You’re about to learn a lot about my family through a single interaction. Hopefully this feels relatable to you. That’s always my aspiration – for all of us to feel less alone.
You see, there are times that things get pretty tense at my house. Despite my training, best intentions and background, we’re all human. I want to share a story with you – it’s an exercise in empathy building, becoming trauma-aware and trying to “practice what I preach.”
It’s late. That means about 8pm for me (I know, roll your eyes if you must). My husband and I are folding laundry while watching Handmaid’s Tale. If you’re like me, you’re waiting for the next season – September 14th, but who’s counting? Suddenly, my husband yells, “Geez, how hard is it to wash all of the socks? Why don’t I have a damn match to this sock?” He throws down the sock on a pile of folded laundry. It startles me. I feel tears well up in my eyes. He’s caught me off guard with his irritation. It feels personal because I started the laundry, sorted the laundry and now we’re folding it together. So, I respond, in kind – with defensiveness and anger.
Me: Really? You’re yelling about a sock?
Husband: Yeah. How hard is it to not lose socks?
(I think to myself, ok, now you’re insulting me? Because I lost a sock?)
Me: You think I intentionally lose socks?
Husband: It’s really not hard. This is why I’d rather just do my own laundry.
(My inner dialogue is something about him wanting to be by himself so that his laundry is always perfect and discoverable.)
Me (with a raised voice): If a lost sock is your only concern in this world, congratulations! Maybe find a real problem – you know, there are a lot bigger problems in this world.
Like I said, we’re human. It’s clearly not about the sock. To be empathic and what we would refer to as “trauma-responsive” I would look for the emotions beyond the behavior. On my best days, I can do this. I can remain curious about the sock and ask more questions with empathy. But on my more human, tired, working-mom-tired-psychologist mode, I’m simply frustrated and defensive.
As we go to bed, my husband shares worry he’s holding about work. I listen (still slightly guarded and irritated) and ask questions. I find out that there’s a lot of stress, moving positions and threats by leadership. He’s feeling worried, frustrated and underappreciated in his career. Ug. It really wasn’t about the sock…
Him: I’m sorry I was a jerk earlier. I have a lot on my mind.
Me: I’m sorry work feels stressful right now. Do you want to talk more?
He told me about conversations and interactions at work. We made some plans and then envisioned how it might feel different and more fulfilling for him. I feel regretful that I indicated he didn’t have “real” problems. He feels regretful that he hurt my feelings. We missed so much in our interaction with each other with our defenses up and guards on.
I guess my point is this – whether it’s your husband, your colleague, your kid, or anyone you’re interacting with – there’s usually a LOT more to the story than you know. When we can stay in a space of compassion, curiosity and a knowing that if something feels personal or attacking – there’s likely something deeper going on. If we can tolerate the discomfort and lean in with compassion, we’ll likely find more.
We won’t always get this right – but we can begin to lean in the direction of more compassion. It’s healing stuff.
If you want to learn more about what it means to be trauma-informed (aka, more compassionate in our responses!) check out my podcast!
With kindness for your whole, messy, imperfect self,