Although my main disappointment when it comes to talking to my dad is that he expresses little to no interest in me, I felt that was a difficult issue to address directly: I can’t make him interested. I thought I should focus on something more concrete — a specific behaviour rather than a broad attitude.
It seems that dad’s complaints are mostly a symptom of focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive, which becomes especially clear when he repeats the same complaint about the same person over 10, 15, 20 years, rather than to try to address the issue somehow or to adjust his thinking about it.
I find it very easy to be negative and critical (I wonder why) so I have to make an effort to focus on the positive, and that’s something I’ve been working on for a long time. When I hear a bunch of complaints I feel vaguely shitty. I find dad’s complaints about people especially corrosive, and they leave me tense and grumpy.
The next time we spoke was Christmas Day. Within 3½ minutes (yes, I timed it), he was complaining. I started feeling nervous and tried to work up the courage to speak up, but then he changed to an easier topic and I was able to relax a bit. However, the conversation veered again and he was soon on to a complaint about his neighbours. He was really wound up about it. Venomous. So I said what I’d been practising: “Um, I’m just going to interrupt you there. I’m not actually interested in hearing complaints about people.”
He was taken aback. “Oh, and I suppose your life is perfect?”
“Hardly,” I chuckled.
“Well, what do you want to talk about then?” he snapped.
“Oh, well, maybe we could talk about some of my stuff.” I was holding a list of topics I’d prepared for just this eventuality.
The conversation stumbled for a moment, but he quickly grabbed the reins again. We didn’t talk long; he signed off, saying that he had a bunch of other calls to return.
I felt mostly good about it: I had determined that this was a boundary for me, I asserted it, and I defended it. I felt like I’d accomplished something — in this case, a particular kind of self-care. And then I cried.
I noted that I’d touched a nerve in him, not that that was my intention, but intellectually I found this very interesting because when I follow the “family rules” this kind of thing never happens. Ordinarily, dad snapping at me would have resulted in me feeling awful and like I’d fucked up terribly. This time I was just sad — that this is how it is, how he is, how our relationship is. These days I know that it’s not my job to manage anyone’s feelings, and it’s healthy for me to speak up for what I need, but actually acting on that knowledge is still difficult. I’m hoping it gets easier with practice.
(When dad complains and I feel shitty, is that a symptom of me still feeling some responsibility for his emotions? Is it me absorbing his emotions, and thus a sign of a boundary that needs strengthening? I may need to do more work on this, but even without that element, the fact is that my conversations with him — or rather, the times when I listen to him on the phone — are all duty and no fun, and I’m allowed to try to edit my life into something that’s more enjoyable.)
A family argument during the holidays is so commonplace that it’s a trope, and here I was, technically the instigator, but really just finally prioritising my own needs and protecting my wounds. I went over to mom’s later that day for supper and told her about the exchange. Her eyes lit up like I’d wrought magic. She was delighted that I’d prepared a list of topics.
So, now what?