When taking a sick child to the clinic, a common preliminary question is “has she had a fever?” Many times I’ve had to answer “Yes, but I don’t know what her temperature has been.” My practiced mother’s hand has assessed the fact that my child has a fever but it hasn’t been high enough for me to be worried. I know that a fever is the body’s way of fighting off infection or viruses so the low-to-mid-grade fever itself isn’t cause for concern.
In the same way, as women we are often sensitive to the emotional states of those around us—especially those closest to us. A tilt of the head, a sigh, a slight movement of the corner of a mouth gives us a clue to the thoughts or emotions of our loved ones. This can be a good thing. These signs can help us narrow down whether they need a hug or a re-direction of their thoughts and behavior.
To take it further, we mentally add up our spouse and children’s actions and try to decipher their motivation. Any time they do something that doesn’t please us or make us “feel” loved and appreciated, we do the math and come up with our own answers to the equation. There are two possible problems with this:
First, our amazing brains have a complicated memory system that strives to make associations and place our experiences in categories. Any time a new experience happens, our mind searches its database to see if anything similar has happened in the past. It will probably find something, and the emotions attached to that previous experience will come up, even if the previous experience happened thirty years ago. Think about the emotions you feel when something reminds you of a pleasant childhood memory.
When we choose to let that association stand, and feel the feelings all over again, the new experience is attached to the old experience. This doesn’t have to be a huge, traumatic event. It can be as simple as a stubborn child with whom you are frustrated. You will approach that child the next time with that emotion and attitude, even speaking words over them and about them that reinforce your association.
Second, it’s important to realize that when we constantly take everyone’s emotional temperature to make sure that they are okay with us, that is actually very self-centered. We tell ourselves that we’re concerned about their feelings but in reality we’re concerned about ourselves in the relationship. This can come up especially in marriage and in relationships with older children.
It can help tremendously just to be aware of these scenarios when analyzing our relationships.
When you feel emotions that are disproportionate to the present situation, that’s a pretty good indicator that past experiences are mixed in.
Take care that last week’s disagreement or discipline issue isn’t coloring today’s reaction to your loved ones.
Focus on loving and caring behaviors towards your family without the constant temperature-checking of “are they okay with me?” Be preoccupied with serving others rather than trying to make everything about you being right and being liked.
Rather than being a thermometer and registering what we think is going on around us, we can choose to be a thermostat and set the temperature. Just like setting the thermostat eventually changes the temperature in the house, the behavior that we choose eventually changes our feelings.
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