©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

articles200408Andrea breezed into the restaurant, hung her cape on a coat peg, and slipped into a chair across from me. She had suggested lunch because, as she put it, “I want to share a success story with you.” From earlier conversations I knew that communicating with her boss had been an ongoing challenge. Six months ago Andrea had made a decision to stop overreacting during confrontations with him. As soon as the waiter took our order, Andrea launched into her story.

Starting at the beginning, she rehearsed what she had said in this latest episode, repeated what he had said, and ended by saying, “Aren’t you proud of me? When he lost his temper I just stood there calmly while he ranted and raved. I didn’t get upset, and I didn’t even cry!”

I truly wanted to be supportive, so I said, “Yes, I am proud of you. That’s a big step, learning to keep your emotions under control.” I quickly took a few sips of water, hoping to swallow my laughter. Unfortunately I lost the battle and began to chuckle. Her story was hilarious!

“Yes?” she prompted. “What’s funny?”

“Perhaps the next growth step is to explore your contribution,” I said. “Is there a chance you set up the situation so you could pat yourself on the back for not losing your cool?”

Her response was a deer-in-the-headlights expression. “Let me tell you a little story,” I suggested. “Once upon a time....”

Melissa wanted a goldfish. “Just one,” she cajoled. “I’ll take care of it all by myself and you’ll never have to do one thing!” Finally her mother agreed and they went on a shopping expedition to the pet store. After much consideration, Melissa selected a lovely little gold-orange fish, a bowl, and some accoutrements that made it look like the tiny creature was living in ancient Greco-Roman ruins. They also purchased a fish net, “so you can safely lift the fish out and put it in another bowl temporarily while you’re cleaning its home every week,” as the salesperson put it.

Melissa spent hours watching Fishetta. When it was time for the first cleaning episode, Melissa said, “I can handle it.” But she decided not to bother with the fish net. It’ll be faster if I just put my hand over the opening to the bowl and pour out the dirty water, she thought to herself. But wouldn't you know it? That little fish squeezed right through Melissa’s little fingers and was last seen heading down the kitchen-sink drain.

“I’ve misplaced Fishetta!” Melissa shouted. And she had—permanently. Of course the little girl was devastated, and she cried and moped and moped and cried.

“Save your allowance and you can purchase another fish,” her mother suggested. “And next time, use the net.” But Melissa didn’t seem to pay much attention to that admonition. She was thinking about what she would name the next tenant.

In due time the two of them made another trip to the pet store and returned with Fishelda. When bowl-cleaning time rolled around Melissa was certain that this time she could pour out most of the water without letting the fish slip by. Oops. The little beastie got through her fingers again and disappeared down the drain. There was another round of crying and moping. Finally her mother told Melissa that she needed to stop the histrionics. “After all,” mother explained, “it was your actions that resulted in Fishelda hightailing it for parts unknown in the sewer system.” So Melissa began saving her allowance toward the purchase of Fishinna. (Melissa had no shortage of names!)

When it was time to change the water in Fishinna’s bowl, Melissa was certain she could pour out most of the water without letting the fish slip by. After all, she’d had a lot of experience. This time the little gold fish wiggled through Melissa’s fingers, took a flying fish-leap out of the sink, and landed on the floor with a plop. It flopped around, its gills working madly, as Melissa made valiant attempts to retrieve it. Mother heard the commotion and came to the rescue. She grabbed the fish net and captured the little critter but it was too late. Fishinna turned up its tiny fins and sank slowly to the bottom of the bowl.

Melissa buried the tiny fish in the back yard under a monkey-pod tree. “I didn’t cry and mope when Fishinna got away from me,” Melissa said to her mother. “Aren’t you proud of me?" Silence. “Well, aren’t you proud of me?” Melissa persisted.

“I'm glad you didn't waste a lot of time crying and moping,” replied the mother. “However...”

“I know,” Melissa said. “If I’d used the net to begin with, I wouldn't have lost Fishetta, Fishelda, or Fishinna.

“And wouldn't have had anything to be upset about in the first place,” agreed her mother.

“And so,” I concluded, looking at Andrea, “Melissa brought Fishanza home from the pet store and used the net from then on.” There was no response but Andrea’s face held a puzzled look. “In metaphor,” I explained, “the story illustrates the difference between a band-aid (trying to rescue a bad situation) and a bonanza (taking preventive action that yields big dividends).”

“I understand the metaphor,” Andrea said, “but I’m not sure how it applies to me.”

I concentrated on my salad and thought: There is an ocean of difference between understanding a concept intellectually and putting yourself in the picture; in being able to stand back, as it were, and observe your own behavior to the point that you know how to alter it successfully. It’s the difference between recognizing an open door and actually walking through it. It’s all about awareness, insight, and choice.

Suddenly a knowing smile lit up Andrea’s face, and she began to chuckle. “Oh my,” she said, “I get it! I get it!” Andrea explained that her typical pattern had been to offer critical comments about projects at the end of the day, when her boss was tired and hurrying to wrap up his work. “I never could understand why he got irate and reacted negatively,” she mused. “And I was so proud of myself for not getting upset this time when he lost his temper,” she concluded. “Too funny! From now on I’ll choose a more appropriate time to offer my suggestions.”

Have any fish slipped through your fingers lately? Use the net!