My mother put her heart and soul into being a mother, and yet, she’d be the first to admit she wasn’t perfect. When I speak to her now, she frequently says, “I did my best, but there was no school for mothers.”
Sure, she probably got some things wrong. But she also got a lot right. And when it came to getting along with people, my mom was especially wise. She had an instinct for relationships, what we’d call today social intelligence. I’m grateful to her for that. In fact, I find myself quoting some of her aphorisms to clients and students, which might be annoying, but also tells me, a) the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and b) a lot of what she taught me I find useful today.
In honor of mother’s day, I’d like to share the some of her expressions and the lessons in them I find relevant today.
Pick and choose your battles. This one I heard a lot! Maybe because I was a sensitive child, easily upset and hurt. But the lesson in it for me was: Don’t react to everything. You have to let some things go. Be judicious and thoughtful in where you want to put you energy. It was my first lesson in detachment. And it still is incredibly helpful to me today, both personally, and professionally. In my own life, there are so many things I can react to, focus on, push against, fight for, but I have to continually ask myself, how important is that? Is it really necessary? It also guides me working with people. There are many things to focus on, but essentially, there’s just one important leverage point in helping people change.
Consider the source. I’m not even sure what my mother meant all the time, but she said it often. Sometimes it was a prompt, a way to get me to consider the other person’s motive. It was an exercise in empathy and also in detachment. When I was hurt by things a friend did or said, my mother used to always say, well, why do I think they did that? Could they have been hurt? Jealous? Maybe afraid? And how did I feel about that person? Was I upset over something someone did whom I actually didn’t like very much? Did I value them as a friend? Were they someone I respected? One thing I learned from it was not to take everything personally. People have their own motives for doing things, and even when it involves you, it’s not necessarily about you.
You can’t fight fire with fire. At the time, I took this to mean that I had to be more strategic in how I responded to people. I couldn’t just escalate, or react back to people in the same way they were acting with me. Now I see it as the essence of nonviolence, reminiscent of the quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It also means that you can’t change a system using the framework or method of the system itself. The problem you’re trying to solve and the way you’e trying to solve it are inextricably linked. Wise words, Mom!
You get more with honey than with vinegar. My mother and father were different in this way. Together they were a great combination. My father was a straight shooter. He never sugar- coated anything, and would often tease my mother about being too sweet, about finding something positive to say about everything. It’s true, my mother always found a positive way to say things, even criticisms. I follow this advice a lot. Probably because I’m more like my mother than my father in this way. Having to give difficult feedback, it definitely makes for a better learning experience to do that in a sensitive and caring way.
What about you? What words of wisdom from childhood still guide you today?