Posts Tagged ‘manipulation’

Subtext: What are People Really Saying?

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Arguing

Subtext (noun): in literature, the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters.

Your mother-in-law calls and then sends you six text messages, insisting you drop everything and call Verizon on her behalf because of an additional $20 charge on her cell phone bill. This occurs, of course, while you are on a hiking trip in Sedona. (I won’t lie…this actually happened to me, and I’m still angry about it.) Or she calls and texts five times over the course of two days in December, “worried about [her] taxes,” and she needs you to call back right away. December?!

The subtext as it applies here to my mother-in-law would go something like this: I am not feeling important or loved, or getting enough attention right now, so I have found a legitimate reason why you need to come and fix those uncomfortable feelings I’m having.

Literary scholars (and possibly my editor) might argue that this is not a perfectly correct example of subtext, but I’m using this term to make a point about motives that underlie someone’s words or actions which are implied, but not stated; or in the case of my mother-in-law, not even consciously known by the person herself!

How do you tell the difference between a real cry for help and a disguised motive? One way is to offer a solution, which they promptly reject, e.g. “Mom, I will give you $20 when I get home—this problem is not worth the price of anyone’s time.” (This was met with a very irate response about the value of money, and not “giving it away” to a thief.)

Subtexts show up all the time in life, like when your boss gets unhinged and screams at you about something really trivial. It could be he or she feels you don’t respect them enough. On the other hand, it could be that something troubling is happening in their home life…that, or basically any of a million other things that have nothing to do with your borrowing their favorite red Swingline® stapler. Another example might be when your boyfriend/girlfriend loses it because you didn’t take out the trash. In this instance, it’s almost never about the trash.

So what do you do?

Attending to the surface issue the other person is complaining about can help, but usually just delays their next dramatic episode. Sometimes, if you can figure out what that person really wants or needs, you can address that and help them resolve the issue. Unfortunately, it’s frequently difficult—if not impossible—to talk openly about someone else’s “stuff,” as they themselves have buried it and are unfortunately acting it out, which is a common way people avoid dealing with issues. If you can calmly discuss “what’s really going on” with the individual, you’re very lucky. In my experience, however, it’s silly of me to expect another to be rational about their irrationality!

I have found that compassion—both with them and with myself—is vital in this type of situation. Trying to cooperate and throwing in some encouragement, e.g. taking out the trash and telling your partner how much you appreciate their contribution to the household chores, is helpful and can sometimes bridge a stressful moment. In the case of my mother-in-law, I remind myself that women of her generation were socialized to believe that their needs weren’t as important as the male members of their households. They won approval by taking care of others, but as far as their own needs, they were generally forced to rely on subtext. Nevertheless, acting “helpless” when this is not the case, is a very common strategy among aging mothers and grandmothers.

All of this said, allowing others to control our emotions and behavior only brings negative consequences, one of which is preventing that person from learning to meet their needs in healthier, more direct ways. For us, it becomes a question of boundaries and realizing that we are not responsible for “fixing” others’ issues and challenges. Remember that no one of us has to accept hurtful or abusive behavior from someone else. Responding to others to the extent that we’re willing and able, and then stepping back (which may mean ignoring excessive text messages or phone calls, walking away from someone who is screaming at you, etc.) may be necessary to protect and care for ourselves.

Depending on who you are dealing with, it may feel like we are being “selfish” or irresponsible if we choose to put our sanity before another’s demands for attention or whatever it is they want. However, if we continuously place others’ problems before our own, we risk losing who WE are and being distracted from managing our own goals and dreams, issues, and well-being.

The bottom line is that we only have power over ourselves, and by keeping our focus where it should be—on ourselves and our own lives—we will be better able to determine when and how to help others. Inner peace is our birthright, remember! If you are willing, the Universe will help you day by day, sometimes moment by moment, to find a positive balance between loving yourself and loving others.