We’ve all been there.
We know that something bad will happen between ourselves and another person if we say or do a particular thing. But for some reason, we do it anyway.
We end up suffering not only the consequences of our behavior, but also regret. If we knew better, why didn’t we do better?
For parents of estranged adult children, the thing-not-to-be-done might be reaching out to an adult child who explicitly said, “I’ll contact you when I’m ready. Please respect my boundaries by not contacting me before then.”
The consequence of reaching out may be a chilly silence. Or it could be an angry text and prolonged estrangement. Whatever the response, it’s far from what the parent was hoping for.
Why do we do things we know will probably not go well?
One reason may be that it’s only in retrospect that we “knew” it wouldn’t go well. It wasn’t truly clear until we tested the limits.
Always do an autopsy on any behavior you regret. What did you really know at the time? How certain did you feel about what would happen?
It should be obvious that you couldn’t have been sure, before you tried it, what the results would be.
Were you testing the relationship in order to resolve uncertainty?
Testing gets a bad rap. As a society, we talk about testing limits in relationships as if it’s something only immature people do. In fact it’s a valid and logical act in many cases.
If you test a relationship, that’s not a black mark against you. It simply highlights the awful discomfort of ambiguity.
Especially when it comes to important things like relationships, we humans seek certainty. We need to know and understand our situation, in order to survive and thrive.
So if you tested your relationship with your estranged adult child, it’s official: You’re normal.
In addition to forgiving yourself for testing, it’s important not to judge your behavior as wrong just because of a bad reaction.
Reactions to healthy behaviors, such as holding good boundaries, can be negative. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to hold boundaries.
Judge your behavior by your own standards, not simply by the reaction you get. Sometimes you’ll get a bad reaction AND you’ll decide you don’t like what you did.
But try to uncouple the two in your mind.
Fight or … Fright?
Another reason we do things we know we shouldn’t is that strong emotions hijack our ability to think and plan.
One of the most powerful such emotions is fear.
We may know intellectually how we want to behave, but in the grip of any kind of fear, knowledge goes out the window. Instinct prevails.
So it’s not a question of not knowing how to behave. It’s a matter of fear and instinct shutting down higher functions like Decision-Making Based On Good Judgment.
Think back to the last time you did something you knew you shouldn’t do, regarding your estranged adult child. What were you afraid of?
Was it losing your child forever? Being blacklisted or rejected by a group? Losing someone’s respect or goodwill?
Fear will always eclipse knowledge because it throws us into survival mode. Which means that long-term planning is irrelevant. Overarching goals don’t matter. Fear is all about right now.
That’s a good reason not to take any action during estrangement without imposing a 24-hour delay if possible.
Doing What You Know
To recap, a couple of reasons we know better but don’t do better are,
- Maybe we don’t actually know till we do some testing, and
- Strong emotions outweigh our better judgment
A solution to the first point is to consciously acknowledge the pain of uncertainty, and decide whether to sit with that or else potentially do damage by taking action.
There’s no need to condemn yourself if you feel like testing. Just make sure if you test, you do so on purpose.
Developing a practice of mindfulness will help you sit with uncertainty so you can decide whether to act, rather than acting on impulse.
To keep strong emotions like fear from hijacking behavior (2. above), never take any action without sleeping on it if you’re worried about a negative impact.
If you know how you want to approach your adult child’s estrangement, write down your strategy.
Include the following:
- Actions that are okay to take (and how often)
- Actions I will not take
- What I’ll do when I feel compelled to act against my better judgment
Writing a list of do’s and dont’s specific to your situation will provide you with a policy to lean on during trying times.
Make sure you believe in your strategy and tactics when feeling relatively peaceful. Work on your approach to the estrangement until you trust it implicitly. You’ll need that trust when you consult your policy under stress.
If you don’t know how to approach your adult child’s estrangement, including which actions to take and which ones to avoid, there’s plenty of information in my book, Reconnecting With Your Estranged Adult Child, to help you build your strategy.
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