Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

Humanity is a bunch of curious monkeys. It’s in our nature to question things, to look for explanations to experiences that make sense of those experiences (we’ll leave aside for now the utmost importance of pursuing or ignoring scientifically *accurate and relevant* explanations). It’s totally okay when the first exposure to something results in not understanding it. Coming to understanding is a personal growth opportunity and process that we have to actively choose to undertake–we have to WANT to know why something is or does what it is or does. When faced with questions of Why or How, it’s totally okay to not know the answers even when those questions are about ourselves.

It’s okay to not know the answers… up to a point. After that, however, “I don’t know” starts to become an increasingly problematic response. There’s genuinely not knowing the answer to a question, and then there’s deliberately avoiding learning or sharing the answer for fear it means we’re locked into or committing to that being the ONLY answer, implying a singular, correct response we have to get right.

What happens when one uses “I don’t know” as a way of avoiding committing to specific answers or presumably-limited paths forward?

I can answer this one best from my own personal experience as a recovering committmentphobe:

It goes very, very poorly.

It’s a lot easier for me to spot the pattern of fearful, stubborn entrenchment now than it ever was when I was the one clinging to “I don’t know”, but I imagine it’s every bit as harsh and terrifying when I call my own clients out as it was when I got called out for it. The problem with “I don’t know” as a long-term answer is the implication that we’re not doing the work of developing self-understanding. We’re not trying, or we’re actively avoiding, to discern and share information that is immediately relevant to our partners and the functioning of our relationships. “I don’t know” for many becomes coded language for, “I don’t want to commit to an answer on this topic”. In my case, it became a way of avoiding ownership and responsibility for my own actions when questions about my motivations or behaviours arose; but it also avoided my taking ownership or responsibility for committing to a change, ANY change. “I don’t know” leaves open all the doors of possibility, because until we have an answer then (on some quantum level) ALL options remain possible. “I don’t know” was a favourite tune for my own internal brain weasels to dance to. And it frustrated the everlovin’ hell out more than one of my partners over the years… just as I watch it frustrate, upset, or disrupt partnerships coming into my office now as clients.

In and of itself it’s not a bad answer. When it remains the long-term answer to questions like, “What do you WANT this relationship to look like?” or “What are you willing to do differently going forward from here?”, however, it’s anathema (if not outright death) to connection and intimacy. “I don’t know” becomes a way of holding the relationship hostage at a distance: “we can go no further and get no closer, because I cannot/will not do the work to answer these questions.” The partner who is unable or unwilling to face the answers becomes a gatekeeper for the entire relationship, because–and I observe this to be the truth most of the time–they are afraid. WHAT they (we, I) are afraid of, is highly contextual, and variable. Sometimes it’s an unwillingness to be held to one option. Sometimes its a fear of committing to trying something and getting it wrong, if the perception of trial and failure is equated with things only ever getting worse for the failure. If the fears are strong enough, the gatekeeping and distancing can seem insurmountable obstacles to progressing towards intimacy. Overcoming those fears seems an unobtainable goal to the fearful. Ultimately, the partners end up in a stalemate.

That distancing fear serves a purpose:

?If there is one over riding reason why our world and relationships are in such a mess, is that we try to get rid of our anxiety, fear and shame as fast as possible, regardless of the long term consequences. In doing so, we blame and shame others and in countless ways, we unwittingly act against ourselves. We confuse our fear driven thoughts with what is right, best, necessary or true.?
? Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

In the moment, it will often seem like there is no better antidote for fear than to simply not engage it: hold it away from us where we don’t have to look at it, or do anything about it. “I don’t know” means not having done the homework, and potentially not doing the homework going forward, either. As long as the gatekeeper holds themselves in limbo, they can hold off confronting their fear. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of the health of the relationship over the long term, often in the short term as well.

?If you pay attention, you may find that it is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable, so you avoid doing the thing that will evoke fear and other disquieting emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid.?
? Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

Sometimes, doing our own homework is the bravest thing we can do.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

Let me say this one more time, loudly for those in the back:

THE ABSENCE OF A CLEAR “NO” DOES **NOT** EQUAL A CLEAR YES AND THE PRESENCE OF CONSENT.

I get it, I really do. Someone described for me recently the scenario in which someone overcompensating for deep social anxiety adopted the tactic of plunking themselves down in, or attaching themselves to, social groups or individuals with the attitude of, “Well, I find you interesting, so here I am; if you don’t want me here YOU be the one(s) to leave.” When it takes so much energy/anxiety capital to get into encounter space in the first place, sure, you want to maximize the odds of a meaningful encounter. But that’s only the beginning of the problem for some of the people involved in that scenario, especially women.

It’s a terrible assumption of privilege to assume welcome in any group; just because no-one is saying, “Hey man, thanks but this is a closed group/private discussion”, does not mean there is an actuall invitation or acceptance. It’s also a terrible assumption of privilege that other people will be as willing or able as you are to take a stance, and a dangerous blindspot to not understand how hard it will be for some to take a stance AGAINST intrusion.

A recent client discussion put the struggle into sharp relief: the individual need to connect with people runs up against another individual needs for distance or disconnect. There’s no good way to balance those needs when they come into conflict. The “No” in that equation, the piece that defines the definitive edge of the consent boundary, MUST have precedence. The fear of losing out on connection does NOT trump the fear of being invaded or intruded upon.

I get how bitter a pill to swallow that is, especially for the shy and anxious who are struggling to just get into position to meet people. Yes, it’s going to feel profoundly unfair that someone else’s needs are allowed by default to take precedence over yours… but when you force an attachment or inclusion into a situation without explicit consent, that’s exactly what YOU do to others. You force your needs to override theirs, without clear and explicit consent.

This has been the indomitable gender-biased power dynamic in our culture for generations. Patriarchal desires have ordered and policed the boundaries in their own self-serving fashion for so long that I am still struggling with women of all ages to introduce the idea of “No” to them, to the idea that they have the right to define their boundaries for themselves, to offer or withdraw consent as they themselves choose. It’s an uphill battle, however, against male anger at being thwarted. Women’s fear of that anger is justified, time and time again, from overt and murderous attacks to the dozens of subtle, unconscious microaggressions that permeate our daily lives.

And it’s a sucky thing as a therapist to have to balance compassion–because we’re all human, we all have needs we want to have met, and we all know to varying degrees the feeling of being thwarted in their pursuit–with being a staunch feminist and educator to both the men trying to understand and navigate the sudden shift in whose needs take what precedence now, and the women still battling the terror of saying no and being made to pay for their audacity.

We cannot drive home this point often or deeply enough.

ABSENT NO DOES NOT MEAN YES.

Not getting our needs met is a painful experience. But inherent in the drive for connection HAS TO BE an understanding that not only does everyone NOT welcome connection, but NOT everyone knows how or is willing to risk saying NO directly. Pushing into a situation in which there is a lack of specific welcome is a dominance move, something that can carry (for those on the inside of the situation into which someone is presenting) overtones of aggressiveness: “I’m not going to move, YOU move.”

And that cannot continue be the default pattern. Yes, the expressions of explicit consent may still be fewer and further between than the introverts and anxious people want to suffer through, especially when the cravings for connection are running high and hot. But those are no longer accepted as the dominant paradigm; they can’t be. Too much damage results from that traditional dynamic. It favours a patriarchal power structure far too much, far too often.

So yes, if it seems awkwardly, uncomfortably, like the pendulum has swung all the way over into the other extreme, in which all ambiguity should be treated as an absolute consent barrier (if it’s not an explicit yes, treat it as a no and respect it), that’s because it has. We haven’t yet earned the kind of broad-spectrum trust that allows social and intimate transactions to settle to a stable median set of understandings and expectations. It was unfair in one direction for a disastrously long time; now it’s unfair in the other direction for a while.

THE ABSENCE OF A CLEAR “NO” DOES **NOT** EQUAL A CLEAR YES AND THE PRESENCE OF CONSENT.

