Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

There is a common relational myth that used to float around about how “women marry their fathers and men marry their mothers”. It’s true that many of us unconsciously gravitate towards partners who embody traits and behaviours that feel familiar and therefore comforting (or controllable), whether they be healthy and effective behaviours or not.

Something that *IS* a truism in human behaviour is that we form relationships according to the invisible models we carry forward from our earliest experiences, usually based on what we observe and internalize from our parents’ or adult caregivers’ relationships. These models then show up in our own adult relationships as unconscious influences that can sometimes work against us as much as for us. If we feel like we were emotionally neglected by a parent, for example, we might find ourselves in adult relationship, seeking someone who reminds us of that parent, and trying to prove through that similar-seeming relationship that we ARE worthy of the love we didn’t get the first time around, or that we ARE capable of attracting and holding onto attention from a similar kind of personality. When we use adult relationships to heal early attachment injuries, for example, we’re appropriating an inappropriate platform to act out or address some very unfinished emotional business that often has far less to do withe this current relationship than it does with a degree of accrued pain that predates it.

So what, exactly, is an attachment injury?

“By definition an Attachment Injury (AI) is a relational trauma – an event [that] shatters the attachment bond between intimates. One partner violates the expectation that the other will offer comfort and caring at a time of urgent need. This pivotal event redefines the relationship as unsafe and untrustworthy from that moment on.

In a safe, secure bond, hurts happen and hurts are repaired. Injured partners reach safely to share their pain. Offending partners tune into injured partners? pain and reach back to them in an attuned way that shows they truly feel the painful impact of the event. Emotionally attuned reaching and responding restores the bond. However, when couples cannot walk the path towards repairing a broken bond and rebuilding trust, they spiral into a distancing dance. Failure to respond to a hurtful event, whether seemingly large (as when an affair with one?s best friend is discovered) or seemingly small (such as when a call for help is ignored) ? remains as a pivotal moment that redefines the relationship as unsafe and untrustworthy.”
–Lorrie Brubacher, originally published as a ?Toolbox? article in the ICEEFT EFT Community News, Spring 2015; sourced from Carolina EFT

This kind of relational hurt happens all the time, from slights we seem to brush off to catastrophic betrayals such as adultery. John Gottman writes at length about how he determines couples’ success or failure rates based on how well the couple handles these repair attempts and connection bids. But when the repairs and connection bids fail, one or both parties may internalize the disconnect in the relationship as an attachment injury: something that can hurt a great deal in the moment, and if it is perceived as part of a larger pattern, becomes something that at best creates a divisive wedge in the couple, and at worst becomes outright corrosive and destructive when the unacknowledged pain becomes too great to manage and we become reactive and volatile, emotionally or physically.

Something we see with frightening regularity when working with adult attachment issues in clients’ current relationships, is that the holding or nursing of unacknowledged hurts is a pattern that goes much further back in the individual or couple history. Kids who grow up in homes where they perceive parents don’t hear or make time for the child’s experiences, grow up to become adults who don’t know how to express their emotional pains, or already carry the belief that they don’t want to burden a partner with their experiences, so they bottle things up inside. But instead of creating the closeness and vulnerable intimacy most of us crave, or claim to crave, in romantic partnerships, the lack of vulnerability, the lack of trusting partners to hear and assist us, creates only further isolation.

Putting aside the weird and awkward Oedipal/Electra issues that Greek mythology teaches us about killing one parent and marrying the other, most of us don’t LITERALLY go looking to marry a parent. But it’s surprising how many of us fall into familiar patterns of relationship as if *THIS TIME*, we’ll be able to fix the things that hurt us, that we couldn’t address effectively, the last time. This is something I have long suspected (even longer than I’ve been a therapist) underlies the trend in people to “have a type” of person they get involved with; familiarity seems comforting, and we feel we know how to interact safely with “this type” or “that type” of person. (We’ll leave aside for a moment the classic definition of “insanity”, namely doing the same thing over and over and over with the hard-held belief that this time something will somehow magically be different; I digress.)

