Thursday, October 29, 2015

Post Estrangement: are we becoming too general in our use of language?

Can we strive to be more specific in our use of words is always something that I face with my daily reflections. 

For example,"Toxic" is often used as such a broad umbrella term and under such an umbrella all kinds of petty acts are relegated to equal intensity.  Under this category truly hurtful and abusive actions become the equal of unintentional comments or actions that are perceived to be hurtful. 

For example if I make a comment and someone's feelings are hurt by that comment does that make me toxic, my comment toxic or does the person hearing my comment have an interpretation problem because of their personal issues from their life experiences?  

Further if they label me as toxic and walk away, can I learn from the experience?  Is there possibility for growth, for communication, for boundary work, for understanding?  NO, because labeling and silence is an end to communication, an end to working on resolving, an ending rather than a beginning.  

Expand that to our estranging adult offspring.  If the things we did as parents came from a good place at heart, does their perception of us as toxic come from our behaviour or from their interpretation or perception of our behaviour?

Tossing labeling words around to explain responses and reactions, could this be a sign of our times where we are not willing to invest ourselves in communication?  Have we begun to make ourselves unavailable to discuss these important inter-relationships issues without generalizations?

If our offspring could say to us "when you say XXX I feel YYY" that would open the door to communication.  Instead they choose to abstain from communication by saying "you are toxic and I will not be around you", thus cutting of communication and possible solutions. 

I am unsure as to how much of this is a sign of our times where communication has to be “text-able”.   You are toxic can be texted in a moment of anger.  Talking about feelings and responses requires at the very least full sentences and thoughtful reflections, listening skills as well as managing responses that come from a place of hurt or anger.  

If in the process of grieving our hurt and our loss, we then fall into the same category as our offspring by emulating their behaviour are we doing anything to further the cause of communication or are we further compounding the problem?

For this reason I am starting to think in terms of "actions" and "words" that are much more specific. 

We can agree that the way our offspring treat us is wrong.  But to lump them all together as being toxic I believe is also wrong.  Is it not better to be specific?

For example: I could say "My estranging daughter's behaviour is toxic and therefore I will be angry with her for being so mean to me and I will label her as a bad toxic person so that I don't have to face the pain." 


I could be more specific and say  "when my daughter chooses to withhold communications with me, when she gives me the silent treatment I am hurt.  My feelings are unacknowledged by her.  My importance has been diminished by her.  Her behaviour toward me is wrong because it removes the possibility for resolution from the equation. Her actions hurt me because I feel rejected which triggers my attachment needs.  I feel unworthy because she triggers my guilt feelings.   How I respond to her actions is based on my emotional needs being unmet."

This then allows me to look at what is it about me that allows me to be triggered in this way.  If I look at myself and why I react this way, is this not an opportunity for me to grow and learn?  I can now see her actions separate from how they make me feel.  I can allow for the possibility that she is not deliberately mean or spiteful or toxic, but that her actions are based on her own hurting.

Now I further try to imagine if our offspring did the same thing. 

What if instead of pointing a finger of blame at us and labeling us as toxic, they were to look at what it is inside themselves that makes them respond the way they do?  

And here is where I think that media has let us down.  In generalizing behaviours as toxic they simplify to a place of non-growth, to a place of  externalizing, and for making excuses.  

Our young people have taken this to mean that any time your feelings are hurt blame the other person for being toxic.  Take the easy way out.  Don’t work on relationships, excise them.  And this works because all actions that make us feel uncomfortable are now under one big umbrella word “toxic”.   But really isn’t emotional discomfort a warning sign that there is something that needs addressing?  

If I hear a suggestion as a put down does that mean the suggestion or the suggestor have evil intentions or is the problem with my own insecurities?

Growth happens when we explore the reasons for our reactions when we can vocalize our reactions coherently and communicate effectively.  Through non-confrontational communication we open pathways for learning and change.

Of course this will not stop people who willfully say or do hurtful things, (and I am not saying that such people don’t exist), but I do believe most people don't do negative things willfully.  For most people saying hurtful things is a reaction to a fundamental insecurity within themselves, in other words, they lash out from a place of hurt.  However inflicting another hurt does not expunge the original hurt.   And returning another hurt for the previous hurt only exacerbates the problem.

So if we see our offspring responding in a hostile manner toward us for something we unintentionally are perceived as having done to them we need to step back and say they are acting out of hurt not because they are willfully being toxic.  

We can in effect end the cycle.  

Let them hold the grudge and the anger until they grow and learn to express their emotions with the intention of resolution.  We do not have to step up the rift by resorting to the same tactic of name calling.

I have no doubt there is a tendency for us to do this name calling thing.  If we can label their behaviour as sociopathic or narcissistic or toxic or any of the other catch phrases that go around today, we can relegate the estrangement to a character flaw in our offspring and protect our hurt feelings by putting up another barrier.  If we respond to their hurt which was displayed as a hurting action towards us (estrangement), with a desire to hurt them back by labeling their behaviour have we then not lowered ourselves?  

