Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence, Uncategorized

Returning to reading David Wexler recently, I am reminded of one of the biggest takeaways from a previous reading of his book, Men in Therapy (I’m currently reading the layman companion book, When Good Men Behave Badly). In both books, Wexler discusses the relationship pattern in which people in general, and men in particular, set up relationships as mechanisms for reflecting back at them the values they most want to see and be seen in themselves. These mirroring requirements create a subtle and problematic kind of dependency, often reducing the autonomous, individuated human being who is the partner to little more than a reflective surface. The problems surface when the Partner has the audacity to develop their own wants and needs, to offer comments or criticisms about their mates that suggest dissatisfaction, or to become busy, distracted, unavailable or unreliable as sources of emotional validation and support.

When the dependent partner starts to perceive that the reflective surface is out of alignment or broken, it impacts their security in both their self-imaging and in their relationships. And what do we do when something is out of alignment? We attempt to push it back INTO alignment. Wexler writes in detail on how men especially give the power of validating them into the hands of women partners, often without either of them realizing what is happening and without the woman’s consent to shoulder this responsibility. We all look to our partners for emotional support and validation, yes; this is human relational nature. But we don’t all act out our insecurity when the support or validation is disrupted.

Because our cultural has stunted men’s emotional development in many ways, men are often left with very few ways of expressing hurt, fear, or shame. They do well enough to a point with frustration and disappointment, but in intimate partnerships where they feel especially vulnerable, fear or shame often paired with disrupted validation processes means they misdirect those base-level feelings into more commonly-acceptable and familiar anger, and lash out. Sometimes anger becomes cold silence, but in all cases where this distorted mirror process is occurring, it’s all intended to punish the mirror for misalignment. Lacking direct engagement with each other, couples get into cycles where the disappointment of not getting core needs met turns to emotional reactivity (acting out) that can drive partners to increase distance, which in turn only increases the sense of distortion. It’s another form of what Harriet Lerner calls the distancer-pursuer dynamic, when one partner misbehaves (lashing out, withdrawing, or both) and the other partner’s task in relationship is to somehow “bring them back” to centre; in short, “You change, so *I* feel better!”

There are a lot of reasons why these kinds of imbalanced attachments form; why men in particular crave a kind of emotional vulnerability they don’t feel safe pursuing outside these rare intimate contexts, and why women raised contextually to be placators and nurturers for their own safety allow themselves to be saddled with the unspoken expectations for holding up men’s self-images. Mismatches in Love Languages, for example, can be an enormous source if this kind of distortion. Unravelling all of this in counselling requires looking at where these unarticulated expectations have become burdensome, both in the sense of men being unable (or untrained) to hold their own sense of self-worth without relying exclusively on external reflective sources, and in the sense of women adopting and accepting this degree of emotional labour as the “cost of being in relationship”, as a female friend recently put it. People can be taught how to build their own internal reflections; questions I frequently use with my clients (of all gender identities and relational roles) include these:

  • What story are you telling yourself about what happened?
  • At the end of the day, what kind of person will you wish you had been in this situation?
  • In situations like [X], what would the person you wish you could be have done?
  • What do you see in yourself that looks like that kind of person?
  • What can you do to be a little more like that kind of person?
  • Where you choose to [negative, acting-out behaviour], what do you wish you had done instead?
  • What do you think you might need to make that choice differently in future?

These aren’t cure-alls by along shot, but this kind of questioning is intended to do two things: (1) get the client to practice looking inward to their own perceptions and values, and (2) trust that they can perceive and integrate those values in ways that teach them to trust their own validation senses rather than relying on, or pushing aggressively for, externally-reflected validation. Wexler provides MANY exercises in his books for how to explore those internal distortions, and conversations that shape more effective interactions between partners trying to work past the “bad behaviours” resulting from deep insecurities.

Emotional Intelligence, self-perception

With any new job comes new learning curves, new responsibilities, new personalities, new deadlines. Many people, when taking on new roles that push the boundaries of what they think they know about their own abilities, often have an anxious time settling in and while some people can face the challenges with a fearless, Can-Do attitude, many more of us get wrapped up in varying degrees of performance anxiety, and fear that those who hired us are going to discover we’re not as good as our resumes make us look, that we’re clearly imposters who don’t know what we’re doing, and that we’ll prove ourselves to be flawed and incompetent.

If you think therapists never fall prey to this kind of anxiety, let me tell you:

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha… no.

We all have good days and bad days, but the early days of anything involving a learning curve are tough. Trying to prepare and manage our integration into new environments, new teams, new expectations can lead us into doubting the speed with which we learn (speed that is compromised by stress and fatigue, two factors that also tend to tag along on new job situations), and our ability to translate that learning into demonstrable performance. I faced this same fear many times during hiring/onboarding cycles in high-tech, both as a permanent hire and for years as a contractor; now as a therapist I sometimes face this several times a day whenever I sit down with new clients on intake.

