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One of my favorite sayings of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was her 15-second rule: if you react to an event longer than 15 seconds, it is triggering old, unfinished business.  Clearly, the 15 seconds is symbolic. Our psychological response to an event should be commensurate with the stimulus.

A hypothetical event:

If co-worker George gives me feedback, do I listen, consider it’s merit and move on? Do I become deflated by the “criticism” for days on end, and want to give up? Do I become defensive, and lash out at my “attacker?”  If my internal response (whether voiced or not) is super-charged with emotion, it is likely that the feedback is symbolic of an earlier life experience. Another way of looking at my response is to ask myself if George’s feedback was given to ten other people, would they react as strongly as I have?  If the answer is no, then it behooves me to look inside and meet a younger self that is reacting with such intensity.

I might discover that the person giving well-intentioned feedback reminds me of a parent, whose equally intentioned efforts were nonetheless critical and smothering. Perhaps my younger self, under the weight of such intense scrutiny and rebuke, felt like he would never be good enough for his parent. I would feel with more clarity how hard it was for that little boy to feel worthy.  Perhaps, I would also meet a rebellious adolescent self, having enough of parental advice, decided to show them what a real screw-up looked like, all the while shooting himself in the foot by ignoring suggestions that he knew would be helpful.

So, having taken the time to look inside, what do I do with this younger voices?  I could give them more well-intentioned advice. I could tell the defeated one not to give up, try harder, push through this. I could tell the teenager that he should stop being so self-defeating and listen to people who want to help him.  But that’s the same advice that they grew up with. It didn’t work then, so why should it work now. Basically, I’d be treating myself exactly the way my well-intentioned (and inadequate) parent treated me, even though I looked in the mirror years ago and swore that I would never be like them when I had kids of my own. Maybe I do treat my biologic kids differently, but not myself. So how do I do it differently?

I have learned that the first thing children want is acknowledgement of their feelings. To my defeated younger one, I ask him to tell me more about how he feels. He tells me that no matter what he did, it was never good enough. He tried so hard to please Mom and Dad. Maybe tears will come, or maybe buried anger will surface. My job is to say, “Now I see why you reacted to George so strongly. It felt like Dad all over again.” When I simply honor the little guy’s reality, I often feel him take in a deep, relaxing breath.  Now there is room for insight.

I might ask the little guy why does he think George said what he said, and does he think George has it out for him?  I might hear him say that George just wanted to help and that he knows that George likes him.  The little one then says that he wants to thank George for caring enough to offer feedback.  On the other hand, I might hear that he thinks George is competitive and devious. Then my response is to ask the little guy how he thinks it best to protect himself.  He almost always has a brilliant, and measured solution. I am amazed at the wisdom and insight I hear from the younger voices that live in my psyche.

I also ask the adolescent to tell me more. Initially, I hear a lot of four letter words. “George is an asshole just like them. I didn’t ask him for his opinion and he should keep it to himself.”…and on it goes.  When my internal teenager is done, I once again acknowledge that I see why he reacted to George so strongly.  Then, I ask, “so what do you think we should do now?”  Over the years, I have learned to trust even my angry teenager’s responses. Sometimes my job as an internal parent (and biologic parent) is to protect him from himself and others if he remains angry and rebellious. I tell him that he’d be shooting MY foot as well as his, and that I need my foot to continue working and providing for our family. We laugh together.

George still believes that he has given me feedback about a project at work. Maybe some of it is useful.  What he doesn’t have a clue about is the deeper gift he has given me. My longer than 15 second reaction has once again brought me back to myself, and these moments of introspection have produced a deeper compassion for myself, and understanding that I can choose to respond differently once I have a safe place to express my reactions.