This is the way it needs to be for a while. You don’t have to like it, but a failure to respect it just means it’s going to take longer to settle into that workable median than it maybe needs to.

Book Recommendations, Community, Current Events, Emotional Intelligence

November 2015, Bataclan Theatre, Paris: a terrorist attack kills 89, including the wife of Antoine Leiris. Leiris later wrote something in a Facebook post that has become a manifesto to many who struggle with responding to this kind of attack on our basic humanity:

“So, no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. That is what you want, but to respond to your hate with anger would be to yield to the same ignorance that made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have failed. I will not change.”

July 2016, Nice, France: “a 19 tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, resulting in the deaths of 86 people[2] and the injury of 458 others.”

April 2018, Toronto Ontario: a man drove a van into pedestrians along a busy city street, killing ten and wounding 15 more. When police apprehended him shortly thereafter, he purportedly approached them, saying “Kill me.” Police refused to shoot, subduing and arresting him without further harm.

We think, “This is Canada; this isn’t supposed to happen here.”


I’ve recently been reading Bren? Brown’s latest book, “Braving the Wilderness”; it was there I first hear about Leiris and his anti-hate manifesto. She explores the experience of connection and disconnection in human relations, including the ways in which we find it easier to hate amorphous groups far more easily than we can hate individuals; how the quest for true inclusion leaves us grappling with profound fears of being or feeling excluded, and how those fears can be manipulated into creating the false dichotomy of “us versus them”, or moral exclusion.

Moral exclusion as a broad-scale social phenomenon is the basis for a variety of dehumanizing practices, in which dehumanization is “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of human treatment.” (Brown 2017, pg 72)

“Groups targeted based on their identity–gender [or orientation–KG], ideology, skin colour, ethnicity, religion, age–are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil. The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion, and dehumanization is at its core.” (Brown 2017, pg. 73)

The rhetoric that has been building south of the border since well before the last presidential election has opened the door to see this “us versus them” in harsh detail. Arguably it truly launched after 9/11 provided the US with a solid platform to vilify “Muslim terrorists”, conflating an entire culture with its most ardent and evangelical outliers and dehumanizing them all. More crucially, we’ve seen how infectious that kind of thinking is as we’ve watched it creep north of the border; we’re watching it reignite as we move into another election year of our own.

There’s always an “Us” ready to hate “Them”.

As soon as news of the van attack hit the feeds yesterday, those sides polarized, even here among the “polite Canadians”. The association of the driver (male, light-skinned) with a movement that has become tied to angry entitlement and the alt-right men’s movement has been constant fodder as people try to make sense of the senseless, try to manage their fears with information that (in theory) will explain everything. As nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the human mind abhor not having answers to, or neatly-contextualizing information explaining, major emotional experiences. We process our shock, and fear–and yes, anger–together, but in that togetherness, the polarization seems to occur seamlessly. And we want nothing more than to be on “the right side” in choosing our responses to such an event.


“Common enemy intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion. And if we live with any level of self-awareness, it’s also the kind of intimacy that leaves us with the intense regrets of an integrity hangover. […] I get that these are uncertain and threatening times. I often feel the pull of hiding out and finding safety with a crew. But it’s not working.” (Brown 2017, pg. 136)

I made the #1 Internet Citizen mistake yesterday as the news was breaking: I read the comments. Even on reputable news sources, the rampant hatred of some respondents was an unavoidable thread among the otherwise-fulsome outpouring of love, shock, support, condolences, sadness. The ideological camps were staking out their territories in UsandThemism language of anger and hatred.

Since the above sections of Bren? Brown’s book were still fresh in my mind, I kept coming back to Leiris’ letter to the Bataclan attackers:

“Of course I am devastated by grief, I grant you this little victory, but it will be short-term. I know she will accompany us every day and we will find ourselves in this paradise of free souls to which you will never have access. […] [W]e are stronger than all the armies in the world.”

As a woman, as a feminist, as someone who has experienced rampant misogyny on personal and professional levels nearly all my life, it would be so terribly, terribly simple to buy into that hate, to dehumanize Yet One More Violent Man as part of that more anonymous collective. There’s a seductive truth underlying most of our UsAndThemism: there are more than enough individual examples of anything we collectively hate to justify assuming there’s a systemic problem encompassing a LOT of individuals into some kind of cohesive larger unit. So we come to hate what we assume to be a cohesive collective, and forget (or choose not) to see the individuals within that presumed collective. We have effectively dehumanized them.

Brown talks about how, during the research process for “Braving the Wilderness”, she often felt like screaming, “Screw you and screw the pain of people who are causing pain. I will hold on to my sweet, self-righteous rage.” (pg 66)

“But to what end? [Clinging to rage and] Not caring about our own pain and the pain of others is not working? […] One response to this is “Get angry and stay angry!” I haven’t seen this advice borne out in the research What I have found is that yes, we all have the right and need to feel and own our anger. It’s an important human experience. And it’s critical to recognize that maintaining any level of rage, anger, or contempt (that favourite concoction of a little anger and a little disgust) over a long period of time is not sustainable.
“Anger is a catalyst. Holding onto it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice. […] [A]nger is a powerful catalyst, but a life-sucking companion.” (pg. 67-8)

Not responding in anger and hatred is hard; harder still when attacks hit close to home, metaphorically or geographically. Terrorism is meant to provoke fear; it’s meant to send a message of power and control, introducing a non-consensual power dynamic across a broad ideological system. Fighting back is as instinctive for some as accepting subjugation is for others, so where is the presumedly RIGHT “Us” in this mix, the one we join to stay safe?

The whole premise of Brown’s book is that in stepping outside these ideological camps to choose love over hate, and to transform anger into one of those life-sustaining alternates, we are braving our own individual, ideological wilderness. Embracing something other than UsAndThemis encampments is hard; it often feels like eschewing the safety of numbers for a unique position of disengagement from that anger and hatred. But as Leiris’ post and Brown’s research conclude, there’s a massive difference between disengagement on a systemic level, and choosing to lean in close and find the aspects of us as individuals that illustrate we’re more alike than we’re maybe comfortable admitting out loud. That illustrate that even amidst vast ideological differences, there ARE similarities of human experience in each of us to which we can relate. We may not WANT to; we may not CHOOSE to.

Brown herself admits there’s a safe harbour in staying angry and holding ourselves ideologically separate from those who hurt or anger us, who provoke us to fear and hatred. We join with others in our respective camps, believing in those superficial bonds of unified hate (in which one can argue the “Us” suddenly looks an awful lot like the “Them” we claim to despise for doing exactly the same thing). we buy into the entrenchment because, hey, safety in numbers, and we want to be in the Right Camp at the end of the day, yes?

Letting go of anger, stepping away from the entrenched encampments: this is the wilderness Brown explores. She quotes Dr. Maya Angelou:

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place–you belong every place–no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” (pg. 5)

And so… you will not have my hate.

I may be afraid. I may be angry, but I will not hate. I may not have explanations that make any sense at all, but I will not hate. I will practice leaning in close, leaning into the sharp things, and I will not hate.

You will NOT have my hate.

Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Language, self-perception, Uncategorized

One nebulous advantage of being a Marriage & Family Therapist, trained in family systems theory, is that we have ample opportunity to explore our own origin stories, as well as those of our clients. We gain new perspectives or information that reframes our understanding about where we come from, and how that changes our perception of who and how we are in the world.

In psychotherapy, there are generally some firm boundaries around “safe and effective use of Self” for therapists that are all about understanding and/or mitigating how WHO we are impacts HOW we are in our work with our clients. Understanding the formative and often invisible impacts of our families of origin can be a part of that work, as our early models often influence our values and inter-relational patterns in all kinds of relationships. We don’t use it necessarily as an excuse to talk about ourselves in client sessions, though careful and limited use of personally-relatable anecdotes can be a useful tool for illustrating to clients just how much we do (or don’t) *get them*.

