"Can We Ever Be 'Too Much'"

At our recent retreat in Assisi, Italy, besides visiting powerful spiritual places, our group entered into an atmosphere of deep healing. Sometimes Joyce and I have the opportunity not only to lead the retreat, but also to participate in some of the exercises for our own continual healing, which is an ongoing lifetime adventure. One morning, all of us in the group revisited our childhoods to more closely examine those things that still have power over us. We did this in small groups of four persons and, when it was my turn, I revisited some physical violence from my parents. Ever eager to delve deeper, I discovered something I had never seen before. Although I can’t remember ever hearing the specific words, the message was clear: I was too much for my parents! I was too stubborn, too strong-willed, too hard to control, and the word I did hear, I was “incorrigible,” which means incapable of being corrected.

The assignment for these small groups was for the other three persons to provide “re-parenting,” or loving, healthy messages to replace the negative ones. The three beautiful souls in my group did just that. They let me know in no uncertain terms that my “much-ness” was actually a beautiful quality, allowing me to be the loving, creative man and leader I am today. They also let me know that my parents didn’t have the skills to set healthy boundaries for themselves, in other words, to let me know with words, not violence, when my behavior was inappropriate or disrespectful. I could have grasped, even as a small child, that I was lovable, but sometimes my actions were not. Instead, being hit just reinforced the message that I was bad, that me and my actions were one and the same. Physical violence instills fear, not learning. Communication about the effects of my actions has the potential of distinguishing between who I am and what I do.

My adult mind of course knows all this. But sitting in the midst of three “human angels” gave me the chance to listen to their loving words with the ears of a small child, who still needs to hear that I am not too much, and that my parents were simply not enough. Yes, they loved me, but no, they did not have the strength and emotional skill to manage my behaviors.

Joyce and I, in our counseling practice, often hear parents complain about their children, even small children, being too much. Our work is to help these parents develop the skills and strength they need to effectively discipline their children, as well as to love their children for who they are. One mother described her five-year-old daughter as angry much of the time, and beyond her control, throwing things and hitting her. She would scream at her daughter to no avail, and end up leaving the room herself. In effect, she merely showed her powerlessness to her daughter, and then ended up abandoning her. She never considered that her daughter was in pain, and desperately needing love. This was primary. Besides this, her daughter was also testing the limits with her mother, seeing how much she could get away with. Children need to do this. I needed to do this!

But equally important, in addition to understanding and love, was her daughter’s need for clear messages that her behavior was not appropriate. This mother needed to learn to say a clear no to destructive behavior, while saying yes to the beautiful and innocent strength of her daughter. She needed to grow in strength to match the strength of her daughter.

These very same principles also apply to adult relationships. Jenny complained that her husband, Steve, was “too much.” He insisted on getting his way. He was too selfish. But what does this say about Jenny? She didn’t stand up for herself enough, or insist, half of the time, on getting her way. She let Steve get his way too much.

Okay, me too. Early in our relationship, I bulldozed my desires over Joyce. I’m so glad Joyce learned to stand up to me. And because of her strength, I have been learning selflessness and consideration of her feelings.

Another example. Cyrus felt that Vanessa was too sensitive and emotional, that his mildest criticism would hurt her, and then he would hear about it for a long time. He wished she had “thicker skin,” so she wouldn’t fall apart at the slightest provocation. Vanessa, meanwhile, told us her parents likewise wished she wasn’t so sensitive and emotional. Her feelings were too much for them. But it was Vanessa’s parents, as well as Cyrus, who weren’t sensitive and emotional enough. By rejecting their own sensitivity, they projected this rejection onto Vanessa.

Joyce, too, received the message early in her life that her sensitivity was not only too much, but it was also an affliction, something to be overcome so she could live a “normal” life. I try to tell her often that her sensitivity has richly blessed my life. It has enabled me to grow more into my own sensitivity.

So you could say, the appearance of “too-muchness” in one person is the result of “not-enoughness” in another person. My parents were not strong enough emotionally for me. Jenny was not strong enough with Steve. The mother was not strong enough for her little daughter. And Vanessa’s parents were not sensitive enough with her.

Are there exceptions? Of course. There are developmentally challenged or disabled children whose behavior cannot be controlled by any means. Adults too. There are adults suffering with mental or physical illness or addiction. There is abusive behavior in a relationship. Yes, the resulting behaviors can be “too much,” and can require some degree of separation.

But, other than these extremes, we need to see ourselves and those we love as “just enough,” rather than “too much.” There is no such thing as too much strength, too much exuberance, too much enthusiasm, or too much sensitivity. For the rest of the Assisi retreat, my three “human angels” took pleasure in reminding me of the beauty of my “much-ness.” I will never forget this lesson of love!

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