By Joyce Alexander, RNP (retired)
Sometimes my parrot will come up with a sound or a word and we will wonder “where in the heck did he come up with that!?”
We noticed a few years ago that he would make a “Whooooosh” sound when anyone opened the door either to go in or out. He did it consistently, so we knew he had associated the door opening with the sound, but we couldn’t figure out who would make that sound often enough that he had picked it up. Then one day my husband came in the house and it was very hot outside and when he came in he made that “Whoooosh” sound as he hit the air conditioned inside!
My son and I went, “Whoopee! We know where he got it now!”
It takes endless repetitions of a word or sound for a parrot to pick it up, and my husband must have done this hundreds of times before the bird picked it up. The bird is way more sensitive to the sounds in his environment than we are. We tend to “tune out” the “background” sounds that are not important to us so we can concentrate more on those sounds that actually “mean something.” Not that our ears can’t “hear” that sound, it is just that our brains tune it out and assign no importance to it.
I think sometimes people (myself included) do the same thing with situations and associations. We tune out as unimportant things that happen every day—things that we decide are not important to our world and we don’t want to concentrate on them. I have osteoarthritis just from being over 65 and having used and abused my bones and joints in the past, so I have a sort of “background” pain in most or all of my joints. I try to “tune this out” and usually succeed, because if I concentrated on this background pain, I would not be able to think about anything else.
It seems to me that I have done the same thing with emotional background pain as well in my associations with dysfunctional or disordered people. The other person would make some “snarky” or disrespectful comment to me, and it would hurt just a bit, but I would push it to the background noise of my life and not concentrate on it. Just as my son and I didn’t “hear” my husband’s noises when he came into the house from outside because it wasn’t important, didn’t mean they weren’t “there.”
Pushing our emotions, our pains, into the background helps us to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed by the vast number of little pains and injuries. It numbs us to those in our everyday life so we can keep on functioning and without succumbing to the overwhelming pain. Sometimes we get a huge emotional injury and we “feel it” intensely, but even then we can put the residual pain into the background of our everyday existence.
Noticing and responding to every little slight in life isn’t the point of this, because if we did, we wouldn’t be able to function. Taking to heart and internalizing every snide remark made by every salesclerk isn’t necessary, but to “notice” and “hear” the slings and arrows of a particular relationship is another matter entirely. If we are continuing to have to “tune out” painful things from a person or a relationship, the pain will build up until there is a cacophonous level of emotional pain in the background of that relationship.
It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep that level of background pain under control–energy that could better be put to use in establishing boundaries.
It took my parrot’s continual “Whooshing” to draw attention to one of the sounds in the background of my environment. It took tremendous pain to draw attention to the pain that had accumulated as a background noise in my relationship with my son and other family members. I had “eyes and did not see, and I had ears and did not hear,” as Jesus said about the Pharisees. It was unpleasant for me to realize that our relationships were not healthy, because in realizing that they were not healthy, I would be required to do one of two things, neither of which I wanted to do. I could continue to endure this continuing assault on myself, or I would be required to act.
Confronting someone you love with the fact that they have been causing you tremendous emotional pain is a scary prospect. How will they respond? Will they stop doing what they have been doing and try to salve your wounds? Will they stop treating you badly? What if you confront them and they become angry? What if they leave you? What if they punish you? All those are questions that produce great anxiety. Confrontation is risky behavior.
Confronting dysfunctional people is especially risky. It is especially painful because they do not receive your confrontation well, but instead project the problem back on your shoulders. They will tell you that you are the problem. The pain becomes greater.
Becoming aware of the background noise in our lives of abuse and dysfunctional relationships is only the first step in a painful process. Taking action is the next step. If the person in the relationship is not dysfunctional or disordered, they will work with you. If they are unwilling to do so, you can’t make them do so, and so the next decision is to continue the relationship as is, or to terminate it.
Awareness if the first and most painful step, but it leads to a life free of the pain of a dysfunctional relationship continually assaulting our psyches.