How do we change out of a destructive pattern?

Emma (my daughter, now 9) frequently makes a big fuss when it’s time to do work that’s not appealing, especially “dumb writing homework” (despite usually liking writing and being an outstanding student).  This has gone on for years, but a couple of weeks ago I noticed myself becoming very reactive.  I was getting more and more irritated with her — and the irritation about homework seemed to be bleeding into our relationship-in-general.

I’d say hello in the morning and she’d grouch at me… say hello in the afternoon and she’d ignore me.  Then the homework fuss would come up, and I found myself thinking in such a judgmental way, labeling her as “drama queen,” “irrational,” and a few I won’t put in print.  As my frustration grew, I found myself thinking things like, “she can bloody well sit in her room ’till the work is done” (and thinking it with a kind of violent savagery ala “that will show her!”).

There are two aspects of this reaction that I’d like to explore with you:

First, when I felt disrespected and excluded, my patience for the “homework drama” plummeted.  My hurt feelings translated to wanting to hurt back.

Second, as I was feeling impatient, I fell into a pattern of force (power and control) and dealing with superficial “facts” — despite my certain knowledge that this DOES NOT WORK.

In Six Seconds’ work on change, we teach that people behave the way they do for emotionally valid reasons, and that unless you change the underlying emotional dynamic, you don’t create change.  This concept is explained well in Alan Deutschman’s book, Change or Die, which I constantly talk about (here’s an interview I did with him about this).  Deutschman says the dominant, but failing, paradigm when trying to drive change is to use facts, force and fear.

As I get more and more frustrated, I begin to rely on power and control.  I start using facts to back up how right I am, and force to reinforce my sense of power, and fear to accentuate my own power over her.  In that FFF paradigm, we try to make people change.  This doesn’t work, because people don’t want to be forced.  When people feel pushed, they resist.  The resistance causes them to protect, and they become less open to risk.  Meanwhile as we push, we become more irritated and less open to understand what they’re feeling and what’s really blocking the change.

Nice mess — and I KNOW this, but knowledge is not enough.  So here I am, getting frustrated with my daughter, and the more frustrated I get, the more I find myself shooting down this track, a track that I intellectually know leads only to more frustration.  But nonetheless, I’m sucked in.  It’s like I’m in a terrible daytime TV show where these messages are beamed into my brain.  And the more irritated I get, the more I’m in this reactive, superficial, destructive mindset.

Once I started to reflect I could see this pattern — this track I was on.  Which was great to recognize, but then what?  Getting off requires a shift in thinking+feelings — a way to step out of the dynamic.

Fortunately, it came a day later at bedtime.

I was just kissing my daughter goodnight and she had a rare evening of not having a book in hand… so welcomed a sleepy snuggle.  She’s so big now, and so fierce in her opinions.  But laying next to her I had this vivid memory of 9 years ago when we were on our first long plane ride and told her about it.

So long as one of us was walking around holding her, Emma was content.  But as soon as we sat down she fussed.  I remember walking up and down the long 747 aisles in the dark, with glimpses of night as we walked past the rows of windows, pacing endlessly at 500 miles per hour with this sleepy warm angel.

I remember quietly singing the same little song over and over and over (“la mar estaba serena, serena estaba la mar…”).  Probably as much for me as her; I can still feel the soothing rhythm of it.

I remember looking out the small galley window, watching the endless stretches of Nordic ice in the moonlight, and wondering at the infinite variety of that unknown alien landscape, so cold and distant.

At the time, I had no sense that this would become a precious memory… but now it’s so vivid… and tinged with the sepia tones of nostalgia.  Amazing what become printed in our hearts.

And from that place of appreciation, the whole “homework drama frustration” simply evaporated.  I remembered the precious (and willful) innocence inside this person.  I “made her good” in my mind and heart and this let me step off the reactive track.  This emotional connection is empathy, and it’s a doorway to a whole new way of seeing — and the antidote to the FFF paradigm.

In the week since that evening, we’ve had no conversation about changing the “homework drama,” but it just hasn’t come up.  It’s like the circuit is (at least for the moment) diffused.  While it’s likely to resurface, I’m now more keenly aware of the trap — and at least one way out.

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Joshua Freedman

Joshua is one of the world’s preeminent experts on developing emotional intelligence to create positive change. With warmth and authenticity, he translates leading-edge science into practical, applicable terms that improve the quality of relationships to unlock enduring success. Joshua leads the world’s largest network of emotional intelligence practitioners and researchers.
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