MAZ AND HANNAHMy wonderful stepdaughter, Jessica, is away this week visiting baby Taylor and family. She’s with us for the summer before going back to college in the fall, and she watched the house while we were away for our own Taylor travels. Before she left, she had a blowup with her Dad. She wrote me today, asking if he was still mad…… and if there were going to be “awkward silences” when she came home. This is my letter to her. I’m posting it, because…well…just because…

“Jessie, your dad is not mad at you! He deeply loves his children. He gets really prickly when he feels disdain or disrespect in anyone’s voice. He’s dealing with a LOT of frustration these days, but is having some really great insights with our counselor. We both are.

In a prior relationship, my old boyfriend taught me how to speak to one another in relationship. I’m pretty good now at being able to talk to anyone with a lot of patience and a very healthy awareness of my own part in any situation. I am always—out of habit—asking myself, “What did I do to bring this down on myself?” Sometimes, I realize I did absolutely nothing to bring ANYTHING raining down on myself, but even still, at those times, I tread very softly when talking about the situation/offense.

It wasn’t just my boyfriend, but a counselor and a book that utterly transformed my communication habits. The book was called, “You’re Not What I Expected,” and was all about the skills one needs to develop in order to have intimacy, trust, support, and goodwill in a close relationship (family, friend, or spouse, although the book was focused on marriage communication).

What I remember most from that book, my counselor, and my old boyfriend was this: If you want intimacy, trust, and respect from a relationship, then there is never, EVER any room for meanness or sarcasm. Months or years of trust and kindness can be utterly undone in one nasty confrontation.

Pardon me while I ramble on a bit here, but I think these things are worth reflecting on. Anyhow, Carter has benefited by my previous “training,” and has learned to discuss really painful topics with me with faith that he won’t be belittled or blamed or made to feel like a jerk. He’s really sensitive to that. EVERYONE is!!

In the three years I’ve known Carter, he has never blown up at me. He’s gotten bitchy a few times, but very, very rarely. He’s become used to not having to be guarded or defensive around me.

Before you left, you said something I have been thinking about. I think I said something like you need to tread lightly and watch your words around Carter and you said something like, “but that’s not really fair. It’s his problem,” and I know exactly what you mean. One person’s issues should not govern how everyone acts around them.

This is what I’ve come to know about that perception: Jess, in a perfect world, you are right. No one should have to tip-toe around anyone to keep the poop from raining down on them. HOWEVER, biologically speaking, human creatures are highly social. We cannot survive alone and are a “herd” species—actually a tribal species. We need to have highly developed food/shelter making abilities, but even more, we have to have very sensitive antennae to those around us. Otherwise, we get fired from jobs, we get killed by family members, we get “shunned” and ignored or given the silent treatment from our friends,  and no one is supportive of us for long. Out in nature, that would be our death sentence. Out in our current culture, failure to read people and act accordingly is death of another kind: We will never be able to cultivate stable, supportive, loving, respectful relationships. It really is that simple—and that unfair if you want to look at it that way.

Perception is really everything in life. I have to remind myself of this all the time, over and over and over every day. For example, you could say that to “fit in” or “be successful,” you have to kiss ass, be manipulated by others, walk on egg shells all the time, adjust your habits in ways that seem bothersome and like you are in a kind of jail sometimes, lose yourself to the whims of others, and never feel completely “free to be.”

I am a basically selfish, controlling, territorial women who really wants things my own way. When I don’t have things exactly my way, I get nasty. That is the “me” I have to live with and moderate. Because when I ask myself “What do you truly want in life, Susan,” I realize that what is MOST important to me is inner peace, a life of harmony and balance, strong and lasting friendships, and no drama. Clearly, my basic nature works against peace, harmony, and no drama. SO, I have had to say to myself, “Susan, what will it take to have what you truly want and what you intuit is truly healthy and good for you in this life.”

The answer to that is, I have to be willing to give up or compromise or “tame” my basic nature. For decades, I argued with this truth. Decades. Then, I came to realize that acting out my basic nature really didn’t feel very good, not only to those around me, but—shock!!–to me either.

