Know Thyself: Part 3

boy on video game PAID
In Part 1 of this series I shared with you a glimpse of what is happening in your brain when you “lose it” with your child—when you yell, shame, blame, hit, or punish. The first question to ponder in order to Know Thyself better, is “Who is driving the bus in this moment?”  In Part 2 we explored the neuroscience behind our “triggers” and pondered the question of “What’s the story tape that’s playing in my head?” Let’s continue in Part 3 with another type of thinking that often disconnects us from others…


“Should” Thinking

There is a particular kind of thinking that goes on in our brains which often dictates whether we will experience anger and upset or compassion and curiosity.

If you consider for a moment a recent time when you got upset with your child (or with a spouse or co-worker), you will likely find that a split-second before your anger arose, there was a thought in your head of what the other person “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing.

He should get off the video game when I call him in to dinner.
She shouldn’t have taken the credit for the work I did.

The important thing to know is that it’s your “should” thinking that creates the anger, not what the other person is or isn’t doing.  Now I’m not saying you smile and pretend everything is okay when it’s clearly not.  I just want us to be clear that our emotions arise from our thinking, not what someone does or doesn’t do.  And this is encouraging, because we have a lot more control over our thinking than we have over the behavior of other people.

Here’s an example:
Let’s say you are meeting a friend for dinner and you both agreed to meet at 6:00.  It’s now 6:15 and your friend is not there.  Now it’s 6:30 and still no friend.  If your thinking is along the lines of, “She always does this.  She should be here at the time we agreed upon.  She should be more respectful of my time,” then you are likely to get upset with your friend.  If your thinking is, “I’m so glad she’s running late.  It gives me a little time to finish up this report I was working on,” then you’re likely to feel grateful for the extra time alone.  Same action, different thinking and very different emotions:  upset vs. grateful.

The facts are actually neutral:  Your friend said she would be there at 6:00.  It’s now 6:30 and she’s not there.  It’s your thinking of how things “should” be that give the situation a positive or negative flavor.  Shakespeare said it best in this line from Hamlet:  “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

So what’s the alternative?  How do you let someone know that you don’t enjoy their behavior without “shoulding” on them?  First you have to get out of your head where the “should” thinking lives and drop into your heart, where your feelings and needs reside.

Let’s take the example of:

He should get off the video game when I call him in to dinner.

Would you like to experience anger and upset or compassion and curiosity?  If you stay up in your head thinking he “should” get off the game…then you will probably experience anger and upset.  And I predict it will provoke defensiveness and resistance in your child and a conflict will ensue.

If instead you look inside to your feelings and needs, you might find something like:  “I’m feeling very frustrated and I need consideration for the time I put into cooking dinner.  I want us to eat while it’s hot and tasty.”  Just this bit of self-empathy can soothe the upset a little.  Then you can get curious and seek to understand why your son is not responding in the way you would like.  You can guess at his feelings and needs:  “Are you feeling frustrated that I’m asking you to stop the game because you’d like to keep playing until you finish this level?”  I predict getting in touch with your own feelings and needs and then guessing at your son’s feelings and needs (either out loud or silently inside) will lead to a more mutually satisfying solution.

When you express from the heart (feelings and needs) instead of the head (“should” thinking), the potential for finding strategies that work for everyone is much much higher.  Parenting is so much more enjoyable when you learn how to invite cooperation rather than force compliance.

If there’s a pattern of a particular behavior that happens frequently, I suggest you have these heart dialogues proactively, rather than wait until you’re in the middle of the situation.

You might say to your son, “I notice we have a fight almost every night when it’s dinnertime and you’re playing a video game.  I don’t enjoy fighting with you every night. Let’s brainstorm and find a way that works for both of us.”  As the trust builds over the course of many encounters of this kind, it gets easier to work through conflict.

Note of caution:  We are also very good at “shoulding” on ourselves.

 I shouldn’t have yelled at my child like that.
I should lose 20 pounds.

It’s hard to make the changes we want to make when we are in “should” thinking.  There’s something in our psyches that resists being told we “should” or we “ought to” do something.  It’s far more powerful to tune in to our feelings and needs.

I feel sad because I value (need) respect and love when relating to my child.
I feel frustrated because I value my well-being and the ease of fitting into my clothes.

With enough practice, we can transform our habitual “should” thinking into more thoughtful loving expressions of feelings and needs.  Getting in touch with what we value (our needs) creates an opening to make the changes we want to make.  As in all areas of life, an invitation always works better than a demand.  To encourage the kind of open willing change that comes from within, avoid “shoulding” on yourself, or others!

So now we have three powerful questions to ponder in order to Know Thyself better.

  1. Who is driving the bus in this moment?
  2. What’s the core belief, or “story” tape that’s playing in my head?
  3. Am I “shoulding” on others (or myself)?

I hope you have enjoyed the series.  My wish is that as you become more aware of your inner life you become more powerful and choiceful in interacting with those you love.  When you understand why you react the way you do by applying the three questions above, you can begin to transform those reactions into loving thoughtful responses instead.

“We are addicted to our thoughts.  We cannot change anything if we cannot change our thinking.”
–Santosh Kalwar