Sara* received this text from her older brother, Matt on Sunday:
“What time are you coming out here?”
Her heart racing, the fury rising from her stomach to her head, she threw her phone on the bed with such force it bounced twice and landed upside down. How dare he? She imagined all sorts of replies, fingers flying furiously over the touch screen – “Who are you to ask me what I’m doing with my Sunday?” “Suddenly when you’re in charge for 6 lousy days you feel a need to rub it in that I’m delayed?” “Where the hell have you been for 4 years?” “Don’t rush me please, I’ll get there when I can.” “F U!” She reached for the phone to share one of her enraged thoughts with Matt, struggled to enter her passcode and then, suddenly stopped. She threw the phone back down and stormed off to the shower.
Sara and her sister, Rachel, had been taking care of their elderly parents for almost 4 years, including through their mother’s illness and subsequent death. Both have families of their own, busy and stressful careers and very limited time. Both had complicated relationships with their parents and their siblings (of course!). Sara and Rachel were constantly texting each other and coordinating care – aides, hospitals, rehabs, activities, food, holidays etc. Their sisterhood was rekindled after a long hiatus but so was their anger and resentment towards their far-flung older and retired siblings. Especially towards the officious Matt!
Sara and I worked hard on her resentment in therapy during this stressful period in her life. She was grateful to have her sister back in her life. She felt proud that she was such a good caretaker to her parents. She was grateful to have had the opportunity to mend relations with her mother before she passed and to become closer to her father. But still, how did she and Rachel get stuck in the role of the primary caretakers? What was her part in letting that happen? Why wouldn’t those ungrateful, retired siblings pitch in instead of expounding illogical and impossible ideas from afar? So many of the caretaking duties could be handled by phone – local address not necessary!
In time, Sara became braver and addressed the issue directly with her siblings. When her mom was failing, she got on the phone and told each of them what she and Rachel were going through. She spoke directly and honestly and asked for their help. She beseeched them to clear their schedules and make a trip when needed – not all the time, but when it was important. She delegated some of the financial responsibilities to one brother. And recently, when her dad suffered an accident and spent several weeks in rehab, Matt arrived to facilitate his discharge and help her dad get settled at home. Rachel was planning a leisurely visit on Sunday to check in with her dad after Matt left and the new aide arrived.
And then that text screamed at her, “What time are you coming out here?”
In the shower, Sara continued raging to herself– “the nerve of him. He finally comes up to help out, and he’s already telling me when to come, how to be, what to do, how to take back the responsibility I so recently released…“ However, as the warm water flowed over her soothingly, her anger began to wane and she found the capacity to rethink the situation. Hmm… What did he really mean by that text? Maybe dad wants to know what time I’m coming. Maybe Matt just wants information. Maybe he has to leave earlier for his flight. And then a light bulb moment: Maybe I’m projecting all my earlier resentment on a 7-word text complete with punctuation.
The Perils of Projecting**
This common situation must ring familiar to all in this age where texting has become the communication de riguer replacing email, phone calls, and even the long lost art of actually meeting in-person. The lightening speed quality of texting is like a drug for the impulsive. A text is immediate, the quicker your response, the quicker your gratification. No need for punctuation, capital letters, bold or italics. Autocorrect will fix your spelling and often substitute when you’re not on guard. Emoji, when applicable, will inform the emotion.
Exchanges fly and for those of us who have a tendency to assume we know what the other is thinking it can be disastrous. Many unconsciously place the entire history of their relationship on to a few e-bytes sent through the cloud. Without the tone, volume and rate of the voice, all emotion is missing, let alone the facial expression and body language. We don’t have all the info, so we make it up. We fill in from what we know – from our own history, from our present mood, from some of our rigid thought processes. We fill it in with the stories we ruminate over, the stories we tell ourselves about the world we’ve created for better or worse. Intent and meaning are easily misconstrued. The impulsive quality of texting requires incredible discipline to “think before doing”, but most of us, with our busy lives prefer to just get on with it.
Sara decided to reply solely with information. “Leaving in 20”. With lightening speed, Matt responded, “Great. I’ll get to see you before my flight”.
*Name and content greatly modified to ensure complete confidentiality.
** We in the world of therapy roughly define the term projecting as denying the existence of our own unpleasant impulses and attributing them to others.
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