So I began to learn how to capitulate and go with the flow willingly, rather than with my usual resentment and frustration. Resentment and frustration feel crappy. I’m tired of them.

With practice, I’ve come to see that I LIKE the me who is kind, understanding, and willing to bend to keep the peace. Sometimes, I bend too far and then have to work at unbending, which is a drag, but it is far better than the alternative, which is to have very little peace, harmony, and loving relationships over the long haul.

In learning to see with more compassionate eyes, I recognize your father as a man with very deep feelings, a strong sense of justice and fairness, a lot of love to give, and—like every other human on the planet—full of his own unique brand of neuroses and behavior problems. Unlike most every other human on the planet, he is aware of his shortcomings and takes responsibility for them, and changes his world as much as he can to be a better husband and father. Sometimes, he is more successful than others.

Sometimes, I am able to be less selfish, territorial, judgmental, and bitchy than I am naturally inclined, and sometimes I am not. Humans are, I believe, basically very messed up animals. I don’t know if we’ll really survive ourselves for long.

Anyhow this is a very long and protracted way of saying that we all—all three of us—must work at being kind, empathetic, and respectful to each other around the house. Things are tough on us all for different reasons. You have had a very hard year, financially and emotionally. We’ve had the same. Our months together here on Cox Drive are a good training ground for all three of us to practice respect and kindness and honesty with each other.

In simple language, don’t dis your dad, no matter how frustrated you get with him. It won’t do you—or him—any good. Trust me on this. As a good and generous parent, he really has a right to be treated respectfully, with no eye-rolling, from his children. He deserves that from his wife, too. And the more his is treated that way, the kinder and better humored he is, and the less energy he has to put in defending himself and de-stressing.

Try it—you’ll (both) be happier for it!

Much love,

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  1. Kerry says:

    Susan, one of the reasons I follow your work and your blog is you so often articulate and reflect my own inner journey. I suppose the journey of any aware human. I too am working to tame my basic nature, which is much like yours, in order to have inner peace, harmony and loving relationships. It is good to be a part of a community of people who can support each other. How unexpected to find myself and my struggles reflected in this letter to your step-daughter. Thank you for sharing yourself with us.

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Yes, Kerry, my experience has been that if you can write about life in non-condemning and non-judgmental ways, it seems that every experience we have lived and can share is universally helpful!

  2. valerie says:

    Whew! That was a powerfully emotional writing, Susan. I don’t get on this site much these days but that’s to come later in my writing.
    I cannot relate to being controlling and/or selfish. I see too many people like that and it is frustrating. I don’t operate that way. I have lived with the idea that giving and helping bring rewards that can never be achieved by being selfish. My thoughts on people who are controlling may not be welcomed here so I won’t state them. I work in an atmosphere of people who are selfish and controlling. One in particular cannot give an inch for fear of losing ‘control’. In behaving like this she upsets the work atmosphere. To make things worse, she is the supervisor. Sad as it is if she were to work with the rest of us as a team we could accomplish so much in a pleasant work environment.
    I have bigger problems at the moment which makes me look at life and all it has to offer or take away. I have never taken anything for granted. Every day is a gift of Nature to be cherished. Yes, I have my bad days, ugly moods and insecure moments like everyone (humans and animals alike) because we are all made of complexities called emotions. Our daily encounters have strong effects on all of us. In my opinion, this compiled with our upbringings have impact on how we deal with the worlds around us.
    Currently my husband is dealing with recurrent and inoperable bladder cancer. He has gone thru one year of chemo and almost completed a second but it was stopped because the treatments were not doing anything. We are now getting ready to travel to San Francisco tomorrow for a consultation for potential clinical trial treatments. We have been married for 2 1/2 years. This is the man I have waited for all my adult life. He is the most loving, honest and giving person I have ever known. He is a gem. He is my life and he is suffering and I cannot do anything about it other than offer support in my own way. He does not deserve this. So why is it happening to him? A chance meeting with a person left a message to him regarding this and it was, ‘you have this happening because there is a lesson in it for you to learn.’ It was the 2nd person who told him the same. I was the 3rd person to tell him this. Each of us who said this was unaware the others had said the same thing my husband informed me.
    Until something like this happens to a person, there is no way of knowing how one will react. I like to think our life together will be long and peacefully harmonious but I fear it will not. There is such a wide area of thoughts, emotions, fears and moments of anxiety that go thru my mind daily and wake me up at night.
    What the outcome of it all will be is unknown but in the meantime, I feel the best way to live is to embrace each moment with compassion, clarity and love.
    Tomorrow is promised to none of us. It is something to think on for everyone.
    Thank you,

