Skill #26: Recognize Your Sacred Cows.

In my family it was something known as “Herwick Salad”. You probably know it too: that whipped green Jello salad with shredded vegetables. Herwick was my great grandparents’ last name. In our family, the green Jello salad creation was credited to my great grandmother—a factoid that was never questioned. It showed up at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and any other large family gathering. Rumor was that everyone liked it and that‘s why it was given a place of honor at the dinner table. It was above reproach or criticism. Despite its reputation and place of prominence, very few people actually ate it.

GreenJelloSaladImagine my surprise, as an adult, that other families served “Herwick Salad” but no one knew the proper name nor the genesis of it! Turns out, Herwick Salad was one of my family’s Sacred Cows: that thing which is above criticism or questioning. Or maybe my great-grandmother was our sacred cow.

A Sacred Cow: that thing which is above criticism or questioning. Very often, not trampling the sacred cows is a manifestation of wisdom.

In the greater scheme of things, Herwick Salad is a minor sacred cow. Very often, not trampling the sacred cows is a manifestation of wisdom. In larger, extended family gatherings, it is sensible to let go of some of these issues. Just don’t trample on them and the family get-together (read “upcoming holiday gatherings”) will go much more smoothly and pleasant. Every family has some of these topics that are better left alone. Sort of a familial policy of “Don’t Ask. Don’t Challenge.”

But the opposite can be true too. There are those Sacred Cows that need to be faced. Perhaps, faced repeatedly. Sometimes, there are issues in our intimate relationships that get brushed aside. Important topics that at some point, someone said to themselves, “Well…I won’t ever bring THAT up again!” While an occasional minor topic might be fine if dealt with in this manner, more often than not, it happens in the context of a conflict.

GULL TALKPeople have many sacred cows. As a therapist, I find myself listening to someone agonizing about what someone else is thinking, tip-toeing around some issue, or blindly guessing what someone else wants. Or worse yet, finding themselves unable to express what they want or need. I can be pretty practical and subscribe to the law of parsimony: a principle by which an explanation or decision is made with the simplest solution. Also known as Occum’s Razor which says, among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

A typical scenario involves someone who is afraid to share a tender part of themselves or maybe, something about which they’re not too proud. The internal dialogue might sound like, “I don’t know how my partner will feel about me if I tell them ______.” But rather than putting it on the table to explore together, it goes on lock-down; except that it really doesn’t. In fact, it probably begins to leak out in the form of unmet needs, unexpressed deep longings, projected accusations, distance, or even resentment.

John Gottman—the psychologist and relationship researcher that LiM2 often falls back on—says that we need to have the conversations that we want to avoid. You know—those hard conversations. Important conversations. Because, if we don’t, we slowly allow distance to seep into our intimate relationships, which ultimately, erodes our connection. We cannot treat these concerns as sacred cows.

We need to have the conversations that we want to avoid–if we don’t, we slowly allow distance to seep into our intimate relationships, which ultimately, erodes our connection.

I have a client who will often spend time talking about uncertainties in her relationship and her subsequent emotional quandaries. After about a half an hour, she’ll begin to squirm and eventually roll her eyes and groan, “I know. I know. I guess we need to talk about it.” It is the most parsimonious way out of the dilemma. And it is how we build intimacy by sharing those inner parts of ourselves.

I understand that avoiding these conversations is a protective mechanism. Sometimes we believe we’re protecting the person we love; however, that often backfires and they just resent us for not trusting that they can handle the issue. As much as we hate to admit it, we are more than likely protecting ourselves. Protecting ourselves from feeling uncomfortable. From being vulnerable. Maybe just from feeling.

CowsWhiteWe all have our own personal Sacred Cows. Couples develop Sacred Cows. Families have many Sacred Cows. And holidays are full of Sacred Cows. I wish there was a simple rule of thumb to determine if it should just be that proverbial cow allowed to roam without contest or if it is important in your relational bond. But life just isn’t that simple or formulaic—it is messy.

So it ends up being a judgment call requiring thoughtful discernment, courage, and wisdom. Have the difficult conversation you want to avoid. Know when to let go of something when it matters not. Like Herwick Salad—does it REALLY matter if my great grandmother concocted it? Does it really matter if anyone ate it? Did it make my grandmother happy to use it as the centerpiece of the meal? No; no; and yes. Suddenly, the decision about this cow is clear.

So Recognize Your Sacred Cows, because Life is Messy and Life is Marvelous.


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