Then again, I’m also a writer by trade long before I was a therapist, and a principle tenet of writing is to “write what you know”. Since people are often curious about how therapists wind up becoming therapists, I thought I’d for once break the silence around personal stories, and share my own origin story. In doing so, it also helps me recognize that a lot of this has the ring of well-honed narrative, meaning that every time I tell some of these stories, I’m (subtly, perhaps) reinforcing those storylines and their underlying values in my head. I’m also giving myself an opportunity, however, to reflect on those storylines a little more and see whether there’s anything to be altered in the current moment, applying years’ worth of reflection to temper something I’ve been telling myself, in many cases, literally all my adult life. As an exercise, I’m going to bold the parts of it that are the internalized scripts, the narrative lines that I’ve carried and polished the longest.

WHO AM I, a story by Karen, age 50 and 3/4

To start with, my family structure itself was odd. My parents met in Toronto in 1965 when my recently-divorced mother and her four-year-old daughter were trying to make a new life for themselves. The mid-60s weren’t exactly hospitable years for divorcees and single mothers, and my mom has admitted that what she was looking for was financial support more than romance. My mother’s first daughter was a handful, however, and sometime just before my parents met, my mom made her daughter a ward of the Crown; in short, voluntarily relinquished her into the fostercare system. Mom had also had a second child out of wedlock after the marriage ended; he was given up for adoption at birth.

My father was working as an industrial architect with a side passion for big-band jazz. I’ve got ancient newsclippings of my dad on an upright base playing with a then-unknown black kid by the name of Oscar Peterson on the piano. My dad was 17 years older than my mom. They connected through unknown-to-me circumstance. Two years later, they had me; I was planned. I grew up knowing about my half-sister, as she came and went from my life on whirlwind visits. I don’t remember how old I was when I discovered the birth documents for my half-brother, probably around 8 or so, but thereafter I know I internalized the idea that “I was the one she/they kept”. I also internalized the idea that if they gave away two other babies, obviously they could give ME away any time they wanted, too.

As a young adult, I took to describing my homelife as a “Cold War zone”. My relationship with each of my parents was okay and as “normal” as one might expect for the 70s and 80s–their relationship with each other was a different story. Of note: my parents were never married; they both commented over the years that having each been burned by previous marital heartaches, there seemed no good reason to go through the motions a second time. The scripted line was, “They lived together for 19 years, and hated each other for 17 of them,” which, while lacking in the accuracy of the minutiae, certainly encompasses the overarching tension of my homelife. My parents never slept in the same bed, and round about the time we moved into a small town when I was 7.5, they didn’t even sleep in the same room on the same floor of the house. Mom always maintained it was because of Dad’s snoring (which was prodigious), but I never believed that was all, or even the bulk of her reasoning.

It’s worth noting: I never knew my dad’s family. His parents were long dead before I was born, as was one of his sisters (Scarlet Fever in her case); what family he had through his remaining sister was scattered on the East Coast. I have a vague memory of meeting a couple of his cousins or nephew/niece when I was very young, but I remember their dog better than I remember them. I also met the daughter of his first wife once in my early teens when she came west to visit, but that once was all the exposure I had until I tracked her down through FB last year to inform her of Dad’s passing. My mother’s family is its own tale of dire dysfunction, including her alcoholic mother with undiagnosed suicidal depression (though some of my mother’s tales ring the bells of Borderline Personality Disorder); my mother tells of the day my grandmother tried to kill herself by driving the family car off the road… with my mother and her younger brother loose in the back seat. My grandfather was unwilling to confront or deal with his wife’s obvious mental health issues, so he didn’t intervene even when she beat her daughter or emotionally terrorized either child. MY mother finally fled as a teenager, as soon as she was old enough to work to support herself. She married young; her first husband was an abusive alcoholic. She was 20 when her first daughter was born.

Both of my parents were high-functioning alcoholics. My mother also suffered from undiagnosed depression. Neither of my parents finished high school. Dad enlisted in the army at 18, which got him to Europe for the last rounds of WWII. His work ethic meant both a workaholic, emotionally-unavailable father-figure, and that my university education was paid for long before I graduated high school, about which I was constantly reminded, and an investment I promptly lost by failing out of my first year of university. I was the first generation of the family to attend university; between my mother’s and her brother’s kids (her 2 daughters, his 2 sons), only two of us completed undergrad. I’m the only one with a post-grad degree. None of us has had a stable, successful marriage (including our parents). Only one of the four of us ever had kids. The eldest in both sets of siblings has significant mental health issues including drug or alcohol issues and numerous run-ins during “troubled youth” with law enforcement. That left myself and my younger cousin to be the “good kids” in a widespread system of familial dysfunction. My running joke for a long time was that David (said cousin) and I were the white sheep of the family, notable for our rarity.

So… that’s the bare-bone systemic model in which I grew up. Even glossing over so many details about the intergenerational and inherited trauma normal to family systems, that’s a lot of self-defining scripting I’m carrying forward into my adult life, the echos of which still occasionally rattle the windows and shake the walls of my current life.

When we dig into the narratives I’ve bolded, there’s an incredible amount of tension touching on several aspects of my core family dynamics:

  • The incredible pressure of growing up as “the one they kept”, believing that if they could give the other children away, I had to be EXTRA GOOD to make sure that didn’t happen to me.
  • The weight of expectation tied to my going to university, even if I proved terribly unready for the responsibility of “being launched”.
  • Being the Adult Child of Alcoholics (OMG, I don’t even know where to start with what I’ve learned about this one, but here’s a good suggestion).
  • The dynamic of seemingly overbonded mother and underbonded father (and let me tell you, THAT dynamic has been a major undermining factor of EVERY heterosexual relationship I have ever had, including both my marriages).
  • Undiagnosed mental health issues galore, up to and including my own until-recently-admitted depression and anxiety.
  • The “Cold War” aspect of my parents’ relationship as the foundational model I took away for “how intimate partnerships should look” (and my own deeply-disconnecting behaviours when stressed in relationship).

It’s not uncommon that “relationship issues” such as faltering intimacy or communications challenges in relationship are what drive an individual or partners into a therapist’s office. One of the reasons the family of origin snapshot is such an integral part of my own intake process is that it shapes for me a picture of the significant early and formative influences on the participants in the current conversation.

Having spent so much time navel-gazing my own origin story, and listening over the years to how I tell my origin story, I’ve learned something about how to listen for those polished-sounding phrases, lines and phrases that crop up time and time again in conversation. I can’t always put my finger on what it is about a particular choice of wording in a client’s story that sets my Spidey-senses tingling, but my accuracy is (in my not-so-humble opinion) better than just average in catching the tones. There’s just something about a precise choice of words; or something about how they all run together like a phrase we haven’t actually had to think about constructing for a long time, dropped in the midst of an otherwise thoughtful conversation.

(I’m not ruling out the idea that I’m just projecting onto my own clients, at least some of the time; on a good day, I’m self-aware enough to be aware that’s a potential inadvertent-thing-wot-therapists do, yo.)

