I am discovering this week that I am not the only one who does this. Surprise, surprise - my mother does it. But I also read this, in a book from 1946!! --
“You know, Lillian, someday I will sit down and write a little dictionary for you, a little Chinese dictionary. In it I will put down all the interpretations of what is said to you, the right interpretation, that is: the one that is not meant to injure, not meant to humiliate or accuse or doubt. And whenever something is said to you, you will look in my little dictionary to make sure, before you get desperate, that you have understood what is said to you." Ladders to Fire, Anaïs Nin
Sidenote: I am not altogether sure why the dictionary is Chinese, and the Internet was only offering me the fact that the Chinese have been writing dictionaries longer than maybe anyone else, like way before Christ, (Europeans: 1600 something years after Christ). I couldn't find any other example of other writers referring to Chinese dictionaries in some special way, like "picture dictionary" or "foreign language phrase dictionary" or "Chinese checkers." But this book has all sorts of bizarre racist references, (like in the freakin' fourth sentence on page 1) so maybe this is one that is just flying over my head. Maybe she is trying to emphasize how different Lillian's language is from everyone else's (you speak CHINESE, for God's sake)? I don't know. But after some diligent effort, if I still don't understand something, or if it sounds like it is a racist anachronism, I feel I have grounds to ignore it. And ignoring that one term, I understand exactly what this passage is about, because I do it all the time, maybe everyday.
My mom was talking about being driven mad by some self-help tape with subliminal messages, and I was thinking, she's having the imaginary arguments, too.
My imaginary arguments, however, don't start from praise or compliments. I usually don't argue with compliments, unless they are about my job - I guess my first reaction when I hear praise about my work is to look for an alternate explanation of why the speaker is flattering me, since whatever he or she is saying cannot be accepted on face value. But I think I can at least most of the time accept compliments about non-work things.
My imaginary arguments usually start from my own actions. I do something, often something that I know on some level is good for me, or healthy. I draw a boundary. I say no. I make a "selfish" choice. I see that someone wants something from me, I think about whether I can give that person what they want, and then whether I want to give that person what they want, and I decide not to give, even if I am able to give.
That's when the imaginary argument begins.
A friend was talking about this over dinner this week, about how glorious boundaries are (we toasted them!) and how difficult it is to not succumb to the guilt that arises when we choose not to give something of ourselves. If someone asks, and we have it, we owe that person whatever it is we have that they want, right? Because he wouldn't ask if he didn't need it, and who are we to deny him, to deny someone in need? If someone has two cloaks, he should give one to someone who has none. If someone asks for your cloak, you are supposed to give him your shirt also. To keep the thing (time, money, goods, labor) to ourself, is selfish. She asked. She knows we have it. To keep it from her is mean, spiteful - it rubs salt in the wound by emphasizing that we have and she does not. Right?
Except of course this is doom. You cannot give to everyone who asks. You cannot without going mad yourself. Without becoming that caricature of woman we all loathe, the martyred mother, the woman who has sacrificed everything, who asks for nothing, who sucks all the joy and life out of a room because she cannot say, has refused for decades to say, "No. This is mine alone." Because the self will rebel, it will take back what has been lost, in a terrible unquenchable retribution, if you don't keep it sane, steady, by respecting its needs for separation, for the right to not give, for boundaries.
My therapist and I had a fight over her saying to me, "The point of a relationship is not to make the other person happy." Of course it is, I said. That is exactly the point of a relationship, to make the person you love happy. No, she said. The point of a relationship is the relationship - to be in a relationship with another person, while still being separate. About 45 minutes later, my head was still spinning. How can that be ok? How can that be what other people are thinking and expecting from relationships? How can it be that someone would want to be with you if you don't give them what they want?