Sometimes these attachment injuries don’t have to go all the way back to our families of origin (though our patterns of decision making around reactions and responses to these hurts often do). For example, couples dealing with an infidelity may find that the partner who has been cheated on has difficulty “letting go and just moving on with fixing the relationship”. In looking at the situation that enabled the infidelity to occur, we look at the patterns of connection in the couple prior to that point to look for places where the connections have been secure, and where the attachments may have been injured and unaddressed, or inadequately repaired. I often find that if the “injured” half of the couple cannot identify a set of success criteria that would allow them to safely make the statement, “I trust that this will never happen again”, the inability to choose trust is often tied to a series of unaddressed hurts through the relationship history that, on a MUCH BIGGER scope than just the infidelity itself might suggest, prevent the injured party from being able to safely resume the attachment. So it’s not just the one betrayal we need to repair in session, but rather a successive pattern of attachment injuries that probably exists on both sides of the relational rift.

When these patterns of attachment injuries come into any new relationship with us from previous experiences, it’s like bringing the ghosts and skeletons of all our previous relationship hurts along in among all our other baggage. When we are reluctant to openly trust new partners “because I’ve been hurt before”, that’s an example of how we allow our previous attachment injuries to haunt us into our present relationships. When we bring entire laundry lists of hurts and grievances into the latest fight with our partner over not taking the garbage out, that’s another example of how our unaddressed attachment injuries become much bigger than the current trigger (and why we as therapists often reiterate to our clients that “the thing you’re fighting about isn’t really the thing you’re fighting about”).

Emotionally-focused techniques often help clients struggling with attachment injuries find ways of articulating the things that hurt, and the impact of those experiences, as well as helping clients who struggle to remain present with a partner’s emotional Stuff without either taking it personally or being overwhelmed by it. We work to unravel the belief that fixing relationship hurts and attachment injuries is about setting a series of Herculean tasks your partner must perform in order to be deemed worthy of you choosing to return your trust to them, and less about being able to enter some emotionally painful space and have that pain heard and acknowledged, appropriately and effectively, by all parties involved. Sometimes there are change behaviours to negotiate, but often couples in this path find that recovery and repair become less about the actions, and more about the listening and reception of the emotional experiences, that goes further toward addressing the fundamental pain of the disconnection.

Emotional Intelligence, Language, Uncategorized

This week’s post is more of an Op-Ed piece than usual; not that they all aren’t, to some extent, but I think it’s a good and important practice for therapists–all clinicians, really–to admit and own it when they decide to throw themselves into the deep end of their own biases. And we have them, don’t ever think that we don’t. When we sit with clients, it’s our job to reign them in so they don’t get in the way, but when we’re writing our own blogs, well… the gloves can come off 🙂

Disclosure: I’m a writer, always have been. I did it professional in High Tech for the better part of 25 years, concurrent with building my private practice. As such, I am KEENLY aware of the power of language when I listen to the things my clients say, both the stories they tell me about their lives, and the scripts they tell me that run in their own heads. Words have both meaning and IMPACT, and often we don’t necessarily realize how much of either we have internalized over our lives as a result of upbringing inside family or cultural values, or implicit expectations shaped by our relationships as we reach and stretch into adulthood.

Recently, I have encountered on a handful of occasions the use of the word “sacrifice” in the context of people’s relationship expectations. It comes up with clients from time to time, and recently came across a dating profile in which someone wrote, “I’m hoping to find someone where in time we come to intuitively know each other’s needs and both are willing to sacrifice our own needs for the sake of our partner.” At that point, I realized I was encountering the word often enough to be developing a kind of teeth-clenching resistance to the use of the word in relationships. I did what I sometimes do in these circumstances; where I discover new/changed reactivity to something that I used to just coast serenely past, and when I don’t know what’s changed, I poll my social Tribe for feedback. It’s very unscientific, but my Tribe is a widely-spread and broadly-experienced group of people who can offer perspectives based in their own perceptions and experiences, and suddenly I have a large parcel of information in which to compare and contrast, or centre my own Stuff.

