I heard a great teaching from Rolf Gates recently: Choose to be the adult. He gave this teaching to his advanced teacher trainees for their homework assignment over the holidays. This is a brilliant assignment for everyone! As I’ve reflected on this teaching, I’ve had profound insights.
Choosing to be the adult is hard work and is usually the last thing I think about when visiting family over the holidays. We all have a need to be heard, understood, and loved for who we are and what we are feeling in the moment. But most adults do not have the skills to offer this kind of listening. When hurt or insulted, we tend to fall into a knee-jerk reaction or pattern of either lashing out (the maximizer) or disappearing and going silent (the minimizer) whenever our feelings are hurt.
When I was living at Kripalu Center in the late 80’s, when Kripalu was an ashram, I used to occasionally go home during the holidays to visit my parents. I was always amazed that at the ashram I could be steeped in mindfulness, unfettered by insults and inconveniences. I could maintain my equanimity. But visiting family, I saw how quickly I would fall back into old patterns and ways of being that were unconscious, unskillful, and fear-driven. I remember a quote from Ram Das, paraphrased, “If you really want to see how enlightened you are, go home for the holidays!”
Choosing to be the adult means to let go of my reaction to people and give them space to be who they are. I need to listen to their heart’s intention more than their words. But it’s so easy to get hooked on their words and facial expressions which can be triggering. Can I give the people I love most the space to be who they are? In my lower self voice I say, “Yes I can, but only when my feelings aren’t hurt and when I’m not pushed into frustration or anger.” This is precisely the time to choose to be the adult. But how? What are the skills needed?
Skill #1: Take space. When you’re aware you are activated or hurt, choose to step away and take space to feel your feelings without dragging the other person into it. When clear, you can come back into relationship with a renewed clarity and kindness. Choosing to be the adult means to own your experience and take responsibility for it without blaming the other. Taking space away from the situation is one strategy to deal with difficult emotions.
Skill #2: Communicate from the heart. Another way is to learn how to communicate from the heart even while feeling negative emotions. With my family, in the right place and at the right time, I’ve found ways to share my feelings authentically in the moment in such a way that I take full responsibility for myself, while also letting the other person know how I was impacted by what they just said to me. Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg is a great book and method to gain this skill. It’s tricky because you need to be able to communicate without blaming the other person. When I’ve been able to fully own my experience and communicate about it consciously in the moment, an amazing thing happens. I almost always find the other person softens, drops their armor, and shares themselves authentically as well. This can lead to a very insightful, productive, and healing conversation that takes you back to your heart and deepens the relationship between you and the other.
Finally, choosing to be the adult means that you become the initiator of deepening the relationship. You become the “authenticator.” When I’m feeling hurt or angry, I always want the other person to own their stuff and invite me into sharing myself. But that’s a pipe dream and hardly ever happens. Through hard-earned lessons, I’ve discovered that if I want authentic relationships in my life, whether it be with family, friends, or my wife, I need to initiate them. I need to choose to be the adult.
Here’s my affirmation for this holiday season, “I, Todd, choose to be the adult in all of my relationships.” I hope you’ll do the same.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, or rather Thanksgivukkah!
I’m grateful for your presence, your studentship, your authenticity, and your friendship in my life.