So, the imaginary argument. It begins with an action on my part. And then, I begin to fight with the person who wanted something from me. In my head. Justifying my action. Defending myself. Putting words into that person's mouth that are my words, my guilt, my certainty that my boundary has "caused a problem," upset another, made myself ugly, unloveable, not worth time or attention. I am furious, I froth with rage. How dare this person be angry with me (because I should have said yes, I should have given what I had, I owe, I am in debt). How dare this person not love me (because I withheld, because I am selfish, because I didn't love enough, am not good enough, did not sacrifice enough, am a bad person). I hate this person (because I know that I could have said yes, I just didn't want to, it just didn't feel good, but if you truly love someone you should say yes, even if it feels uncomfortable, give 'til it hurts!, because love is sacrifice, and all else is selfish. I hate this person, because I cannot make him happy, and therefore cannot be loved. He is the reason I cannot be loved. If only he wanted less, I could be loved. His wants are the problem, not my inability to say no and to be ok with my refusal).
The actual person is walking into a minefield when a conversation happens in the plane of reality. If she happens to say anything that at all resembles any of the things her imaginary counterpart said in my head, it proves that all of the imaginary arguments were right, and that I am unloved. Not only have I been rehearsing this argument far longer and with more fervor than she has, not only has she just proved how smart I am, how prescient, but also - I am fighting a battle in this argument that she knows nothing about, one that is far more critical to my survival than the trifling circumstance of whatever I did not do or give. I am fighting for breath, for love, for independence, for the truth that I am afraid to believe, that I don't really believe, no matter how much I fight for the right to believe it, that I can say no and still be loved.
But how can I be anything else? How can I not pay attention to the consequences of my actions on the happiness of others? How can I close myself off from their reactions to my behavior? I will become like other women I have loathed, those who are so tone-deaf to the body language and verbal discomfort of others that they march blindly on, stomping all over those around them cheerily, seemingly oblivious to why they are friendless and excluded?
I want to be loved, included. I want to have approval. But I also want to have my door closed and locked sometimes. I want to decline, to refuse, and to not be cut off or have to earn my way back. I want to have my needs met, and to not feel that a refusal from another is a judgement. But sometimes it is a judgement! And the judgement enrages me. Is it ok to set that rage down, to refuse the rage itself? And how can I do this without becoming the oblivious woman, without losing the sensitivity in myself that I actually like? How can I be aware of something without feeling it, when all of my intelligence springs from my ability to feel?
Maybe not everything is everything. Maybe it is just this one thing. I have another post on giving to panhandlers that I am working on, and it is a similar idea I am working on in that post. I guess it makes sense, since all of these struggles are about giving. The idea I am working on with that post is about just making a decision for that moment, and trying to not think too much about what it says for all time. Trying not to let it define my character. I'm always defining my character, other people's characters, always writing the novel that is my life. It is a lot of pressure to live your own novel, because every action and every sentence is a definition of your character. And it makes relations with other people rather depressing and stressful. What does this say about her character? What does this say about who he is?
Maybe it is just about today. Maybe it is just about right now. The book I posted about, Don't Shoot, talked about fundamental attribution error as it applies to crime and punishment. And maybe that's all this is, that I am struggling with the knowledge that I am making an error, and trying desperately to resolve the dissonance by applying it to myself as well as others. Maybe. But whyever I am doing it, allowing myself to step back and give both myself and others the opportunity to do something, say something, elect a choice and not have it stand as our character definition, is both exhilarating and terrifying. I can predict almost any character's actions - in any book, any movie. I know what is going to happen, because the signs are all there. But if actions in the plane of reality don't have the character definition function, then I have no idea what is going to happen, and I can't control anything, not even to predict my own actions.
I just have this feeling that I would be happier, and less likely to be tearing my soul apart with imaginary arguments, if everything didn't mean something. If moments could just stand on their own merits. If words could just be taken at face value. If choices, mine and those of other people, could just be situational responses to stimuli and not comments on love, goodness, and ultimate value. I just haven't figured out yet then how to decipher love, goodness, and ultimate value, and the idea that this might not be possible; that it might not be an attainable goal to be sure of love, or goodness, or ultimate value, is liberating, and very, very scary.