January 29, 2017 Roger Federer lifted his 18th Grand Slam Trophy at the conclusion of the Australian Open Tennis Tournament. He is a great champion because he exemplifies what great champions do – time and again they overcome adversity to rise to higher levels of performance.
Federer has overcome a lot of adversity. One significant example is his performance at the 2008 Roland Garros final against Rafa Nadal. Federer won only 4 games over three sets. In terms of the survival skills of flight, flight or freeze, he was frozen in terror during the match. He could not play. When he hit the ball, it would go all over the place because he was so tight. At the end of the match Nadal had a puzzled look on his face as he stretched his winning arms up in the air and walked toward the net to shake Federer’s hand. At the final ceremonies, during his speech, Federer apologized for his level of play and promised to perform better next time.
I don’t know what emotions Federer felt during and after that match. I can only guess he felt frustrated, bewildered, shock, shame, bitter disappointment, out of control and more.
He experienced another devastating loss at the 2009 Australian Open when he lost to Nadal again. This time he was going for a record breaking 14th Slam title to equal Pete Sampras. He was expected to win because Nadal was tired from playing a long grueling 5 set match in the semi-final. Again, Federer played badly. His emotions were evident during the final ceremonies as tears streamed down his face and he struggled to speak. Nadal, his friend and tennis arch enemy, put his arm around Federer’s neck, expressing caring , warmth and friendship. I’m guessing it felt bittersweet for Federer.
Most people tend to avoid bad experiences. No one wants to experience painful difficult feelings if they can help it. It is common for people to try to avoid any situations where they might feel awful feelings, especially the sensations of the feelings. They become invested in avoiding. They try to control the outcome. By doing so they behave differently than they would behave if they didn’t try to control the outcome. They do behaviors, which limit their abilities. The byproduct – their performance level drops and they are more likely to fail. For many people, the fear of feeling the difficult painful sensations of failing become more important than the exhilarating sensations of winning and success.
How has Federer overcome these (and many other) difficulties? He is not afraid of feeling difficult feelings. (That does not mean that he likes it.) Somehow he processes the emotions so that if they happen, he knows he can get through them and survive – well. It takes courage and strength to process emotions.
As well, he has enough successes in his career and in his life that make the risks worth it. He knows the best way to win, and win big, is to play at his best. That means not controlling the outcome. The answer mostly lies in his attitude –
Quote from Roger Federer at the pre-match interview at 2017 Australian Open: “There’s only one match left. I found it’s so great already. Just like – Let it [the ball] fly off your racquet and see what happens.
He let go of the outcome.
I was cooking up some dinner for my two year old grandson as I happily awaited his arrival. We were going to hangout together while mom and dad took in a movie. I don’t think of it as babysitting because I love to spend time with him and he loves to spend time with me.
I buzzed them in. My grandson, came running through the open door holding out something he wanted me to see – a sticker of a car. As usual, my son followed with their dog. He put the dog out on the deck, put fresh water in the dog’s dish and then got ready to leave.
Then something unusual started to happen. My son started to question his son about whether he wanted to stay with Nana or go with him. I was confused because I was sure he was staying with me. I could see that my grandson was confused. I got the impression that there had been some kind of exchange between the two of them about his wanting or not wanting to stay with me. My son kept grilling him. “Do you want to stay with Nana ?” My grandson went from being happy and bubbly to quiet. He nodded his head. His dad’s tone of voice was unusual – there was an edge to it. That was not enough for my son, he kept asking, “Do you want to stay with Nana?” I looked at my grandson. He was clearly confused and not sure what to do. He slowly walked toward the front door thinking he had to leave. Again, his father asked him, “Do you want to stay with Nana?” Again, my grandson nodded his head.
I couldn’t watch this anymore and stay silent. I said to my son, “He nodded his head. He has answered you.” My son responded, “He’s got to say it.” I said, “You’re putting him a bind.” I looked at my grandson and smiled at him trying to reassure him. He smiled back at me. Finally, my son stopped, hugged his son and left. Then my grandson turned back into his happy self, delighted to be with me.
There was tension between father and son. I could see it , hear it and feel it. I couldn’t believe that my son would put his son – a two year old – on the spot like this. I was surprised because my son is a fantastic dad. He loves his son and his son adores his dad.