We all have these stories, these pieces of personal narrative we just carry with us as shorthand descriptions of things that actually carry an incredible significance to those willing to get past the polish and gleam of scripting. I joke sometimes that my job as a therapist is to be a “professional disruptive influence”, and more often than not, what I’m looking to disrupt is the attachments we invest in those safe scripts. Scripts around our origin stories, like any other experience, in many ways function as cages that contain complex emotional experiences. Language is a tool we use to define and shape experience into something we can wrap our heads around. Dispassionate versus passionate language and delivery, for example, is discernible through listening to word choice as well as tone. Applying language to an experience is, in and of itself, a very cognitive process, and in pushing emotional experience through cognitive filters, we already begin to separate ourselves from the immediacy of the lived and felt experience. Our word choice actually informs our brain how we want to qualify and quantify that experience; we can use language to embrace or distance our selves from the feelings. Our origin stories are the stories we have been practicing and polishing the longest of all our scripts. Sometimes we need to just scrape off the years of accumulated polish to see the actual grain and bones of the experience underneath, to understand what happened in different lights and perspectives, and maybe learn something new about ourselves in the process.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Self-care

?You are the Hero of your own Story.?
? Joseph Campbell

Catching up with a colleague over coffee this morning, we were commiserating over a shared experience that seems to hit those of us who are somewhere post-divorce. We’ve moved on, or we’re moving on, and in encounters with The Ex, we suddenly experience an unpleasant sensation of realizing they’re HAPPY, or at least content, or having their own adventures, or… or…

It’s the sharp adjustment of recognizing that, as the heroes in our own stories, we expect that our ex-partners should be miserable, or missing us, or somehow struggling in our absence. And in finding that they’re not at all unhappy with their new status quo, WE are somehow thrust into unexpected or unwelcome re-evaluations–often unfavourable– about where we ourselves are landing. It’s at least a *common* part of a grief-and-recovery process to rewrite our stories around ourselves. Without the presence of the Other, women in particular are often discovering a centred-in-selfness that is new to them: we become Victim, Hero, Adventurer, Martyr, Rescuer–sometimes all of these roles simultaneously, sometimes sequentially, sometimes adopting one and getting mired in it.

Creating a story around our circumstances that offers a “probable hypothesis” for why things happen is what humanity does. We are a race of story tellers who don’t like gaps in our knowledge, so we fill in the blanks with plausible-sounding stories explaining why things happen. It started with the first caveman who had enough language to explain to his clan that lightning striking a nearby tree and setting it afire was the act of angry sky-beings, and continues millennia later in coffee shops all over the world as we tell ourselves stories about who and why we are the people we have become.

In part, the restructured narrative helps us move from one day to the next in the early stages of post-upheaval recovery. Part of grief processing involves the need to understand “Why?”, but lacking direct input from an uncooperative partner in the process of a relationship breakup, we will fill the void in our factual knowledge with semi-informed interpretation and assumption. When those created narratives get invested with emotional weight, they become “like facts”, and the storylines become entrenched. Being shaken out of those entrenchments when later re-encountering our exes (or any Other who played a part in significant life-altering events) generally involves having those internalized “facts” challenged by the living presence of someone behaving nothing like we expect.

If we’re the heroes of our own stories, however, that generally tends to imply that the Other must be the “villain” or antagonist of the piece, right? Our internal heroes implicitly expect that something bad happens to the Other, even if it’s just a desire to know they hurt and pine and regret and lament the pain of our absence from their lives, as we have hurt (or been angered by, or regretted) for their absence from ours. That would just be *fair*, right?

Except… it rarely seems to work that way. Unsurprisingly, people who live outside of our heads, and therefore outside the confines of our carefully-constructed narratives, never conform neatly to the confines of those tight stories. And once they, or we, have exited the relationship, they are even LESS bound by expectations to confirm, so they go off and have happy lives of their own. And when we encounter them in their happiness, it just doesn’t fit for us. (Yes, I’ve been through this process myself; I know exactly how it feels to confront this perception. I am extremely sympathetic and empathetic to friends and clients alike when they run into the same uncomfortable emotional adjustments.)

The awkward truth of this process is that we ARE filling in blanks with presumptive narratives. We do this to make ourselves feel better. How many of us can remember being children, telling ourselves stories to make the world around us seem less scary? Personally, I attribute my becoming a writer to exactly this process; I entrenched my narrative processes so deeply, I made a career out of them! Yay me, right? Up until those processes get in the way of having healthy relationships, sure.

Often times, we find these story-telling activities already exist inside relationships; we don’t have to wait until things fall apart to see them in action, that’s just when we see them take on new lives of their own. We catch the story loops in anxiety and self-esteem crises; we see them in how partners in relationship react to each other, especially when reactions seem disproportionate to the triggering events. We see them when we see reversions in behaviour to traditional patterns when we host or go home to visit our families. We adopt or revert to roles we have played, well-developed personas who fit certain requirements of the systemic storyline, or that feed into our own personal narratives about who we are, what we value (or what we’re supposed to value).

When working with narrative challenges, one of the very first tools we develop is self-observation. It’s a way of both “differentiating from the system” in Bowen Systems language, and also “externalizing the problem” in narrative therapy terms. We learn to look at what’s happening in the system, to recognize the stories spinning around us, as well as our part within them. What am I telling myself? What am I experiencing as I observe what others are doing, and what am I telling myself about those experiences? Turning off the urge to interpret, to filter our experiences into our personal narratives, is a challenge at the best of times. But in doing so, we can also unhook ourselves from a certain amount of default reactive, patterned reactions, including the unconscious urge to want other people to hurt like we have hurt in the wake of relationship breaks, for example. “If I’m unhappy, you certainly don’t deserve to be happy,” is a depressingly common refrain I hear in a lot of post-break conversations, before we get to looking at the narratives entrenching the speaker inside that unhappiness. I get it; I’ve been there, too.

So we work on making the storylines more consciously observable. Then we look at how we are hooked into them by expectations, or by our attachment to different outcomes than we’ve experienced. Breaking those down takes time, and often a lot of “reframing the narratives”; the external perspective of a therapist can be a useful tool for this process. It’s less about playing Devil’s advocate and more about offering insight into our own experiences, helping someone to “consider an idea from a different point of view, taking the evidence as it is but coming to a different conclusion.” We can use perspective-shifting questions that move from (for example) Victim/Marty roles to Hero perspectives by posing the simple question, “If you were the Hero of this story, what would you do next?” (which comes close to one of my fundamentally-important questions, “What kind of person do you CHOOSE to be in this situation?”).

Being the Hero of our own story is something we all desire, but into which we sometimes need a little help casting ourselves. Encountering others’ happiness feels like a check, or even an outright stop, as we adjust to adjacent or outright conflicting storylines that don’t fit neatly with our own. But discomfort doesn’t make it a bad thing, and if it results in us being more mindfully observing of ourselves and our narratives in the world, then we ultimately have a better sense of our Selves as we interact with those other storylines.

Yes, we can ALL be Heroes. (Even if just for one day…)

Emotional Intelligence, Life Transitions, Self-care

“I know nothing stays the same, but if you’re willing to play the game, it will be coming around again.”

So, January… I see you have come around again.

New year, new month, resolute new beginnings for many. And resolute restarts for many more. But this post isn’t about resolutions, New Year’s or otherwise; the internet is full of advisory posts about resolutions at this time of year, and frankly I’m already exhausted by the idea. Instead, today’s post is about the mentality of “starting over”, specifically from the perspective of a post-relationship breakup.

The holidays can be brutal on the recently-single, but perhaps more so is the aftermath of the holidays, when it seems like *everyone* is staring down the long, dark, cold and dreary months of Winter Proper. Remove the artificial and inflated moods of the holidays, and what’s left? (Those of you who are winter enthusiasts, shush 🙂 )

Depression in the winter months is a well-documented phenomenon, at least in North America, in part because of the darkness and cold. Add in elements of 21st century social insularity, and then consider how that withdrawing almost becomes a norm when someone is grieving a breakup, or grieving the loneliness of ongoing singleness. Grief and pain are a drain on energy and motivation, and the cold snowy outdoors is, for many, already a more than sufficient reason to avoid leaving the house. This is a damnably difficult time of year to face the refrain of “new resolutions!”, or “starting over”; it all just sounds like too much effort and what’s the point?

Starting over at any age is a tough challenge, but I think the older we get, the more we believe we stand to lose when a job or a relationship goes away, for whatever reasons. The more we stand to lose, the more we fear the loss and attach to the idea of hanging onto what we can, and the more strength it seems to take every time one has to pick themselves back up again. There’s very little to say to someone in the depths of that experience that will help them visualize what “starting over” even looks like, or when they will be ready to take a step… in ANY direction other than pain-paralyzed stasis. During rough times in the past ten years, I’ve leaned hard on a mantra that taught me a wisdom in keeping efforts small and simple until I’ve been ready to do more: “One day at a time, one breath at a time; one foot in front of the other.”

