Want to know the secret to personal power? I’m talking Wonder Woman red-cape-wearing power.
The ability to stay steady when other people—people that you love and/or need—become angry, sad, or disappointed. Particularly when you’ve (supposedly) done or said something to set them off.
I’ve always admired folks who can tell their truth; who have no trouble registering a compliant, who refuse to be brow beaten, who hold their ground, who fight back, all while facing into the emotional storm. Folks who aren’t worried about opening Pandora’s box. Or being abandoned.
Folks like my Arab sister-in-law, Sabiha. Lord, could that woman surf a tsunami! Years of rip-roaring fights with her husband made her tough. The kind of tough that doesn’t get messed with by the world at large.
I can still see them—Sabiha and her husband— now. Arms waving overhead, voices ripping holes in the ceiling, and S., having reached his boiling point, flinging a leather-bound address book at Sabiha to get her to shut the hell up. Then, fifteen minutes later, the pair of them laughing, swatting each other on the leg like silly teenagers.
Oh, the shit I’ve done to avoid such drama.
Oh, the back-pedaling, the acquiescing, the tamping down, the white lies, the sneaking out the back door when no one is looking. As if the problem at hand—AND the attendant resentment— would magically go away.
In my childhood home, I would lie in the dark and listen to my parents argue. I would hear my father stomping around in the kitchen, tossing dishes into the sink, slamming cabinet doors, then my mother scurrying in like a mouse to diffuse the situation. Then would come the muffled back and forth. What sounded like a shove. My mother raising her voice in frustration. And, on rare occasions when my mother had pushed him too far, the crack of my father’s hand meeting my mother’s jaw.
For a man holding on to his senses by the skin of his teeth, I was never sure what would push my father over the edge. I prayed for my mom to shut the hell up so he could just calm down.
Paralyzed, I would listen for his footsteps on the stairs to their bedroom where he kept his guns. The Glock in the second dresser drawer. The double-barrel shotgun in the closet behind my father’s dress shoes. I would count the minutes—one, two, three, four—waiting for him to rush back down and shoot us all.
At ten years of age, there was no way out. Keeping quiet was the key to survival.
No surprise, it took me a long time to learn how to express my opinions, needs, and wants, particularly when they promised to be unpopular. Walt, my little criminal defense attorney, has been a terrific teacher. Around him, you don’t make an eye-opening statement, then slither out the back door like it’s no big deal. Homedog demands clarification. You don’t start an animated discussion about an incendiary topic, then change your mind because you don’t like his reaction. You don’t sit around and sigh, and act all shady. Normal people get mad, he claims, and sad. He doesn’t understand why his negative emotions freak me out. He doesn’t understand what it is to be raised by wolves.
It’s one thing to know how important it is to address a problem, particularly when you’ve had wonderfully emotive models, like Sabiha, it’s another thing entirely to stay steady when this elicits a fucked up reaction.
I’ve developed a tool to help me steady my nerves. To remind me that I’m 50 years old and capable of surviving on my own. I call it And Then What Happens? I’m going to share it with you now.
When Walt gets mad at me for, say, letting the dog throw up on his shoes (as if I pay the animal to do this,) I ask myself, “Then what happens?”
Is he going to run to our room and grab a gun? Hard, because we don’t own one.
Is he going to decide that I’m a burden and leave my ass? We’ve had much bigger issues, and, if he hasn’t done so already, then probably not.
Is he going to crack me in the jaw? Non-violent by nature, if he ever did this I’d have to rush him to the hospital because he’s clearly had a stroke.
Or is he going to yell, or pout, or smolder for a bit while he surfs the net? This is pretty much his M.O. And I can deal with this.
It only takes me a minute or two of running through the And Then What Happens scenarios to ground me in reality.
I only wish I had started asking this question years earlier.
Think about it, now that you’re an independent adult. What are you afraid of?
So, your teenager cries because you won’t take her to the mall. And Then What Happens?
So, your mother acts all pissed off because you won’t go with her to Mrs. Veltrie’s party. And Then What Happens?
So, your assistant pouts because you need her and can’t give her the day off. And Then What Happens?
Staying steady with negative reactions, my Darling, is how you take your power back.