Managing My Inner Brat
The Sunday Times (London), by Helen McNutt, December 01, 2006
It’s Friday morning. It has been nearly three weeks since I finished with my boyfriend of five and a half years. I’m at a seminar called The Landmark Forum, standing in front of a microphone in a room of 150 strangers, answering the questions of a bespectacled Australian called David. He has asked me what area of my life I want to change. I have answered “relationships”; specifically, that I don’t want future ones to work out as my last one did. My boyfriend didn’t love me, I said; also, he tried to control me.
So, Helen, give me an example of your boyfriend trying to control you,” says David.
“Well, a few weeks ago ... God, this sounds really stupid.”
“Don’t worry, it always does.”
“Okay, so we were catching the train. I was starving and didn’t have any money on me, so I asked him for 50p for a packet of crisps, and he said no. He didn’t want me to get crisps because afterwards, I’d moan I was fat.” (Also, he thought we’d miss the train — I leave this bit out.) “Then what happened?” “I got really angry because he was trying to control me.”
“Then what?” “Erm, I stole his Mars bar.”
From the crisp incident, we unpick my relationship, which involves — you guessed it — going back to my childhood. I tell David about my dad, who worked ridiculously hard when I was young and who I felt I didn’t see much of. Whenever he was around, I resented him telling me what to do. But the way I framed it, he was never there and he didn’t love me. In my head, I’d grown up hating the feeling of being dominated, and associated it with people not loving me.
As we talk this through at the seminar and I answer some more questions, it dawns on me that I’ve been playing out the relationship I had with my dad with my boyfriend.
“I’ve been a brat, haven’t I?” David nods and hands me some tissues.
This is not what I expected. Most personal development work is about making you realise how great you are. It seems someone forgot to tell this to Landmark. I am made to realise that neither my boyfriend nor my dad ever stopped loving me — that was just my interpretation. One of Landmark’s key tenets is that most of the stuff that happens means absolutely nothing in itself — we add meaning to it. The meaning we give is largely based on what happened to us during our childhood; it’s rarely grounded in reality. I therefore take my boyfriend’s “no” to mean, “I don’t love you”. Realising that I am a brat, a seven-year-old girl stuck inside a 27-year-old’s body, is surprisingly liberating.
Now, I know about relationships. I make my living writing about them. I speak to experts, read their books and go to their seminars. I know that nobody can be more or less than 50% responsible for a relationship, that falling in love is just hormones, and that the only way to make a relationship work long-term is to re-create it moment by moment. I thought I’d applied all this wisdom to my own relationship, but I realised I had only talked about it.
So, I call my ex-boyfriend. I tell him I’m sorry, that I’ve been a brat and that I love him. He agrees, and tells me he is still angry with me. Then I call my dad and say the same things: he is lovely about it.
During the rest of the seminar, we work through other issues. We uncover the traits that have made us successful and those that have held us back. And we work out what stories we’ve been telling ourselves that have been running our lives for us. It’s not hugging your inner child. It is acknowledging that what happened when you were young shaped you into who you are today. And then getting over it.
When you begin to examine your behaviour in a rigorous way, you see that things you always thought were “their fault” are at least partly yours. Although this is initially uncomfortable, it is also empowering — victims can’t change things, perpetrators can. So, throughout the weekend I’m back on my mobile, contacting friends, ex-friends, family, even my dad’s ex-fiancé, cleaning up the past and letting these people know I love them. Scary? Yes, but the people I speak to are delighted.
A few days later, I meet up with my ex. We sit down, and, as you do in post-relationship analysis, he begins to go through everything I did wrong. I now understand that I am just as responsible as he is for the breakdown of our relationship, that he did love me and that he was a saint to put up with as much as he did. Instead of “yeah, buts”, I simply nod and apologise. I don’t want to go back — all the seminars in the world won’t alter the fact that we’ re not right for each other — but the last thing we say to each other is, “I love you.” That seven-year- old girl? She’s finally been put to bed.