My long-suffering wife has earned that sobriquet. I was a kvetcher long before my cancer diagnosis, ruminating on and over-sharing my concerns.
But now after 30 years of marriage and putting up with my vocalized emotional turmoil, exacerbated by a year with the greatest health challenge of my life, Jody’s had it with the suffering.
No, we’re not splitting up or anything drastic. But I’ve been read the riot act: “You’ve got to self-regulate, husband.”
Jody’s change in attitude started around the time I went into remission last year.
I was already worried that sharing my “good news” would lead to a flurry of “congratulations” and “way to go” messages that didn’t address the fact that I’m just in the first part of a long treatment protocol, that I’m far from being side effect free and, as someone with a chronic and incurable cancer, I didn’t deserve any accolades about “beating” the disease.
What I didn’t realize is how the remission would also affect Jody.
“I’m ready for this cancer to be done,” Jody said one night as I was too fatigued from my most recent immunotherapy session to get up from the couch and walk the dog.
“Yeah, me too,” I replied.
“Maybe you can, you know, complain a little less about it?” Jody said. “It’s like your fears about the future have created this constant background music. I’m not saying you have to hide where you’re at. I know you feel crappy sometimes. I just wonder if you could turn down the volume a bit?”
THAT’S WHERE self-regulation comes in.
Self-regulation is the ability to keep your emotions in check, explains psychotherapist Andrea Bell on the GoodTherapy website. Someone with strong self-regulation skills “can resist impulsive behaviors that might worsen their situation, and they can cheer themselves up when they’re feeling down.”
Put another way, as Arlin Cuncic writes on the website VeryWell, it’s about “thinking before acting.” Or in my case, considering whether I really need to express a particular gripe out loud, or whether I’d be better off keeping it to myself.
Words and phrases like “postpone,” “pace yourself” and “choose what to say” can help one cultivate a more self-regulatory approach to life.
Self-regulation sounds self-evident – of course this is how we should be in the world. But it’s not something we’re necessarily born with. We have to learn it.
Usually that happens in childhood. Toddlers who throw tantrums eventually figure out how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without flying into a rage. However, children who don’t feel safe and secure, or who are unsure whether their needs will be met, may have trouble soothing themselves and self-regulating.
I don’t know if I fit into that category as a kid, but I retain a strong impulse to verbally vent as an adult. That’s the crux of the crisis with my wife.
I BROUGHT UP the topic with my therapist.
“Any feelings you’re having are OK,” she reassured me. “It all depends on what actions you take around those feelings. Can you find other people to talk to, not only Jody?”
“You mean, like... friends?” I said in return. “Yeah, I’ve tried that in the past. It didn’t work out so well.”
I remembered how, when I used to work in Tel Aviv, I had a boss with whom I didn’t get along so well. He bullied me and I was miserable most of the three years I worked at the company. On the long commute home to Jerusalem each night, I would call a couple of confidants on my car’s speakerphone and proceed to growl for an hour.
Eventually, my friends got burned out, as Jody was now.
“It’s not black or white,” my therapist added. “You can still share your distress with Jody, just not all day long. Maybe delay the desire to grumble in real time and limit it to an evening check-in. Or avoid being together in the same room when you’re in a particularly vulnerable and vocal state.”
Off-loading some of my anxiety to friends who also care about me could help with the balance, she suggested.
“Can they be virtual friends? On Facebook?” I asked.
“Better to get together for coffee in person,” she said.
Such an old-school approach to relationships!
THE TRUTH is, friends have been calling me, but I’ve mostly rebuffed them, not wanting to be a burden as I was with my Tel Aviv commute buddies. Instead, I turned Jody into my safe place.
“You’re like my personal human Evernote (my favorite note-taking app),” I once joked to Jody. I thought that if she could hold my worries, I could let go of them for a while.
I love my wife dearly, of course, and the last thing I want to do is cause her pain. So I’ll give it a try. I’ll meet up with friends. I’ll try to keep the volume down. I’ll think before I act or speak. I’ll postpone and pace.
People who are adept at self-regulating tend to “view challenges as opportunities,” writes Cuncic. They “are clear about their intentions, act in accordance with their values, put forth their best effort [and] keep going through difficult times.”
Those are all attributes worth aspiring to. Maybe getting cancer will be the trigger that helps my wife to no longer be so “long-suffering.”
Perhaps the same will be true for me.The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com
Correction: “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.” “Sshh, don’t say anything or everyone will want one!” That’s meant to be funny, of course, but my misrepresentation of Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz’s fly-in-the-soup story in “Judaism’s honesty problem” was serious business. As several readers have pointed out, a fly floating on the surface wouldn’t have made the soup treif once removed. In his talk, Leibowitz spoke of a fly lost in the pot. I apologize for the error.
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