If you’re a parent, you probably know the experience of telling your child to do something and getting no response—over, and over, and over. Then you might become frustrated and raise your voice, at which point your family might accuse you of being a nag, or just plain crazy.
Or perhaps you’ve tried to organize a vacation or family outing (that everyone will later enjoy) and have to battle to get everyone’s schedules lined up. You painstakingly plan activities, make reservations, and take care of all the advanced planning, and are then told you are a control freak who can’t relax.
I have lived these experiences (and countless similar ones) more times than I care to remember.
I travel a lot with my family in the summer months. It’s a time filled with joy, laughter, silliness, frustration, irritation, despair, and everything else in the tapestry of human experience. As beautiful as the time is, every year a part of me is a bit surprised that we all return home together with no one having departed the trip early and everyone still speaking to each other.
While these examples are lighthearted and meant to amuse, the truth is, while family can offer the most satisfying, profound, and nourishing elements of the human experience, it also offers some of the most challenging and painful.
This summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about family and, specifically, what makes a family work. What increases the experience of love and joy, and what decreases suffering and frustration?
So I asked, what is the one practice that we could implement as a family that would radically improve our experience of being together? Can we set intentions and expectations that come from the highest part of ourselves, and actually try to meet them? And what intentions do we want to set about relating to one another?
Here’s what I came up with: What if, as a family, we made a deal with each other that no matter what happens (within a healthy context), we won’t throw each other under the bus? That is, regardless of the current situation or what another person is doing or saying, whether we like it or not, we will stay on each other’s sides.
When someone does something we don’t like, rather than following the habitual reaction of blaming and criticizing, what if we agreed to pause and consciously insert empathy? We would instead try to imagine what the other’s deeper intentions, struggles, or longings were in that moment.
What if we agreed to not rush to judge or negatively label each other? And most radically, what if we asked ourselves whether there is any way we could help the other person receive what they actually need in that moment?
Changing the Story
We are conditioned to respond to another’s words and behaviors based on our opinion of them and whether they support our ideas about the world and ourselves. We make up all sorts of narratives and interpretations about the other based on our opinions. But our thoughts and opinions about the other are not necessarily the truth of that other.
To live in an environment of empathy in a family (or any relationship) means trying to understand the other person—what they’re living inside themselves. In order to love another human being fully, we have to let go of our ego and stop defending our version of reality. We must be willing to consider their deeper intentions, fears, and longings, and in so doing, refrain from feeding our stories about them.
The challenge is to care about and for the other’s experience, no matter how different from our own. Fundamentally, our responsibility to each other as family is to not become yet another force that our loved ones have to work against in order to get what they really need. That means that we must assume the responsibility of doing what we can to lessen their suffering and help them resolve their deepest longings.
Our tendency as human beings is to defend ourselves, which includes our thoughts, our version of reality, and our identity—that giant, yet fragile, “I.” And yet, paradoxically, when we genuinely empathize and try to know another person’s truth, we often discover that the “I” we were defending, which had all these ideas about what should be happening, simply drops away without much ado. At that moment, we experience ourselves as an unconditionally loving presence. Without the “I” in the way, we get to feel the full force of love.
Every time we respond to another’s behavior with kindness, it’s like we take a step into the divine—into bliss. The choice to look out through another’s eyes and heart fills our own heart with love.
Setting this intention is a profound event in the lifespan of a family or a relationship. Try the “taking each other’s side” or “no throwing each other under the bus” challenge with those you love. Put a sign up on your fridge or a picture of a bus with a big “X” through it. No matter what’s happening in the moment, see the situation as if looking out through the other’s heart. Live this difficult moment through the other’s most vulnerable place—their pain, fear, or weakness—and through the child within them. Know that, just like you, they are trying to create happiness, find peace, and feel OK.
One important caveat: This practice applies to healthy family dynamics only. It is not to be used in abusive or dysfunctional, destructive contexts. This practice is not an opportunity to excuse abusive behavior of any kind. Abuse should not be tolerated in any context.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. For more information, visit NancyColier.com