Why We Get Caught in Power Struggles, and How to Let Them Go

This morning I had a fight with a 5-year-old, my 5-year old.  I decided to write about it because the resolution felt important to me, and a great reminder for all of us who don’t live in caves and thus participate in human relationships of any kind.

The fight: my daughter appears at the breakfast table, blurry eyed and sulky.  I ask her what she wants to eat and she points at the cereal shelf on which there is an open box of Multigrain Cheerios (plain O’s and sweetened flakes) and one still-sealed box of unsweetened regular Cheerios (no flakes).  I pull out the open multigrain box.  She whines and points at the plain box.  I tell her that I am going to give her the multigrain cereal since the box is already open and we don’t want them to go stale, which they will if both boxes are open. I’m not even sure my argument makes sense given the amount of cereal we go through in this house, but the fact is, she almost never eats the cereal no matter what box it comes from. And knowing this, I didn’t want to start a new box when one was already open.  So I pour her the multigrain cereal and head to the fridge to get her lunch ready, pretending that the Cheerios issue is sorted out and over.  I also pretend to be unaware of having given her something that she doesn’t want.

Reality however intrudes upon my pretending.  The sounds of whimpering along with a staccato, high pitched sniffling now become the breakfast serenade.

I am irritated and begin interrogating my daughter, “What is the problem?”  I ask, explaining that the only difference between the Cheerios she wants and the Cheerios I gave her is the flakes.  In the back of my mind, I know however, that the two cereals do in fact taste differently because of the sweetening, but again I pretend that I am not aware. I then go about removing the flakes from her bowl (oddly giving them to the dog) so that she is now left with just O’s in her bowl. At this point, there is a strong uptick in her whimpering, and then a plunge into full-on sobbing.  I continue to ask her  what the problem is and inform her that it can’t possibly be about the cereal.  I demand that she stop crying and use her words to tell me what is actually upsetting her. Most of all, I stand firm and unshakable in my decision to be the winner of this fight with my 5-year old.  I am the one in charge and I will not open the box of plain Cheerios, of this I am sure.

But even as I am standing strong, there is a voice inside me saying, “Nancy, stop it.  At the end of your life, is this how you will have wanted to be with your daughter?” Still, despite this voice and desperately wanting to not be doing what I am doing, I remain committed to winning the battle.

At last, divine grace takes my hand and places it on her little shoulder as wisdom grabs me by the throat, and I hear myself ask her, “Will everything be better if you can have the plain Cheerios?  Is this what’s wrong?”

As I pour her a fresh bowl from the new box of unsweetened, unflaked unmultigrain Cheerios, I feel my own tears rising as hers disappear.

This felt like a teachable moment too, not just for me but for my daughter. It was the perfect opportunity to show her my generation’s code for “She’s acting crazy.”  My daughter learned to “brush her teeth and curl her hair”—pointing at me and then circling her ear with her finger, which as I explained, would (in the future) help mommy wake up from her trance and stop being the crazy mayor of Cheerios town.  This, needless to say, was a lesson that she loved.

What happened next was that we shared one of the loveliest and most profound walks of my life—truly, deeply together.  After I dropped her off at school, I felt a limitless love, which also included a love for the limited-ness of being a human being. Our little Cheerios fight (and resolution) is now forever woven into the fabric of our life together as mother and daughter.

It is amazing to realize that this whole experience could have gone a radically different way and generated a radically different experience and effect.  Had I chosen to win the war, to prove that she would not get to open a new box, I would have walked away as the victor and with both the box and my heart closed.  I would have fed the narrative on being a good mom but starved myself (and my daughter) of the direct experience of being a good mom.

Instead, I opted to give the reins to my heart and not my head. In that choice to pour the damn flake-less cereal, everything in my universe (and I dare say hers as well) changed.

Since this event, I have been thinking a lot about what happens when we get caught in a narrative (teaching my daughter that she can’t waste food and needs to be flexible) or in the need to be right (I make the rules) so much so that we are willing to harm an important relationship for something that in the big picture is not that important or necessary.  And, how we can go on vigilantly defending an idea even when a strong part of us finds the whole argument (and us) ridiculous—and desperately wants out of the whole mess.

Undoubtedly I will receive dozens of emails explaining why it is important in the big picture to teach our children not to waste food and furthermore, that they can’t always have what they want just because they want it.  And, that sometimes we don’t have the option to just open a box of what’s wanted (whatever that may be). And yes, all that is true.

But what’s also true is that often what we are fighting for, if we are willing to pause and stop defending it for just a moment, is of little importance (even to us) and most of all, is costing us the experience and relationship that we’re actually living. In that moment in the kitchen, all I really wanted was access to my own loving heart.

While we can’t live every moment by the importance that it will hold when we are dying, we can live more moments than we do through a larger, more heart-centered lens. With awareness, we can reclaim those moments when we get fixated on defending ourselves at the expense of our actual experience and larger intentions. We can deliberately bring the question What really matters into our everyday life.

The next time you find yourself in a fight to be right of the Cheerios sort, stop for a moment and take a slow deep breath.  Notice the felt sense in your inner body.  Consciously soften and relax your chest and heart area.

Ask yourself:

     In the last moments of my life, is this going to matter?
Can I do this in a different way?
Am I going to like myself or be happy if I win this?
Am I being or will I have been the person I want to be if I continue to take this path?

Play with these questions.  If it turns out that you are able to step out of the battle, notice what happens inside you.  Sense how you feel about yourself and the other person.  Feel what happens in your heart.

The good news is that we can break out of habitual patterns—we can choose who and how we want to be in each moment, what part of ourselves we want to strengthen, and ultimately, what kind of life experience we want to create.

Copyright 2016 Nancy Colier

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