In the new group practice at Bliss Counselling, I’m bring some particular niche-lifestyle savviness to the fold, which on one hand is great for both the community I represent and for the increased resources we’ll develop within the clinical team. On the other hand, however, I’m being tagged internally as a “specialist” or “expert”, and nothing will send Imposter Syndrome singing top-volume arias in one’s head like being tagged an “expert” in something and being asked to speak somewhat knowledgeably about that topic. Another colleague of mine and I are preparing to do a talk to the soon-to-be graduates of the therapy program from whence we ourselves came; a nice little bit of “giving back to the community” that spawned us, to provide some street-level business perspective that the program itself does not. And I’m finding that, too, is sending my internal Chorus Of Demons into overdrive, questioning what I think I know and challenging my belief that I have any right at all to claim to speak knowledgeably on these topics.

I’m sure many of you know EXACTLY how this feels. We know what we know… right up to the point where we have been asked to share what we know with others. At that point, blending quietly into a small, innocuous clump of dust bunnies seems HIGHLY preferable to sharing information like an informed and knowledgeable resource. We get flushed out by our own insecurities, and while I sometimes amuse myself by debating openly with my internal hecklers, for some this becomes an outright debilitating problem.

When I recently commented to friends that I had been tagged to provide some “expert” information on my community support and was unquietly losing my sh*t over the request, one friend offered the sagest suggestion I have ever heard, after also pointing out to me that I was losing my sh*t over nothing more than talking about something I’ve been part of for thirty years. She said to me, “If you’re not the expert in the room, imagine someone who is; doesn’t have to be a real person you know, but imagine you’re sitting next to a Real Live Expert on this subject. Watch the Expert. What do you imagine The Expert might say, or what they might do. Then *you* do that thing.”

It’s kind of a “fake it till you make it approach”, but when I thought about that idea, I felt myself calm down. There’s still a little bit of Imposter Syndrome lurking around the edges of “pretending to be something I don’t comfortably believe myself to be”, and “what if they find out I’m only *pretending* to be The Expert?”, but at the end of the day, I remind myself (sometimes more persistently than I should admit professionally) that this is all *STILL ME*. *I* did this thing, and The Expert in the room, both the externalized imaginings and the internalized delivery system, are all me. It seems like a lot of cognitive work to go through, but it’s the same work I do with clients to offer externalized perspectives on skills as well as fears. Sometimes we can’t see what’s inside ourselves, but if we can imagine setting it next to ourselves, outside ourselves where we CAN see it, sometimes we gain a better grasp of how it works, how it influences and moves us, and how we can interact with it differently.

These “externalizing conversations” and projections often allow us to move beyond thought distortions tied to a belief in some kind of innate flaw?”I’m a failure”, “I don’t know anything”, “I’m an impostor”?and into a different way of interacting with the anxieties: “I don’t know how much I know about this topic, but here’s what I can tell you about what I do know, and I know how to connect with resources that know what I don’t”… which is exactly what An Expert would do, too!

Emotional Intelligence, Uncategorized

Once in a while I notice there seem to be trends in conversations I have with friends and clients, or unintentional themes in the articles that cross my desktop in a flood most weeks. Recently, I’ve encountered a number of people who self-identify as empaths who seem to be struggling with feeling awash or drowning in the emotional tides of others in their lives.

This sent me scrambling after a while for a review of definitions. I was surprised to discover that, while the vaunted Merriam-Webster Dictionary (whose Twitter feed is delightful, by the way, both entertaining and informative in surprisingly equal measure) has definitions for empathy, empathic, and empathetic, it most decidedly does NOT have a definition for empath. This presents a bit of a conundrum, if so many people are self-identifying as something a dictionary doesn’t recognize, what does that mean?

Google defines the word as, “(chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.” Urban Dictionary suggests, “A person who is capable of feeling the emotions of others despite the fact that they themselves are not going through the same situation.” Many other web sources of varying repute associate empaths with Highly-Sensitive Persons (HSPs), with significant confusion around differentiating between apprehending (perceiving) the emotional state of others, *feeling* the emotional state of others, or simply being highly-sensitive to the intensity of people in highly-charged emotional states (which has little to do with effectively perceiving others’ states and everything to having little to no tolerance for the emotional intensity of others’ distress).

