I didn't mean to be a condescending bitch. Yikes....
February 24, 2014 3:20 PM   Subscribe

After my grandma lost her shit with me last night, she's calmed down enough to admit to my father today that she feels like I can be really condescending sometimes. Eek. This is a piece that I want to work on improving, while I'm also learning to be much more on guard whenever I'm around my grandma. Can you help me be less of an annoyingly (unintentionally) condescending/smug person? Ugh. The worst.

Last night my 90 year old grandma, who can occasionally get super nutty and crazy mean (but hasn't, to me anyway, for over 10 years) suddenly launched into an enormously hurtful tirade about how I'm "wasting my life" (I have advanced degrees, own a company, and I have a kick ass daughter, but whatevs). She was vicious and relentless and I was in tears by the time my dad dropped her off at her facility.

Anyway, my dad has spent some time speaking with her today about where all that rage came from, and while yes it turns out she was angry about a lot of stuff that I have nothing to do with, she did mention that she feels like I can be really condescending with her sometimes. And the thing is, that rings true. It's especially true when I can see that she's in an angry festering mood and I'm just happy about life or when I'm multitasking with my 15 month old daughter running around. So I can see that there is definitely truth to that. And people who are condescending or smug make me want to slap them, and I really really do not want to behave that way ever again if possible.

I've started to put the hurtful stuff in perspective (she was essentially accusing me of being really lazy and not working enough, yet my business has been having a record breaking 2 months; however she's been lucky enough to never work a day in her life).

Anyway, underneath all of the messiness of this I do think she made a really valid point about my condescending nature (my little sister has complained about the same thing before) and I really do want to work on that. I think the crux of the problem I have is that in those moments I'm really (selfishly) focused on something I'm super happy about, so I have a harder time downshifting to match their moods when I need to connect with them and take care of them. Can you share any advice with me on how to a) notice that I need to reign it in, and b) hold onto my joy while downshifting to respect and meet the person's energy I need to take care of?

Thanks so much hivemind. My family thanks you in advance too. :)
posted by ohyouknow to Human Relations (52 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Focusing on something you're happy about around others or not matching their gloomy mood is not condescension. I think you need to give more thought to what you're saying that could be prompting their criticism.
posted by cecic at 3:27 PM on February 24, 2014 [25 favorites]

I would suggest simply taking the time to compliment her (or anyone else you may have this concern with) and show a genuine interest in her life, concerns, and any small daily accomplishments she may have. It's possible that when things are going so swimmingly well for you, that others simply feel their own insecurities. Also it's worth mentioning that she quite possibly doesn't feel lucky for having never worked before, and would've rather had the opportunities to develop herself the way a career develops a person.
posted by cacao at 3:29 PM on February 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hmm, I don't know if this question was framed in the best way if you really do want answers on being less condescending.

This scenario sounds like one where your grandmother was really nasty and critical to you in an over the top way about things that were ridiculous. So I think people are going to focus a lot in their answers about how you did nothing wrong to deserve that kind of torrent of hostility. And how there is nothing wrong with you for being happy or for paying attention to your child. Both of which may be true.

However, I think that really does a disservice to you if you genuinely want to know how to be less condescending. If, despite the fact that your grandmother was really nasty, you were ALSO condescending in that situation. If other people in your life are telling you that you are condescending, and it is true.

So I would like to ask for a follow-up.

What, specifically, did you say or do to your grandmother that was condescending before she went on her tirade? Like, can you remember what exactly it was that you said to her when she was "in an angry festering mood" and you were "just happy about life"?

What specifically was it that you said to your sister when your sister complained about you being condescending?
posted by cairdeas at 3:32 PM on February 24, 2014 [24 favorites]

If your interactions with others truly seem condescending when you are "focused on something I'm super happy about" (does this mean you're verbally sharing about that thing?), then you might try making a conscious effort not to bring up the things you are super happy about, unless you are asked about those things, or are asked why you seem so happy. If you go without doing this for a while, it could break the habit of sharing-in-a-condescending-manner. Then you could dial it up gradually while being careful about the manner in which you share.

Another (IMO more useful) tactic would be to approach a close friend/family member or two with whom you interact on a regular basis, and bring this whole topic up with them. Ask them for their opinion on it, and if they agree, to help you by pointing it out when you do it.
posted by hootenatty at 3:35 PM on February 24, 2014

Like cecic, I don't see any condescension in your description. I suspect that you're not actually condescending to these people but rather that they perceive it that way after the fact because they are looking for an excuse for their own crappy communication or poor behavior. However, I could certainly be wrong, I'm only a stranger on the internet. Maybe your sister (or an impartial friend?) could provide some examples that you could cite for us so we'll know exactly what behavior they are referring to.

