Overwatering the Plant
When you really need to do less
A couple of weeks ago my husband and I were supposed to have dinner with a close friend of mine and her partner, who were here in Los Angeles for a very quick visit. I hadn’t seen my friend in four years because she lives in another state, though we talk, FaceTime, sometimes collaborate on writing projects, and text all the time. I was excited and really looking forward to our night. I couldn’t wait to hug her, to be next to her, to connect in that way you can only in person. We’ve known each other since high school when we met in the Girls’ Bathroom in eighth grade, and the rest is - passing notes in the hallway, crushes, relationships, college, all-night study sessions, nights out dancing, matching tattoos, marriages, babies, divorces, post-divorce dating, and here we are, still. It was also the first time I was meeting the boyfriend. They were staying at a hotel in West Hollywood. We live in Santa Monica. Dinner was going to be on the early side near their hotel because they had tickets to a show after, which meant we’d be driving in rush hour traffic. Driving in rush hour traffic is perhaps my husband’s least favorite thing to do, second to meeting people he doesn’t know in restaurants where it’s hard to hear. I was definitely more excited than he was about our night out. That morning he had a zoom meeting about an upcoming project. The meeting did not go well for a variety of reasons, and when he got off the call I could see he was unhappy.
When people I love are unhappy, I go into fix-it mode. I know this about myself because of therapy. I know this about myself because of yoga. I know this about myself because it has sometimes helped and sometimes not helped people I love, and that has become clear to me over the years - fixing things is not always what people need or want, sometimes people just want you to be there, listening. Problem-solving can be a hindrance, and also - sometimes it’s really annoying. I have been on the other end of that response myself with well-meaning loved ones who just want to help, and start offering all the ideas I’ve already thought about as I stand there feeling mildly or not-so-mildly aggravated and/or insulted. Nonetheless, the wiring gets the better of me once in a while and I have to spin for a bit - and this was one of those days.
Do you ever have the thought, thank god people can’t see what’s happening inside my head? Even after decades of practice quieting my mind and learning how to be present from moment-to-moment, there are times when it is painfully driven home to me why it’s a daily practice. I’ve been doing that kind of work for thirty years, and some days I truly embody beginner’s mind, and not in a good way. So, yeah. I’m going to willingly let you know what happened inside my head, even though it was pretty nutty and won’t make me look good: First, I worried about my husband. He’s a grown man and if he didn’t want to drive in massive traffic (or sit in the passenger seat while I drove), if he didn’t want to go to a crowded restaurant on a Thursday night to be social with my close friend he’d only met once and her boyfriend he’d met zero times, if he didn’t feel like rising above a crappy meeting and tough day, wasn’t that okay? Wasn’t that a very human response anyone could understand?
But then my smaller self piped up with a list of the mundane things I do for my husband every day, and soon I felt resentful and justified about feeling resentful. Shouldn’t the dinner matter to him because it mattered to me? Don’t I do things for him that might not be the most fun things ever - or might occasionally be a drag - just because I love him? I threw a mini-tantrum in my head. There might have been some metaphorical foot-stamping. I’m sure if my mind had a stance, its hands would have been on its hips. You get the drift. Meanwhile, my husband had not said he wasn’t coming, nor had he asked me if I’d be upset if he didn’t come, or suggested in any way that we wouldn’t be walking out the door at 4:30. This was all a conversation in my brain where I played all the parts.
Then I started feeling I really should tell him it was fine if he stayed home. Wasn’t that the compassionate and reasonable thing to do? I could go on my own, I have no trouble at all showing up alone in a situation like that. But then I started worrying about my friend. Would she think my husband didn’t care about her enough to make an effort to come to dinner? And what would I say? Would I say he wasn’t feeling well? I mean, that was true enough, he wasn’t. But wouldn’t it be more honest to be transparent and say he’d had a crappy morning and wasn’t up for being social? Shouldn’t we really normalize that, anyway? I worried she would take it to heart and think he didn’t care about her, or that she might think a little less of him as a person. By now, I was in the shower. These thoughts had been swirling around in my head off and on for a couple of hours while I was working and going about my day. I still hadn’t talked to my husband about any of it. It was a self-created, somewhat neurotic circus inside my head, and all the monkeys were mine. Good times.
I’m not sure what happened, but suddenly in the shower, I had a moment of being outside my brain for a minute, and I started laughing - out loud, in the shower, by myself, like a madwoman. This was definitely the sanest moment of the day. I realized I had spent all this time worrying about my husband and his feelings and worrying about my friend and her feelings, when in all reality, the only person whose feelings I could manage was me. What in the actual hell had I been doing?