Empathy is an active ability: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner” (M-WD). The message I keep encountering from those who self-identify as empaths is the aspect of “vicariously experiencing the feelings” of someone else, to the point of their own emotional distress or physical fatigue. HSPs are hard to tell apart from various types of hypervigilant people; they pick up super-quickly, more so than most people, on nonverbal cues or tones and cadences of speech, and they interpret and react to those interpretations faster than many of us as well. It’s much harder to quantify accuracy in those interpretations, especially if the interpretation then results in not just one but two parties being subsumed by the emotional experience of the moment. What this looks like from a therapy perspective is a permeable-boundary issue, when a sensitive person does not possess effective means of differentiating others’ emotional turmoil from their own once proximity to intolerable intensity has triggered their own “stuff” into overdrive. They get swamped when someone else’s state over-runs their own boundaries, and suddenly, “your pain is my pain”… which is a rather *ineffective* way of simply being present with someone in their own moment of distress.

I sometimes come back to an analogy from my younger days when I was training as a teen to be a lifeguard. One of the Big Lessons the instructors always drive home to students is that when you try to save a drowning victim, you can swim out to them but if you get close enough for them to grab on to you, they will overwhelm you and the odds of you BOTH drowning go up astronomically. That’s why lifeguards train with rescue aids and flotation devices they can push to a drowning swimmer; it lets them remain present and calm and AT A SAFE DISTANCE while the swimmer gets a handle on the situation and can (hopefully) calm down. What these recent discussions around empathy are telling me, however, is that we’re raising generations of rescuers who think “empathy” means letting themselves be overwhelmed and drowning in another person’s emotions, and who believe this practice makes them better people for doing so.

Part of the issue of managing empathy effectively seems to be that somewhere along the way the western world’s interpretation has come adrift from a classical Buddhist interpretation. In the west, we have seemingly adopted the idea that “empathy” is the process of feeling what other people feel, literally absorbing those feelings as if they are our own. I’m not sure how we got there, given that in the Buddhist view of compassion and empathy, the empathy is all about “being able to relate to your emotional experience [generally because I have had similar kinds of experiences in my own past]”, NOT about “I must be awash in your feelings myself in order to relate to your feelings”. I think there may be (should be?) another name for the permeability issue when other people’s feelings trigger our own flooding that *isn’t* about empathy, but I’ll be darned if I can think of one. Discussing this with another therapist colleague, she looked at the description of empaths and empathy as sensitive clients have been using these words, and suggested, “Empathy has a boundary. I know I’m me and I know your feelings but they are not actually mine. The flooding you are describing is enmeshment. It’s not empathy.

Enmeshment, helpfully defined by Wikipedia as “personal boundaries are diffused, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomous development“,seems to mirror the described experiences of empaths when they become overloaded by others. They can’t function autonomously when it comes to separating out “what’s mine from what’s yours”, without breaking off from the contact completely and taking sometimes considerable time and distance to de-escalate their own reactiveness. This is not the same thing at all as being able to sit with a person in distress and recognize similarities in experiences in feelings, but holding one’s own emotional experiences (past AND current) gently to the side in order to remain present with the distressed party. When we are subsumed by our own reactivity, suddenly the encounter MUST become about managing that, rather than presence with the Other, and we miss the point of that compassionate, effectively-empathic ability to witness and relate. We have swum too close to the drowning swimmer, and now we are drowning, ourselves.

Working with HSPs and self-identified empaths is challenging from a therapeutic perspective, because we have to first create an awareness of boundaries and teach how to recognize their purpose (and instill a value for that purpose in people who may come from situations in which differentiation was dismissed or actively punished, and who therefore believe they still have a need to remain hypervigilant or susceptible to the silent barrage of non-verbal cues). We work to create an understanding of differentiation, usually through a variety of self-scanning and mindfulness mechanisms, and we introduce de-escalation tools as a final step in the process.

It’s a difficult thing to teach people how to “turn down the volume” on their own sensitivity without deadening them to the stream of input, so it’s very much a trial-and-error process that sometimes has to focus on subtly changing how people relate to that sensitivity, rather than trying to alter the sensitivity itself. But looking for signs of enmeshment, and starting with teaching people how to separate the “my stuff” from the “your stuff”, are critical components of helping sensitive or empathic people find more peace between themselves and the overwhelming emotional noise of the world around them.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

Two people in relationship; one of them throws up their hands in despair and exclaims, “This relationship is a disaster! Everything is crap! How could you not have noticed all the problems we’re having??” The other one looks deer-in-the-headlights startled, and asks, “What problems? I thought everything was great??”

Witness in action one of the most common scenarios that will send couples into counselling: the Disparate Perceptions Issue, or, as I like to call it, Attachment Style Mismatches 101.

We tend to perceive a “relationship” as a singular entity, some amorphous thing into which two or more people enter and merge and become the mythical, “you-complete-me”, boundaryless One. In practice, however, we remain singular entities with connections to each other, and from an attachment perspective, those connections can be exceptionally different. Person A may have a secure attachment to Person B, whereas Person B is anxious and insecure in their attachment to A. Between them they view what they have established together as A Relationship, and what they also have under the hood are two potentially-conflicting attachment styles that will filter and skew how each of them perceives the general state and health of the relationship.

