by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, March 2013
Perhaps it is because, a few weeks ago, the entire country just finished focusing on the Super Bowl, that something keeps milling around in my mind: keeping score.
When I was first married, I was given a lot of advice (both unsolicited as well as solicited) and there was one exceptionally important point given by someone I respect enormously, "Don't keep score." At the time I heard it I did not realize its profound significance and I also did not realize that not keeping score isn't as easy as it sounds.
Keeping score is usually discussed in the context of "quid pro quo", not in the framework of "How do I love you? Let me count the ways" as Elizabeth Barrett Browning proposed, or "Let me remind myself of the reasons I married you," or "Let me count my blessings," but rather, "What have you done for me lately? Look what I have done for you." This kind of keeping score reinforces ways that we feel badly about ourselves because it focuses on that which 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, we focus on who did not call me to wish me well. Instead of appreciating e-mail messages to congratulate me on my daughter's wedding, I lament why these same people did not call me. In this context, it does not matter what anyone does, it is just not 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 good but we choose to focus on the bad, 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 stopping, and going to a place of rejoicing in the gifts of our life. Our brains know what we are doing and we allow the pain to take over.
In the past few years, 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.
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, it 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 not at all be an indicator of their view of us, or it may be. Either way, we can be quite certain that they are not internalizing the perceived "slight".