I am fighting this all the time myself.  It is so easy to label my estranging daughter as cruel or spiteful.   But then I become just like her, lowering myself to name calling.   Do I want to walk that path?  Not really.  Does it help to know that there is possibly something much deeper at work that causes her to behave the way she does?  Yes.  But does labeling or name calling make me a better person or improve the situation?  Most assuredly not.

So what should my course of action be if I want to elevate myself, to become the best person I can be? 
  • I should strive to raise myself above this pettiness of name calling. 
  • I should focus on healing the triggers that cause me to see her actions as especially hurtful.
  • I should leave the door open that someday she too may learn that name calling and emotional silence is not the way forward. 

The questions becomes:
  • what kind of person do I want to be and can I grow into that vision of myself?  
  • Can I elevate myself to maintain an open mind in the spirit of loving, compassion and forgiveness?

This is my goal, to release the need to retaliate, to remove the need to blame, and release the unworthiness of payback.

I am learning that the harder path seems to be, for me, the correct one. In facing this I acknowledge that to strive to be a better person I must choose my reactions carefully and that this journey will not always be an easy one. 

Renate Dundys Marrello
2015 - 10 - 29  

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  1. Wow, so incredibly insightful! I appreciate your remarkable ability to put many of my thoughts and feelings into well written word.

  2. You misunderstood the label.

    "Toxic" is used to describe a person who won't listen when informed their behavior is damaging. The label isn't applied until it's clear that person is unable or unwilling to change the way they treat you.

    Also, "toxic" isn't used to describe people who estrange themselves from others (even if it's their own parents.) It means something or someone who's poisonous, implying that *being around* that person is damaging. Anybody who initiates estrangement, therefore, cannot be toxic, because estrangement is an absence, and toxicity requires presence.

    Correct labels for an estranger would be: Cold, uncaring, antisocial, isolated, etc.

    1. The more I read and the more research I do the more it becomes clear that the word "toxic" is used as a reason to bypass communication, trying to understand and healing. That is what I am trying to address. I am not against the legitimate use of "toxic" but I am against it becoming a catch phrase for excusing any behaviour that is inexcusable.

    2. Sorry, you didn't cite or reference anything so it looked like you were just spouting opinions.

      The misuse of toxic is especially concerning, then. Not only would it be a means to bypass communication, but also a way to dismiss legitimate criticism of oneself. ("They called me toxic. Obviously they want to get out of talking to me about my perfectly legitimate reasons for using my sister's miscarriage to get my way, and setting up my parents to have fights every day for the last fifteen years.")

    3. Exactly! that is what I am observing. The use of labels to dismiss other people's concerns rather than looking at the reasons why those concerns make them uncomfortable. I contend that "discomfort" is a signal that there is an unaddressed issue as the root cause. If we feel discomfort we have two options #1 face the discomfort asking questions of ourselves and also of the other person to better understand their point of view. this option leads to learning, maybe compromising, may experiencing empathy or understanding.
      option #2 uses labeling of the other person (ie toxic) which dismisses the other person's opinion, puts the blame for the discomfort on the other person and precludes learning understanding or growth.

      I do believe that when we "shut down communication" with catch phrase labels we harm everyone. The person labeled is harmed as they feel diminished and categorized but the person doing the labeling is also diminished because they have shut down their own opportunity to learn compassion and empathy.

      Seeing the "other side of the story" or even "wanting to know the other person's reasoning is a difficult thing to do. It requires allowing vulnerability. I ponder, have we become a society that is unwilling to face moments of vulnerability.

  3. Thank you. I have been feeling the same as you do on this fir quite a while. Everyone is so busy calling someone else toxic, crazy, or narcissistic but nobody is healing or reaching out to the other. How do we understand this when even the medical field says there are more adult children choosing estrangement and narcissism is high?

    Where do we get to end this pain? We hurt them--yes--but many of us were trying our best and had our own history of abuse to overcome. We did better than what we received. So we still maintain relationships and work to improve them or tolerate people better. Why are we not given the same path of forgiveness and redemption from these children who retain our heart and continue to cause us shame and devastation?

    1. where do we get to end the pain? that is the big question!!!

      How do we rise above our own pain to walk a path that demonstrates compassion and forgiveness? How do we stop from retaliating with equal name calling? How do we open up the forum for discussion?

      These are the valid questions that I am wrestling with.

      If we did in fact somehow let them down and they called us names and estranged us to end the conversation, how can name calling in return fix anything? How can we heal emotionally and remain open to their eventual healing as well? How can we change our perceptions and not retaliate, how can we learn and understand without lashing out? How can we become an example of conflict resolution? I believe these are valid questions that we need to ask in the process of healing.