Why I'm Trying to be Kinder and Gentler with Others and Myself

By now I’m sure y’all are about as fed up with being given unsolicited advice as I am. That said, there is an upside: It gives me a chance to draw a bead on what I dislike about it and how much advice-giving I’ve been engaging in, too. Always open to self-improvement, I’ve become more aware of my own insufferable speeches in a new way. This has led to a major overhaul in what I choose to say to people now. For example, I used to advise MS patients to seek counseling for various issues. I don’t do that anymore. Now it just sounds arrogant and patronizing.

My own bad experiences

Moreover, I squirm whenever people say it to me as if I’ve never thought to try it. The fact is that I’ve had bad experiences with therapy ranging from annoying to toxic and destructive. Therapists come in all stripes and aren’t necessarily very skilled at determining what we need. They might listen then set us straight as a way to fill a perceived gap in the story we tell about ourselves. At best, it’s self-congratulatory. At worst it’s ultimately dismissive and manipulative and encourages me to either clam up or lash out.

Any one of us can fall into an ego trip and convince ourselves that we are superior in our insights and it is our special calling to set the world straight one person at a time. But when a therapist does it that is a special problem. A licensed counselor has measurable power, partly in the form of credentials tacked onto their names. We see the diplomas and certificates on the wall and trust that they have our best interest at heart. But that has never been the case in my experience, as I expressed in an article titled My Misadventures in Psych Counseling. These people were judgy and narcissistic, driving an Army tank over my feelings and then planting a flag between my ribs as one more conquest, much like in the iconic photo of our victory on Iwo Jima but without the sacrifice, fear, and pain our troops suffered to take that hill. I never once met a therapist who earned the privilege of planting that sharp stick in my flesh.

Arrogance

But it’s not just therapists that buy a cabin on the Good Ship Arrogance. Advocates can book passage, too, as I have done more than once. And we all have stories about doctors who give us the requisite ten minutes, misjudge and dismiss us and send us away to begin again. The reasons are many. For example, they’re pressured by the bean counters to treat us as if we’re cattle, but without Temple Grandin’s hugging machine to soothe us on the way to utter—or udder, if we’re female--indifference. Or, to switch the metaphor from bovine to ovine, the nurse who, like a medical Judas goat, greases the wheels by first asking us, the sheep, four thousand questions about ourselves. It’s flattering at first—until we realize that she’s typing into a template of our Electronic Health Record—another thing they do for the bean counters. They are too busy to actually read it to prepare for our next appointment.

It’s just business, Kimberly, it’s not personal. Or as someone once told me, it’s capitalism. As though that label makes it okay. I’ve actually responded to that meme over the years in corporate environments by stating: It’s very personal. You’re interacting with people, not paper cutouts. That statement always evoked a silent glower from my superior, marking me for future termination. To myself I added: Gosh, would it kill you to fake it, to merely actkinder and gentler?

We all could. It used to be called having good manners, but it seems that we do a lot of speech-making as a replacement for actual conversation. We are so bleeping rude to each other it’s depressing.

Trying to modify my own behavior

In response to these grousing thoughts, I can only modify my own behavior, quite a challenge when I’m in the same room with my three siblings. We’re closer to each other than ever now that we’re old, but we’re also very hard on each other as strong personalities can be, turning every phrase into an argument, talking over each other and interrupting a lot, thinking we know what the other is going to say when that really isn’t the case at all. It’s exhausting, and for the sake of my sanity, I’m trying to change. But my family role has always been to be passive and quiet and let the louder ones prevail. If I become a better listener and keep my ego out of it, I’m performing a version of myself that is too much like my silence, enabling the family role-playing. I’m trying to learn something that’s much harder for me: to tactfully, calmly stand up for myself. My family role led me to become defensive and argumentative out in the world. I couldn’t be heard at home, but the outside world was just as dismissive and I rebelled. I tend to talk louder and louder until I’m screeching without even knowing it until somebody tells me. I’m still in my childhood trying to be heard above the din of my louder siblings. My dad modeled angry confrontational behavior, a trait we all possess in my family. But my siblings are trying hard to back off, too. We are, as it were, spending the remainder of our lives trying to undo what happened in our childhood.

As a family, we try to stick to safe subjects and keep it light. Avoiding politics is always a wise idea. It works out there in the world, too. We listen to each other. We’re all pretty good listeners, I’ll give us that. What we need to work on is keeping our opinions and diagnoses to ourselves and not rob the spotlight to prove how perceptive we are.

A work in progress

It’s hard not to make everything about me when I feel needy for that spotlight, the thing I was denied in my earlier family life. But I’ve found that my neediness waxes and wanes, and with it, the urge to make someone else’s issue about me. As an MS advocate, I work hard at being gentle and validating towards other patients, just as I try to do with family and friends.

For me, being kinder and gentler is a work in progress that will last a lifetime.

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