The name porcupine apparently means ‘one who rises up in anger’.
Now don't get me wrong -- she's a very nice lady and we have a great relationship, which I know is a wonderful blessing, especially considering some of the things I hear about in-laws from hell. So this really isn't about her, or the fact that I appreciate being kept informed (which, however, I do, mister!).
The thing is, when I suddenly heard her voice right outside my room and asked the hubs about it, he answered, "Well, she was supposed to call first if she was coming so that I'd go pick her up; I guess she was free, so she just came over herself". To which of course I said, "What if we weren't in? Or what if I'd we'd planned to go out and do some family thing?". And he replied, "Well, then she'd just leave. She wouldn't mind at all -- she doesn't have all kinds of hangups and sensitivities".
Well of course that got me thinking; I was crafting, which is a perfect time to think philosophically about things. I couldn't help chuckling a little as I acknowledged the accuracy of the hubs' remark; it was true -- she is insensitive -- not in the hardened, callous sense, but rather, laid-back, sanguine and slow to take offence -- in other words, she is not hypersensitive.
Being moderately sensitive is generally considered a good thing, of course -- it is desirable that people are understanding, responsive, thoughtful, caring and empathic. And of course, we all know some clown at the other end of the spectrum -- my girlfriend's husband, for instance, who pretty much never takes her needs or feelings into consideration, and perish the thought that he'd buy her flowers, bring her out for a nice dinner, or fix things around the house without being begged on bended knee.
But more and more, I've come to realise that there is such a thing as being too sensitive -- when being responsive translates to being touchy, irritable and easily offended; when being empathic means reading a million non-existent things between the lines; when supposed caring actually makes one behave like a martyr -- and that it affects not only you yourself, but the people around you, and future generations as well.
I remember listening to a sermon by lay preacher Joel Osteen -- can't remember the title now -- where he described such people as "high maintenance", which is exactly right (I remember too, his point that continually subjecting oneself to such people -- catering to their needs, bowing to their demands, accepting their high-strung behaviour -- was "feeding their dysfunction", which is also exactly right).
Growing up, I had a guardian who was on the high -- read "extreme, uttermost, ultimate" -- end of sensitivity; you couldn't have the corner of your mouth off of a millimetre without having your evil motives exposed. The tone of one's voice, the expression in one's eyes -- it made life a daily walk on eggshells. If I did something wrong -- and strangely enough, kids seem highly prone to that -- the response would be as theatrical as possible: punishments designed to hurt and shame; withdrawals of affection; dramatic remarks like, "After EVERYTHING I've done for you" and "I am NEVER going to do nice things for you again".
Now as an older adult, I can look back on those times with some degree of indifference, compassion, and even humour. And they weren't altogether useless -- they taught me how to behave with my own children. I remember the dramatic remarks, and I avoid using them. I remember the silent treatments, and I am quick to forgive. I especially remember the touchy sensitivity, and I make a point not to over-react, to give my kids the benefit of the doubt; I make the effort to patiently listen them out, and if I do have to scold, choose my words as carefully as possible.
I think deliberately hurting one's child to "get back" at them for offending one is both cruel and childish, and doing so repeatedly can do nothing good for anyone involved. Positive reinforcement; maintaining a loving, stable relationship; and ensuring that "if you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk" -- these are just some of the key things that I think go a long way toward being a wise parent and raising emotionally healthy, adequately sensitive, children.
Remember Mrs Fidget? As C.S. Lewis so eloquently put it, "anything will 'wound' a Mrs Fidget -- [enable] her to feel ill-used, therefore, to have a continual grievance, to enjoy the pleasures of resentment". But what creates a Mrs Fidget to begin with? On consideration, it seems to me that the Mrs Fidgets of the world have in fact an extraordinarily high level of what's called "emotional intelligence", or "the ability to monitor one's own and others' feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one's thinking and actions" (Salovey and Mayer, 1990).
Some time ago I'd read an excellent article by counsellor Steve Hein; entitled The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence, the article was an analysis of the depressed, suicidal teens he worked with. "I have long suspected that a person's innate emotional intelligence could be warped by an abusive environment," he wrote. "Among these teens, I am finding that those I would consider to be the most emotionally intelligent are also fast learners and have good memory and recall. Because they are so emotionally hurt and starved, they are learning, remembering, developing and using unhealthy, destructive, hurtful or dangerous survival mechanisms".