In the cliched and gender-biased “tradition” of the anxious woman and the disconnected (avoidant) male partner dynamic, we see this clash of attachment style in full bloom as one partner frets and micromanages issues while the other partner retreats or stonewalls emotional engagements until someone gets unhappy enough to say something.

(Note: this dynamic is not limited to this cliched traditional structure. We actually see the anxious/avoidant and anxious/secure attachment styles in relational dynamics of ALL SORTS. But sometimes cliches are useful for illustrative purposes, and I only have so many words allotted per blog post, so bear with me.)

By the time the relationship gets to a counsellor, neither one of them can understand the other’s point of view. How could A have not seen all these problems? I don’t know what B is talking about, everything is fine from where I sit. I’ve figured out a really useful metaphor for explaining to people how this works from an attachment perspective, once I’ve dropped the bomb on them that what they view as a singular Relationship is a potential fiction masking the multiplicity of attachments going on behind the scenes.

Think of a big, multi-lane roadway. For Ontarians, I’ll use the 401 as my example. We think of the 401 as a singular entity called a highway. In truth, what we see as a highway is actually two distinct directions of traffic, each one busy in its own right and moving at its own pace. Imagine what happens when construction or mishap constricts or shuts down traffic on one side of the roadway, but not the other. The impacted side gets snarled for miles and miles while driver frustration and rage rises; the other side might notice, might slow down a little, but otherwise continues on about its own business with significantly less impact to its overall flow.

Relationships, when viewed from the attachment angle, function similarly. One attachment can be in profound distress without the other attachment(s) being equally, or even similarly, affected. I tend to believe we actually do ourselves a serious disservice when we insist on viewing relationships as singular entities simply BECAUSE it blinds us to the different experiences each participant in the connection has with other people in that connection. An insecure partner is going to have a very different attachment to a partner than a secure or avoidant partner will have, but couples will often come into therapy with an expectation that because one of them can see a problem or series of issues, that the other partner can/should/must be able to see exactly the same thing(s). But attachment filters will pretty much guarantee that this is just not true. Emotional traffic has crashed to a halt on one side of the relationship, while the other side continues to sail blithely or securely on by.

When we break the notion of A Relationship out into individual attachment styles like the divided lanes on a highway, we can introduce new lexicon around defining differentiated perspectives and communication dynamics. We can begin to consider how different attachment styles impact our expectations for our partners, and how those expectations are communicated within the relationship. We can also explore more effectively how each partner recognizes and responds to distress calls within the partnership in ways that (hopefully) don’t diminish the individual needs for trust and security (there’s a whole other post or posts on how this can play out among the different attachment styles). We can help individuals investigate how their particular attachment style may contribute to connection bid and repair attempt processes and give them an established frame of reference to help them modify their own behaviours to improve those processes (i.e., normalizing client experiences by showing them, “this isn’t just you, you’re not broken; these kinds of issues are common to people with this attachment style”).

And eventually, with time and practice, we can help clients learn how to unsnarl their own attachment jams and let traffic move back up to a smooth flow in their relationship. (There’s a whole sidebar’s worth of imagery around relationship therapists as “highway traffic cops”, but until someone actually lets me drive the high-speed modified police cars, I’m just going to leave that entire topic alone.)

Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Relationships

Somewhere along the lines, our culture took to heart a lesson we seem to indoctrinate into small children as a way of keeping the peace in home and playground: when someone does us a hurt, our job on the receiving end is to “forgive and forget”. Let it go and move on. Don’t harbour the grudge. This admonishment seems to come regardless of whether the hurt has been redressed (at all, never mind adequately), whether any repair has been attempted, whether any degree of ownership and justice have been served.

In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths sometimes baffle people who have a hard time “letting go” or forgiving the injustices, big or small, that have been done to them, even when clinging to their anger and hurt is making them miserable. I have a lot of clients who struggle with this indoctrinated precept of “forgive and forget”, whether it means forgiving parents, friends, employers/colleagues, or especially intimate partners. It has become a kind of cultural shorthand now when talking about “foregiveness” that people simply imply “…and forget” when we talk about forgiving those who we believe have harmed us. When people hurt, they don’t *want* to forget, because many people are reasonably afraid that, having been hurt once, they can be hurt again. Even if they move on to other relationships, the remembered pain and sense of hurt goes with them, and they bring that fear and mistrust into new connections. They don’t want to forget because remembering helps guard against future hurts.

But being constantly on guard is exhausting. Ask anyone who has ever suffered to the degree of being diagnosed with PTSD what it costs to remain hypervigilant, and most of them will tell you: it drains everything. When we spend all our time remembering, we have a hard time being in the present moment, because we are so consumed by the past. But letting go opens us up to being vulnerable, to *potential* future harms. For some people, that’s just not an option.

