Posted by fxckfeelings on May 6, 2013Share This Post
Your heart is like your best friend in junior high; if it tells you you’re doing the right thing, it could easily be a lie told in a storm of hormones, emotions, and/or stupidity. When you’re angry or hurt, negative feelings are obviously not a reliable guide to doing what’s right, but a desire to care for the needy and helpless can be just as unreliable. In figuring out the best choice, don’t make a big deal out of hate or love, because doing what’s makes you feel like a good person and actually being a good person aren’t necessarily the same thing. Instead, remember your promises, the good you’re trying to do in this world, and all possible realistic outcomes. You may wind up with a lot of frustrated feelings, but if they accompany a bunch of smart actions, you know both your heart and mind were in the right place.
I am looking for advice in how to deal with my aunt. Some background: she’s my father’s only sibling and, when I was growing up, we were extremely close. As I got older, I noticed that she was very self-centered, racist, classist, politically conservative, and very immature, which lead to some very upsetting arguments and tiffs (she didn’t respond well to having her authority questioned and I was supremely uncomfortable with having my friends and viewpoints criticized constantly). Over the next few years we had several blowouts, and she promised again and again that she would change—no more lying, no more manipulations, no more treating my father and other family members badly, no more running her mouth ignorantly and offensively. Then, about four years ago, we both accused the other of undermining each other at work (we worked for the same company), she was remarkably offensive to her brother (my father), and we stopped talking (she refused to speak to me, and I thought it was the best idea she had in years). Now she’s sick and my father is pressuring me to make nice to her, at least at family get-togethers. Is this worth sacrificing my hard-won sanity for? I know I would be upset if she died, but I can’t say I miss her at all from my daily life. I get the feeling that my family (especially my grandmother/her mother) would judge me for it, as if I’m deliberately being hurtful to her without cause. I’m so very tired of “being the bigger person” between the two of us, having to set my feelings and concerns aside for “the greater good of the family” and her wellbeing, without a thought for mine. My goal is to figure out how to navigate my family while staying sane.
The idea of flashing a friendly smile at your nasty, bigoted aunt at a family party and sharing a few words of small talk might make you crazy, but it won’t drive you insane. At the risk of sounding crass, you might be tired of being “the bigger person,” but since she’s about to stop being an “alive person,” it’s a finite sacrifice.
Don’t make just nice because it’s temporary, however, or because you want to please your father and grandmother; you’re old enough to make your own moral decisions and act on them, and the key to a good moral decision is not reacting to how you feel, but to what you value.
Your feelings tell you that contact with your aunt will undermine your sanity, but your feelings are hardly a credible resource. In reality, you sound like a strong, hard-working person who loves your family and has lots of good, lasting relationships with most of your relatives. Have a little more faith in your ability to bullshit graciously with your aunt at parties instead of buying the fearful bullshit that comes from your emotions.
Besides, a lot of your pain seems to stem from failed attempts at trying to change her, but you shouldn’t be making yourself responsible for that—Jebus/Xenu/the flying spaghetti monster made her, not you. Your job with her, as with any family member, is to accept her, be nice, not be mean, and protect yourself when necessary. It doesn’t matter, then, when she makes you mad, embarrassed, unhappy, or hurt, because you can protect yourself, as long as you don’t make it your business to set her straight or protect your father. Set your boundaries after you think hard about your responsibilities and principles. There will be other people you love and want to change, or find yourself drawn to or driven from for strong emotional reasons, but learning to manage your relationship with your aunt can help you establish boundaries in other relationships as well.
She’s been out of your life for a long time now, so you don’t have to deal with the fresh pain of losing a close relationship, just the disappointment that she never became the kind, friendly fairy godmother you once thought she was. The disappointment is painful, but positive; it’s actually trying to drive you to becoming more realistic and accepting life as it is. It’s time for you to accept the fact that she can’t ever be your close friend but that you can honor the good part of your love for her, and hers for you, by being friendly, decent, brief, and superficial.
She won’t change before she dies, but there’s still time for you to change your approach and stay the bigger person without its feeling like the biggest pain/impairment to your sanity.
“I can’t look at my aunt without hating her for some of the things she’s said and done, but those feelings are left over from my losing her as my fairy godmother. I know, as an adult, that I cannot trust her as a friend or feel comfortable with many of her beliefs, but that I have little to fear from her other than the way she sometimes makes me feel. I will treat her according to my principles and be proud that I do, regardless of how she might make me feel.”
I feel terrible about cheating on my wife, but I’m trying to make amends. I really love her, we’re in the middle of raising a family together, and I want us to stay together. She says she would trust me if I would tell her where I go when I go out in the evenings, but, truth to tell, I haven’t been able to give up my girlfriend who really depends on me. I have a soft heart and I’ve always had trouble tearing myself away from people who really need me, which my wife, who is very independent, doesn’t. My goal is to figure out why I have to take care of people while I try to hold my life together without breaking anyone’s heart.
Kind-heartedness can become dangerous if you don’t take more responsibility for your actions than for your impact on other people’s feelings. You have kids to raise and provide for and a wife who depends on you, but if you’re going to be distracted by needy damsels and your own desire to be a white knight, your wife and kids will have a much harder life and, like everyone else you make a commitment to, they won’t ever really trust you. The line between being extremely generous and disgustingly selfish is surprisingly thin.
Of course, your feelings tell you there can’t be anything wrong in doing something that feels so right, i.e., loving and caring for vulnerable people and wanting to help them. If you want, you can cite Christian teaching, but you’re more Mary Magdalene than Jesus at this point. You remind me, I’m afraid, of some therapists who’ve gotten too close to their patients due to both caring too much and getting a little too drunk on the pleasure and power that come from making someone else feel good. Loving feelings are as dangerous to your integrity as other feelings if you don’t also think about values, actions, and consequences.
You sound like a nice guy, but you’re probably an Asshole™, by which I don’t mean that you’re someone who’s mean or wants to hurt anyone, and doesn’t really, genuinely care for the ones you love. Instead, I mean someone who does bad things and doesn’t really see it as your responsibility to control your actions. You wish your feelings were different but, as long as they are what they are, you assume you have to do what you do.
Take an honest moral inventory, forgetting for the moment the pain you’re causing yourself and others. Think of the consequences, long term, to your kids, and of how you’re fucking yourself by putting your reaction to needy people ahead of everything else.
If you see the danger, try to change your actions, spending more time with your wife and more time away from your mistress, but don’t expect your feelings to change first because they won’t. If you feel yourself slipping, talk to a therapist or a friend who has overcome the same problem.
If what you want to do is make everyone happy, you’re going to do the opposite. If you want to claim control over your decisions and commitments, it can be done, and you can still possibly think of yourself as a savior, at least of your own marriage.
“I feel as if true love can never be wrong, but I believe that raising kids is what counts the most and I also believe in keeping my commitments unless there’s a very good reason not to. I will try to get my behavior under control and meet my moral priorities, regardless of my guilt for leaving someone alone and hurting.”
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