He discovered, among other things, that these teens:
- learn to use their tone of voice, their words, their silence to manipulate.
- learn how to threaten with what will hurt or frighten others the most.
- become nearly constantly defensive and therefore lose their childhood ability to empathize.
- become bitter, cynical and sarcastic.
- learn how to verbally attack; they learn hurtful phrases and quickly recall and apply them.
- learn how to lay guilt trips.
"What is most sad to me is that all these teens I work with feel alone, unloved and unwanted," writes Hein. "They are desperate to feel connected, cared about, understood, loved and wanted. They often hate themselves, so they look for love in relationships. But they don't have the necessary ingredients to make a relationship work. They don't have the needed self-love or even self-acceptance. They don't have the relationship skills or communication skills. These things are not taught in schools and all they see are dysfunctional models at home.
"It is a vicious cycle. Their high level of innate EI has given them an ability to both feel emotional pain and to hurt others emotionally.... Because emotionally intelligent people are sensitive, they are easily hurt. They are also insecure from years of feeling disapproved of, disappointing, threatened, afraid, unworthy, inadequate, guilty, etc. Because of this insecurity, they take everything personally and are easily put on the defensive. Or they may go on the attack.
"I believe emotionally intelligent people from emotionally abusive and neglectful homes can become some of the most hurtful, manipulative, greedy, controlling, arrogant people in society... This is what I would call the dark side of emotional intelligence. It is something that could be prevented if parents, first, and teachers, second, were more emotionally competent.
"I make a distinction here between emotionally intelligent and emotionally competent. A parent does not have to be especially emotionally intelligent to stop invalidating their children and teens. A parent does not have to be an emotional genius to develop some basic listening skills" (read the article in its entirety here).
I've observed that people who routinely jump through the hoops of these sensitive souls become themselves edgy, irascible and neurotic; it can easily become a vicious cycle -- if you let it. I think if you have been caught in such a cycle, you can, indeed must, consciously, actively end it with you -- not let it infect your kids, and poison another generation.
I'd written a somewhat related post almost a year ago, based on a wonderful sermon series by Pastor Andy Stanley. It was about the importance of mutual submission in a family, something I don't think is possible if one is continually subjugating others to one's high-strung sensitivities and emotional needs. "Do you know what makes for great family?" he said, "Really happy family? It's families who have said, 'I'm willing to leverage all of me, for an us'. The only reason you don't is because you're selfish. Which means, you're not willing to loan yourself fully to the equation. Which means you will never be happy with your family, ever.
"Because your whole approach to family will be, 'If I can just get everybody to do what I want them to do, I'll be happy'. No, you won't be happy. You'll be large and in-charge; you will never, ever be happy or satisfied.
"Men, some of your wives can't get you to lean in. They're afraid to ask you anything. And they have no choice but to live their lives orbiting around your big ol' self... because you're more 'important'. And so they lean in and lean in until they fall over... And your kids lean in and lean in... because everybody's got to make Dad happy, and guess what -- everybody does everything they can to make you happy, and I know you -- you're still not happy!
"Because you don't get happy by controlling the people around you... The more power you have, the better servant you should be" (extracted from parts 1 and 2 of Future Family, by Pastor Andy Stanley).
So, going back to my mother-in-law -- while one certainly wouldn't describe her as being high on the EI front, I think there certainly is real merit to being her brand of insensitive (not the idiot clown type, mind!) -- her sanguinity has meant that she leads a largely peaceful, cheerful life, being on amicable, almost carefree, terms with just about everyone. Of course, there are times when that sort of "insensitivity" makes for some pretty silly, foolish, even thoughtless, words or behaviour, but they are surely more bearable than the intolerant, demanding, acrimonious spirit of the other.
In my walk with God, all this has come to mean even more to me than before. Most of us know the "love chapter" in the Bible -- it is surely one of the apostle Paul's more inspired pieces of writing. How true it is that love "does not insist on its own rights or its own way, for it is not self-seeking; it is not touchy or fretful or resentful; it takes no account of the evil done to it [it pays no attention to a suffered wrong]... Love bears up under anything and everything that comes, is ever ready to believe the best of every person, its hopes are fadeless under all circumstances, and it endures everything [without weakening] (1 Cor 5-7).
Where are you on the sensitivity spectrum?