Sometimes boundaries are misinterpreted as condescension by people who don't like boundaries. For instance, if my mom becomes hateful over the telephone with similar types of criticisms regarding my life, I tell her that I love her and I'm sorry she feels that way but that I'm not continuing a conversation in which she speaks to me in a hateful way. She thinks I'm condescending to her. But I'm not, I'm telling her what my expectations are for a relationship with her.
posted by dchrssyr at 3:37 PM on February 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

Like Cairdeas, I need much more detail about happened. What does this mean, for example: "she's in an angry festering mood and I'm just happy about life or when I'm multitasking with my 15 month old daughter running around." My read was that you were spending time with your grandma, but paying attention to your child and or/phone? Was this what precipitated her outburst?
posted by nanook at 3:38 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

however she's been lucky enough to never work a day in her life

Here is one specific example that may be relevant? If your grandmother has raised a child, then she has worked many, many days of her life at a very difficult job, even if she wasn't working directly for money. To me, to describe her as not working a day in her life is condescending because it's dismissing her labor as not "counting" or not being worth anything or not even existing compared to the type of labor that you do. Maybe one of the issues is devaluing good or significant things in the lives of other people?
posted by cairdeas at 3:41 PM on February 24, 2014 [50 favorites]

she's been lucky enough to never work a day in her life -- reeeally? I used to believe that about certain people, and then discovered that it is possible to do a crazy amount of labour without ever generating a paycheque. Was she "just" a mother? She worked. "A man may work from sun to sun but a woman's work is never done" comes to mind.

Also, while generalisations of hours spent on housework by homemakers claim that one spends more hours on it now than in previous decades, it sure looks a lot more back-breaking and horrible to wring cloth diapers by hand and take them out to a line than it does to shift them from washer to dryer, etc. Somebody born in the 20s will have had a very different experience of being the parent of a 15mo.
posted by kmennie at 3:41 PM on February 24, 2014 [8 favorites]

I'm not saying that you do this but are you "talking down" to her like she's too old to understand technology and modern stuff. Some people are sensitive to the tone used to talk to them.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 3:48 PM on February 24, 2014

Okay, these are great follow up questions, thank you.

What, specifically, did you say or do to your grandmother that was condescending before she went on her tirade? Like, can you remember what exactly it was that you said to her when she was "in an angry festering mood" and you were "just happy about life"?

Is it shitty of me that I can't remember? I know that I wasn't being attentive enough, but I was also trying to make sure my daughter didn't swallow any batteries while we were hanging out at her grandparents' house. I am going to ask my sister and others for specific examples because I think and believe there is truth to this, but I need to sift through some crap to see it more clearly.

What specifically was it that you said to your sister when your sister complained about you being condescending?

As I recall (I will follow up after I'm able to call her) we were commiserating around some family drama stuff that's been hard on both of us recently, but she's taking it much more closely to heart. So after listening to her vent for a while, I needed to wrap up our conversation so I restated what we agreed would be useful for her to focus on moving forward, and she complained that my tone was too haughty. So there's that. Not very specific either is it? I'm going to have to call one of my best friends for help on this.
posted by ohyouknow at 3:49 PM on February 24, 2014

Oh and truly--my grandmother was pointedly NOT a homemaker or a caretaker to her children. She sent them off to boarding school, when they were home they were forced to stay in their rooms pretty much 100% of the time, and she hired nannies and maids. She was super wealthy and definitely not that interested in being a mom or a homemaker.

I learned some of that last night and it's pretty astonishing.
posted by ohyouknow at 3:51 PM on February 24, 2014

Also, nothing predicated the outburst. Seriously. My father, my grandma, my daughter and I all got in the car. Once the doors were closed she started yelling at me.

It seems impossibly bizarre but that's just how she rolls sometimes.

Also, rather than focusing on the details of what happened last night (which were crazy and I probably shouldn't have but couldn't help write a lot about them because I'm still reeling) it would be more useful to focus on things I can proactively do moving forward.

I can't change her strange temper, but I can get better at demonstrating how much I love others.
posted by ohyouknow at 3:56 PM on February 24, 2014

It's hard to guess how you are being condescending from your description, but the only thing that stands out is this:

So after listening to her vent for a while, I needed to wrap up our conversation so I restated what we agreed would be useful for her to focus on moving forward, and she complained that my tone was too haughty.

To me, that sounds like the sort of thing a therapist or a manager might do to wrap up a conversation, not something that two equals would do. Your grandma might even consider you to be the junior person rather than an equal, so it is pretty condescending for you to "restate" stuff that she should focus on, like you are reminding her of things that she couldn't remember for herself.

It's hard to generalise from this, though. But maybe you might be bringing too much of your business manager personality into your family interactions? I think you need to ask your family honestly to tell you when they perceive you as condescending, and work on changing those specific behaviours.
posted by lollusc at 3:58 PM on February 24, 2014 [8 favorites]

Your last post sounds condescending in a judgemental kind of way. Do you think you might give the impression that you disdain her lifestyle and her choices? Do you feel compassion for what it was like to her in her generation? What secret heartbreaks and traumas has she had that could lead her to find safety in money?
I don't know if any of this is true. Just something to think about. You might take a lot of pride in all your accomplishments but do you take pride in her?
posted by SyraCarol at 4:00 PM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Once upon a time, I was in a mode with another family member where I would sometimes (not really meaning to, but nevertheless) act as if I were the more "together" person, as if I should be helping her or figuring things out for her. When I asked my cousin about that relationship, my cousin gave me the excellent advice that I should just ask this person for advice about something I was having a hard time with in my own life. That's it. Invert the dynamic where I was the more "together" one, put us on a more even footing.

