to emotions, she has the memory of – an elephant.
The irony is, that in this process of embracing being like my mother, letting go of trying to be like my father, I have probably become more like him than I ever was before.
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.