I was visiting my parent's place on the weekend and seeing some relatives from interstate who I don't often get the chance to hang out with. At one point we were all sitting in the lounge room listening to my father describe the apocalyptic nightmares he's been having lately, while my controlling mother kept interrupting, talking over him, "correcting" him and just generally dominating the conversation.
I've always found my mother's domineering behavior annoying, but I used to be far too scared of her to stand up to it. This time though I casually lent towards her, put my hand on her arm and said "Mum, could you be quiet please. I want to hear what my father is saying".
She moved her arm to brush me off dismissively in a way I've always found infuriating. This time though rather than feeling powerless and simply capitulating, I channeled my anger into assertiveness: "Don't just brush me off!", I said, "I want to hear what he's saying."
Mum shut up and Dad got to finish the story about his epic dream starting from the Big Bang, through the evolution of mankind, to the final extinction of the human species which died out after the women exterminated all the men and were left with nobody to breed with. I can't help feeling there's a subconscious message about my father's fear of women in there somewhere, and that must be where I got mine from.
Women in my extended family often dominate conversations with impersonal chatter that I don't find very engaging. I suspect they're compensating for not really knowing how to connect emotionally with other people because nobody ever taught them. Meanwhile the men sit back relatively passively. We're all like little islands just hanging out together as if that's the best you can expect from relationships with other people.
Later in the afternoon everyone was sitting around the dining room table having afternoon tea and the conversation started to really irritate me. For what felt like almost an hour everyone was pitching in whiny stories about every little complaint under the sun. Nobody was really looking for solutions, we were just complaining.
I have enough negativity in my own head without wanting to be surrounded by people I love complaining aimlessly about first world problems. It made me want to go straight home and do my overdue tax return without so much as an inner groan.
I resisted the easy temptation of joining the pity party with my own epic story about being overcharged by the gas company, but that left me with nothing to contribute feeling lonely and isolated.
The cracker for me was when my cousin complained that she'd spent an hour and a half on hold with Qantas trying to organize a wheelchair at the airport for our elderly Aunt, and added "And it was 1am!" as if this fact made her suffering even more outrageous.
"Do you think the fact that you called at 1am might have had something to do with nobody being there to take your call?", I asked in a subtle attempt to break the victim mentality in the room.
"They say they offer a 24 hour telephone service!", she replied.
"You were flying Qantas Domestic", I thought to myself, "Domestic flights don't operate at 1am; the company is effectively closed when you rang, and you're surprised that there was nobody there to help you." Perhaps I should have said it out loud, but I held back.
I remembered what I learned in The Landmark Forum about choosing a problem worthy of your life and thought: "If these are the problems my family consider worthy of their lives, we're all going straight to hell."
I wanted to speak up but thought to myself: "Is it safe?"
Everyone was really enjoying playing victim and the thought of upsetting my family by dropping a truth bomb that might leave me the target of criticism left me feeling anxious. But it was worth a shot.
Eventually after a self-righteous rant from my mother about charities calling for donations, I could take it no more. So I piped up with: "Guys! Are we going to spend the whole afternoon complaining? So far we've winged about the government, doctors, government services, banks, bills... and now we're onto charities. Can we please talk about something more constructive?"
Then the panic set in. "Oh-oh, I've upset the apple cart", my nervous system said to my brain.
"Well what would you like to talk about then?" replied my mother defensively.
"I don't know, anything!", I said as I noticed a war widows charity button on my aunt's blouse and segued out of panic with "Tell me about your button, Aunty?"
It turned out not to be as interesting as I had hoped.
Then the conversation shifted to me: "I'm really excited because I'm going to college to study music next year!". That led on to a conversation about all the musical people in our family tree and the various styles of music we all played or enjoyed. My anxiety settled down as we'd now found something interesting and constructive to talk about where we could get to know each other better.
"We need someone to keep us in line", my Aunt later remarked to me playfully.
"Yes, especially this one", I replied gesturing towards my mother teasingly.
This was a really big deal for me given all the anxiety I've had about standing up to my mother in the past. The truth is we never really grow up and become our own man until we take our mother off the power pedestal in our lives, stop taking her so seriously and put her in her rightful place.
My mother just laughed at not being taken so seriously.
"Gee that felt good", I thought to myself with a smile.