What you say about your recapping the conversation with your sister sounds a little like that to me -- like maybe you are (maybe unconsciously? because of running a business?) putting yourself in the position of giving her action items, as if you're the team leader?

Are you a person who never asks for help? Sometimes asking for help/advice is a social gift to others, it shows you're vulnerable and trust/value them.

(This might all be inapplicable to your situation, but it's what came to mind for me.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:00 PM on February 24, 2014 [28 favorites]

First, thank you for spending time with your grandmother. You will always be glad that you did.

I've been spending every weekend with my 91-year-old uncle. He's still very sharp, independent, very active, but he's lonely since his wife of 63 years died. Most days we have a very fine time together; we do enjoy each other's company. Some days he's sad and angry, sometimes he expresses that, and sometimes he wants to be angry at me just because I'm there and people who matter more are not. It's just because I'm there and no one else is. You really can't take the anger personally. Ask yourself how will you feel once you're in those shoes. Reaching an advanced age can be truly hard, even when it's okay on the surface.

This part: Can you share any advice with me on how to a) notice that I need to rein (sp) it in, and b) hold onto my joy while downshifting to respect and meet the person's energy I need to take care of?

Your grandmother wants to be proud of you, but her measures of success are different from yours. Take a look at that more closely. You can tell her about all the wonderful things in your life in a way that she can appreciate.
posted by vers at 4:12 PM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

In the times I've felt condescended to, it was because I felt like I was being given advice when none was requested. It can really drive me nuts when all I want to do is complain and have someone commiserate, and they want to turn it into a workshop on why my habits aren't effective or whatever. My emotional needs are not the same as my logistical, problem solving needs.

Part of this is that you only ask advice from people you respect. So when it is offered unsolicited, it is kind of a way of elevating yourself above others.

My advice (hurr): don't offer your own, unless asked. And even then...
posted by danny the boy at 4:16 PM on February 24, 2014 [18 favorites]

You ask about how to downshift to match their mood when you're happy and they're not.

My advice would be to first make space for celebrating with appropriate people so that you can bask in the joy and the accomplishments you worked so hard to achieve. Then, be deliberate and aware that you are entering the space of someone going through a difficult time. Find a way to make space inside yourself for listening and being aware of what they might be going through and what they're feeling.

That's the theory anyway! It's not always easy, e.g., if she's there in the room when you get the good news.

It sounds like you might also need some help reframing things so that you can find respect for her. Maybe ask others what her strengths are? Maybe find out what she did for them or even for you when you were little?Find somehing you truly can admire and relate to her with that in mind.

It might help to remember that achievements are nothing next to character. If your achievements get in the way of respecting someone and being kind to them (because you think you're better or whatever), that's not good. You obviously realize this or you wouldn't be asking the question! But I thought I'd say it again since you're discussion spends a lot of time on what she did and didn't do. (Of course, this train of thought makes sense since she just said you were wasting your life.)

It also might help to consider confronting her. I come from a heavy Guess / "turn the other cheek" (ttoc) kind of background, and I've discovered that a little bit of direct confrontation can be helpful. If they attack me and I try to TTOC, I end up feeling like they are toxic, dangerous, irrational, etc. If they attack me and I say "are you serious? That's so unfair, " and they acknowledge that they were unfair and apologize, then I respect them more.
posted by salvia at 4:28 PM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Okay, so, I'm going to make a dodgy taxonomy here, but hopefully you'll find it helpful. There are basically two ways to have a conversation with someone: (A) listen to them, acknowledge their feelings, offer support and compassion; (B) listen to them and give your opinions about what they've done wrong and what they should do in the future to doing that wrong thing again. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with either of these styles, but it can be very jarring for your interlocutor if (and this is what I expect is happening between you and your grandmother) they're expecting style A and you're engaging in style B.

I used to be so bad at doing B when my partner expected A that we started using a name for style B: "problem-solving." Our solution: at any point during a conversation, if one of us needs compassion and validation but the other is offering ways to solve the problem instead, the first will just say "can you please stop problem-solving," and the other will know to cut it out.

I can't tell for sure if this mismatch in styles underlies any of the problems you're having conversing with your grandmother, but next time you talk to her, try this: whenever you're about to offer advice, stop yourself and ask, "is this advice solicited?" If you're not absolutely sure it is, say something like this instead: "I'm sorry, that sounds like a really awful situation. It must be hard for you!" And then ask a question that allows her to elaborate on her problem. When she cedes the conversation floor to you, offer her a similar opportunity to give you compassion and validation.

If you want to learn more about all this, read You Just Don't Understand by Deborah Tannen. (She frames the difference between style A ["rapport talk"] and style B ["report talk"] as a difference between men's conversational styles and women's conversational styles, which is an interesting insight on the one hand but a gross generalization on the other—individuals of all genders expect and engage in these styles of conversation at different times and in different contexts.)

On preview: uh, basically what LobsterMitten and danny the boy said.
posted by aparrish at 4:37 PM on February 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm wondering if your condescension is a form of defensiveness, perhaps even preemptive in nature?

But in a more basic sense, it sounds like your family members are complaining that you are possibly not a good listener and your contributions to the conversation come off as dismissive as opposed to empathetic or interested. This is not exactly the same thing as condescending, but it's a leaf from a similar tree.

