When I was first married, I received one exceptionally important piece of advice: “Don’t keep score.” At the time I first heard it, I had no idea of its profound significance and applicability to nearly all relationships, not just in marriage I also did not realize that not keeping score isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Most of us discuss scorekeeping in the context of “quid pro quo” — not in the framework of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s query, “How do I love you? Let me count the ways.” or “Let me remind myself of the reasons I married you.” or “Let me count my blessings.” Rather, in many relationships the scorekeeping in our head sounds a bit like, “What have you done for me lately? Look what I have done for you.” Sadly, this type of scorekeeping reinforces ways that we feel badly about ourselves; it focuses on what we perceive we don’t have rather than what we do have.
So, rather than feeling good in relationships we feel awful because we “keep score.” Instead of how great it is to have a birthday and enjoy the wishes we received, we focus on who didn’t call to wish me well. Rather than appreciating e-mail messages to congratulate me on my daughter’s wedding, I lament why these same people did not pick up the phone to call me. In this context, it does not matter what anyone does, it is never enough. We compare our actions to theirs (We would have called) and everyone comes up short. Nobody treats us well and therefore, (and here is where the trouble begins) there must be something wrong with me. What did I do to deserve their lack of caring?
We focus on how awful we feel and how dreadful these people are, and then we end up in a deep hole of abandonment. We choose to respond to another’s communication or lack of communication by starting a list of negatives and the difficult fact is that we choose to go there. We could choose to focus on the positive but we choose to focus on the negative, that which is clearly harmful to our health, that which is difficult to accept. We go to a place inside of ourselves that is all too familiar and painful, and we stay there, which sets off an equally familiar downward spiral, instead of allowing ourselves to go through those feelings, not getting stuck there, and moving toward a place of recognizing and perhaps rejoicing in the gifts of our life. When we stay stuck in the negative place, we allow the pain to take over.
Brain research has helped us to understand that we go to the places of pain and we feel miserable. We go to the places of joy and we feel content. When we choose where we go, we can control our response. It does not mean we do not acknowledge disappointment. It means we do not allow the disappointment to control our response and our mood by staying stuck in the feeling of disappointment.
One reason keeping score is so powerful is because there is so much energy in it. We are all at risk of putting energy into our negative lists rather than our positive ones, and this is a choice we can make, or learn to make, if we recognize it’s an issue we have in our life. There are countless examples in our lives of whether we choose to hold onto what we felt was a dismissal, a rejection, a lack of concern.
We each ascribe different levels of importance to our own and others’ life events. For some of us, celebrating a birthday is a big deal and receiving a “happy birthday” via e-mail or text message may be fine. For others, that vehicle is far from sufficient. The other person’s communication triggers questioning within ourselves, “Why couldn’t they have called?” Which can lead to: “Am I not important enough to them?” Which kicks off the internal review of keeping score of myriad slights and offenses: “What did I do to deserve this?” Which slides into: “They don’t value me.”
If you have had a medical procedure and during recovery, you do not hear from someone whom you consider is important in your life, again, you can interpret their not reaching out to you as a lack of concern or care. Since we each like to be acknowledged by our family members and close friends, in the absence of their call, we have a choice regarding how we interpret it and move on. The way they reach out may or may not at all be an indicator of their view of us. Either way, we can be quite certain that we are internalizing the “slight.”