Monday, October 29, 2012

Buttons and Responsibility

Coming to terms with my hot buttons

Why is this a struggle now

I sometimes have the privilege to teach Interpersonal Communication. It’s not my area of expertise, not the way Public Speaking, New Media, Rhetorical Philosophy or Spiritual Communication are. In fact, it’s not even something at which I am particularly skilled. I wouldn’t quite say that I am misanthropic. I am quite comfortable working with groups and crowds. In fact, while I am entirely introverted, if you give me an audience, I tend to ham it up. Still, I struggle with the basic interplay between two people at an emotional level. My best friendships in my life have always been primarily cerebral, spiritual and only consequentially emotional. I have better emotional communication with dogs than with human beings (but they rarely challenge me intellectually ((but I have this red dog right now who I think is smarter than me))). Part of the reason I love teaching it, however, is how much I learn from the class myself.

Right now I am preparing to teach the class in the spring. This will be different from when I’ve taught it before. First of all, it is to be taught at the junior level. Other times I’ve taught it as a sophomore or even freshman class. Secondly, technology has made great strides since last time I taught this. Moving my thinking from a bulleted Power Point epistemology to one that is more informed by thought mapping, like Prezi, has been instructive.

Finally, I’ve never taught the class as a married man. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that marriage is good for your self esteem! I came to marriage as an expert on communication, but marriage has made me question everything again. Everything that seems rock solid becomes ephemeral when you are one in spirit with someone whose reactions to life’s events are totally foreign. It makes a person question all that he or she knows. I question my faith. I question my intelligence. I question my masculinity. I question my traditions. I question my values. And most of all, I question my competence.

Somehow, before this class begins in January, I need to find a way to either find a solid intellectual place on which to stand, or to find some way to teach credibly from a place of intellectual insecurity. So, this might end up being a series of blogs. Of course, I’ve predicted that before and been wrong. My next post might well be about how awesome ice-cream is (answer=very).

Guidelines for expressing emotions. 

After four years of marriage, my wife and I have learned to push each other’s buttons and get the other one really upset. You might wonder why we would want to do that. So do I. The fact is that if you question us outside the situation, “would you say or do this or that thing?” We’d probably say “no, I know that would upset” the other one. Still, in that situation, we do or say things that we know will affect the other one. We also know what things affect us, but let ourselves get worked up over it anyway.

As I look at the text I plan to use next semester, it seems like this should be easy to overcome. The authors give some excellent guidelines for expressing emotions. They are guidelines I recognize intellectually. Each of them is backed by solid empirical research and tried and true philosophy. In the text, each of these guidelines is explained thoroughly and fully documented; it’s a good text. Here, I’ll just give you the bullet points (literally), but if you want to read it thoroughly, use the link above to check it out through your local library (interlibrary loan is great) or buy it, if you’re rich. The relevant pages are 132-141.

  • Recognize your feelings
  • Recognize the difference between feeling, talking and acting.
  • Expand your emotional vocabulary
  • Share multiple feelings
  • Accept responsibility for your feelings
  • Be mindful of the communication channel

Sweet. Good advice. I’m gonna do that. Except, it’s not all that easy.

Accept responsibility for your feelings.

Everything on that list is harder than it sounds, but the part that’s floating around right now is “accepting responsibility for your feelings.” When I was in college (undergrad) I learned to do this. I remember well sitting in Dr. Maurine Eckloff’s General Semantics class and learning how to redefine and use layers of abstraction to choose which feelings we would have as a result of things happening. I came to understand that no one could make me angry, sad, happy, etc. (Dr. Eckloff would love that “etc.”). Instead I recognized that I could choose which emotion was appropriate and useful to the particular situation and apply it, almost like a tool. That I choose my emotions was a truth that set me free. It was amazing. I was no longer controlled by my emotions. Since then, I’ve used those same tools both in classes and individual conferences to help other people get set free. I’d say I’ve gotten more thank you notes from students for help with that than anything else, but that would imply I’ve gotten thank you notes from students for something else. No one can make you feel anything!

Except . . .

My wife makes me happy. My wife makes me sad. My wife makes me angry. And I do the same to her. And we can do so with almost scientific predictability. When I am in that moment, and the emotion seems to hit me, I really don’t seem to have a choice. The feeling comes up. I fight it, but it’s there. Now, the pleasant feelings are no trouble. Let them come. Still, I need to find a way to get passed the angry feelings. It does help a little to recognize my “buttons,” but even though I know that these feelings are likely, right now it seems hard to take responsibility for them.

My angry buttons

  • When someone swears at me. I experimented with profanity in my youth, but have come to dislike it. I can give all kinds of theological, theoretical and philosophical reasons why it is bad. When it is directed at me, it is very hard for me to not get angry. To me, these words need to be limited to times when actual hatred needs to be expressed. When I hear them, I feel hatred directed at me. Then I get mad. 
  • When someone implies I should do more. I work more than a full-time job, teaching an overload every semester and summers, on the most time consuming committees, with a complete research agenda and service commitments. Even my “relaxing” time watching TV or reading sees my phone in my hand, answering emails from colleagues and students until late in the evening. I do this because my paycheck pays ¾ of our bills and I have to be on the ball. Still, I don’t let work interfere with household chores. I do all the cooking for our family meals. I do all the grunt work for pet care. I do my own laundry. I take care of the dishes (usually). I make the bed (which I never did when I was single). I mow the lawn. I do the grocery shopping. I plan the menus. I drop into bed exhausted at night. I don’t mind. I like work.  But I am really and truly doing all that I can. I don’t mind being reminded that the litter box needs cleaned or that there are dirty dishes in the sink. I forget stagnant details sometimes (scientifically, men don’t notice these things as a symptom of nature, not nurture or desire). When there is an implication that I am not going the extra mile or doing my part, however, I get mad.
  • When my family is criticized. This is a line no one can cross. There are families where they can attack each other, but won’t let an outsider attack. Not in mine. My mom CANNOT criticize my wife. My wife CANNOT criticize my mom. Both of them have tried and both of them have head from me about it. Everyone, clear out to cousins, are off limits. You can be honest; my mom doesn’t prioritize house cleaning; my brother doesn’t recognize his limitations; my wife doesn’t apply the same standards to herself as others but NEVER imply that these are bad things. My mom prioritizes people. My brother exceeds expectations. My wife crusades for justice beyond what it is possible to achieve. If someone criticizes them, I get mad.
  • When I am pushed away or dismissed. This is probably the hottest of the hot buttons. You don’t have to agree with me. You don’t have to think I’m right. You can be angry with me. All that is fine, so long as you look me in the eye and stay with me. When someone doesn’t do this, they are saying nonverbally “you are nothing” or “you don’t even exist to me.” When this happens, I get mad. 

But nothing can make me mad.

It is really hard when I look at these buttons to agree with the research. If you don’t live with someone all the time, it is easy to deny those buttons exist. When they are with you, however, and push your buttons regularly, it is every difficult to say that they didn’t “make” you angry. It is difficult to say that I choose to be angry in these situations. Maybe that difficulty is the whole point though. Maybe if I can get to the point where I can really take responsibility and say “I can choose to be angry” I can develop. I have to say though, that where I am now, it doesn’t “feel” like a choice.

No comments:

Post a Comment