I think getting more specific examples from your family members, as well as a clearer sense of what their expectations are in those situations, might help. For example, sis may have just wanted to vent, not problem-solve.
posted by sm1tten at 4:38 PM on February 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I needed to wrap up our conversation so I restated what we agreed would be useful for her to focus on moving forward, and she complained that my tone was too haughty. So there's that.

I think you need to compartmentalize more between the personal and the professional. In a professional milieu, you're probably encouraged/required to be: objective, analytical, formal/impersonal in your relationships, direct, etc. It sounds like you're carrying a lot of over into non-professional relationships and interactions, though. In a private milieu, especially for a woman, and most especially a young woman (regardless of your age, your grandmother probably thinks of you as young by definition), you're probably encouraged/required to be the opposite of all those things: kind, passionate, thoughtful, discerning/subtle, etc. Try to leave your professional demeanor at the door when you're dealing with family and friends, it's a different relationship and there are different norms/ideals you've got to abide by. You probably can't be the same person every hour of every day and that's OK.

As an example from my life, one of my friends is very successful professionally, and she sometimes carries that over into our interactions. If I bring up a topic of conversation, she'll give me an "objective" analysis of it. That's irritating to me, because I want to have a conversation and not a business meeting, and it feels condescending to me because, if we're talking about my life/feelings/goals/etc, I'm the person who actually has a better handle on the analysis and what I'm going to her about is to hear about her *feelings and personal insights.* For me, the issue boils down to: I want to hear from her *as a friend, not as an analyst.* That doesn't mean that I want to have commiseration from her, necessarily -- it just means that I want to talk about the issue through a personal (rather than professional) prism and with personal (rather than professional) priorities in mind. Maybe your grandma and sister want to hear from you as their granddaughter/sister and not as a professional, too?

In terms of respect for your grandma, her accomplishments, etc -- you don't need to make *any* value judgment. Her choices aren't yours to justify or condemn just like your choices aren't hers to justify or condemn. Regardless of whether they're disrespectful/overstepping, value judgements are also probably irrelevant in this case anyway, since she's your grandma/you're her granddaughter regardless of how accomplished either of you are or aren't.

Also, you're not in competition with her or anyone else, there's no need to make comparisons between her and yourself, between yourself and your sister, etc. Life isn't zero sum. When you're used to fighting and hustling it can feel that way, but it really isn't.
posted by rue72 at 4:44 PM on February 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

Are you a woman? Because this:

I think the crux of the problem I have is that in those moments I'm really (selfishly) focused on something I'm super happy about, so I have a harder time downshifting to match their moods when I need to connect with them and take care of them.

is crazy. It's not selfish to be happy about something, especially your own achievements and you don't have to match anyone's mood. Why can't they be happy when you're happy? This is warped, but it's how we're taught to be.

So don't beat yourself up over this, because to me, it actually sounds like senility. She's 90, she's in a facility and this was a completely random, inappropriate attack. My grandmother is in her early 80s and has occasionally lashed out at my mother in ways she hasn't in years -- she was downright irate a while back because my mother wouldn't play a card game with her oh, about 50 years ago.

Layer this with the way women, especially her generation, took the teachings very seriously and stuffed down everything they thought to "take care" of others and "be nice." When that layer of social restraint starts to crack, it's a floodgate of pent up irritation that probably has nothing to do with you personally. Let this go; you're not doing anything wrong. Enjoy your time with her and neither bring it up with her or panic that you have flaws you need to change.
posted by mibo at 4:56 PM on February 24, 2014 [14 favorites]

Your grandmother was brought up and lived in a time when young people were taught to "respect their elders" - whether the elders deserved it or not, sometimes, so she expects to be respected. But that's not an error on her part. Everyone wants to be respected - certainly you do. And honestly, what I'm not hearing from your story is any real respect for your grandmother. You seem to rather blithely summarize her life as not of any particular significance, when you can bet she thinks 90 years of living has some significance. Do you have any interest in how she lived in different periods of time in history? What were her growing-up years like? She was born during the Roaring 20s - what were her mother and father like? That was a pretty wild time. She lived through the Depression and through WWII, through the Dust Bowl, the glorious 50s, the "free love" 60s, and everything since then. She's seen skirts go up and down, hats come and go, nylon stockings losing their seam (and even when women painted a line on the back of their legs to make it look like they were wearing nylon stockings even though none were available during the war). Think of the changes in communication from the 1920s through today! Good Lord!

These things, and a thousand others, are what bring about genuine respect, not just the etiquette kind. A life lived through all those times is indeed significant, and it will help your communication with your grandmother if you can just begin to understand that when you get "condescending," (meaning holding yourself above your grandmother by talking down to her or bragging about your own achievements without acknowledging her own incredible life), it's because you're not paying attention to the trials and achievements of her life. That offends her. Her upbringing would ordinarily make her take the high road and keep her pain and annoyance to herself, but she's old now and in a "facility" and her life has little significance to anyone anymore except herself; that in itself hurts her and she has to count on her family to hold her in a position of importance as the matriarch and wise woman she is. Just try to picture how it might feel to become just another doddering old woman after having lived a full and complex and independent life.