For people struggling in the sticky tar-pit of that “forgive and forget” mindset, I find the language Terry Hargrave introduced in his work on Families & Forgiveness to be ground-breaking. Hargrave suggests that “forgiveness” is one of FOUR “stations” we can move to from our place of hurt when a relationship is damaged:


Salvation (Exonarating)

Restoration (Forgiving)

Insight Understanding Giving the Opportunity for Compensation Overt Forgiving

Figure 1. The Four Stations of Forgiveness (Terry Hargrave, “Forgiving the Devil”)

Hargrave’s use of “stations” here does not carry the same implication as, say, “stations of the Cross” might, to suggest a progression from one state to the next. Rather, each of these options exists as a resting place unto itself, and may represent the total progression an individual might make in the relationship to the one they feel has harmed them. And only the final stations actually involve forgiveness as we understand it, though Hargrave does not suggest that “forgetting” is at all a necessary part of any of these stations:

[…] [F]orgiving and forgetting are two separate issues that are not connected by necessity. […] [W]e seldom forget the action that has damaged us in an unfair way, but we do tend to forget the pain that is associated with that action after we have forgiven. I believe this is true. Pain tends to fade with time after the work of forgiveness is achieved. When a person engages in the second two stations of forgiving and restores the relationship with the former relational culprit, then the pain of the past has the opportunity to fade when compared with the trustworthy and loving relationship of the present. The popular belief that if a person truly forgives another, he or she will wipe the slate clean of all memories of the incident, is simply not true. Even if it were neurologically possible on request to erase specific memory pathways in the brain that contain information about the damaged past, it would not necessarily be preferable.

Again, at the heart of […]injustice and pain is the violation of trust. If I am damage by [someone], there is a sequential deterioration of trust. If I forgive and forget, then possibly nothing will change in a relationship with an untrustworthy [person], and I will open myself up to the same type of relational damage to occur again. If I try to forget the damage, then I will not remember the necessary steps to take to prevent such damage in the future and there is a possibility that I will be “twice burned”. Trust is best restored to a relationship not when the victim and victimizer act as if no violation ever occurred; it works best when they do not forget the past and choose to live life differently [in the present and future].

The first two stations do not demand that trust in a relationship be re-established, but they can provide reflection and a frame of reference for understanding something about what happened that may shed some light on WHY it happened. This is often as far as many people safely feel they can get; they have something that feels like an explanation that makes sense, but they cannot feel safe in the act of re-establishing trust with the person who damaged them. This is often true for those coming out of toxic or abusive relationships with parents or partners (or both). Forgiveness, on the other hand, demands an active process of re-engagement and reconstruction, and active repair attempts from all parties involved. It is a riskier position to be in, because it also requires vulnerability on both sides; the one who has been hurt risks being hurt again, and the one who has effected the hurt is often bringing some degree of guilt and shame to the table that they have to confront and manage within themselves as part of the process. (Note from the therapist’s chair: it is NOT the job of the person who has been hurt to manage that guilt and shame for the other; just be aware it’s a part of the equation for whomever is sitting on the other side of the table.)

This stationed approach allows greater flexibility in presenting options to people who seem caught between the rock of “forgiveness” and the hard place of “forgetting”. As a therapist, we can give them permission to take forgetting off the table completely, and then offer not one but FOUR unique perspectives under two classes of approach (exoneration and restoration) from which to begin their work. This opens up new discussion directions and new language to explore, and often helps clients determine what they want to do that point, and how to engage with the damaging partner. It may allow them to move on from stuckness and let go of their exhausting attachment to the pain of the incident, with new options for living more fully in the present than in the past.

Article links, Emotional Intelligence

Hola! How did it get to be September already!??

As one might guess from the lapse in blogging, it’s been a busy summer of the “it all just got away from me” variety, complicated in July by the unexpected need to buy a new business computer, and the hairy adventures of getting everything (almost everything) migrated over. Client work has been slowly and steadily increasing, and there is a massive stack of professional reading and development that is just waiting for me to have time to dig into it.

Time. “Ay,” as Hamlet says, “there’s the rub.”

We all have such excellent struggles against Father Time, especially over the summer when there may be vacatin plans to pep for and make up for afterwards, or more travel on the local front, more get-togethers, more gardening or cleaning the pool. Those with kids have the complexities of everyone else’s schedules to work around on top of all of that, and suddenly, it’s September all over again. Not a bit of wonder that for any of us (even those of us without kids), September is the month that feels like things calm down just a little bit, settle back into normal routines, steady schedules.

