I just wanted a nacho.
Grannie treated G to a tray of nachos at the ball game and they looked awesome. Hot, super crunchy, and dripping with cheese. G of course did not want to share but I puffed up my ego and grabbed one anyway, delivering my go-to mom line without even thinking. “I’m taking one because I birthed you!”
Not even looking up from the tray, and quick as a whip, she sing-song said back to me, “No you didn’t.”
It caught me so off guard I had to laugh. She’s right. She’s been ours since the moment she was born, but she came to us as a gift from another beautiful, selfless woman. I birthed all her brothers… but I did not birth her.
G knows her adoption story well, and is proud of it. We talk about it often. She knows her birthparents. She has (what we perceive as) a truly healthy and confident grasp on her identity. She’s my baby just like her brothers, no different. So when funny things like the nachos comment happen from time to time, they can knock me off kilter. But I’m mostly so grateful she embraces and owns her story – enough to even joke about it.
If a 9-year-old can own her story, why is it so hard for adults?
When’s the last time you owned your stuff? No excuses, no disclaimers, no justifying, no blaming, no explanations?
If you’ve been with me awhile, you know we have a big honkin’ story and as time passes and hearts heal, it’s gotten easier to share. Some parts are still yet to be told. If you’re just joining us, here’s the scoop on how we went to hell and back and lived to tell the tale.
I vividly recall an early counseling appointment after it all blew up. Our counselor politely excused my husband from the room at the end of a particularly gnarly session and unmistakably called me out on my crap. I had used a lot of fancy words to distort something that I didn’t want to admit to myself or anyone else. And in that moment of horror, realizing that she wasn’t buying what I was selling, I had to quit lying to myself and everyone else and own my stuff. All of it. Not just the stuff I liked, or the stuff that made me feel better. The ugly stuff. The side of my humanity I never imagined I was capable of that had brought me to my knees in hurt, pain, and shame.
Of course, when I was finally ready to call my stuff by name and do something about it, my heart started healing, and we began to make progress in our marriage where before there had been nothing but brick walls and lots of anger.
There’s never just one person at fault. It takes two to make a mess. And it takes two to clean it up. But ONLY TWO. When the third party enters – your lying ego – that’s when it gets tricky to move forward toward the life and marriage you desire.
In my very real and messy experience, not owning my own stuff looks a lot like blaming someone else or justifying what I said or did because of what someone else said or did. Taking responsibility for your own stuff means YOU are the only person responsible for your own choices and actions and the consequences they have.
For example, I might tell myself this story after an argument with my husband about money:
“Well, sure, I lied about what I spent (or spent without checking in) because he just flies off the handle about money.”
(This is justifying why I made an inconsiderate choice and makes my irresponsible behavior sound and seem okay to me. This strategy works best when I inflate the other person’s flaws and blame them for “making me” act this way. It propels and escalates the problem. And it’s absolutely not solution-focused.)
Instead, I have to tell myself a more-true version of the story:
“I lied about what I spent. I feel guilty and frustrated and trapped about money (or whatever issue it is) and that’s not how I want to operate. How can we fix this? If I’m fearful of my spouse’s reaction, how can we generate a conversation about money so that we both feel safe discussing an expense I’d like to make? How can I help my spouse understand that this is something really important to me?”
(This way, instead of skewering my spouse, I can identify my role in the problem. Acknowledging what I did to contribute to my spouse’s frustration helps me focus on finding the solution to the problem rather than escalating it. Then I’ve opened up an opportunity for a connected conversation to work through the situation together. There’s a lot of “we” involved.)
In unicorn land, that was a lovely example with a happy ending. Chances are if you’re in this particular money spiral, it will take lots of work and patience (and lots of blowing it and apologizing) to work through the cycle. The dialogue works the opposite way too – if your spouse is the one spending and making you crazy, you can tackle it from the opposite perspective. How can you make your spouse feel more comfortable approaching you with financial conversations and questions?
It doesn’t matter if the problem is money, or schedules, or housework, or respect. The whole point here is this: when you own your own stuff, you’re focusing on fixing YOU first. And since YOU are the only person you can control, this is a good start to solving the problem.
If you let your emotions take over in the moment, you’ll most likely focus on the other person’s part in the problem, which means you’re trying to manage something that is out of your control. And that is a recipe for frustration.
