When I was in my early 40s, my mother came for a visit. She let me know that she didn’t feel that I acknowledged her birthday.
She told me that every year her feelings were hurt. And, she added, she had been feeling this way for many years, but finally decided to tell me. I realized, after some reflection, that she was right. I also realized that my lack of recognition of her had to do with some of my deep feelings that I hadn’t entirely owned.
That day, I went out and bought her a birthday cake (it was months after her birthday) and promised her that I would spend every birthday with her for the rest of her life. And so I did.
Every March 8, I flew to Florida and celebrated her birthday. It became a special time for us, and we both looked forward to those visits. I got to spend her last birthday with her, when she turned 92, several days before she passed away.
Just a week ago, I had a similar experience. Both of my daughters forgot to call me on my birthday! Sure, they had new babies this year, and they were very distracted, but I felt the same hurt that my mother must have felt. It was a sharp pain of disappointment.
But I decided not to wait 10 years before I let them know how I felt. I wrote them a letter about my disappointment and hurt and what I wanted from them. They responded with a heartfelt apology and a lovely gift. I immediately felt better after I wrote the letter and got my feelings off my chest.
So what lesson did I learn?
Don’t keep your feelings to yourself. It’s always a challenge to know when to simply “let something go” and when to share it. How do you decide? What kinds of issues are simply too small or petty to mention? What comprises a larger concern that needs to be addressed?
Unfortunately, there is no formula for making these decisions. Many of the hurts and disappointments of daily life are small. Yet these are often difficult to let go of. And then, if we think that we shouldn’t be so upset, we may be afraid that the other person will think we are small-minded or too sensitive. Perhaps they will be defensive and go on the offense. What if they’re hurt by our words? We certainly don’t want to hurt their feelings just because we feel hurt.
All of these considerations keep us silent when we should speak up.
It takes courage to express your heartfelt feelings. Speaking from your heart poses a risk. Maybe your loved one or friend will feel hurt or distressed by your words. Maybe your feelings will be further hurt by how they respond. But the person will also get to know you better and understand something about you, too. And just as your words may push you farther apart, they also may bring you closer.
Don’t overthink your decision about what to do. Do consider your choices, but don’t overrationalize your feelings. If this hurt is something that will turn into a resentment, say something.
Focus on how you feel and what you want. Consider how you want to communicate (in person or in writing) and be thoughtful, kind, clear and specific: “I felt hurt when you didn’t call me,” “Hearing from you on my birthday is important to me,” “I would appreciate a card (as in a real card, not an e-card) and a small gift.”
Minor concerns become bigger problems. Small disappointments can grow into major resentments. Don’t let that happen. Speak up.
Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.