A friend pointed me recently to an excellent blog by Geneen Roth (of “Women, Food, and God” fame) that provided a nice little reality check on the efforts we put ourselves through chasing the kinds of success we think will make us happy, that we believe will buy us the time and freedom to do whatever we want… only when we get there, to that pinnacle of whateverness we’ve been chasing, we find that *staying* there comes with its own rigorous demands, and that the freedom we thought we’d earned i as far off in the distance as ever it was… just like any other horizon.

It’s not hat I’m not a fan of “chasing your happy”, but I’m a bigger fan of what happiness expert Martin Seligman came to see as “flourishing”, which allows for more tolerance of the not-happy, more development of tools for coping and self-soothing in adversity, than a fixated pursuit of happiness tends to allow. reaching the pinnacle of success won’t buy you happiness if you’re a burned-out husk of your former self when you get there.

So as we all roll over from the summer’s chaos into whatever September brings for you, now is as good a time as any to take a page out of Geneen’s book (or blog, in this case) and reflect a while on this:

“It turns out that the true extraordinary isn?t reserved for special people or big achievements or red-carpet-moments. It?s extraordinary to write a book, and it?s extraordinary to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes and mustard. It?s extraordinary to meet a famous person, and it?s extraordinary to meet the eyes of a grocery store cashier. When I pay attention to what is in front of me, the seemingly ordinary things are backlit with the extraordinary: the hum of the refrigerator, the yellow sponge, the trill of a finch.

“Now, instead of lurching forward, I step back. Instead of looking for the extraordinary, I look at it. If I get breathless or anxious that I am falling behind and that everyone else will get there before me, I remind myself that the top is just a square of earth you pass on your way down. And that no moment, no place, is better than this breath, this foot touching the cool floor in the middle of the night.”

Have a great September!

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

Someone once explained the difference between theoretical mathematics and physics, and applied mathematics and physics, as the difference between assumptions and concrete knowledge. In theoretical math/physics, there are hypotheses that are fitted with variables based on assumptions, to see if any of them shore up the equation. When one set of assumptions fails, another is fitted into the equation to see if *it* works instead. (I’m neither a mathematician more a physicist, so my understanding of this process is suspect at best; I like to say, “I have two degrees in Not Good At Math”.)

In applied math/physics, however, you can’t have equations based on unknown or assumed variables, however; you HAVE to solve for the unknowns in order to apply the equation. Engineering, for example, requires all variable be known before anything is built because if an *assumption* is introduced that later proves to be wrong, things go to hell in a handbasket very very swiftly. Matthew once told me the legend of the Engineering Iron Ring: engineers signed off on a bridge once that was built on faulty equations; it fell down, and lives were lost. (Wikipedia repeats that legend, but dispels it as the root of the Iron Ring itself.) The Iron Rings are meant to symbolize engineers’ civic responsibility to remove as much risk as possible by making sure they do NOT build on unknowns or assumed principles. They MUST solve for the unknowns before putting people’s lives and well-being at risk.

Unsurprisingly, it is no different when building relationships, interpersonal bridges between separate lives. Or at least, it *should* be no different, but in truth, we make assumptions and interpretations then build wildly-creative things on top of those assumptive variables ALL THE TIME. I often say that, as much as Nature abhors a vacuum, the human mind hates one even more so when there are gaps in our understanding of other people, for example, we have two choices when it comes to solving for the unknown in the equation: we can either seek direct information from the source (which, while only as good as the source’s self-awareness, is still at least coming from the source), or we can circumvent the courage and intimacy required in connecting with another human being and PRESUME we know what’s going on. We assume an understanding that is based on OUR experiences and expectations, on what WE ourselves would do or want in that situation… and then we make decisions and choose courses of actions based on our SELF-sourced assumptions, and continue on.

One of my counselling instructors in grad school referred to this as “sock puppet conversations”. Instead of taking the risk of having conversations with people *outside* our heads, we create “sock puppets” to stand in for those other people in our internal conversations, and pretend what we’re getting is externally-validated data while ignoring the fact we’re talking to the mental equivalent of our own hand.

We fail to effectively solve for the unknown, because we make assumptions instead. We think they’re safer choices because they spare us from having to interact in potentially vulnerable or intimate ways with another human being, but what we’re doing is swapping risk up front for risk later on if (when) we then proceed on a course of decision/action based on incomplete or incorrect or just plain unknown information… information that might prove critical to the success of whatever follows, information that might put at risk the lives and well-being of the people involved in the relationship.