Life isn't easy - not for you, not for her. Respect and interest in her life, even asking her for advice whether you want it or not, some humor, and a little less of you trying to impress her should turn things around.

I greatly - greatly - admire you for trying to figure this out, for the desire to make things better and be a better person. That means you're already an outstanding person and others are proud of you, that much I'm sure of.
posted by aryma at 5:07 PM on February 24, 2014 [11 favorites]

Since you didn't really mention in your follow up, is it possible that you are the type of person who responds to your family being in bad moods by saying things like "if you'd just be more optimistic, you'd see that there are a lot of good things in your life!" or "be positive, these negative thoughts aren't helping anything." or things like that?

i.e. Grandma: "I'm always in pain, I feel useless. Don't ever get old, granddaughter!"
ohyouknow: "Well, you have a family that loves you, and you're still alive at 90, so you're a pretty lucky lady!" (I'm making this up as an example).

Because I know that although I am generally an optimist myself, there are a lot of pessimists who really don't want to hear that sort of "just be happy" talk when they're in a bad mood. I mention this because your example is that you are happy and think life is great while your grandma is having a rough time of it. Along with not trying to always be in problem-solving mode (which is something I have personally struggled with in listening to the problems of others, because I am a problem solver at heart), it's often important just to tell people that you hear what they are saying and you think their feelings are valid. "That sounds really hard." is a phrase I've tried to use in this scenario, although I don't claim to be an expert as this is something I am also working on in myself.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:24 PM on February 24, 2014 [8 favorites]

And to follow from the ideas above, instead of responding to sister by saying "so, I have to go. Just remember that your focus should be on not taking this family drama so much to heart and moving forward positively to do things for yourself!"

You would just say something like: "so, I have to go. I'm sorry you've been feeling so down lately, it's a tough situation to be in and I hope things get better for you soon. If you ever need to talk, I'm always here to listen."
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:27 PM on February 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

Pretty much by definition, you can’t be condescending to someone for whom you genuinely feel compassion and empathy. But these are the qualities that seem to be missing here (at least from how you describe things) – and that’s inevitably going to color your interactions with her, which she’ll pick up on.

So I would gently suggest that you start to cultivate more compassion for your grandmother. That absolutely doesn’t mean you have to like everything she’s done, or every personality trait she exhibits, but it does mean starting to observe and accept her as a flawed human being just like everyone else. Find ways to be present in her presence – try to suspend judgment when she talks about her life and just be open to her. Ask her questions about her life in a state of genuine curiosity. Think of the ways the emotional experiences in her life – joy, sorrow, excitement, regret – may be similar to emotional experiences of your life, even when the actual circumstances may have been very different. See if all of this might help you soften your heart a little towards her, and see if that knowledge might soften your interactions with her.

I recently read this article, The Narcissistic Injury of Middle Age, and while it focuses on the emotional/psychological shocks that start to crop up as a function of hitting your 40s and 50s (especially as a woman), it also offers insight into the pain of aging and mortality more generally. It gave me pause as I started to think more compassionately about how this process has been happening for my mother, now in her 70s, and how it’s starting to happen for me, too, in my mid-40s. Maybe there’s something you’ll find helpful there, too.
posted by scody at 5:43 PM on February 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think a lot of people are looking at this the wrong way. As in, they're just accepting her statement at face value.

What if she's just being a gaslighting piece of shit?

Seriously, stop and think about it like that. Think about it that harshly.

My maternal grandmother is exactly like this. Everything in your description covers her. Wealthy, pays to have anything she doesn't want to do done, absentee/shitty parent, etc.

She also follows the pattern of behavior you described here. Outburst>take some time for a calculated "explanation" in response to people asking wtf>Everyone pretty much takes said explanation at face value and goes "Yea such and such, why are so XYZ?" instead of focusing on her weird outburst and out of line behavior.

I'm not saying that you are necessarily 0% in the wrong here since i don't know you. It just bugs me that a lot of people including you(and seemingly your husband!??!) just went "ok, you are/i am condescending, now what do i do?"

So yea, what if she's completely full of shit and someone you should minimize your interaction with? that's the path i had to take after more than once incident like this.

Just some food for thought.
posted by emptythought at 6:07 PM on February 24, 2014 [18 favorites]

What if she's just being a gaslighting piece of shit?

Seriously, stop and think about it like that. Think about it that harshly.

You are totally right, emptythought. As a matter of fact, I did think about it like that in my mind. But, I do think it's valuable for the OP to think about it both ways and get thoughts from people who are thinking both ways.
posted by cairdeas at 6:16 PM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

So after listening to her vent for a while, I needed to wrap up our conversation so I restated what we agreed would be useful for her to focus on moving forward, and she complained that my tone was too haughty. So there's that.

