Family Times: Learning and Leaning into Trust
My sister and favorite person in the world invited me on a road trip this fall and I now find myself right in the middle of it and having a ball- not unexpected at all. The trip is basically a big circle of the upper midwest to northeast to visit several graduate schools that my sister is looking to attend for a masters in Arts Administration. If you knew anything about my sister, you would know that she is the kind of person you would want on pretty much ANY important project, event, or endeavor. She is cool under pressure, extremely methodical, organized in a way that is accessible to others (her systems are rooted in common sense), and she is firm but kind when it comes to explaining and implementing her ideas. So naturally, that when I heard she was considering grad school, I was ecstatic and immediately had no doubt in my mind that she would find a great program and succeed. Yes, I am a very proud big sister.
In between school scoping, we took some nostalgic detours including a expedition to Bear Mountain State Park (in New York state)- a favorite childhood day trip for sledding, skating, walking on the frozen lake, swimming, fishing, and picnicking. My sister and I remember her getting lost there as a little girl and finding her way back to the picnic area w/the assistance of a friendly park ranger; she was resourceful and smart even as a little child. The park was beautiful-- the beginning of autumn was slightly showing itself in small clusters of colored leaves here and there, treasures to be captured by the eye, in the park and a delightful cool dampness in the air after a hard rain that seemed to announce summer was giving way- a familiar but ancient kinesthetic sensation to us having lived in places with 2 seasons the past 10-20 years.We began our trip by meeting in Chicago to take in the beauty and blues and to celebrate her 30th birthday- it was super fun and we found that we didn't even want to leave. A couple days later we drove to Bloomington to check out Indiana University (A “big ten” school). We moved on to Ohio, and the University of Akron and rounded off the school tour in Winston-Salem to explore University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA). The purpose of visiting these schools in-person was not only to meet some of the faculty and students and to check out the grounds and the feel of the school but also to feel out the towns they were nestled in to determine if they were areas she could see herself being comfortable living and working in. So along with touring each campus we also drove around the downtown areas, went out on the town in the evenings, chatted with the locals, and scoped out the local art and theater scene.
We also visited my sister's friend in Brooklyn and I was reminded of my sister's “New Yorker” origins as her gruff but playful attitude toward drivers and the hustle and bustle of pedestrian, bicycle, and auto traffic proved a constant surprise that kept me on the edge of my seat like watching an action-packed film. This is real life in New York.
While in Brooklyn one evening, I reconnected with my first best friend in elementary, Dagna, whom I realized I hadn't seen in 24 years! It was amazing to reconnect and also to get how much of an impression we can make on each other even at such a young age. Dagna and I were 7 when I left Manhattan with my family. I was embarrassed to discover that she thought about me for years afterwards when I had moved on so quickly. My siblings and I attended 13 different schools by the time we graduated high school. We learned to adapt, accept change, make new friends and allies quickly, and not to mourn but to forget the friends we left behind because that is all we could do to move on....
There were many other adventures including our short dip into the National Mall and a few of its more famous and intriguing memorials and museums: the Lincoln Memorial, the Botanical and Sculpture Gardens, and my favorite DC memory from childhood ever: the National Air and Space Museum. We deemed this our “speedy DC” trip, walked fast, gazed mystically, and laughed heartily at the nearly head spinning pace with which we were taking in such a large, and densely academic historical landmark.
My sister and I love each other enormously and, probably because we trust each other so much, we often clash and end up having at least a fight or two as we get accustomed to being in each others worlds again after years apart. During this trip, we have had many opportunities to regain trust and love for each other. Our family has been through some really tough times together. Being together, although often awesome, also usually entails some form of healing and regaining of trust. This commonly occurs through how we communicate with each other and ourselves as wounds come up to be healed and lack of trust is revealed in our actions, attitudes, or words. I'll give you an example. Being the elder sister, I often not only want to but also feel it is my obligation to take care of her, my younger sister. However, after years of me often imposing this care on her whether she wanted it or not (my way of showing I care), she has naturally developed a tendency not to trust me to know that she can take care of herself. And so, the healing of that trust entails me being more hands-off with her when we are together. It takes me taking a breath and noticing when I am acting from that motivation wanting to prove my love by doing things to “take care” of her. It means doing the work of reminding myself of how awesome it is to have a sister who is so self-reliant. For her, I imagine the journey of regaining trust with me is also to be aware and remember that I really do know she can take care of herself and then to choose to trust that I will treat her like an self-reliant adult most of time even when I don't- and speaking up when she needs to. It's up to me to listen when she speaks up and respect her request. When I can get to this place, it can be quite freeing because all there is to do is enjoy her company and not have to worry about whether or not I am being a “good sister”. She feels empowered and we both enjoy ourselves and being around each other the more for it.