People who take actions on my behalf without first ascertaining if those actions are (a) what I want, or (b) valid or welcome actions in the moment or situation at large, are engaging in theoretical relationships; they have failed to solve the unknowns in the equation (i.e., my *actual* needs and wants). Even if what they’re doing is intended to be nice and helpful, if it’s the wrong thing at the wrong time then it’s still an extremely risky venture, like trying to pave the road across a bridge when you haven’t finished building all the valley-spanning underpinnings first. At that point, when someone is acting without knowledge of what is actually appropriate to ALL parties in the situation, it becomes apparent that perhaps what they’re offering is not a bridge to another human being, but rather a free-standing platform that is all about them, what THEY have to offer, how good THEY are at taking care of other people (without first ascertaining if care-taking is wanted, or if their version of care-taking is appropriate to the situation or other individuals). It’s more often at times like that about THEM assuaging their own anxieties ? that much becomes clear because if they were LESS anxious about the situation, it would have been more likely they would have come seeking directly-sourced information in lieu of assumptions.

Let me provide an example of this kind of interaction from a too-common communication pattern I see a lot:

“I don’t know what’s going on with you, but you must be angry at me, so I’m just going to give you the cold shoulder/stonewall you/leave you alone/be mad back at you until you get it out of your system/tell me what’s wrong/treat me better.”

[statement of ignorance/unknowing] [assumption/presumption] [decision/action based on presumption]

A subtler, more insidious version of this script within a family relationship system might look a lot like this:

“I don’t know if this is actually what you want, but I presume as a parent it’s my duty to take care of my (even adult) kids, so I’m going to do all these things for you that you didn’t explicitly request.”

[statement of ignorance/unknowing] [assumption/presumption] [decision/action based on presumption]

(And here we have the option of taking a massive detour into the toxicity of expectations tied to something I’ll call “transactional affection”, and also tied to boundary issues ? as implicit expectations so often are ? but I’m trying to keep things to one hot mess of a topic at a time, so I’ll try to remember to come back to transactions in a later post.)

What’s happening in these kinds of scenarios is that someone is creating a sock puppet of you, and having a relationship with the theoretical-you they have created: a theoretical-you that looks and functions as *THEY* assume you will work, not guaranteeably how you yourself work. That is a theoretical relationship. The bridge’s underpinnings are built on unsolved-for equations with potentially whopping huge gaps in provable, factual, reliably-sourced information (again, assuming the source is, in fact even remotely reliable, and yes, there’s irony there).

In applied relationships, the principle remains to solve for the unknown through more effective processes. Optimally this involves confirming assumptions against the source BEFORE engaging in any decision-making or resulting actions tied to potentially-erroneous assumptions. It involves building supportive processes for vulnerability and intimacy, for willing engagement, and curiosity that invites and encourages one’s partner to share their own inside information. The addage (as I so often reiterate to many of my clients) goes , “You cannot make informed decisions without *information*.” And in differentiating between theoretical and applied relationships with real OTHER PEOPLE, it’s crucial to let go of the thinking that unconfirmed assumptions are qualified information. They are a form of information, absolutely, but not qualified. Qualifiable, absolutely… but only through the effort of engaging the other person(s) for exploration and confirmation.

In truth, almost every relationship will fall somewhere between theoretical and applied status. What’s important to remember is that we’re NOT dealing with sock puppets, and there’s an inherent danger in making assumptions just because they feel safer in the moment. Intimacy is rooted in vulnerabilities, and vulnerabilities mean taking chances, including the chance that our assumption does not, in fact, solve for the equation in front of us. Sharing information is a form of vulnerability; stepping aside from our assumptions to be open to learning something new, something outside our presumptions, something we may even dislike learning (about ourselves or the other person), and being willing to deal with the implications of having and understanding the information we have shared. Relationship underpinnings are understandings of valid and viable information, sought and shared, verified or validated within the context of other things we know about the relationship and its participants. I’m trying to think of any other branch of applied math or physics where the known data set needs to be revalidated or recalibrated semi-regularly, but with any evolutionary system (humans and relationships both exemplifying such), and I’ve just had friends in the field tell me through FB that generally in mathematics at least, there’s not revalidating of known data, but it happens all the time in both theoretical and applied physics, so… this may be the point at which at least my mathematics analogy falls apart 🙂

Article links, Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence

With the rise of conflicts in geek/con/gamer culture coming to mainstream attention in the past year or so, and the rising persistence of the feminist movement to counter male privilege best exemplified by what started as an internet backlash to “nice guys being friendzoned” and spun into a larger (still ongoing) discussion about male emotional self-management, entitlement and privilege, and the pervasiveness of “rape culture”. This has, one can imagine, made it a very interesting time for men seeking therapy on their own or being brought into counselling by their partners. In North America we’re mostly at least generally aware of the vastly-different cultural values placed on men’s emotional experiences and expressions, versus those assigned to women. It’s not even that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”, we’re simply not given the same tools or lexicon for those experiences from the ground up. And it’s not simply what men are being taught as boys directly; as long as girls are still being raised with the cultural narrative that Prince Charming will come along to rescue/validate them, there will always be an implicit expectation that boys have to be stronger and smarter than girls are in order to be able to do for girls what they for some reason are *still* being taught to believe they cannot do for themselves (can we *please* have more Self-Rescuing Princesses, and more Emotionally-Developed Princes??)