It's condescending to conceal your needs from other people because you're assuming that the other person can't meet them. It conceals your humanity and denies theirs. Old people can smell this from a hundred yards. The specific condescending thing you did here was to artificially wrap things up instead of saying, "I need to make this call for work before five," or "I need to change the baby," or even, "I only get to see you for a few hours today, I want to talk about something happy." You say those things to someone who is a part of your life, but you conceal them from someone who can't handle them, someone you manage. If this had happened to me, I would assume the person didn't want to be managed and wanted the chance to just be like, sure, go change the baby.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:47 PM on February 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

This has been so helpful to read, all of it. I am utterly and horribly disrespectful of my grandma in this post and in everything I've written here. You don't know me so that's all you have to go on, but I can assure you I know about every single time she's fallen in love, what her greatest hopes and fears and life's frustrations are. I know her very well and until last night I would say that taking her out to lunch was one of the highlights of my week. My grandma is razor sharp, tough, funny as hell sometimes. My grandma and I have even discussed our sex lives (!) and when the whole family gathered around the dining room table on Christmas Eve she unabashedly joined in on the MOST disgusting round of Cards Against Humanity I've ever played.

In the past ten years I've got to experience her mellowing and becoming warm and sweet and just such a wonderful source of wisdom and perspective... Based off past experiences with her I thought she'd never be capable of this level of compassion.

When I wrote earlier I was really venting. (I should definitely keep a journal for processing this type of stuff.) She went after and attacked all my vulnerabilities last night and I think she could smell inherent weakness or insecurity or something (I've been interviewing with a company I would LOVE to work with and part of her outburst included asking me if I really thought I was going to get a job somewhere or if I was just wasting everyone's time.) my grandmother was unconscionably cruel to my father when he was growing up. She was physically and emotionally abusive. Throughout my childhood I learned to keep a good size wall around myself whenever she was near because we never knew when she would decide to unleash rage onto us (her rage is usually the result of not having enough control over something or someone).

So in the past 10 years when she's been sweet and emotionally available, I've been leaving my wall behind. It made me feel so stupid for allowing myself to get so hurt and vulnerable with her. And so a lot if what I've written above is just processing my rage/pain at what happened last night. It left me breathless it was so unsparingly cruel about every aspect of who I am.

So. Anyway. I called my sister and asked her if she could give me an example of my condescension. She said she couldn't but that sometimes it's okay to just let other people wallow in a crappy mood. I guess I play the, "Hey wait your life is amazing just look at all this!" Role a bit too frequently. So yeah. Big grains of salt but also lots of terrific advice in here.
posted by ohyouknow at 7:32 PM on February 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

Sometimes people act like abusive jerks. You sound nice and fine and I'm sorry that someone you (correctly) trusted betrayed that trust.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:51 PM on February 24, 2014 [8 favorites]

I have a family member who is condescending. She clearly believes she is right, smarter, more ethical, more thoughtful, etc. She is especially condescending to me when she believes I am in a position of weakness. Check your beliefs - you are obviously an achiever - do you believe you're smarter, harder-working, more organized, whatever? Do you think of Grandma as weak?

I can't say how not to be condescending, but I can tell you that Grandmas, by definition, don't live forever, and have family history and life experience to share. Asking someone to tell you their story is not condescending; it's a form of respect, plus, you get their stories and life experience.
posted by theora55 at 8:13 PM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

You're a good granddaughter, but not perfect; your grandmother is probably a good grandmother, but not perfect. We're all flawed human beings, but as long as we keep trying to be better, we are better.

I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings and/or misjudged the situation. It's possible that your grandmother's testiness and tendency to blow up are a basic personality characteristic that's being aggravated right now by either her own debility/depression/loss of identity that's just a natural part of aging, particularly in a nursing home or "facility." Or, and this is a very real possibility, if she's really exploding with no particular provocation, it could be related to her medications - or, yes, dementia. But I'd hold off on the dementia thing until I was sure that her meds or depression weren't the source of her grumpiness.

I wish you the best and, as I said before, you are an outstanding person just because you're trying to figure out how much of this you're truly responsible for and how much you're not. That's more than most of us even bother with - mostly, we just react.
posted by aryma at 8:24 PM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh Aryma, no worries. I've been accused of much worse believe me! She is losing her sight and her hearing and that's why she needs to live in the very posh retirement home nearby, and that is a major source of despair for her.

What I was trying to explain is that even when she was a perfectly healthy 50 she would fly into viscous verbal attacks with absolutely no provocation at all whatsoever. I just remembered when I was about 10 and we all drive halfway across the country to see her and we arrived in time for dinner. We were trying to help set the table, do dishes, etc. and she flew into a rage because there were too many people in the kitchen. She was so furious she kicked us all out of her home and told us we needed to stay someplace else and that she didn't want to see us while we were in town. Because too many of us were helping her set the table.

That's my grandma. This is what I've grown up with and been accustomed to. The past ten years have been transcendent for her and I'm not sure what's prompted this evolution in her but I've been enjoying this new person's company so much. I guess the moral of this particular story is that yeah she's mellowed a lot, but she's still capable of being heartbreakingly cruel at the drop of a hat. So tread a bit more carefully.
posted by ohyouknow at 9:03 PM on February 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

You know, if she's always been this way, you should just stop fretting about trying to make yourself better for Grandma. Seriously. You're a fine granddaughter just to put up with that stuff. You're good to keep caring for her when she's so difficult.

If you need to examine yourself for "condescendingship" re your sister and/or others, do it and make whatever changes you feel necessary, but everyone's different, too, so there's that. I notice others above mentioning how they too have probably been considered "condescending" due to their ever-present need to "fix everything" and I can fit right into that sardine can, believe me.