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Valerie, I am so sorry about your husband’s challenges. Cancer is a huge beast, who changes lives forever, whether we survive it or not. I ache for you that you have not had nearly enough time of bliss with your new husband! You are so right that not one of us is promised tomorrow. Wise and true words. The best thing I ever did for myself when I can cancer is to take the program that Commonweal offers in Bolinas, California. It was transformative for me. You can find them at, under the cancer help program. I can’t praise it enough. Meanwhile, I find myself deeply sobered by your circumstances, and will be praying for both of you.

  3. Cindy says:

    Seems I am at odds from time-to-time with my inner self as well. On the one hand I am considerate, moderate and sensitive to other people’s thoughts and feelings. Then there’s the side of me who wants to tell them where the bear poops in no uncertain terms! I am only responsible for MY thoughts, MY feelings, and if someone wants to get all worked up over something I’ve said or done, well….that’s THEIR problem…right? Yes and no. But I think you hit it right on the head Susan when you said we are social creatures, we move in herds and yes, we are part of a tribe whether we want to be or not. Short of living in a hermit’s shack up in the mountains (which I’ve considered before) we will be happier and more peaceful people if we learn to get along. Simple as that…..right? Right……well, not without some mess involved.

    We as human beings are like rough hewn rocks, but put us in a tumbler and my rough places bump up against your rough places and what happens over time? We smooth out, we become polished, we gleam. That’s how it works. The rough places in our personality are there for a reason, to be made beautiful…if we allow it. Or, we can stay rough and scratchy and dull. It’s a personal choice, but I would rather go through the sometimes messy work of honing my life/people skills then stay rough. I like gleaming, I like looking shiny….and if I stumble and fall and rough up my skin again, well, back into the tumbler I go!

    It’s all good…..and a little cabin in the mountains doesn’t hurt sometimes either! I just make sure I come back down amongst the tribe…..refreshed!


    P.S. to Valerie……..I should have started out saying this , so forgive me…..

    I am moved by your struggle, the seeming unfairness of it, the immense amount of equilibrium you must summons each day. Just know you are not alone, each one of us can tell stories of the things that eat at us, that try to destroy. Some are physical, like cancer, and some are mental, like deep emotional scars. We are with you dear heart, please know you are held in a place of reverence. It’s an honor to bear witness, an honor and a privilege to lend support. We are one…..and we are here for you.

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Well said, Cindy. I really like the tumbler analogy! Yes, that’s how it feels: like colliding against others til I smooth out! I want to add that while I am selfish, territorial, and controlling, I believe most people who bump up against me are not aware of that—these days. Lots of years in that ol’ tumbler!

  4. Renae Barnett says:

    Wow! What an honest and heartfelt letter. I do hope for everyone’s sake that this young lady hears. I myself struggle to act as a go between my husband and his 3 sons. They do not see there father as human and making any mistakes, therefore everything he does must be intended which most of the time is quite the opposite. But, he loves so deeply and does get confused and hurt by them, I understand all sides. Hence, my dilemma.
    Thank you for allowing us to share this, and to see we are more alike than different. Moms can be pretty smart and insightful sometimes.
    Hugs and Blessings to all.

  5. D.B. says:

    I’m late to see Susan’s letter, still wanted to share hope it’s not too late?

    The road between parent and child is (as with Susan’s letter to her step-daughter) forever a constant opportunity to explore every aspect of love, grace and understanding. For me it is not about right or wrong, being the best or the worst; its life in action. Being a parent or a partner to someone is a chance to be our true self our true best not only to ourselves but to the ones we love even if at times it might seem like they are not feeling or acting the same towards us.

    Feeling great appreciation and respect for you and your husband. I will put you into my meditations, sending you a warm light of peace…

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