When you’re in a sticky situation, facts, assumptions and emotions all swirl together, blending into each other. Being upset blinds us to facts. And when we are overwhelmed, we tend to jump to conclusions rather than see what is truly happening. This means we’re likely to make mistakes.
There is an old saying, count to ten. Taking a time out can help. But in complex emotional situations, assumptions and biases can obscure issues. You can count to 10 as many times as you like and you still feel frustrated!
Suppose you are in this situation:
You and your husband had a nice dinner with his sister and her husband. The next morning you get a call from your mum-in-law. “You didn’t invite me!” She calls you insensitive, accuses you of trying to cut her out, and has a complete meltdown.
If this happened, you’d probably feel as if you were a monster. Selfish, unthinking. You might quickly promise never to do it again just to keep the peace. Or you might feel so angry and annoyed that you vow never to see her again. Neither will make life happier for you.
You can gain perspective by retelling the story impersonally. Like this:
Jack and Jan invite Rob and Jasmine for dinner. The next day, their friend Sam calls up, screaming that he feels left out. What do you feel now?
If you take away the factors of age and family, you’ll see that this situation isn’t about you or about dinner. Sam clearly has issues he’s trying to push onto jack. Your mum-in-law has issues of her own that she’s pushing on to you.
These issues might include control, loneliness, competition, and more. Whatever is at the root of their behaviour, perspective can help you make better decisions. Like in this example, common sense suggests that if you give in, you run the risk of having to live your life according to their rules – which they will change to suit them. That is going to be very stressful.
A sensible approach is to acknowledge their feelings, without being drawn into discussing who’s right or wrong. For example, “I’m sorry you feel left out.”
You don’t need to promise never to do it again. It’s tempting sometimes – just to keep the peace – but it’s reasonable for you to see your friends. So in future, when you’re in a sticky emotional situation, take a breath, step back and recast events in the third person. Tell yourself a story stripped of emotion. Then examine it again.
It can help you gain perspective – and in turn that can help you come up with better ways of coping that keep the peace with even the trickiest mother-in-law, without turning you into a doormat.
I wrote this originally for Malaysia Womens Weekly. Check it out, and enjoy!