Good luck to you.
posted by aryma at 11:15 PM on February 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've been interviewing with a company I would LOVE to work with and part of her outburst included asking me if I really thought I was going to get a job somewhere or if I was just wasting everyone's time.

This is completely bullshit. That's the kind of verbal abuse that you walk out of the room from.

Like, you need to separate the nice experiences you've had with her from her unacceptable out of line behavior. Because really, all the nice stuff serves to do is make other people not want to believe you when you tell them about the bad behavior and make them minimize it when they witness it themselves.

I guess the moral of this particular story is that yeah she's mellowed a lot, but she's still capable of being heartbreakingly cruel at the drop of a hat. So tread a bit more carefully.

This is a very very good thing to take away from this.. like, i'm proud of you. You processed this quite quickly, and a lot more quickly than i've seen many people in and outside my family do it.

You don't need to reconcile the niceness with the assholishness as much as you think. Basically, you're approaching this from a right angle that she's an asshole who can be nice sometimes. Not just some cute old granny who happened to be an asshole out of the blue.

Basically, don't ever completely let your shields down because you'll get blasted. It sucks that you'll always need to stay a bit guarded around her, but it's for your own well being and also completely fair. You didn't do anything wrong by trusting her, but don't make the same mistake twice.
posted by emptythought at 11:41 PM on February 24, 2014 [10 favorites]

'I'm not sure what prompted this evolution...'

Senility can manifest in some seriously weird ways. I've seen it...

You have my sympathy.
posted by jrobin276 at 11:49 PM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ugh. I am so sorry. You do not have to worry about being a condescending bitch, and I hope that remark was not verbatim.

A sad truth about senility is that it does rob people of their faculties-- not just physical and mental but emotional as well. It sounds like your grandmother spent most of her life as an extremely volatile and abusive person, but she managed to get a handle on her rage, and establish healthy relationships where she treated you and the rest of your family with the love and kindness you deserve, within the last decade. Right now her advanced age is probably contributing to a relapse of her old patterns of verbal and emotional abuse, and that is heartbreaking.

You and your family sound like you've been trying to reach her for your entire lives; she managed to work through what sound like severe emotional problems-- people don't behave the way you described with the table-setting incident unless something is seriously wrong upstairs-- to give you ten years of being a good and loving grandmother. I agree with other commenters that the guard you've talked about is going to have to go back up, because it sounds like she is no longer able to effectively manage her emotions and not hurt you. Tread carefully, like you said. Set boundaries.

And remember that the rage and insane tantrums are not coming from a reasonable person -- don't doubt yourself and start wondering if the terrible, cruel things your grandmother says to you in these moments are true, because she has been insightful and loving in better times. If you had a relative who lapsed back into paranoid psychosis after a long remission, you wouldn't wonder if you really might be an agent of an alien conspiracy or whatever-- and your grandmother's relapse into screaming abuse doesn't mean that any of the things she says about you are true.

I wish I could hug you; you and your whole family have my sympathy. Take care.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 1:09 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also on reread I hope that comment wasn't condescending :/ But, I forgot to point out that there are a lot of forums and caretaker support groups out there that deal with the crazy rage that can come with dementia, both as a totally isolated symptom and in people who've been abusive to the family that's now taking care of them. They might be good for processing or making steps to deal w/ your grandma's emotional state.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 1:21 AM on February 25, 2014

A lot of you are very kindly taking about dementia or other age related reasons for emotional disturbance. It's hopeful to think there's an excuse or a chemical reason for someone to be so purposefully hateful, but I firmly believe that's not the case with her. The whole family almost wishes this were true but I assure you it is not the case that her age is making her act worse for some reason. She has always been terrifyingly moody and emotionally abusive. We used to joke about what a relief it would be if it turned out she was an alcoholic. Every year she's just gotten a smidge kinder. And although I've been spared for 10 years that doesn't mean she hasn't had some of these nutty crazy rude moments sprinkled here and there with other family members. I think I've just been lucky(ish).

I just now remembered a story that my great aunt (grandma's sister) told me over 20 years ago about my grandma when grandma was a baby. Either my great grandma had serious post partum depression or a dr said that grandma needed to sleep outside for her lungs, or both. But as a result my grandma spent the first 3 months of her life outside and untouched except for diaper changes. She's sort of the human version of those experiments they used to run on baby monkeys when they were forced to nurse off barbed wire.
posted by ohyouknow at 1:34 AM on February 25, 2014

Re: your original question, I think sometimes just you being visibly successful, happy and upbeat can make someone unhappy feel wretched. It's hard to hang out with a golden child if you feel that your life sucks. Especially if that person is too preoccupied or whatever to truly listen to you.
Don't stop being a great and happy person, of course! But maybe rein in the upbeat thing in favour of just listening. Put yourself in people's shoes. Give them your attention.

(That said, your grandma is an unreliable narrator at best. Your sis may have a point, but with your whole family tiptoeing round your grandma for decades, she may also be part of a dysfunctional dynamic. Maybe you're just the kid who responded by overachieving, who takes things to heart and who is easy to blame? In a functional family your dad would have told grandma to cut it out, instead of worriedly inquiring about her hurt feelings, and so would you.)
posted by Omnomnom at 2:13 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

(By which I meant to say, ask more people than that!)
posted by Omnomnom at 2:16 AM on February 25, 2014

Your grandma hit a nerve with you. What if she was 100% wrong. She shouldn't yell at you, she shouldn't attack you, she shouldn't lose her patience with you.

