There was a time in my life when I barked orders more often than I spoke words of love. When I reacted to small everyday inconveniences as if they were major catastrophes. When normal human habits and quirks raised my blood pressure to dangerous levels.
Rather than nurturing my family members, I took it upon myself to manage my family members—until there was no room to bend or breathe.
My artistic, busybody, dream-chasing older daughter's desire to start projects, try new recipes and leave trails wherever she went received disapproving looks on a daily basis.
My stop-and-smell-the-roses younger daughter's desire to buckle in stuffed animals before we drove off, accessorize every part of her body before walking out the door and tendency to move at a snail's pace drew exasperated breaths and annoyed frowns.
My fun-loving, laidback husband's spontaneous approach to weekend plans and his ability to totally chill out got the silent treatment more times that I could count.
The people I was supposed to love unconditionally possessed qualities that irritated, annoyed and continually derailed my carefully planned agenda—an agenda that was all about efficiency, perfection and control.
I was not acting as a mother, a partner or even a decent human being. I was acting as a surly manager who was intent on creating a toxic environment—a place where it was pretty hard to show up each and every day.
How do I know?
Because even I could barely stand myself. I woke up angry and irritated, bracing myself for another day of managing the unmanageable. Forget about living. Forget about smiling. Forget about counting the blessings. The Grumpy Manager didn't do that. And everyone in the home began following suit.
Hair brushing was a point of contention. Each morning my older daughter obediently allowed me to brush hastily as I pretended not to see her wincing. We were in a rush after all. I hated to be late.
When it was my younger daughter's turn she would always ask if she could brush her own hair today. My response alternated between, "We don't have time today," and "When you get a little bigger."
On this particular morning my then 4-year-old child did not ask if she could brush her own hair. I was relieved. I calculated that I could get this hair into a ponytail, prod her to put on her shoes quickly and be out the door in less than two minutes—because managers always calculate.
As I hastily gathered her unruly curls into my palm, I happened to get a glance at my reflection. My brows were knotted together tightly. My mouth set was in a hard, thin line. I looked haggard, hopeless and sad. I would have dismissed this disturbing sight had it not been for the fact that my child was staring at my reflection, too.
If expressions could talk, my child's face would have said this loud and clear: Who are you? Where did my mama go?
I felt my face grow hot. I felt tears wanting to come forth, but I blinked them back—because managers know there's no time for tears.
But instead of continuing to brush with vigor, I suddenly stopped. With trembling hands, I held out the hairbrush to my child.
"How would you do it?" I asked in a shaky voice.
She looked shocked, as if I was offering her a furry tarantula. But as I continued to hold out the brush, she eventually picked it up.
With small but agile hands, my daughter brushed the sides of her hair from top to bottom until it was silky smooth. She then carefully draped her hair softly over her shoulders and smiled proudly at her reflection. The manager in me noticed she did not brush the back of her head, but I remained quiet.
My child met my eyes in the mirror. "Thank you, Mama! I always wanted to do that."
With those words, I felt as though I'd been given a gift. I vowed to look for more potential hairbrush offerings to reduce the managing and increase the nurturing in my interactions with my loved ones. It didn't take long to see there were many opportunities to open my hands and ask: How would you do it?
The way my partner took care of the kids, tidied his area of the bedroom, prepared meals, put away the groceries and paid the bills were not wrong—just different from the way I do things.
The way my older daughter packed her swim team bag, emptied her swim team bag, saved money, selected gifts, completed projects, did homework and baked cookies were not wrong—just different from the way I do things.
The way the clerk bagged my groceries, the way my colleague took ten extra steps to accomplish a task, the way my sister sipped coffee and read the paper before starting her day were not wrong—just different from the way I do things.
How would you do it? I commonly asked myself when the control freak inside me began to get agitated. As I watched the people in my life do it their way—in their own time—with their own flair, I saw sparks of joy I didn't see before.
And just like with my daughter and the hairbrush, I learned each person had specific Soul-Building Words which fueled that spark. Over time, I've collected quite a powerful list of words that helped me love my people in ways that helped them thrive. Like sunlight and water to a plant, these words nourish the deepest parts of their human hearts and foster growth in all areas of their lives. Hence, I call them Soul-Building Words.
"I will wait for you."
"Take your time."
"You make my day better."
I say these words to my slow-moving, happy-go-lucky, Noticer of life child. I watch as grateful eyes light up and tiny shoulders relax. Those words are Soul-Building Words to her.
"Mistakes mean you are learning."
"It doesn't have to be perfect."
"Sure. You can have a few more minutes to work on your project."
I say these words to my driven, contentious planner and pursuer of dreams child. I watch as pressure escapes from her chest and aspirations soar higher. Those words are Confidence-Boosting Words to her.
"I appreciate you."
I say these words to my hard-working, often underappreciated love of my life. I watch as tensions loosen, eyes meet and conversation comes easier. Those words are Affirming and Connective Words to him.
"It's good enough for today."
"Be kind to yourself."
"Today matters more than yesterday."
I say these words to my own perfection-seeking, worrisome heart that tends to replay past mistakes. I watch as my clenched hands open and tears fall as scars come to the surface. Those are Healing, Hope-Filled Words to me.
The words "I love you" should never be underestimated, but every human being has a few words that make their soul come alive. Find out what they are by removing the manager name plate and asking five powerful words: How would you do it?
As an unplanned blessing unfolds in your open hands, don't be surprised if a long-lost smile returns to your face.
—Rachel Macy Stafford, from the book LIVE LOVE NOW.
Originally posted on Hands Free Mama.