A few weeks ago, during an argument I said something rather garbled that was probably really taxing for my husband to listen to. I didn’t communicate my needs or desires clearly and assertively: I was in a muddle. I was arguing shambolically. If he had been so inclined he could have taken offence at what I’d said. And I’m grateful that he didn’t. I saw him get angry, and then I saw his face soften- in a moment he gave me the benefit of the doubt. In a split second flicker of his expression, I saw he trusted me. He didn’t use words to convey this shift, but somehow I knew that he knew I wasn’t out to get him, that I wasn’t trying to be an arsehole, that I wasn’t trying to control him or gaslight him or win the argument for the sake of winning. He assumed the best about my motives, and he kindly invited me to explain what I’d been trying to say- he read my intentions as confused rather than malicious. I still feel astonished when I think about his act of generosity. I felt seen, but I felt he chose to see the best bits of me in that moment, and to soft-focus on my faults. He could have pointed the lens at my weaknesses but he chose to focus on my virtues instead.
One of the kindest things I think I can do for my kid is not attribute motives to his behaviour. If he hits another kid I don’t treat his behaviour as if he’s being malicious or unkind or rude or hateful. I set limits not by shaming him for thought-crimes, which would be unfair, but by stopping the behaviour. I take his hands in mine and tell him I can’t let him hit another child. I try so hard to bracket off my projections, to protect him from the snares of my suspicious mind that would otherwise accuse him of heinous crimes he has not yet committed. Fear does prick me- is he being deliberately spiteful, is he is a bloodthirsty brute who gleefully enjoys the inflicting pain on others? I try to make room for these fears of mine, to acknowledge their existence in my own psychic life but also my task as his mother is to parse apart my fear of who he might be from the real child in front of me. I try to trust him, to generously assume the best, to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Some years ago, my therapist suggested that the Trojan Horse I experienced my mother as was also how I experienced myself. This floored me- how on earth did he know about my hunch that I was no good? He seemed to sense my terror of breaching the walls of my loved ones, masquerading as a gift but bringing destruction. I feared in my suffering and desperation I would lash out, accidentally be intrusive or overbearing, leach my badness into the other. I drew him a self-portrait, complete with a dripping sarcastic red bow. Open me at your peril. I’ll destroy you if you let me in. I think this self-portrait of the Trojan horse speaks to implicit memory. I’m sure as a kid, my imagined sinfulness was transmitted to me, coded in glances, gestures, tones of voice. The way my mother caught my hand in the supermarket when I tried to reach for something, the way my dad told me he was disappointed in me before he punished me, the way I was scrutinised across the room. There are myriad ways to tell someone you think they are a depraved monster on the brink of causing serious harm. You don’t even need words, the message hangs in the air. Suspicion breeds suspects.
I know suspicion will always be a part of my wiring. Choosing to be generous and compassionate towards myself and others will always compete with my Trojan horse self, the part of me that worries I will weaponise my darker feelings, or that the other is teeming with a malicious legion of hateful motives. I think I have a lifetime of practice ahead of me. The practice of assuming the best, the way my husband has done with me, the practice of trusting myself and others.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018
The phrase ‘I can’t let you’ comes from respectful parenting guru Janet Lansbury. I’m deeply indebted to her thinking on attachment and discipline https://www.janetlansbury.com
Many thanks to my deeply private husband for letting me write about him again