Don’t take it personally, papa

Logo of

In the many years as a separated father, I have repeatedly lived through situations in which I felt rejected, hurt, offended, or treated unfairly by my children. In such cases, I react either with verbal aggression or with withdrawal.

Basically, this topic runs through almost my entire life and has nothing to do with my role as a father. But in relation to my children, feelings of this kind are particularly intense and lasting.

I even think that a lot of people know such feelings. At least from time to time I can observe corresponding reactions from friends or colleagues. If the other person suddenly pulls back into the pout and can no longer be talked to or, on the contrary, appears irritable and aggressive, this can be an indication of hurt, rejection or injury.

What causes feelings such as hurt depends, among other things, on the individual personality structure. What deeply hurts one person, leaves the other completely cold. What is offensive to one individual, is completely meaningless to the other. So I'm writing here about individual reactions, which suggests that the reaction can look like this, but doesn't necessarily have to look like this.

As a separated father you may be familiar with the following scenario: Christmas is just around the corner and, like every year, it is necessary to clarify with which parent your child should spend the holidays. Since you should take into account the wishes of your child at least from a certain age, the question naturally goes not only to the mother, but also to the child itself.

How do you feel when you hope that your child wants to spend Christmas with you, but then you get the answer from her or him: "I would like to stay with mom for Christmas!"?

A second scenario: You talk to your child more or less frequently and regularly. Over time, the intervals between calls will gradually lengthen. At first this is not a problem and you hardly notice it. But one day you feel like you are the one who always calls your child. The reverse case - your child calls you - practically does not exist.

What does it do to you if you would be very happy to receive a call from your child, but the call does not take place? And how bad does it get for you when you know that your child talks to their friends on the phone every day, but hardly ever to you?

A third scenario: During a phone call with your child you feel huge longing and make the suggestion that your child should come to you for a few days during the coming vacation. Your child thinks the idea is great and euphorically promises you to coordinate with their mother and call back soon with the specific travel dates.

How do you feel if you don't hear from your child this week or the following week? How painful is it when you finally ask your child two weeks later and get the answer: "Oh, I completely forgot!"?

There are many conceivable scenarios that are likely to offend or hurt. For me, the question arises: How can I avoid feeling offended or hurt and reacting accordingly?

Before I state my point of view at this point, I would like to emphasize that I have no psychological or medical training. My college in this field is life itself, and I am writing here based on my life experience. Experts are asked to forgive me for my amateurism.

Let's just take the three examples from before, representing many conceivable scenarios. What do these three examples have in common? They are all related to hope (in the first case), wish (in the second case) or expectation (in the third case), neither of which were fulfilled.

There are of course differences between hope, wish, and expectation. You can find detailed explanations and definitions on the Internet, but I'll spare you that. The core of all three attitudes is that someone else is responsible for the fulfillment. Failure to do so can result in feelings of rejection or hurt.

A relatively mundane event - for example a rejection or a missed call - may become the trigger for feeling hurt or insulted when hope, wish, or expectation is at play. Because hope, wish, and expectation are closely linked to one's own feelings, and that's where things start to get complicated.

So does it do the trick to not have any hopes, wishes or expectations towards one's child or other persons in general? Because then there can be no disappointment and, as a consequence, no offense, rejection or hurt. Is that the solution?

It's not quite as easy as it looks at first. For example, when I'm looking forward to seeing my child, then I also wish that the visit comes about soon. Then I have the hope that not all flights are booked for months. And I expect my child's mother to stick to the agreements made and not stand in the way of the visit.

All this because I'm looking forward to seeing my child. If I didn't do that, I wouldn't really care if or when my child arrives or whether there are still flights available. But I do care, and I am happy. And because I am happy, I hope, I wish and I expect certain things.

Yet a lot of things may quickly vanish into thin air when one of the participants doesn't want to or is not able to make it happen, or simply forgets it again. Then I am left with my anger, my sadness, and my disappointment.

Unless I have left room within myself for changes and failures of any kind. I don't mean to say that it is best to expect the worst right away, because then you can only be positively surprised. This is of course a possible strategy, but it also takes away the anticipation.

I think it's about finding the fine line between “I wish so much” and “If it doesn't work out, it's good as well”. Sometimes I succeed in it, but there are cases when it is just not good if it doesn't work. Perhaps there is not always that fine line.

I also believe that one should be more sparing with hopes, wishes, and expectations on other people. In doing so, one expects the others to assume a responsibility that they may not or cannot accept at all. And in many cases these people do not even know that they have a responsibility, namely when it comes to unspoken hopes, wishes, and expectations.

But even if they know about it, there is no guarantee that everything will turn out as it is supposed to. That brings with it the diversity of people and the unpredictability of life. Therefore it may be very helpful not to take personally everything that happens and what others do or say.

The Mexican shaman and author Miguel Ángel Ruiz wrote in his book “The Four Agreements” from 1997: “Learn not to take things personally. Nothing that other people say or do is about you. Their words and actions are in fact a reflection of themselves".

850 kilometers are no big deal if you go on vacation, but they surely are if you miss your children. Stories from a German father. (