My grandmother was a strong and stunning woman. As a child, I would intently study the way she looked. Her brown hair pulled perfectly into a bun…Her pink lipstick complimenting her glistening skin…And most of all, her big, brown, beautifully expressive, eyes.
Back in the day, my mom would drop me off to spend an occasional weekend with my grandmother and her husband, Uncle Bill. Whatever they had planned for the weekend, I’d come along for the ride. One time, on the way home from an adventure, the adults were chatting in the front of the car, and I was in the back quietly watching and listening to their conversation like children often do.
As I watched, I became fixated on my grandmother’s extraordinary eyes. During a lull in their conversation, I blurted, “Grandma, why are your eyes so big?” Her response, “The better to see you with, my dear…”.
Just kidding, that was not her response.
She glared at me with intense concern and scowled, “Why, do they look bad?” It was obvious that she was not pleased with my inquisition. Taken aback by her reaction, all I could muster up was a meek reply of “No, no”.
For the rest of the ride, I sulked in the backseat and listened to her continually ask Uncle Bill “Do they look bad?”. At six I didn’t have the words to label my emotions, but I felt sad, confused, disrespectful, inconsiderate, and like an all-around bad person.
As it turned out, my grandma was self-conscience of her eyes due to a health condition that made them slightly bulge. If I had known, maybe I would have said something a little differently like, “Grandma your eyes are so beautiful,” or maybe not…I was just a child. I hadn’t quite learned that I could essentially control the reaction of others by tempering what I say. I was just starting to enhance my survival toolbox. Eventually it would be filled with skills like avoidance, withholding, defending bad behavior, over generalizing, being seen and not heard, attempting to make everyone else feel comfortable at the expense of me being uncomfortable, and telling “white lies” in the name of saving feelings.
These tactics were disguised as keeping the peace; however, I’ve come to realize there were mercenary reasons for using them. Through this seemingly insignificant story and other, more traumatizing ones of my youth, I developed a fear of dealing with other people’s negative feelings and found the right combination of tools and tactics to survive.
It takes a lifetime to learn, and I’ve come to realize that the tools I’ve collected throughout the years no longer serve me. Warn out and rusty, they’ve served their purpose and provided me with a false sense of control for long enough. Betraying myself and feeling resentful for it is no way to live.
I’ve been replacing the old tools with conversation, compromise, understanding that differences of opinions are fine, knowledge that I can only self-regulate, and knowing that I can take up the space I need to be me. When I’m triggered in a negative way, I know there’s another tool to update.
The lessons we learn as children aren’t necessarily what our teachers intended. Our lives are so dependent on the adults around us, and we need to make sure we do what we can to keep ourselves safe.
My grandmother was a lovely, caring, woman. If we were two adults, I may have explained my intentions and she may have explained her reaction. She would understand that I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. But that conversation didn’t happen and six-year-old me internalized a lesson that my teacher didn’t intend on teaching me.
This incident and others like it, don’t depict her or my feelings for her. They are about me and how I internalized messages as a young child. My grandmother didn’t set out to shut me down or make me feel small. She had her own set of survival skills that she was using. As adults, we must question ourselves and our reactions. Are we reacting a certain way because of the lessons we’re carrying from childhood? Are we using tools that served us well then, but are not serving us now?
Tell me this: What lessons from childhood do you need to unlearn?