It’s not personal.

I take things very personally. I’m oversensitive and I have a tendency to overreact to statements that on examination are utterly benign. I have bad ears. I hear criticism and judgement and condemnation in the mildest of comments. It makes me defensive and impedes conversation; often, it’s over nothing at all.

Other people’s problems are not necessarily my problems. This means that my problems aren’t other people’s. People don’t need to moderate themselves for me. They don’t have to check their words every time we interact. In a perfect world, where I was the centre of all things, other people would make sure I understood their intentions at all times. That, however, is not reality.

My mother and I were sitting in my basement recently, having a coffee and looking out over the backyard. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge. I let the ferns and violets grow unimpeded in the rock-filled deck space. It gives it a wild feel, a sense that it’s a part of nature, at least I think it does. At any rate, I like it. I do try and keep it weeded; I regularly pull up the clover and dig out the buttercups. But it’s not a precisely organized and pristine space. It’s odd that I can tolerate haphazardness in my gardens considering my desperate need for precision and organization inside the house but then, humans are contradictory creatures.

As we sat, I pointed out the abundant foliage. My mother’s response? I see a lot of things that aren’t violets and ferns out there. A benign comment, I suppose. A simple statement. And factual; I haven’t been keeping up with the weeding. I’m only able to appreciate that the statement was benign, however, after a talk about the conversation with my therapist. Because, at the time, I took it very personally indeed. She gave me a simple, declarative sentence. I heard something else entirely.

Look at all those weeds. Your garden is a mess. I don’t know why you think you can call what you do “gardening”. It’s pretty messy. You can call it an “English garden” if you want – I just see a disaster. It’s a bit of a failure, really. But then, you fail at pretty much everything. Your house certainly isn’t perfect. And your life – you don’t work, your kids aren’t accomplished, you don’t make a lot of money. What are you doing that’s worthwhile at all? You aren’t even thin and beautiful.

My mother would be horrified to learn that I got all that from a simple comment. It would never have been her intention. To be fair to myself, she can be quite passive-aggressive at times. This is not me disclosing a secret that she is unaware of; I’ve mentioned this tendency to her before. But in this instance, I will have to absolve her of blame. What I heard was not close to what she said; my interpretation was wholly self-generated, built from my feelings, beliefs, and insecurities.

We are not neutral consumers. I try to be, but it’s difficult and takes energy. The tendency is to filter the things said to us through our own belief systems. Often, what is actually said gets lost in translation. And we rarely err on the side of hearing things more positively. I certainly err on the side of negative interpretations.

What would happen if I started to give people the benefit of the doubt? Even when she’s being passive-aggressive, my mother loves me. I know this. She wouldn’t deliberately hurt me or cause me distress. I know this too. I forget, however, when random comments prove to be triggering. It is not her responsibility to monitor her words constantly to make sure that they are presented in a way that makes me feel safe.

It’s my job to learn to listen with better ears.

Do you ever mishear the things people say to you?

One thought on “It’s not personal.

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