I can still feel myself sitting there and watching them. After all these years, I don't know exactly why this funny little moment stuck with me. But it did.
We were seated at our outside dinning table. My late-grandmother was sitting on the other side of table from me, looking out at the river while my late-grandfather was on my left toward the end of the table.
We were on “the island” as we called it, which was my grandparents' summer place located on the Ottawa River at Petawawa, Ontario. I spent my summers there as a child and this was just a moment of stillness between us.
I looked over at my grandfather who was seated in his chair and leaning forward with his bent elbows on his knees. He had something in his hand, something small that looked like a lump of dulled metal. He was twiddling this object between his fingers and occasionally bouncing it on the palm of his hand. And in a moment of nothingness, I found myself simply watching him.
I looked to my right as my grandmother leaned forward to him with her chin lifted, looking down her nose curiously. “What have you got there?” she asked him.
“I don't know,” he said as he stretched his hand out to her, offering it up. “I like this little thing.”
“Oh yeah. I like it too,” she said. “It's the weight of it.” And she reached forward to hand it back to him. “Yes,” and he smiled as he went back to playing with it.
Gramma and I watched him for another moment until he eventually looked up at us shyly with a little blush of self-consciousness. We spontaneously laughed as he shrugged his shoulders a bit and smirked.
My grandparents were funny this way - they just got each other. And because of the frequent subtle ways between them, you just knew they loved each other very much.
Without question love builds confidence in people and I think most of us agree loving ourselves first is the real key to truly loving others well. To this point, there is an African saying that warns, “Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”
The saying is essentially warning us not to accept people trying to give us what they do not have for themselves. More specifically, it might be telling us not to accept love from people who clearly do not love themselves.
On the list of toxic people with a questionable ability to love and could be present in your life, the "naked" are likely the retrogressive among us. A retrogressive person tends to distort your progress and tries to manipulate you backwards or keep you stagnant, wanting you to continue to be the same person you are.
Life is easier for some people if those around them don't change and grow. It means they don't have to do the same... they don't have to grow either. And some times, some people really need to always feel that they are higher than you and their sense of purpose comes when they believe they have all of your answers.
What's difficult is the retrogressive is usually someone who does have influence on you, someone you do believe cares for you and it's not necessarily that this person knows decidedly that they are holding you back. The person may present as very well-intentioned and you may both genuinely believe so, but in the end the retrogressive usually needs reminding that choices in your life are yours to make.
Being able to speak your mind, your heart and your truth and knowing you won’t be judged but will instead receive emotional support is the basis of trust. And trust is what we rely on most in a relationship that is loving. Trusted advice comes about when someone has had a common experience as you and when asked, will share with you in an emotional way what worked for them and what didn't. But advice that is not asked for and includes “you should” statements is generally unsolicited and a sure way to slow conversation down to a trickle. It also risks driving people away.
My thoughts on these ideas have spun off from having received some unsolicited advice via email from a family member not long ago that upset me. It struck me as demeaning and caused a lot of damage though I was told I should accept it as love.
When I objected to it, I was met with stunning indignation to the point where I feel like I watched my family member absolutely implode on herself. And this is something familiar to me that caused me to be very pensive in this last while. It seems that in my life, I have been repeatedly involved with people who are seldom accountable for bad behaviour toward me and simply refuse to apologize when clearly they could have and maybe even should.
My relationship pattern has usually been to think I must be wrong, or that my feelings don't matter, or to give excuses (and forgiveness) to the person for their bad behaviour without expressing my hurt or to simply avoid the conflict of confrontation and try to believe things will be better moving forward.
The reality is I've taught people how to treat me and I've been learning it's a hard, and often lonely, road to take to change these patterns.
The person who emailed me married into my family ten years ago and we live a 13-hour drive apart. And for no particular reason, she and I had not actually had a voice-to-voice conversation of any kind in six months when still she thought it proper to send me two detailed emails of advice I didn't ask for about major topics of my life. One was about her opinion on whether or not I should take medication for depression and two months later she sent me another email cutting me down for having thoughts of renovating my house.
The emails had a tone that stunned me and included statements such as: “I know it upsets you when I say something you don’t want to hear, but, damn it, Brenda, someone has to inject some sense here… We love you too much to just sit back and say nothing.”
And when I asked her not to speak to me like that, her reply was in part: “I cannot help it if in my opinion the timing of your plan is idiotic. Ok. Over and out for now. Not interested in getting myself upset.”
What was startling to me was that the email set out problems in a huge fashion according to her that in fact did not resemble the reality of my situation at all. And that’s the trouble with unsolicited advice, it usually leaves the one receiving it feeling like the one giving it doesn’t know what they are talking about or that they haven’t been listening.
The implosion came when I thanked her and also told her I don't need her advice. Rather than realize at this point or at any other time that she may have gone too far, she instead told me that she wants nothing further to do with me and will no longer acknowledge me as a family member to her.
Dr Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D, psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, talks about hardened advice-givers basing their self-worth on how they compare to others and this drives them to want to remain an authority. It’s an ego exercise driven by the anxiety to continue to prove that they know more than you.
“What the chronic advice-giver’s suggestions—often gratuitous and unsolicited—typically betray is a powerful need to prove to themselves that they could deal with your difficulties better than you could ever be expected to,” said Seltzer. “And also that the depth and breadth of their intelligence, knowledge and comprehension indicates a still more general superiority over you.”
It can be linked to codependence behaviour learned as a child and unconsciously harboured as an adult. Often adults who try too hard to be needed are the children of one or both parents who were themselves needy. Seltzer writes that some parents teach their children that their own needs and wants are not as important as focusing on what their parents expect of them. When that child learns to ignore his or her own needs, the child also learns how to be valued in an outward way, rather than through inner self.
As an adult, Seltzer indicates that child becomes someone whose self-esteem and self-image is lost unless fed by being the person that others depend on. Being needed makes the adult appear to be stronger mentally and emotionally than he or she really is.
“They’re primarily dependent on the other person’s dependence on them,” said Seltzer whose blog (Evolution of the Self: On the Paradoxes of Personality) is featured on the Psychology Today website.
It’s not that we cannot depend on one another. To be able to say you have people in your life who you can lean on is not the issue nor is needing people. The issue is not a matter of interdependence which is when the relationship feels like and interacts like a two-way street.
Seltzer explains that in healthy interdependent relationships both parties feel understood within an environment that “contributes to both individual’s resilience, resourcefulness and inner strength.”
In his key point, Seltzer explains that the healthy and loving relationship supports each individual in standing on their own without compromising each person’s ability to be self-determining.
And when I return to the best example of a loving and supportive relationship that I've known, I find myself back in my childhood on the island with my grandparents.
My grandparents built the rustic house on the island themselves and my room was an open space at the top of the stairs and there was a window there. In the early or late summer the window would often show dewy mist on the glass in the morning like it does on a car windshield.
One morning it caught my eye that there was writing on the glass in the mist and I had to move around to find the right angle of light so that I could read it.
My grandmother had written the letter “I”, she drew a heart shape and followed it by the letter “U.”
I heart you.
My grandfather wrote under that the letter “P” and the number 2.
P 2 - meaning me too.
It was an unusual place for them to write a love letter, but they always did know the way to each other's heart.