Dear Carolyn: How can I approach lunch with my self-absorbed sister who is visiting from out of town when I am in the midst of separating from my self-absorbed husband? I probably won’t mention my separation because she will have a random friend with her. What can I say to myself to keep from screaming?
Mired in Self-Absorption
No doubt this lunch has passed, awkwardly but less awfully than you feared, and I’m guessing you picked at a few shallow topics then heaved a sigh of relief at the end.
Or it was sharp and judgy and you’re still smarting from it.
Either way, it’s behind you, and with any luck it nudged you a little closer to recognizing that a lousy lunch and a lousy separation are things you can get through if you must, even if you rely solely on the mercy of the passage of time.
If you’re ready, though, you can do better: You can choose to stop caring so much how things go.
It was lunch! So what if it derailed. So what if a “random friend” was there too — you could still have said, “Husband and I are separating.” You care what the friend thinks? Why?
If you didn’t like how your sister reacted, then you could have responded with anything from “I didn’t expect you to take it well” to “How ’bout those Yankees?” (Spearing a bit of salad.) If you didn’t want to give your reasons, you could have said, “Because he wouldn’t clean the cat box,” especially if you don’t have a cat.
Or, you could have chosen to say nothing of the separation because you didn’t feel like saying anything — not because you dreaded your sister’s reaction or fretted about how you’d appear.
Or you could have spilled it all and been caught off-guard by a thoughtful response from a sister you learned not to count on, or from the virtual stranger she brought with her. You don’t know till you know.
I can add 2 + 2 here and say that as the sib and spouse of self-absorbed people, you’re probably a pleaser, which would make sense given your qualms about lunch. Even if that math is off though, even if you’re comfortable setting limits, it can still be a big step further to let go of the desire to make things go smoothly. You still need to be civil; this is about not depending on civility from others.
I think we all recoil from negativity. However, so much stress comes not from events themselves, but instead from the gaps between what we want to happen and what actually does. It’s not easy to break the habit of wanting something from others or experiences for ourselves — far from it — but it is possible. It just requires you to identify what you’re hoping will happen, and recognize that other outcomes will be OK, too, and sometimes even better. It takes staring down your worst case and knowing you’ll find ways to manage if it comes true.
And it takes pushing past the phase where you aren’t afraid of things going off-script — a liberating one — to the phase where you stop mentally writing these scripts altogether. “Hey, Sis, great to see you.” The rest is (fill in the blank).
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at washingtonpost.com.