I keep this article bookmarked now, because it offers some very practical perspectives on how to start over in general after losses:

  1. learn from failures
  2. leave the old attitudes behind (sometimes this is where a good therapist can be a useful ally)
  3. don’t make grandiose announcements, just do it
  4. leverage what you know DID work previously
  5. take baby steps, and celebrate the small victories as well as the big ones
  6. do things differently
  7. keep moving
  8. spin criticisms, however harsh, into constructive perspective

?I have lived in the shadow of loss?the kind of loss that can paralyze you forever. I have grieved like a professional mourner?in every waking moment, draining every ounce of my life force. I died?without leaving my body. But I came back, and now it?s your turn. I have learned to remember my past?without living in it. I am strong, electric, and alive, because I chose to dance, to laugh, to love, and to live again. I have learned that you can?t re-create the life you once had?you have to reinvent a life for yourself. And that reinvention is a gift, not a curse.” — Christina Rasmussen, Second Firsts: Live Laugh and Love Again

Learning how to remember the past without becoming persistently stuck in it is difficult work, especially when one is still mired in pain. Avoiding entrenching ourselves in our victimhood is also a challenge; it’s more comforting to believe we are the wronged parties, especially when the loss comes about unexpectedly. Too many questions (mostly in the “Why/how did this happen to me?” category) overwhelm us without answers; without answers, we believe we cannot understand, and without understanding of what went wrong, we’re afraid to move forward in case we make the same missteps and mistakes in future… and risk feeling the same pain again. Best to stay put until we KNOW things, right?

Except… some things can’t be known. And even when presented with answers, if we don’t like or don’t believe the information as presented, we engage it in a struggle to prove, disprove, pick apart, analyse, investigate. We stay stuck with the need to COMPREHEND. And if we can’t, there is no way to resolve the struggle, to free ourselves, to choose to act differently.

Starting over after romantic breakups adds some things to the list above, like choosing whether to maintain a hard or soft heart — does grief make us cynical, gun-shy, pragmatic, open-hearted, willing, eager? Starting over involves challenge and opportunity, but especially in romantic contexts also involves emotional risk; like the clich? says, “Love like you’ll never be hurt”, but how hard is that to hear when you’re still in recovery, post-breakup, even months or years later?

Recovery often becomes about the stories we tell ourselves in the aftermath, whether we stay stuck in the stories of grief and pain and loss and allow that stuckness to creep in and also infect our “forward vision”. Do we shape those narratives in negative language, or positive language? For example, consider the difference between, “I don’t ever want to feel (that kind of) pain and grief again,” and “I want to love and be loved again,” in the sense of reinforcing a negative versus positive space. “I don’t want X” only defines a specific or narrow set of experiences, even when the scope of that experience seems (however temporarily) all-encompassing. It works less effectively for crafting a useful, self-directing course TOWARD something. Saying, “I want [Y]”, on the other hand, opens a conversation about what [Y] can look like, what paths might move one from current state towards receptivity and onward toward open reception and acceptance.

Relationship therapists generally hold that intimacy is rooted in vulnerability, and vulnerability is, itself, rooted in risk-taking. Starting over after breakup involves some soul-searching questions about willingness, or potential readiness, to engage in what undoubtedly feel like emotionally-risky behaviours. The last thing most of us want to do when we’ve burned our fingers is too stick them back someplace we’re afraid will result in further burns. This is where my two core tenets, mindfulness and choice, become critical components of any “starting over” mentality. What have I learned, and what do I need to carry forward? What changes to my metrics for satisfaction and happiness do I want to make, and to my communications when things aren’t measuring up to those metrics? How do I want to ask for what I want, even if the entity I’m asking is “the universe at large”?

But the process of “starting over” must also, by necessity, make space for processing grief and the pain of whatever’s been lost. Starting over, like “moving on”, doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting about what has happened or magically stopping the feelings. Nor does it function on any kind of a set schedule. More accurately, it needs to be a process of learning how to redistribute the weight of those experiences, so that we can move without tripping over the unresolved baggage. Resolution, to me, means a maybe-sometimes-never process by which we gradually shift or improve our relationship to those prior experiences, so some lingering effects may be with us for a long time. But we can either be pinned in place under the weight of those effects, or we find a way to move in spite of them. Grief processing is its own thing, and again, this might be a place in which good therapy is useful. Working through our fears and anxieties around future “what ifs”… well, that’s the work of starting over, right there, in a nutshell.

If it were all as easy as a song lyric, life would be so much simpler, wouldn’t it? We can’t always force a tidy resolution, but we can change our relationship to the weight we carry forward. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start… not *quite* all over… again. And again. And again. As often as our hearts can stand it.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Self-Development

Lately I’ve been noting another repeating conversation with several clients who are struggling to make changes in their relationships. Whether I cover this topic with individuals or with couples, it often starts with a similar refrain:

“I’m doing all this work and making all this effort, and my partner’s making no effort at all!”

While no therapist in the world will dispute that sometimes partners DON’T engage in a change process for a variety of reasons, there are innumerable ways in which a partner might be engaging in an *incredible* amount of effort… just not where it’s visible.

One of the ways I’ve been noticing lately in which this perspective becomes hugely important in relational work, is in considering the notion that in partnerships, we have a tendency to ASSUME that our partners are enough like us that their baselines for many things are comparable (equal) to our own. Emotional baselines is a concept I’m extrapolating from Martin Seligman’s work on happiness, in which he notes that everyone has a different baseline for happiness, and while they may be able to move above or below their respective baselines as provoked by circumstances, the individual baselines to which they return are not guaranteed to be equal to anyone else’s: not a partner’s, not their family’s, not their colleagues, not their therapist’s… sometimes, not even the individual’s own expectation for where they think their baseline SHOULD be.

If we run with the assumption that happiness as an emotional experience can have wildly different individual baseline settings, then it seems to follow that ALL emotional experiences have different individual baselines. From there, recognizing we all have different baseline skillsets for self-reflection, or different baseline aptitudes for change feels like a natural corollary.

In relationships, especially those trying to change out of crisis into stability, we have to take into consideration the idea that all parties are NOT starting the process from the same place. They may be on the same page about agreeing change is necessary, and even agreeing what change is necessary, but where the wheels come off the wagon in therapy is discovering the hard way that this in no way guarantees starting from the same place to effect those changes. Ergo, the partner who can more readily engage changes in personal or interpersonal behaviours is always going to seem and feel like they are making all the effort while the other partner makes no visible effort at all.

This is where we go looking at what’s happening below each partner’s individual waterline. Anxious or avoidant partners will always struggle longer and harder to overcome their fears than a securely-attached partner, or even one who may be anxious but more motivated by fear of losing the relationship to try pretty much ANYTHING to head catastrophe off at the pass. So there may be HUGE efforts on the part of one partner, but because they involve trying to surmount the internal fear-drenched scripts and anxious narratives or negative self-talk, all of that work remains invisible to the external perspectives. It takes enormous effort for the lower baseline partner to even get up to where the higher-baseline partner is starting from… and all this time, the higher-baseline partner is moving ahead, moving away, assuming their partner is in lockstep with them, disappointed when they discover this isn’t the case. Advancements are happening, more often than not, or at least effort is occurring, but imagine starting a straight-course race in which the two runners start out with one already 50m in the lead; obviously, they’re going to move ahead at their own pace which the other runner is going to take some time to even reach the former’s starting block, never mind catch up.