At first I was just an observer. Then I got hooked in the interaction. By advocating for my grandson, I became part of a triangle.
In hindsight, I wish I had avoided becoming part of the triangle. I know my son is a super dad. Instead of criticizing him, I wish I had expressed more faith in him. What I wish I’d said to my son was, “I don’t know what is going on between you two but I’m sure you will handle it OK. ” Then, I would have gone back to my cooking and let them work it out.
Triangulation occurs in relationships when there is tension between two people, and a third person gets hooked into the interaction, creating a triangle.
Triangulation happens in families all the time. If you are not aware of triangulation and how it works, you usually do not even realize how or why you’ve been drawn into an interaction.
By understanding and being aware of the relationship dynamics in triangulation, you have a choice to become involved or not. There are times when it is appropriate to get involved and times when it is appropriate and healthy not to engage.
If you choose NOT to become involved, there are diplomatic ways NOT to engage. (Triangulation Pt. 2 and Pt.3)
If you do choose to become involved, then HOW you get involved is what matters.
Shawn, a 30 year old man and his mother are enjoying dinner in a restaurant. Mother’s cell phone rings and she answers it. It’s her husband. He angrily demands to know when she will be home. She gets flustered and looks frightened. She hands the cell phone to her son, saying she can’t hear her husband. Shawn gets exasperated with his father for once again putting pressure on his mother. Most of his life, Shawn has tried to protect his mother from his father’s domination. He grabs the phone, yells at his father to leave his mother alone and hangs up. His mother gets upset because she knows her husband will be furious at her when she gets home. She can no longer enjoy her time with her son. Her son can no longer enjoy his time with his mother because she is anxious and because he knows he cannot advocate her when she gets home. The rest of their conversation is spent talking about Mom’s relationship with Dad. They focus so much on Dad, it’s like he’s there with them. During this talk, Mother feels valued and cared for by her son.
In this scenario there is ongoing tension between the mother and father. Both father and mother triangulate the son – father by phoning while they are enjoying time together – mother by giving her son the cell phone and telling him she can’t understand the father. The son allows himself to be triangulated by taking the phone and getting angry at the father.
Possibility 1: Father does an activity by himself or with someone else. He does not call.
Possibility 2: Mother turns off her cell phone, or lets it go to voicemail.
Possibility 3: Mother answers the call and deals with it herself, does not involve their son.
Possibility 4: Son does not accept the cell phone when mother holds it out to him. He refuses to be hooked in and reassures his mother that she can handle it. He says, “This is between you and Dad. I’m going to stay out of it. You can handle it.” Mother deals with the call. Mother and son continue their time together, not talking about father.
Mother and Father will reorganize their relationship differently if they stop triangulating – or are unable to triangulate – their son. That would be healthy for all concerned.
Be aware of triangulation in your relationships. Once aware, you can choose to be involved or you can respectfully decline.
Children fight for many reasons. One of the major reasons they fight is to engage parent(s).
Years ago I can remember being busy in the kitchen. My two boys, around ages 3 and 5, were playing in the living room. Then they started fighting. Without saying a word, I stopped what I was doing and went into the bathroom. Within seconds, they had joined forces and were banging on the bathroom door trying to get me to come out.
Children like to have their parents involved with them. Before children start to misbehave or fight with each other, they usually ask parents to play with them, read to them or just go for a walk or bike ride. Often they offer to help. Lots of time children will play well together waiting for the parents to finish their work. If none of these positive ways work, they will find negative way. Mostly, I don’t think children do it consciously. I believe, for them, any kind of involvement is better than no involvement. They need the adult contact.
Often parents are legitimately busy since there is so much to do. Other times, parents just don’t want to engage for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they’ve already spent a good chunk of time with the children. Maybe they are tired, sick or distracted with other things. If children keep getting put off, then they start to do things that will bug the parents until they get involved.
A parent will usually get involved in their children’s fighting by rescuing the more vulnerable child. Usually, it’s the youngest, but not always. Some younger children are more vibrant and determined than their older siblings. Some older siblings are passive. Rescuing one sibling from the other can create a dynamic of VICTIM-BULLY-ARBITRATOR. The weaker child learns he or she can get the parent’s attention by being a victim. The stronger child learns that he or she is can get the parent’s attention by being a bully. The parent feels needed as the rescuer/arbitrator. Children mistakenly think they have to have parents to settle disputes and parents, laking faith in their children, believe they are not able to get along.