When this wound of lack of trust comes up, our conversation might look something like this:
Sister: scowling with her arms crossed in the passenger seat
Me: How ya doing over there?
Sister: Fine. I don't want to talk about it.!
Me: All right, I understand that. Can you tell me what you don't want to talk about so that I can try to steer clear of those topics when we are in a conversation?
Sister: Why do you we have to keep having this conversation? Why do you always have to make such a big deal/thing about it when I don't want to talk about stuff? It's so frustrating.
Me: Okay, I'm just trying to support you in the way I know how. But if you don't want my help then fine, keep doing what you're doing because I can see it's really working for you and you seem really happy (passive aggressive sarcasm).
Does this scenario sound familiar? Perhaps some of you parents go through this same game of trust. It can be so difficult but SO rich to be with and then see our way through these dynamics and conflicts.
For most of us, wounds (issues we haven't quite gotten over and are still working with/on) can often come up when spending chunks of time with the family members we don't often spend time with. At least, this is the case when it comes to me and mine. For most of us, our families are our relationships of origin that contain the people we've learned the game of trust with and from. For some, we learned how not to trust as we grew up. For others, we've learned how to trust ourselves and then how to trust others. Many of us learned to trust our parents first. And some of us even got the lesson on how to regain/rebuild trust. Many of us learned all of those lessons and more with and from the families we grew up with. What I've learned about trust is that it can always be regained (either within myself or with another) if I am willing to be open minded and communicate. Here's how I do it:
- I look at the situation/relationship in which I've either lost trust or experience a loss of trust. I determine what I've learned in the process of this interaction w/out making up anything that demonizes or diminishes myself or the other person the process.
- I take a hard look at what I may be assuming about myself and others. In the example with my sister, I assumed that she needed a certain kind of care to feel loved and that I would not be a good sister if I didn't try to take care of her in certain ways. Where did those assumptions come from? For the most part, I made them up based on a few isolated past experiences and then started collecting evidence to prove to myself and probably my sister that those assumptions were true. In truth however, I mostly made those assumptions up!
- Next, I lean into the discomfort of what it would look like through my actions, speech, and attitude to trust myself and the other person/situation. In the example with my sister, it simply looked like being accepting of who she really was as well as myself, releasing the need to control our relationship or being attached to it looking any certain way, and the being present with whatever occurred between us when we were together.
- This may result in some direct communication with my sister in the form of an apology.For example, I might say something like: “Hey, I realize I've been making up that you need to be taken care of in a certain way in order to know that I love you. I realize this has not actually been what you want and I apologize for this and for the frustration I may have caused in acting from this assumption. I'm not committed to treating you in a way that leaves you feeling unseen or respected. You can count on me to remember that you are perfectly capable of taking care of yourself and that you will reach out to me if you need help. Do you have any requests of me?”
- Going forward, I continue to pay attention and notice what my thoughts, speech, and actions are when I'm experiencing a lack of trust with myself or others. In the case with my sister, I continue to do this and it gets easier to do as I begin to see that it works- which it does so well!
- Finally, and most importantly, I stay with the experience without acting out and allow myself the space to go through numbers 1- 3 on this list as many times as I need to before I decide to take an action or say something to restore the trust.
- Meanwhile, I remind myself to be patient and kind to myself throughout this process remembering that (especially in family dynamics) it took me a long time to learn not to trust myself and others so it's probably going to take some time to reconnect and restore love and trust.
So, here's how the new conversation with the sisters might go:
Sister: sulking in the passenger seat with her arms crossed
Me: how're you doing over there?
Sister: Fine. Just really don't want to talk about it.
Me: Okay. I understand you don't want to talk about it. What do you need right now?
Sister: Nothing. I just need for us not to talk right now at all.
Me: Okay. No problem. I've got some work to do anyway and you know I'm here if you need me. I'm going to turn the radio on, okay?
Sister: Yeah. Can you tune it to NPR? Thanks. Smiles.
Me: I smile.
How do you deal with trust in your family dynamic? What are you learning about yourself and others? What ways of communicating are working for you and what ways aren't? I couldn't imagine a better person to learn these lessons with than my sister. Who in your family is your greatest teacher? Have you considered thanking them for all they've helped you learn about yourself and how to relate to others?