We also have to consider the potential disparity in *ability* to change, and the capacity to tolerate the impact of change (uncertainty, instability, discomfort, mistrust of Self/Other/process in general, fear of failure… this is a sampling from a long list of potential effects). We already recognize that not everyone shares a common baseline for self-observation and non-judgmental self-analysis. These are key components in engaging any kind of developmental change process for the self or within relationship. Avoidance of looking into the fire of our own discomfort is going to make it considerably more of a challenge to look at what CAN change, let alone face the risk of what is intrinsically a risky, trial-and-error process with what feel like astronomically high emotional stakes.

Yeah, confronting those kinds of emotional terrors, I know *I* have historically failed to joyously embrace change processes, even ones I cognitively understood to be vast improvements on current situations.

So when we find these kinds of statements cropping up in the counselling room, we detour off the process track a little ways, and sit with the partner “in the lead” of the change process, and consider what they know or understand about their partner. There’s usually (not always, but more often than not) something we can discern about the “lagging” partner that lets us glimpse a little below the waterline to reframe what may be happening as a difference in starting points. We can then introduce a number of options to help mitigate the frustration of that perceived disparity of effort: we illustrate the potential efforts being waged internally by the partner to just get up to the other’s starting point. We introduce compassion for that catch-up effort, and consider whether there is value in slowing down the leading partner’s efforts to include more coaxing/coaching/collaborative support rather than frustration and berating, or if there are ways to stay engaged while still moving ahead at separate paces. We can introduce a variety of new communicative check-in options that encourage partners to share more transparently the experiences and challenges of their own change process and attendant emotional experiences. We build understanding (and hopefully respect) for those differential baselines, and how understanding where those baselines rest impacts almost everything about relational dynamics. We discuss whether or not baselines can be adjusted as individual work or part of the relational development work.

But at all times, we maintain a check on the assumption that all things are equal, especially in change processes. We want to believe our partners are “just like us”, but it’s the places where they are different that make relationships both some of our greatest excitement, and some of our greatest strain, but always our greatest adventures.

Emotional Intelligence, Self-care, self-perception, Uncategorized

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m sitting in the coffee shop with my colleague, and largely induced by last night’s dose of Nyquil, I’m in a mental fugue state that just Does Not Want To Write. It’s not quite “stomping my little feetsies and howling” levels of resistance, but it’s a big chunk of mental Don’Wannas that just won’t respond to coffee or placatory scones. I’m trying to force myself to go through archived posts to see if there’s anything I can repost for more meaningful content, trying to force myself to write on a difficult topic currently whirling around my hindbrain, I’m trying to force the groove that just resists me at every turn…

Then I go get another coffee from my favourite barrista, Ben, and realize I’m missing a beautiful opportunity right here and now to observe myself in the moment. The heart of mindfulness is the ability to witness ourselves in the moment of whatever experience we’re having, without judgment. We approach our own experiences with a curious mind; it’s an exploratory mindset rather than a harshly manipulative one. In the moment it becomes less about enforcing my own will over my own obvious reluctance, but it’s a chance to observe that reluctance and give space and voice to whatever’s going on right here, right now.

When I set the noise of my own performative expectations aside (Must! Write! Blogpost! Must! Continue! Generating! Original! Value-add! Content! Musn’t! Disappoint! Readership! Must! Drive! Traffic! To! Website! Create! Revenue! PanicpanicpanicEGO!), there’s a whole lot of silence in the ensuing space. It’s silent, because today I am exhausted. Some of that is grogginess from the cough syrup taken before bed last night, but most of it is the drained aftermath of an emotionally tumultuous week on social and inter-relational fronts. It’s a resistance based in wanting to bask in the flexibility of my schedule by NOT doing work today, and resenting the fact that the only reason I got out of bed this morning was a barely-disciplined drive to keep up a habit. (Don’t get me wrong, this weekly workdate is a godsend as far as habits go, for someone like me with a very wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey relationship to “work ethic”, but it really does happen largely by dint of willpower, rather than an actual love of getting out of bed early on my plausible day off to go write.)

The trick with mindfulness and self-observation at that point, is what happens next. Having observed these feelings running rampant through the room, now what? More importantly, if I’m actually under pressure or deadline to get things done, what can I do with these feelings to accomplish something?

This is a decision point, if we’re aware in the moment to recognize such. Today, I have the luxury of being under no deadline but my own, so I can afford to slack the performance-writing pressure off, and come home to finish the post in my own time. We don’t always have the luxury of time, however, or at least we perceive that we don’t (which is, in part, how the “cult of busyness” has become the implacable force it has for many of us), so we can’t cut much slack into the timetable to sit with our own discomforts. Then what?

I liken this part of the process to the film technique of split-screening, with two or more windows on screen showing different people in different places, talking to each other or others. In a mindfulness exercise of self-observation, we make a space to hold that self-observation in real-time while ALSO doing whatever needs doing outside the realm of our internal experience. I refer to my “observing self” as having a little Zen Master who sits a little above and behind my shoulder, observing the Self in action while the rest of my brain goes about the external business (or busyness) of the moment. We hold space for the in situ observations with a non-judgmental curiosity, and worry about assessing later. This doesn’t always negate the stress or performance pressure in the moment, but it makes space to allow it to happen and flow through us without necessarily being blocked or bottlenecked as we fight it or try to compartmentalize it into some other corner of our mind.

For the record, I’m not always great at this practice myself, even after almost fifteen years of practicing (with wildly-variable degrees of success) self-observation in my daily life. My biggest pitfall is common: I get trapped in judgmental assessments and harsh critiques of my own internal experiences, rather than simply being curious about what’s happening. Instead of simply observing my resistance this morning, I became frustrated by what I was noting. In being curious about what I was feeling, I critiqued the choices and actions that presumably led to my current state and then passed judgement on myself for being an idiot last night and taking Nyquil later than I should have, knowing I had an early alarm set, blah blah yadda yadda blah.

By learning how to let go of that critical analysis that for many of us leads to inevitable internal name-calling and denigration, we cut ourselves some slack. We let the pressure off. We allow ourselves to recognize that we are thinking, rather than simply feeling, to tell ourselves, “stop”. In most meditation practices, the sitter will invariably get distracted and pulled into thought processes. We can either get wrapped up in those thoughts, or we can recognize “thinking” and permit the process to just drift away. Normally we call attention back to the breath, or something specifically centred in the moment, to help turn mental power away from distracting or disruptive thoughts, and we can do the same thing when trying to simply observe what’s happening in the moment. It’s a simple refocusing choice: “What’s happening right now?” We discipline ourselves to observe only the observable, and to let go of anything that feels like a thought.

When we don’t have the luxury of taking all day to do what we meant to do in a two hour window in the morning, the split-screen approach enables the observations to happen in one window while the forward momentum happens in the other. “What is the next step in what I am doing?” becomes a way of restructuring the need to push forward when half our conscious cognitive power is suddenly rerouted to self-observation. We shift focus to the smallest progressive component in our current task: do the next small thing; when that’s finished, do the next small thing after that. When that’s complete, do the next small thing after *that*, and so on until the self-observation of whatever is happening on the other side of the screen has run its course as best it can.

When we are mindful and self-observant about our own internal experiences, we stand a better chance of making more effective decisions about ourselves and our needs in the moment. It requires being fully present, in the sense of being open to, the feelings themselves; as soon as we start to layer rationalizations, justifications, judgments, or narratives over top of those feelings — in other words, as soon as we start to tell ourselves stories about why we feel what we feel, or where those feelings must/probably come from — then we are trapped in a cognitive process that is more about manipulating our own feelings than it is about simply allowing them to be. That in turn often introduces a great deal of tension or anxiety into the mind, and can in turn create significant dissonance and distress between what we feel and what we do in REACTION to those feelings (or rather, what we’re telling ourselves about those feelings). For example, I spent a relatively lengthy part of this morning beating myself up for failing to function this morning, and for failing to adhere to my own best-practices around managing drowsy-making medications int he evenings. Letting go of my own expectations, all rooted in my ego, around my vaunted prowess for pulling lengthy blog posts outta my arse in two hours or less, meant letting go of that harshly-critical voice in my head and just allowing myself to observe what lay beneath. And when I was able (and willing) to recognize the exhaustion that is more pervasive than a simple late-night dose of cough syrup could explain, it was much easier to release the expectations of ego and say, “Well, okay then… what’s the next small step that I *can* do?”