She sounds like an interesting person with some kind of anger issue. Her anger has nothing to do with you! Not a thing.

The problem with our very sharp family members is that they know EXACTLY how to hurt us the most.

Some people mistake happiness and optimism for some kind of affront on them, when in fact they are insanely jealous of our uncomplicated inner life.

You know what, I'll bet you aren't condescending at all. Your grandma has NO POINT whatsoever and it just goes to show how important she is in your life that she's moved into your head rent-free just to throw you off your game.

Chalk this one up to, "Granny is just being a beyotch today. It has NOTHING to do with me, I'm just a convenient punching bag."

Go about your amazing life.

Also, she may never apologize and she may never acknowledge that she was wrong. Which sucks, but there it is.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:34 AM on February 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your post and updates are full of understanding for grandma, and the focus of your initial question was how to fix your own faults, while using this as an opportunity to talk about the immensely hurtful things she said. I get the impression that deep down inside you wanted to write a different post: one where you ask whether your grandma is really such a bitch as it seems and why. But it's like you didn't allow yourself to blame her, get furious with her, see yourself as the wronged one. Even on the internet.
If so that's not so surprising given your family dynamics. But I would urge you to think about why That is so and whether deep inside you shouldn't be standing up more for yourself.
posted by Omnomnom at 7:08 AM on February 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

It was my suspicion from the start, but with each clarification from you I'm more certain--your grandma is not a reliable narrator and although she's always been this way, her mental health has probably taken a step back at this time. Please try not to jump to the conclusion that she's right.

Your family may be buying into her unhealthy ideas because they've done so for a long time. I don't think it's healthy for you to try and figure out how you were condescending to her--it's fine if you want to work on being aware of your own behaviours, but not on "fixing" imaginary problems. And really, your sister may not be a reliable narrator either. It sounds like you try to rise above unhealthy family patterns, and some of your family members respond by trying to put you back in your place because misery loves company.

You sound like a nice, thoughtful person, and there isn't anything wrong with you being happy and enjoying the good things you have.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:11 AM on February 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I think some are positing not that senility, dementia or whatever contributed to her cruelty, but that they may be contributing to her mellowing. As jrobin276 says, it can manifest in "seriously weird ways."
posted by rocketpup at 8:20 AM on February 25, 2014

I get the impression that deep down inside you wanted to write a different post

Yes, this. Your updates suggest someone with a pretty severe personality disorder, and how dealing with this in a family can span generations. So I think there are different questions packed up in this incident that are less about you being condescending in and of itself, and more about how family dynamics may have shaped the ways you narrativize your own experiences and feelings as well as how you interact with your immediate family in relation to those feelings/experiences. It might be useful for you to take a look at some books about being a child of a parent with a personality disorder (whether narcissistic or borderline) and see if it might ring some bells and offer some useful strategies for you.

Good luck.
posted by scody at 9:22 AM on February 25, 2014 [8 favorites]

I woke up and read these most recent responses and was moved to tears. This conversation with the internet has been so cathartic for me, and I'm going to look into kids raised by BPD parents because I think my mom is a variation of this drama too. It's all so emotionally exhausting with these people I love so much discovering new clever ways to attack me or undermine my judgment. But something about strangers on the internet sharing their perspective is so refreshing for clarity. Of course you've just been hearing things from my perspective so... :)

Anyway, thank you. I would hug you all if I could.
posted by ohyouknow at 12:27 PM on February 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Some useful reading: BPD within the family, NPD and parents
posted by scody at 1:39 PM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

You say "A lot of you are very kindly taking about dementia or other age related reasons for emotional disturbance. It's hopeful to think there's an excuse or a chemical reason for someone to be so purposefully hateful, but I firmly believe that's not the case with her."

I'd like to suggest (kindly) that maybe the mellowing and kindness you've seen in your grandma is actually the age-related change/dementia, not this angry outburst. Perhaps the angry outburst from her was just her old self shining through... It looks like rocketpup had a similar idea. You're dealing really well with this.
posted by purple_bird at 1:52 PM on February 25, 2014

Someone sent me a memail with what I think is a much more jaded yet probably more accurate take on what's prompted her to be such a sweetheart lately when it's otherwise so completely not who she is:

Her mellowing has been part of a long con to ensure she'll have as many family members taking care of her and loving her in the last years of her life.

It gave me chills to read that, but also.... Yes she is just that manipulative, if not more so. I'm letting that sink in.
posted by ohyouknow at 2:47 PM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

For what it's worth, how convinced i was of that theory with my grandma is why i cut off contact with her.

At least, it's easier for me to buy that then "Oh, old age and senility mellowed her out!" especially when you're still getting bursts of assholism like what you described.

What is more plausible to you personally knowing infinitely more about this situation, the cloak slipping off for a moment in frustration/some kind of push pull crap or that she actually became nicer.

People who say things like what you've posted above are not nice without a motive.

Who knows though, i may just be bitter/projecting/choose your own adventure.
posted by emptythought at 3:00 PM on February 25, 2014

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