November 17th, 2011

For people like me, who tend to get angry and say really mean things before thinking them through, my highest goal at a family gathering is usually to just keep my mouth shut. Since the times when I get myself in trouble and hurt people I love always happen when I’m talking, not talking seems like a logical solution.

Too often, I spend days visiting family over the holidays, holding in all my snarky, mean comments. Just before we’re about to leave, the top pops off and I say something truly cruel about a very minor annoyance.

Even if I don’t eventually explode, not talking still doesn’t work. It is quite obvious through facial expression and body language when I’m angry or annoyed. When I just don’t say anything, the person I’m interacting with is left knowing they’ve done something I don’t like, but not knowing what it was. This causes a silent tension between us, which really doesn’t make for a peaceful, harmonious holiday.

When I want to say something and don’t, that thing is still sitting in my mouth, unsaid. This almost inevitably leads me to say that thing to someone else. I tend to put together a quippy little anecdote about the incident and share it with several people. This is not a kind way to treat my loved ones.

Not saying anything is really tempting, even if I know it doesn’t work. No one can accuse me if I haven’t said anything. My facial expressions and body language are very hard to pin down, and I can always say they’re being misinterpreted or deny them completely. Most of the time, the person I’m angry at just has to take all the discomfort of the conflict. Later, I get to feel superior to that person, while I tell funny anecdotes about how unreasonable or silly they are.

I believe the third option here, the challenge, is to say something well. To stand up for myself without getting defensive, to be honest without being cruel, to admit my own hurt feelings without accusing. This is no simple task. The phrases are often simple, but arriving at them takes a great deal of thoughtful prayer, and an enormous amount of self-control and courage to deliver on the spot. Saying those small, kind, hard things out loud to a family member of friend is also an extremely risky proposition.

When I say those things, I’m stepping out of the binary of effector and effected. When I explode or silently fume, I’m only trying to turn the binary in my favor. When I address the conflict, I enter into an interaction where we are equals, both with feelings and opinions. This requires a higher level of engagement, both of me and my loved one. It means we’re in real relationship with each other, actually trying to mash our sharp edges together and make a tighter, stronger connection. It means that we have to do more than just put up with each other once a year. It means that we have to grow, have to talk and listen to each other. It is terrifying and exhilarating and full of hope. It isn’t polite holiday behavior, and might result in tears or accusations sent my way. I’ll try it anyway, though, because polite holiday behavior was never what my soul longed for.