And so, it’s mid-afternoon on Tuesday and my small steps have included things like, “letting the pressure off myself,” “shut up and enjoy my coffee,” “chat with cafe friends,” “enjoy the mild sunshine on the drive home,” “write some more,” “snuggle my aging cat,” “write some more,” “do some small tidying efforts,” “finish the post,” “publish the post,” then whatever else comes next in line. If I had pushed to write something as I had initially felt compelled to do, I would have been unhappy with the end product and disconnected from myself for the rest of the day because of how I would have failed to just listen to myself. (I also would have cheated myself out of both a great experiential learning opportunity* AND blog content, but that’s neither here nor there 🙂

So, when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, resistant, anything really — cut yourself some slack. Even if it’s only just enough to take a moment and turn the observant eye inward, get curious about your own internal state. Dismiss the negative narratives that may come along for the ride, and just give some space to what you note in your own experience of that moment. If you need to continue being productive because you don’t feel you have the luxury of time, then leave part of the mind on observation mode and let another part of the mind break down the required forward momentum into next-small-step-sized parcels. Let the feelings be just feelings; they may not require action, so just let them run their course. They’ll subside in scope and intensity much fast than if you engage and fight or throttle them. And you’ll hopefully feel considerably more grounded once they do.


(* — Or, as we like to call them in some circles, “Another F***ing Personal Growth Opportunity”.)

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

?Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.?
? Amy Bloom

Have you ever wondered how prickly creatures like hedgehogs and porcupines ever manage to get close and snuggly with each other? The punchline to the untold joke is, “Very carefully.” If you can picture in your mind those spikes and barbs intermixing in vulnerable proximity, you’ve got a good working image of human intimacy as well.

It’s rumoured that Freud kept a statue of a porcupine on his workdesk as a reminder of a Schopenhauer fable:

“A troop of porcupines is milling about on a cold winter’s day. In order to keep from freezing, the animals move closer together. Just as they are close enough to huddle, however, they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread out, lose the advantage of commingling, and begin to shiver. This sends them back in search of each other, and the cycle repeats as they struggle to find a comfortable distance between entanglement and freezing.” — from Deborah Leupnitz, Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Intimacy and its Dilemmas, Perseus Books, 2002

There is a vibrant, powerful, push-me-pull-you dynamic to most intimate relationships; this is the Hedehog’s Dilemma. Most humans crave connection with others, regardless of whether you believe it rooted in primal, umbilical attachment or simply a principle of unity; it’s a cliche, perhaps that “no man is an island”. But the truth of our pursuit of intimate connection is a prickly process at best, because the closer most of us get to true intimacy and vulnerability, the more likely we are to push those getting close away from us, but quiet shutdowns or forceful ejections, and many ways and means in between. Perhaps it’s the fear of being seen; for others it’s the craving for close connection rubbing raw our fear of losing ourselves, of becoming something less than autonomous:

“In adulthood, when we find ourselves in an intimate relationship, we each experience again, even if only in attenuated form, those early struggles around separation and unity–the conflict between wanting to be one with another and the desire for an autonomous, independent self… each [adult] brings with her or him two people–the adult who says “I do,” and the child within who once knew both the agony and ecstasy of symbiotic union. […] Of course, as adults we know there’s no return to the old symbiotic union; of course, survival is no longer at stake in separation. But the child within feels a if this were still a reality. And the adult responds to the archaic memory of those early feelings even though they’re far from consciousness. Thus we don’t usually know what buffets us about–what makes us eager to plunge into a relationship one moment and frightens us into anxious withdrawal the next.” –Lillian Rubin, “Fears of Intimacy”, Challenge of the Heart: Love, Sex, and Intimacy in Changing Times; John Welwood, ed. Shambhala Books, 1985

The closer we get to allowing someone to truly “see us” — warts and scars and sabotaging behaviours and thought patterns and insecurities and all — the more terrified many people will become at the idea of BEING seen. We become terrified at the “what if” scenarios to follow someone catching even a glimpse of what we believe to be our core selves, our “hearts of darkness”.

The more fearful we become, the more our native defenses kick on, or into overdrive, to protect that terrified core self. That darkened spot is home to our chiefest vulnerabilities, our quintessential attachment wounds, and must be protected at all costs. Et voila! Prickliness that makes it seemingly impossible for someone to get past our defenses… right around the same time someone is probably erecting defenses against US.

“We long to be seen, understood, and cherished. But so often we have felt betrayed, hurt, and devalued. As a result, we may carry a rawness that we don’t want people to see or touch. We may not even allow ourselves to notice this place when a protective scab has numbed its presence. Confusion and conflict reign when we pull on people to soothe an inner place that we have abandoned. […] Sadly, we often perpetuate a loop in which our fear of rejection or failure or our continued isolation creates a desperation that drives us to attack or shame people to get what we want… Beneath this display of hostility, we are hurting or afraid. But instead of sweetly revealing these tender feelings, we’re on the warpath, although we’re often punching the shadows that linger from our past.” — John Amadeo, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships; Quest Books 2013

The challenge of getting through the spines and barbs of another person’s defensive strategies is developing the patience and willingness to sit in the fire of discomfort: both our own, and our partner’s. This can be made easier or more difficult depending on the shape of those defenses. Patterns of aggressive defensive can break us down over time when we’re on the receiving end, as can the internal cost of maintaining our high-drain defense systems. Intimacy is the result of vulnerability, which itself is the result of developing sufficient trust in both ourselves and our partners (and the attachment systems operating between us) to lower the defensive mechanisms, to let someone get close to our secret, core selves. David Richo refers to “erasing the storyboard” as a metaphor for detaching ourselves from the stories we carry about our personal attachment injuries:

“The more challenging surrender is to a person, to a commitment to a relationship of trust. It is said that we…have problems surrendering to someone because it feels as if we are giving up our freedom, something we may cling to as our most prized possession. This is why we so often feel a fear of closeness and commitment, actually a fear of trusting how we will feel in the midst of those experiences. […] It may take a partner a long time to convince us that it is safe to love… unreservedly. [They] will have to be willing to allow a long series of open-ended experiences, ones in which the door is continually visible and open in case we need to make a fast getaway. It may be hard for us to find someone with that kind of patience, and would we respect someone willing to be that self-sacrificing with no promise of return?” — David Richo. Daring to Trust: Opening Ourselves to Real Love and Intimacy; Shambhala Books, 2010

Learning how to detach from our beliefs about our own experiences, how to “love like we’ve never been hurt”, and to trust that our partners are building connection with us with GOOD intentions, is in many ways the core work of simply being in relationship. For many of us, the exhilaration of discovery and being seen is coloured by the fear of actually BEING SEEN, of recognizing our defensive challenges and knowing it’s going to take work to lower them. Many of us who have grown up in situations where we have learned a desire to have someone else overcome our defenses for us, are missing the opportunity to learn the scope of our own power and agency; to be overpowered still introduces uncomfortable power dynamics and potential boundary issues, whereas exerting personal agency to chose when and how we allow someone to see our vulnerable cores, is all about learning the shape of our own selves. The more we invest in a defensive stance, the more we risk remaining on the outside of powerfully intimate connection. But the intensity of the fear, the intensity of having our raw selves scrutinized by the Other and potentially judged as harshly as we judge our own faults and flaws, is often to much for people; we make an attempt, can’t stand the heat, and flee.

And so the hedgehog’s dilemma persists: we seek the warmth and closeness of others, but we can’t get around the sharp and spiky bits (ours or theirs), and we jerk away.

