Chapter 14: Why we can’t help but look those gift-horses in the mouth.
In this chapter, Grimorex offers Queen Scarlet the gift of Meylyne’s alchemy and she asks what he wants in return adding, “this sort of generosity rarely comes without strings attached.” In this case it is normal for Grimorex to bargain with the lions in this way, but do you think that expectation happens in other situations too? If you give your friend a gift, or do your friend a favor, do you expect something back in return?
You might say no—that generosity with strings attached isn’t generosity at all—it’s a debt. I had a friend once who, when we fought, used to bring up all the favors she did for me to illustrate how I was a bad friend. “I did this for you and I did that for you,” she would fume. I remember thinking afterward, “if I’d known your friendship would come at such a price, I never would have accepted it in the first place.”
As my resentment grew, I reciprocated with list of my own—all the acts of friendship I’d done for her that she had failed to appreciate.
In other words, we both turned our relationship a scorecard.
You might think this is silly (and you’d be right) but in fact, it is incredibly normal. A friendship is a complex machine of levers and pulleys, unspoken agreements, differing currencies and what-not. If it starts to feel imbalanced on one side or the other, it will start to break down.
In hindsight, it’s obvious that all the lists my friend and I built missed the point. Those arguments were never really about the items accumulating on the scorecards. They were about our fears of being unappreciated—not being good enough in some way.
I see these sorts of tensions a lot with my second-grade daughter and her friends. In these cases, I don’t expect her and her friends to have the vocabulary, or the self-awareness to talk about what’s really going on. But those dynamics don’t end with elementary school—they continue through middle-school, high-school, college and beyond, when supposedly we have developed the self-awareness and vocabulary to know and discuss how we’re feeling. So why don’t we? Yes it’s scary to open ourselves up in that way, but we won’t die if we do it!
Or will we? According to our reptilian brain, we will!
Our reptilian brain is the part of our brain that, way back when, was programmed to protect us from saber-tooth tigers and the like. It served us extremely well in those times, flooding us with stress hormones so that, with razor-sharp reflexes, we would fight or flee. Now our egos are programmed to believe that if we are vulnerable—if we open up and let people see our fears—our very survival is at risk!
Of course it’s not really, but it’s hard to argue with our unconscious instincts. Much easier to react with aggression (passive or active). Think about the last time someone said or did something that hurt your feelings or made you feel embarrassed. Did you say anything to them? If you did, was it honest?
A friend of mine called Christine once gave another friend (Sam) a gift of a mouse pad with the picture of a cat on it. Christine knew that Sam loved cats and thought she would love the gift. Instead Sam got mad at Christine because Sam’s cat had just died and she thought it was insensitive. “I can’t believe you’d buy me a picture of a cat, knowing my cat had just died!” she raged. Then Christine got mad too. “I bought you a present—why can’t you just be happy!”
How differently would that situation have played out if instead of complaining about the mousepad, Sam would have said, “Lately I’ve felt like we’re not that close any more. We don’t hang out like we used to and that makes me sad.”
Far more productive conversation!
Scarier though. Maybe deep down Sam feared that Christine didn’t want to hang out with her as much because she didn’t like her any more, or she preferred hanging out with other friends. According to Rosalind Wiseman, the author of Queen Bees and Wanna-Bes, our friends feel like our lifeboat in stormy, shark-infested waters. Our reptilian brain tells us we will die if we lose them!
How do we stop this ancient part of our brain from controlling our thoughts and behaviors? In a word, mindfulness. Instead of reacting right away, take the time to witness your thoughts and feelings. The Girls Leadership organization focuses a lot on this. They call it “knowing how you’re feeling.” It can be calming to recognize when your reptilian brain has taken over. I won’t pretend that makes it any easier to open up. You can’t just turn off your fear. But you might be able to move through it into a real conversation.
Role-playing with a parent or a trusted friend is an excellent way to practice this new way of communicating. Did you see the movie, Inside-Out? Do you remember how at the end, all the emotions worked together in Headquarters? Role-playing helps accomplish that!
How about you? Is anything going on for you that makes you feel scared to be honest? I’d love to hear from you!