Most of the time weaker children do need to be protected from stronger siblings. HOW parents do that is a key to maintaining good relationships between the siblings and between parent and each child.
When parents are aware of the dynamics of triangulation they have more options in handling it.
Of course, all of the above suggestions depend on the situation. Some will work in some situations, but not in all. Parents need to consider the circumstances and choose the best option.
With care and concern,
Many people say, “There is no use talking about the past, you can’t change it.” I think it is their idea of how they and other people recover from an event or events that were traumatic. Perhaps it is the only way they know how to deal with difficult painful events and circumstances.
It’s true. You cannot change events that happened in the past. But what you can change by talking about the past is how you think and feel in the present. When you think and feel differerently in the present then the future has new possibilities.
There are many ways that talking about the past helps change the present.
Get More Information About the Past
An example of this happens in the movie “The Mermaid Chair”. A woman who’s beloved father died when she was 9 goes back to care for her troubled mother. At the time of his death, she was told that her father had died when his boat exploded out at sea. She was not told that,in fact, her father had been terminally ill with a debilitating disease and that he killed himself. Her mother and several other people colluded with each other to assist in his suicide and make it look like an accident. The reason for their secrecy was that the father did not want to live and yet did not want his daughter to think that he abandoned her. (I’m not saying it’s a good movie but the plot makes for a good example). What the young girl had concluded was that she was to blame for his death because, against her mother’s wishes she had given her father a pipe. He would smoke his pipe when he went out on the boat with her. She created a fantasy about how the sparks from his pipe had caused the explosion. Over time, her fantasy became her truth. Because she had disobeyed her mother she never told anyone that she thought his death was her fault.
While she was helping her troubled mother she found the pipe in her mother’s belongings. With this new evidence she realized that she had not been responsible for his death. Her mother and the others told her the truth about his death. All those years she had carried the burden of his death on her shoulders unnecessarily. Finding out the real truth from the past changed how she felt about herself in the present and would influence how she lived in the future.
Thus getting new information by talking about the past can change the present. This can be healing.
Reframing is taking the same event (or circumstance) and giving it a new and different meaning. That is, looking at old stuff in a new way.
I worked with a man in his 30’s who had come for help with work issues. During the work it became clear that he did not feel good about himself. He recalled a vivid memory of an event that happened when he was 19. He was sitting in a diner with friends enjoying a hamburger and fries when his distressed father came into the restaurant and told him that one of his younger sisters had been hit by a bus and killed. He said he did not feel bad when he heard the news. All he thought about was how good the fries and ketchup tasted.
Soon after he felt very guilty about thinking about the taste of food when something so tragic had happened. He concluded that he must not care about his sister. He judged himself harshly – that he was a bad brother and a bad person. I told him that if that were true, he would not be bothered about his reaction to this event and probably would not even have remembered it. But this statement had no impact on him.
Then I reframed the situation and circumstances. I told him I saw it in a different way. How I saw it was that he was shocked by the terrible news and went numb. Then he focused on the taste of the fries because the moment before he heard the terrible news, life was very good. A part of him went into denial and just wanted life to be as it had been just moments before he heard the news. He focused on the taste because he did not want the news to be true.
The client resonated with my reframing of the circumstances. Immediately, he felt tremendous relief. The meaning I gave for his behavior matched his experience. (If it had not matched his experience he would not have had this response.)
He could now let go of the guilt he’d felt for years. His old conclusion dissolved because it was now obvious to him how deeply he cared about his sister. He came to a new conclusion that made him feel good about himself, increasing his self-esteem. The increase in his self-esteem translated into the work issues that he had originally come to counseling for.
Taking the same event from the past and looking at it with new eyes is another way to change the present.
Remembering the Past in More Detail
An example of over remembering the past in more detail comes from my own experience. In my thirties I did some major work on myself in therapy. One day, during a session, I recalled a memory from my early childhood. I don’t remember what we had been talking about at the time, I just remember my experience.
The Memory: I was three years old. I remember that because we still lived in the house on the farm. We moved from that house before I turned four. My mother, brother and I were standing in front of the wood stove popping popcorn. We were all crying.