Intimacy is truly a prickly business.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

Plato thought what we see in the physical world is a dim reflection of the true ideal thing. For example circular objects are crude approximations to the ideal perfect circle. Platonic analysis aims to understand the physical world in terms of the ideals that capture the real essence that is dimly reflected in physical existence. — from here

It’s not very often I get to break out dead Greek philosophers before I finish my first coffee of the day. I’ve been reminded recently of a profound and repetitive pattern in relationship work that definitely gets in the way of effective intimacy, and that is the projection of some form of idealized partner in between us and the real, living, breathing, flawed human being(s) we’re partnered with.

The core of the Platonic ideal is that what we experience through the lenses of our flawed human-world existence, is simply a pale copy of an Ideal Version that exists on another plane to which we have no access. (Fans of Canadian fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay may be familiar with his “stacked worlds” in which all his novel settings are but pale copies in varying removes from the “perfect realm” of Fionavar.) I had opportunity recently to observe in action a series of client behaviours that reminded me that we sometimes similarly carry in our minds an ideal version of our partners that causes us significant frustration or distress when the reality and the ideal fall out of sync.

“My partner just never behaves the way I expect them to!”
“Why can’t they just be the better person I believe they can be??”
“I tried to change them.”

For better or for worse, most of us carry some kind of “romantic ideal partner” in our heads. This is the basic shape of the partner we wish to have, a perfect fit for all our needs and wants, the mold into which we then try to fit any human partners we acquire. Sometimes we do a reasonable job of adjusting our expectations down from that idealized, “perfect version” to fit the actual human we wake up to in the mornings, but sometimes we can’t let go of the ideals enough to fit ourselves in with this other imperfect human being.

(For the record, this happens almost as often with parents projecting their dreams and ideals onto their children as it does between romantic partners, and works out about as well as you’d think, when children fail to absorb and conform to those projections. This post concerns itself with the adult romantic version of the projection dynamic.)

There are all kinds of conversation triggers that indicate the presence of an idealized blockade. The sample quotes above are some of the more obvious ones I’ve encountered. Often we uncover a sense of what the speaker thinks or believes the Other COULD be, if only they were someone other than their imperfect selves. This method of projecting the idealized Other into a relationship is an absolute obstacle to authenticity and intimacy. If we insist on only interacting with the idealized Other, we set ourselves up for a great deal of frustration. Unsurprisingly, significant tension and eventual disconnect are what most commonly spool out from trying to force a partner to conform to our ideals (this is a major underpinning of Wexler’s “broken mirror syndrome”, for example) without a great deal of negotiation and consent.

There are a lot of theories swirling around the question of WHY we adhere to the ideal of the Other. Some theorists suggest we adapt our early, new-relationship-energy-fueled perceptions that our new partners are perfect and flawless into deep yearnings rooted in our earliest caregivers, looking for the perfect union or synthesis of need and provision on all levels. We carry an invisible internal model of that perfect provision:

As emotional bonding with our first caregiver follows us throughout our whole life and the child we carry inside us cries for love, feeling the need to love and be loved, we end up idealizing the other person without understanding it. We subconsciously want to revive the archetypal bond with our mother and more specifically the first year of our life[…] We project onto the person in front of us everything we want and miss. The empirical knowledge we have for the other person is then getting distorted, complemented, and enriched at will, namely according to our personal needs. Our partner is unintentionally turned into all the things we need him to be, things usually far away from what he really is. — Iro Dimitriou, “Looking for the Idealized Other

Spiritual theorists suggest it is a form of humanity’s drive to seek reunification with a divine Other that takes the shape of seeking “completion of self” through bonding with idealized Other:

Each is loved more profoundly in the ideal Other because each’s true self is realized through its unity with this ideal beloved; each’s agency is unified in this ideal Other, the abiding attention by whom, and the abiding intention of whom, purifies, joins, and sustains the manifold interactions of the universal community. — James Hart, The Person and the Common Life: Studies in a Husserlian Social Ethics

In both cases, we seek the ideal Other as a means of completing something in ourselves, addressing our internal needs in the most satisfying way possible. The ideal Other is the partner we desire above all else, the perfection we feel we deserve. The problems arise in confronting the uncomfortable truth that neither we nor our partners *are* perfect. How do we manage ourselves and our relationships when we realize that our partners cannot perfectly meet our needs?

In a projection scenario, what happens is that the disappointed partners continue to superimpose the idealized version between themselves and the source of their frustration. They come into the counselling offices seeking help with coping but what they really want is the secret trick to make partners conform perfectly to our needs and wants. “Tell me how to make my partner change!”

The problem isn’t necessarily that our partners won’t change, so much as it is our own stubborn refusal to accept what *IS* over the what *COULD BE*. I often ask my clients, “Knowing everything that you know about your partner right here and now, today, including all the thorny parts that are driving you nutty, is this someone you WANT to be in relationship with?”, because if someone can’t separate out what they see in real-time from the projection of that unrealistic Platonic Ideal, then we have a problem that isn’t about the relationship so much as it is an unyielding outcome attachment. If partners are only allowed to occupy the limited, confining space we make for them in our idealizations, then we’re not really allowing our partners or ourselves to be authentically in the relationship with our wounds, warts, and war stories. We may feel we deserve better. We refuse to let go of what the Other SHOULD BE, in our opinions, to the detriment of learning to see what really is.

It’s like getting into a relationship with someone, stapling a mask of a superhero to their face, and then never allowing them to be anyone BUT that mask. The implications and repercussions of any failure to conform to that constrained Ideal include personal dysregulation and overall destabilization of the relationship across a spectrum of severity.

This is the very antithesis of vulnerability, the core component of intimacy. It completely abnegates the potential for authenticity all around. The message we send by sticking to our projected Ideal Other is, “Who you really are is not good enough.” And if that’s a message you send to your flawed and human partners… why are you in relationship with them, then?

Working with clients to dismantle the projections is difficult work. We have to consider and discover (as best we can) where the need for the projection originates. We don’t really care where the projection itself comes from; why a client refuses to relinquish it, is the more important therapeutic question; like many defensive mechanisms, it was likely created to serve a purpose, but that original purpose may now be obstructing paths to mature relational intimacies. Being open to the less-ideal qualities of our partners means learning to sit with, and examine, the tensions and discomforts generated by encountering places where they are not what we expect, or not what we want. We balance what we know of them with what we know of our own needs, and we consider how to explore those intersections where the disconnect seems most problematic. What has been communicated and what has not? Is the message articulated effectively? Can we determine any obvious (or discoverable) blocks to reception of our connection attempts on the partner’s side? If our standard response to a partner’s failure to accept our idealized Other is to become critical, or manipulative to the end of forcing compliance and conformity with our needs, partners may understandably become resistant to their partners, or at least to their projections, over time. That potential resistance has to be taken into account when shaping expectations for any restoration phase.

Teaching clients how to let go of their projections, however, means teaching them how to open themselves up to the experience of the Authentic Other. We do this by reintroducing curiosity as a tool for navigating the rough waters between “What We Thought We Knew” (the projection) and “What Is Really In Front of Us” (the authentic other). We rebalance emotional investments by moving effort from “I must force you to comply so I don’t feel insecure” (Harriet Lerner’s “You change so I feel better!” dysfunctional relationship’s rallying cry) to, “How do *I* see, and choose to relate to, the actual person in front of me?”. We challenge clients to be better with (which is NOT the same as “be GOOD with”) the instability of dealing with another autonomous individual by strengthening their own internal sense of Self.

But always, we come back to breaking through the projection. We hold that there is a place to value ideals, but on a day-to-day basis, we have to relate effectively to the *real* Other who occupies that space with us. We can continue to choose to wield projections as obstructions to intimacy, or we can choose to explore and develop vulnerable connection.

What do you choose?

(There’s a whole related conversation I have with the *partners* of those who get stuck in patterns of Idealized Othering, on how to stand their ground and defend boundaries against the projections, but that’s a post topic for another day.)