I decided I was going to tell my husband he could do whatever he needed to do, and that if he chose to stay home, I would simply manage my own disappointment. I would go to the restaurant by myself in that case, be open and kind about it, and allow my friend the grace and respect to feel whatever she needed to feel. I knew we were going to have a great time no matter what. Everything felt easier and lighter and I shook my head at myself because I know better. I know better, but somehow this felt different. I might know in my brain that I can’t make everything okay for everyone all the time, but that doesn’t mean I stop trying. Except for whatever reason on that day and in that moment I understood that’s exactly what I needed to do - stop trying. Who did I think I was, after all, Atlas? Do I really think I can make everything okay for everyone I love even if I try as hard as I can? Isn’t that a little nuts?
I’ve spent a lot of time since thinking about all the ways I still attempt to make everything not just okay, but good for the people in my life. Of course the intention there is loving, but the way it plays out has certainly been exhausting for me at times, and futile in many situations. I used to overwater all my plants and kill them. That’s a true story. I believed I didn’t have a green thumb because I grew up in New York City where you don’t really garden unless you’re lucky, but that wasn’t it. It was too much water. I remember when I read the Paulo Coelho parable about the man cutting the butterfly out of the chrysalis after watching it struggle for hours, thinking uh-oh … this might be me. The man felt bad for the butterfly, for how hard it had to work to break free and how exhausted it was by the effort, so he grabbed scissors and carefully cut a hole. It did not go well. The butterfly’s wings were wrinkled and damp because it hadn’t gone through the process of squeezing its way out, of strengthening and drying and going through the natural process it needed in order to be strong enough to fly. That man fucked that butterfly right up with all his help, and it died.
The thing is, I grew up thinking my job was to take care of the people around me. I tried to take care of my mom so she’d be happy and wouldn’t drink, and I tried to take care of my dad so he wouldn’t die from his commitment issues and rampant womanizing. I’ve spent a lot of time considering codependence and what it looks like and what it feels like and how to disentangle myself, this isn’t a new topic for me. A little later, I took care of my brother because I loved him, certainly, and because I thought if I did a good enough job of caring for him, my mom might love me. I’m not going to touch on all the relationships in my life where I tried and failed to save someone, where I thought if I just loved them enough they’d be healed, but it’s too many, and it hurt like hell every time it didn’t work. It turned out no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t save anyone from anything, I could only save myself. I know that in a concrete way, and yet it’s a lesson I have to keep re-learning and recalibrating because the tendency there is strong, it’s my factory setting.
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The first ten years you have kids, your job is to dive in and save the day. You have to make sure they eat and sleep and aren’t sitting in a wet diaper. You have to make sure they feel loved, secure, cherished, and celebrated. You also have to make sure they don’t run into traffic, that their carseats are securely installed and the buckles are locked every time you drive, you have to teach them not all strangers are safe and they shouldn’t eat things off the ground, not all dogs are friendly, and to watch their heads when they run by mailboxes that stick out of the sides of houses like mini takedowns for toddlers. You have to teach them not to run downhill, and sometimes you have to teach them weird things, like don’t eat a paper towel just to see what happens (my son at two), and don’t paint the bathroom with cough syrup (my daughter at two). When they start going to school, there are other things you have to manage, like any allergies they might have or fears the teacher needs to know about. You have to pack lunches and make sure they have whatever school supplies they need, you have to stay on top of projects that are due, and sometimes be very involved in helping with those projects. Some of you may know all-too-well what’s involved in making a fake volcano erupt. It’s a lot, and I’m not even touching on the emotional needs kids have when someone at school is mean or something happens in a friend group. Bigger kids have bigger problems and the skillset you need as a parent keeps changing. At a certain point you have to pray the things you’ve taught them are their own, and that they’ll make good decisions when they head out into the big wide world, or at the very least, not do anything too stupid or reckless.
