Have you ever been frustrated by just trying to be helpful? You know how it is—you tell your kids (or someone else) something you think is important for them to know, or you explain something to someone you care about. And what happens? They get angry at you! And then comes, “but you don’t understand… I didn’t mean…” Are those words you find yourself saying more often than you’d like? Well I certainly used to, and it happens to just about everyone sometimes. The results can range anywhere from you feeling mildly icky that things didn’t go as you planned, to a sullen silence from your college student on the other phone, to the breakup of a friendship or relationship.
Would you like to know what’s going on? Here are the two most likely explanations.
The first explanation is that something you say can trigger a feeling of guilt, shame or discomfort in the other person. You can hit a hot button unknowingly and they respond because of their own internal “stuff” and dialogue. It really has nothing to do with you and everything to do with what’s going on inside them.
I did this not so long ago with my daughter, who at the time had no interest in learning how to cook. I said jokingly that I’d failed as a Jewish mother because I never got her interested in cooking. Well, you could have cut the air with a knife. The truth is I long ago made my peace with her not wanting to cook (and in fact, recently she’s taken to cooking and baking with a passion!) She, on the other hand, felt guilty about making me feel inadequate and somehow not doing what she was supposed to do. As well as I know her, I had no idea she felt that way. Obviously we talked about it and sorted it all out, but boy, did I hit a hot button.
The second explanation is that you may consciously believe you’re saying something only to benefit the other person, but you may also have a hidden agenda that you don’t know about or understand. This is insidious and tricky, because on one level you really are “just trying to help.” On a deeper level, though, or on an energetic level, the person on the receiving end can sense you have an unstated agenda even when you aren’t aware of it.
So how does this show up? Here’s an example of a client of mine who came to a coaching call very upset. She got along well with her daughter, who was visiting from out of town, but not so well with her son, who generally refused to see her. She was met with an angry refusal when she suggested to her son that “your sister would really like to see you so why don’t you join us for dinner?” That sounds pretty innocuous, right? So what happened? Well, consciously my client believed she was just trying to get her children together. However, after some coaching on this issue, she realized that what her son picked up on was an implied rebuke for not seeing his mother more often. The offer wasn’t just about getting the siblings together, although that was the only reason my client thought she had at the time. She wasn’t trying to be tricky, but it turned out she had a hidden agenda. And her son picked right up on it and responded to it.
How Does This Show Up For Empty Nesters?
With your adult children, your hidden agendas might come up unintentionally in a lot of different areas. How about when your college student complains that she doesn’t have a boyfriend? You suggest that a great place to meet people might be the university religious center, whatever your religion happens to be, and she flies off the handle about you always trying to push religion at her. Why? Well yes, it probably is a great place to meet other students with some common interests, but there are lots of places to do that. So why the religious one? Could it be she’s picking up your strong desire for her potential boyfriends to be of the same religious background and preference as she grew up with, just in case things get serious?
Or what about something as innocuous as asking about the dorm food? Well, again, of course you are interested, because you’re interested in everything about your son’s life at college. But is it also an opportunity to encourage him to eat some vegies now and then?
I’m sure you get the idea.
The Problem With “That’s Not What I Meant…”
The problem is that sometimes it is “what you meant” even when you weren’t aware of it! Like I said at the beginning, it’s tricky. You don’t even realize that those hidden agendas are there. That’s because they’re hidden! And there are usually some really good overt reasons to say what you said or ask what you asked, aside from those hidden ones, so it can be confusing as well.
So how do you handle these situations? First, when that person you love reacts in some unexpected way, don’t just react back. Be curious and ask some questions of yourself and her. Ask yourself if there’s some emotional charge on what you said. See if you can figure out what he heard between the words you said and be open to a dialogue about what just happened. Second, check in with yourself and see if what he heard rings true for you. Either way, you have an opportunity to understand each other better and maybe avoid some uncomfortable interactions in the future.
Where do you find yourself saying “but I didn’t mean….?” Drop me a line and share your challenges and successes. And if you haven’t already, make sure to sign up for your free Empty Nester Toolkit for some extra insights into your hidden agendas!