Because we have this cultural myth of male strength and control, there is precious little room for exploring the fact that men have all the same emotional experiences, to the same range and depth, that women do. They are taught almost from birth, however, that men’s emotions have to be suppressed and compressed into fewer “acceptable” channels than women, which is why men in therapy have such a difficult time putting identifying labels on any emotional experience beyond happy or angry; they don’t have the language to say what they’re feeling, assuming they can distill the experience clearly in the first place.

My first resource and insight into this topic was David Wexler’s book, Men in Therapy (written more for professionals), and When Good Men Behave Badly (general audiences).

Some more recent links that have crossed my inbox on the subject:

Big Boys Don’t Cry

Cracking the Code of Men’s Feelings

Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

Article links, Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development

Still tackling the backlog clearance; there may be a long slog of what we used to call “link sausage” posts that are less about original content on my part and more about sharing interesting or thought-provoking (or maybe even useful) resources for people interested in noodling about on their own psychological or emotional development.

Things I often tackle with clients trying to observe and manage or change their own behavioural patterns, include looking at how we resort to short-term hits of happiness (“hedonic pleasures”, but I’ll get more into hedonia in a later post) in lieu of ? sometimes to the complete disadvantage of ? longer term, bigger-picture desires or goals. When this becomes a self-destructive pattern, as with addictions and pursuit of addictive highs in any form, narcotic, alcoholic, process-oriented, then we have to dig deeper into figuring out the underlying triggers to those cycles. People are so adept at masking their own unhappinesses, however, that this becomes a significant body of the work that some people are facing when trying to make improvements in themselves and their lives.

Two links that help shed a little light on these patterns, the first from AMerican Scholar:

Certainly, our march from one level of gratification to the next has imposed huge costs?most recently in a credit binge that nearly sank the global economy. But the issue here isn?t only one of overindulgence or a wayward consumer culture. Even as the economy slowly recovers, many people still feel out of balance and unsteady. It?s as if the quest for constant, seamless self-expression has become so deeply embedded that, according to social scientists like Robert Putnam, it is undermining the essential structures of everyday life. In everything from relationships to politics to business, the emerging norms and expectations of our self-centered culture are making it steadily harder to behave in thoughtful, civic, social ways. We struggle to make lasting commitments. We?re uncomfortable with people or ideas that don?t relate directly and immediately to us. Empathy weakens, and with it, our confidence in the idea, essential to a working democracy, that we have anything in common.

The second article, from Forbes, looks at how people become detached in their own lives, in ways that leave long- and short-term emotional voids that we all move instinctively to fill… but when moving unconsciously, we get trapped in short-term fills rather than long-term solutions (the other articles linked by the author at the top of this one are also definitely worth the read):

In this series of articles, I?ve covered hallmarks of highly respected achievers, ten reasons why we fail, and reasons why some of us love what we do. Now I?m going to veer a bit existential and examine eight reasons why so many of us feel lost in our lives, with a few suggestions peppered in along the way to help get our oars back into the water.

Article links, Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development

It’s a bit of a truism: the turning of the seasons usually means as much a degree of mental house-cleaning as actual house-cleaning, as noted by the pervasive increase in client intake requests that tend to happen once the weather turns. It’s a little later this year, completely in sync with the delayed onset of (slightly) warmer weather. Glad to see people are using spring and “new beginnings” for cleaning out some internal cobwebs!

I’ve got this vague notion of trying to clear out a backlog of useful and relevant article links that I collect from professional and social media networks. I may not always get the time to add my own comments on why a particular article seems like a useful one to share, but anything that’s not self-explanatory in that regard is a great invitation and opportunity for the gentle curiosity I work to develop in my clients, and lead-ins for conversation and dialog. Shake off those gloomy, overlong-winter habits and open up some discussions! 🙂

First up, a core component in learning to work more effectively with emotions, is developing better understanding around the differences between feelings and facts. Our brains *want* us to believe that emotions, especially strong ones, are actual mental events that demand action, but in truth, they’re internal provocations that, with mindfulness, can have different outcomes than habitual patterns demand. Learning to distinguish “what we feel” from “what we do” is a really useful, powerful tool for re-establishing trust not just between partners, but within ourselves, and improving communications as we learn to express more clearly what we feel, and what we perceive about ourselves within the moment of that feeling (our thoughts)… then decide on a course of action that is more in keeping with what we know or learn about our own needs. I will have more thoughts on this later in specific regards to a workshop I just attended on anger, and how this distinction becomes *really* important when dealing with particularly strong emotions.

But for now, I share this article as a starting point for your own mental noodlings and discussions!