“Grandma! I got into Harvard!” I gleamed.
My grandma’s eyes glittered for one second.
She responded, “What about Stanford? It’s ranked the best college in the Chinese newspaper.”
My world came crashing down.
I was never good enough for my grandma
I thought I was going to be free of her by ignoring her calls and at times blocking her when she called incessantly. (I know it sounds mean but seriously, she maxes out my voicemail box).
When I was in college, I would receive 20+ missed calls from her daily and 20+ missed voicemails. Pretty soon, my mailbox would cry “I’m full.”
My psychologist didn’t let me off the hook
I thought my psychologist was going to advise me to stop talking to my critical grandma. Instead, she suggested I change how I react and and stop being triggered by her (her tips detailed below).
She believes it’s important to have good family relationships since they are a part of you.
I discussed how I got annoyed that my grandmother will call me daily and spurt unsolicited advice such as, “Amy, remember not to eat salt. It’s bad for you and will give you diabetes.” Another typical conversation:
“Where are you right now?”
“Out with friends.”
“What?!?!!!, How can you be out? It’s so late and the world is dangerous. There was a young girl on TV who looked like you that got kidnapped in Boston.”
Ponder the intentions of the negative family member
My psychologist asked me, “Why do I think she does this?”
I thought for a while and responded, “My grandma loves me by worrying about me. She worked as quality control for a clothing factory. So quality controlling my life was her way of showing love and care.”
After this realization, I asked for advice on how not to get triggered.
I tested out my psychologist’s advice for how not to get triggered
I decided to call my grandma and try it out. The conversation went normally on her end with criticizing the lack of organic vegetables in my diet (I eat veggies, just not organic ones).
I usually get upset and tell her to stop calling me with criticism and judgment. But this time, I was blown away by how calm I was.
I realized that she does this to all of her loved ones. My mom, my sister, and her friends also endure my grandma’s worrying and intrusive advice.
Why was I getting triggered?
Your family knows how to push your buttons because they are the ones that installed them.
-Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
I get triggered with anger because it brings me back to all the times she judged and criticized me instilling the idea that I was never enough.
Angry emotions exist on a continuum starting from annoyed progressing to upset to enraged. They reveal to us what we think is unfair. I usually stop myself before I get enraged by leaving the situation or hanging up the phone.
I realized that I was annoyed and sometimes upset that she was intruding with basic advice and implying I didn’t know how to live my life.
My first experience of calm with my grandma gave me hope for strengthening my familial bonds. I know I can reform the way I react to other family members and thus grow closer.
While they did install those buttons, you are responsible for unplugging those buttons. Luckily, there are clear tactics that you can implement to change your reactions.
Children form angry responses to family members
When we are kids, our emotions don’t have sophisticated responses. We don’t have the ability to react in a polite, adult manner.
In fact, psychologist Juli Fraga writes adults sometimes cope with our family by regressing to our childhood behaviors.
“Families are systems that often preserve old roles to avoid greater conflict,” adds psychotherapist Molly Merson. “Returning home as an adult, you might rehash old arguments, habits, or return to comfortable ways of coping, because you’re reminded of feelings and experiences that you hoped to leave behind in childhood.”
I reacted with anger, temper tantrums and creating a mess wherever I was. These responses as kids were recorded in our brains like a highway system. That’s why we slip into these reactions without thinking.
Now that I’m older, I can reform my reactions and rewire my brain’s response.
In order to reform your reactions, my psychologist recommended two tactics
- Change your beliefs. For me it was realizing that my grandma shows her love by giving unsolicited advice and I was probably not going to change her.
- Relax your body. Your mind takes note of how your body feels. If your body is tense, you are more likely to express anger. When I called my grandma, I made sure my hands were open (vs. tight fist) and my tongue was relaxed. These simple adjustments told my brain to feel safe and calm.
Repetition is key
Our childhood brains recorded those temper-tantrum ways of reacting, paving highways known as neural networks.
We can pave over them, but like all highway projects it will take time and work. And when we are tired, we go down old paths, so make sure you experiment with this when you are energized.
If you want to get closer to family members that trigger you, you need to reform your reactions to your family members. Each positive interaction will pave a new piece of road in your brain and if you keep at it, it will replace the angry highway you paved in your brain as a kid.
Reforming your reactions to family is a journey. Have patience and fun along the way. Every positive interaction is a reward for your soul.
Like this article? See more articles I’ve written below:
20 Timeless Chinese Proverbs You Need To Know
Proverbs that help you navigate a confusing time