Now I am no psychologist or therapist. But I am learning to manage my own emotions and operate like a grown up in healthy relationships, and I’ve gained a little insight along the way.
One thing I’ve learned is that when we’re hurt, embarrassed, or angry, ego is the first guy to show up. This is not Freud’s “Ego” – I don’t know much about that. What I’m talking about here is my own self-serving ego.
Clad in thick armor and ready for war, your ego will be quick to remind you everything the other person did wrong in order to preserve your safe and happy feelings. He is not interested in reminding you of your part in the conflict, nor is he skilled in humility or accountability. Communication is not his strong suit and the only way he problem solves is through a fight to the death. His job (and he’s great at it) is to pump you up to crush the competition.
This fiery guy is Anger, from the movie Inside Out and I love him because he is brilliantly created. He is written exactly as our egos operate – self-righteous, indignant, accusatory, and fast to fly off the handle. His head literally bursts into flames when he’s upset and he dials from zero to nuclear in the blink of an eye. He takes over the mental operating system at will, completely disregarding all the other emotions. In the movie, the other characters literally shrink back and look on helplessly as he destroys conversation and connection, raging to get whatever he wants.
I think ego shows up differently for people, but for me, it’s a physical reaction. My face gets hot and my chest feels like it’s going to explode. A lot like Anger, actually. My husband gets tunnel vision, which is a biophysical part of the fight-or-flight response that originates in the part of our brain that is supposed to keep our body systems in calm and safe status.
When you get worked up, what physical reaction do you have? Some people freeze, some people get hot, some people feel pressure or can’t see/hear right. When this happens, all logic goes completely out the window. There is absolutely no way you can think clearly, rationally, or solution-minded. Instinct takes over to protect yourself. And blame is the easiest weapon at this point, putting all your focus on the other person’s fault.
So when that physical feeling happens, make a mental note before your ego takes over completely. You have the ability to hijack that launch sequence with mindfulness and deliberate action. Breathing and focus and even an affirmation/mantra can help. (Telling myself to “calm down” rarely works and is a big pet peeve phrase in my book. “Breathe and stay in it” is my go-to mantra because my tendency is to shut down and quit. Whatever your tendency is, find a phrase that helps you call off the dogs.)
When you can stay out of that ego flare, you have a fighting chance to own your stuff. Before I fly off the handle blaming someone else, or telling myself a lie about my own behavior, what was my part in the problem? How could I have handled myself differently? What could I have said or done that would have made that go better? How can I respond RIGHT NOW in a way that will bring us closer together and create healing?
Your perception is your reality, but it’s not actual reality. Your spouse has a perceived reality too. Are your realities similar in any way, or are you operating on different planets?
The longer you believe the lies your ego is telling you, the longer you’ll stay in your own imagined reality, and the longer it will take you to break through in areas you’re struggling with your spouse.
So ditch your ego, throw out all the fancy words you’re using to write a flattering story about yourself, and own your stuff. The bonus here is that you’ll feel (momentarily very uncomfortable and then) incredibly free.
That day in our counselor’s office when she called me out? I cried on my hands and knees on the floor. It was so painful to admit to myself the lies I had been telling myself, but it was even more liberating to let them go. That experience left an imprint on my heart that I hope I feel for the rest of my life, as a powerful reminder that truth is hard but it really will set you free. (PS: Have you ever tried therapy? You should, it’s awesome.)
There’s something life-changing about taking off all of ego’s armor. It’s heavy. And once you’re being honest with yourself, you can start learning some really great things about yourself, and your spouse too. Forward motion, even if it’s rusty and awkward at first, always feels better than stagnant conflict. And before long, that forward motion becomes a craving and part of your daily routine. You won’t find yourself stuck having the same old arguments about the same old problems because you understand how to work through them together.
And then? Your ego’s nacho problem anymore. (See what I did there?)
What’s ONE area in your marriage where you know you have some ego-curbing work to do? Drop a comment, join our conversation on Facebook, or send me a direct message or an email. Oh! And be sure you’ve subscribed for Happy Mail!
Jessica is a writer, musician, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. Jessica's mission is to write "real" - shining light into the dark places of the tough stuff we all experience. She and her husband Jack live in Houston, Texas and have weathered the storms of grief, infant loss, adoption, and a marriage that almost fell apart. Jessica and Jack have 4 children, LJ in heaven, Grace, Jackson, and brand new baby Elisha.