Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived in the wilds of Step-Land way off around the block from where you live. You know her, you’ve seen her. She is giving her best, married to a man with children from a previous marriage. She’s intentionally behaving in a way that feels respectful and honorable, but it’s the hardest thing she’s ever done. She’s holding back what she might say so she won’t hurt anyone or make more problems.
This woman, Mary, could not be outsmarted or fooled or disregarded. She was not out for warfare, but she came into her stepfamily completely aware that there would be difficulties and that nothing is as simple as it seems. She knew she would need additional resources, but when the counselor suggested that she grow up, she knew she would have to do the work of figuring it out on her own.
Mary was a stepdaughter herself, so she had compassion for her step kids and compassion for their mom. She had compassion for her husband and she had compassion for herself. But all that compassion didn’t count for much when everyone was upset and no one talked about their feelings.
Answers were slow in appearing as the children tried to find comfort in the past and in competing with one another and the tension between the ex-spouses was thick. Thick was a word that described most of their holidays, thick like too-heavy blankets, thick like air that is hot and humid, thick like layers of ice over a lake.
Mary sat back and watched. She knew that everyone was struggling and she knew that she was not the solver of any of their problems.
And one day as she watched, she noticed that even though her stepson had said something rude, her heart had stayed steady and her pulse remained low. Her breathing was still calm and not skyrocketing and she smiled. From that day on, she began a study of her vital signs. She knew that her blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing were all related and that even if she couldn’t directly affect her blood pressure, she could influence it through her breathing.
One day at a family gathering, she noticed that her own brother reacted in a short-fuse way. Raised by the same people, she had learned to react to things that went wrong with a big emotional reaction, the same as he had. She studied some more and as she watched and watched, she saw how the process played out, so very predictable and routine, almost scripted. Thus, while she was not the cause of stepfamily problems, she had been influenced by her own family history in how she responded.
She let that percolate for a time.
And one day, she began a new strategy. Every time there was a shift or a rudeness or a lateness or a snub or non-communication in her stepfamily, she focused on the things she could change. She let her breath out slowly. She softened her eyes and her face. She let her shoulders down. She let go of her smile and she focused on breathing evenly.
One day, she noticed that she was able to listen to things that would have sent her reeling. And she stayed calm and her breathe was slow and soft. Sometimes she needed to walk out of the room to get the rhythm and she kept at it. Finally, she could keep her own equilibrium regardless of the anxieties of those around her and regardless of what they did to help themselves feel better.
Finally, the day came when she barely jumped or reacted. On that day she looked at her husband and rolled her eyes and laughed in response to part of the meal being left on the dishes when they went in the dishwasher. She connected with him and moved on.
Note: Even if this seems simple, it is not. It took years for Mary to get to the point where she smiled and wasn’t ruffled. If you decide you want to work with yourself on your own reactions, for you, for no one else but you, to get you back . . . well, go slow, go easy. Go softly.