That was all there was to the memory. It was not a new memory. Any time I had thought about it I was puzzled. I could not make sense out of it. Why were we crying? We were making popcorn. Popcorn was a special treat in those days. This was not like making popcorn today. Back then, my mother would scrape the small black kernels off the cob, put them into the frying pan and they would noisily POP into fluffy white yummy pieces of popcorn. It was magical, especially to a three year old. So why were we all crying?
By the end of this session nothing more had come from my recalling this memory. I left the therapist’s office and went about my day. But I could not stop thinking about it. I knew – I just knew – that there was something very important in this memory. For the rest of the day I was in my own little bubble.
That evening I made dinner as usual, put the kids to bed as usual and then went to bed at 8:00 pm, earlier than usual. I just wanted to be by myself so I could continue to think about this memory. I lay there in the dark, visualizing the scene over and over. Later my husband came to bed and I pretended to be asleep. I just did not want to be interrupted. I continued to lie there for hours thinking. Finally! At 4:00 am I got the answer.
I had always thought that we were all crying about the same thing. But as the memory became clearer I realized that my brother and I were crying because our mother had just strapped us. I don’t remember what for. (This was the late 40s and spankings were considered part of good parenting. People often quoted the Bible: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”) My mother was crying because she felt badly about what she had done to us. She was making the popcorn to make up to us for what she’d done.
Then the memory all made sense to me. I always thought when my mother strapped us kids that she wanted to do it. What I got from the memory was that she had ‘lost it’ and she could not help herself. I may have been only three but I was there.
I felt a flood of forgiveness for her. I felt relief. I felt a release. I fell into a sound peaceful sleep.
This changed my relationship with my mother in a positive way. I was different with her and she responded to my change with change of her own.
The change in the present did not stop there. Before I had this revelation I was the type of person who was warm and affectionate with family and friends but not with acquaintances or strangers. I did not like people I did not know well to touch me and I did not touch them. In the next days after I experienced this huge shift I found myself spontaneously reaching out and touching others. Also, I found myself liking it when people were physically warm with me. I didn’t think about it; it just happened. I’m not sure why this change occurred, but I liked it. The change has lasted to this day.
It is not always possible to remember more about a past event but it can sometimes happen when people reminisce about the past. In therapy people often do remember more about a past event, especially if they deliberately focus on the past. It also happens that new memories of other events come to mind that shed more light on the original memory.
When someone in your family tells you a memory, pay close attention. They are sharing their modus operandi for life with you. If there are unhealed traumas from the past, talking about painful memories can help your family member heal.
Memories are blue prints for how to do life.
Children have millions of experiences by the time they are around five to six years old but they only remember a few of them. Why do they remember only a few and why those particular ones? When children are born into this world they quickly have to figure out how to survive, emotionally and physically. It is the emotion surrounding an event that determines meaning. With their limited knowledge and experience of life they come to conclusions about self, others and life. Then they live their life according to the conclusions they’ve come to, whether those conclusions are conscious or unconscious. Memories after the age of 6 are important as well; they tend to confirm or disconfirm previous conclusions.
How to talk about memories.
1. Listen to the memories without interrupting. Your parent, spouse, child, sibling, cousin or other relative is telling you something important about themselves. Paying attention to them shows them you are interested in them and care about them.
2. Memories can be happy, neutral or unhappy/painful. Enjoy the happy ones, be curious about the neutral ones and be empathetic with the painful ones. Often, healing can occur through the expression of feelings alone. It is possible for a child and an adult to heal emotionally from talking to a caring person about an experience they had as a child or young adult.
3. Validate their experiences and the meaning they make of them. Do not argue about whether the events happened or not. Just because you don’t remember an event does not mean it did not happen. Or, if you remember the same event differently, it means you made different meaning out of it. Do not be concerned about the truth or facts of the memory. It may or may not be accurate. It is not about the facts; it is about the meaning the person made of their experience and the facts.
4. Do not assume you know what their memory means. Ask “What do you make of that?” Say, “Tell me more about that.” Invite your family member to say more by being curious about it.
5. Validate the feelings generated in the memory, positive and/or negative.
6. If you want to share memories of your own, wait until they are finished.
Note: Memories are not static. As a person ages and their circumstances change, their memories may change, or even be forgotten completely.
Reminiscing is healthy if family members are open to listening to each other.
The above holds true of people who are non-family members as well.
With care and concern,