When my son (my firstborn) was in second grade, I was in a text group with a bunch of moms in his class. Almost every day, one kid or another would forget their homework, and you’d get a text. Someone in the group would take a picture of the homework so it could be printed out and completed. If a kid showed up to school without their homework, they’d lose recess and no one wanted that. This went on for two years. I don’t think there was a weekday without a homework text from someone. The day before fifth grade began, I decided we weren’t going to participate in the homework hustle anymore. If my son forgot his homework, he’d lose recess the next day. I had an inkling the only way he was going to learn to be organized in the ways that would help him was if he faced some consequences. I let him know we were going to do things differently in the coming year, and I explained why. He agreed. He agreed until the first time he forgot his homework and I refused to text. He wasn’t too happy with me, but I held my ground. At ten, being the only one stuck in your classroom while all your friends are playing is a big deal. Big enough to make an impact, anyway. I don’t think he ever forgot his homework again, but it wasn’t the last time he got frustrated with me for not fixing something, and it wasn’t the last time I struggled not to fix something and save him his discomfort. Diving in and saving the day has always been a lot easier for me as a mom, than stepping back and letting either one of my kids struggle. The thing that has stopped me is knowing that there are so many times in life when we need the struggle to grow and strengthen like that butterfly. That still doesn’t make it easy to step back rather than dive in, but it makes it possible.
I used to struggle with expressing myself in any of my close relationships, especially if something was wrong, because I was so worried about hurting the other person’s feelings or asking them to confront behaviors that might be challenging or uncomfortable to face. If someone close to me hurt my feelings, I’d often clam up because the thought of sharing that, and having someone I cared about feel badly for hurting me felt intolerable. I’d rather just deal with my pain myself. That is an excessive amount of caretaking and trying to manage other people’s feelings, and it also negates any possibility of true intimacy, because how can people be close to you if you won’t tell them how you feel? No one is going to read your mind, or mine. And the reality is there are some people who will not face their crap, will not be accountable, will not acknowledge their own contributions to misunderstandings or dynamics between you that don’t feel good, and you know what? Better you figure that out sooner than later, because those are not people who are going to be capable of meaningful connection. If you ever find yourself thinking, if only I write the perfect email or say the exact right thing, this person will finally see the light … run for the hills. Some people are so committed to their rage or their narrative about what’s happened, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, full stop. If you can’t have the hard conversations and acknowledge your own struggles, tendencies, shortcomings, stories you tell yourself so you can feel better, and times you blew it … real closeness and trust with other people will always be out of reach. People who can’t do that are not your people. They may be people you have in your life, but they won’t be in your close circle of people who really know you, and that’s okay.
I really had to learn that along the way, and I have to be vigilant about it and I have to re-learn it some days, like I did a couple of weeks ago. I can’t do anyone else’s work for them, I can’t control or manage how everyone in my life is going to feel about the the weather, circumstances, or things I might need or want, and that’s fine. Not everyone has to be in agreement about what I need for myself, or what you need for you. Sometimes people I love more than anything are going to feel heartbroken or angry, lonely, scared or anxious, and I can be there to listen, I can be there for a hug, I can offer suggestions if (and only if) I’m asked to offer suggestions. A lot of the time just being there for people is the thing. We’re all complicated and growing and changing all the time and everyone has a history and their own perspective. Sometimes people I love may want things I don’t understand or like, they might make choices that make no sense to me, and all those things are true for me as well. That’s okay, it’s what makes life interesting. Loving people means we love them whatever they’re going through. It might mean you have to love people from afar sometimes if they’re continuously making choices that are dangerous and putting themselves in harm’s way, but being there for the people we love is beautiful in any form. Listening without judgment or without clinging to whatever it is we wish someone would feel is such a gift. Listening with the intent to understand and be a safe place is one of the best things in life. Of course it’s okay to show up with help when someone is asking for help. The truth is it’s disrespectful to assume you know what someone else can or can’t manage when it comes to their own feelings - it shows a lack of faith in their ability to tolerate disappointment or manage anxiety, two things we all need to learn how to do.
My husband came to dinner, it wasn’t even a thing. He came and we had a fabulous night and because I knew everyone at the table really well except the boyfriend, and because the boyfriend turned out to be great, I told everyone about all the mental gymnastics I’d been doing all day to ensure their well-being. We had a good laugh about how crazy it is to be human sometimes, and real conversation. It’s so nice to put down everyone else’s work and just focus on keeping your own side of the street clean, which is plenty of work for any of us. I’ll remind myself of that as often as I need to this year.
If you want to meet me in real time to talk about the tendency to try to “save” other people, manage how someone else is feeling, or make everything okay for everyone all the time (and how to overcome that tendency and keep overcoming it), I’ll be here 1/5/24 at 11:15am PST, or you can wait for the Come As You Are podcast version. If you’d like to do something really incredible and meet me in Portugal in June, I’d love that so much.