To start with, I think the gist of my growing reaction to “sacrifice” as a word bandied about in relationships, is the underlying supposition that we treat sacrifice as a realistic expectation in terms of “this is just what we do as a regular course of action”. I find this highly problematic in the purest sense of the word:

Definition of sacrifice
1: an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially: the killing of a victim on an altar
2: something offered in sacrifice
3a: destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else
b: something given up or lost the sacrifices made by parents

I don’t think the relational context has anything to do with offerings to deities in truth, but in all of these definitions, the underlying impression is that these are things that are precious to us personally, that we are (within the relational context) expected to yield up permanently. And while I am the first person to acknowledge that there are a lot of changes that come with getting into relationship, including yielding time and attention to the presence of a partner, my current struggle is to accept that any relationship ROOTED in an expectation of “sacrifice” is starting off on a very problematic footing.

I have previously written about the 3 C’s of Resolution Management, and I think maybe it’s time to revisit the lexicon established there. It seems a healthier approach than sacrifice, to look at establishing shared relationship as a collaborative process at best, and a series of negotiated compromises at worst (where “worst” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”, but read the original post for a clearer distinction between the two). It’s my personal bias that relationship building should be building on the raw materials everyone brings to the table, to build something that is more than, or greater than, the sum of its component parts. But when we view relationships as being rooted in sacrifice (or arguably compromise, to some extent), then we’re deliberately starting out with the mentality that we must take away or yield up something precious to us as a sacrifice, to be in this relationship. It means on a very linguistically-technical level, a sense that we have to have less than what we had, or be less than who we are, in order to somehow be accepted into relational positions.

As a relationship therapist, you can see why this “lesser-than” mentality and approach to intimate relationships is troubling when it manifests as an out-of-the-starting-gate *expectation*.

In my informal poll of the social Tribe, I posed this set of questions:

“In relationships contexts, do you react differently to someone defining a relationships as “needing (or expecting) collaboration and compromise” versus defining a relationship as “need (or expecting) sacrifices”? Is it *healthy* (FSV of “healthy” that I’ll leave to the reader to define) to start relationships with an expectation of “sacrifice”?”

The responses resoundingly tended to be along the lines of, “Collaboration and compromise are reasonable expectations as explicitly-negotiated processes; sacrifice is okay as a once-in-a-blue moon response to special circumstances, but NOT as a default expectation”. I think there are circumstances in which sacrifice is a legitimate expectation: I’ve never yet met a parent who didn’t see the decision to raise a child as involving ALL KINDS of yes-we-gave-up-precious-things-on-a-pretty-much-permanent-basis sacrifices. Some of the respondents had ideas along the lines of sacrifice as a *temporary tool* rather than a permanent commitment to the loss of something individually-valued. And more than a few referred (directly or obliquely) to a certain cultural subtext that “sacrifice is a noble and virtuous act”, which, again, I’m not sure I buy as a default, broadstrokes stance. As a one-off act in exceptional circumstances, perhaps, but if it’s a cultural expectation that “sacrifice is just how we DO relationships”, I’m not sure I can buy into that as a foundational principle. And at least one respondent raised the concern about sacrifice being perceived as a very heavily gender-biased act in which women are expected to sacrifice more than men do. From a therapist’s perspective, I know that male clients report feeling the need to sacrifice at least as often as women do, and in many of the same contexts. So I don’t think the perceived *act* of sacrifice is gender-biased, but I strongly suspect (based on nothing more than a gut instinct at this moment) that *WHAT* we are expected or desired to sacrifice may very well have strong gender biases behind them.

At no time do I believe that there isn’t going to be a degree of necessary compromise when developing relationships. At the very least, in order to integrate someone into our lives, or integrate into theirs, with sufficient time and exposure to allow vulnerability and intimacy to have a chance to take root, we withdraw time from other pursuits in order to dedicate it to the new thing. We can choose to see that as sacrifice, or we can choose to see that as compromise/collaboration, depending on how it’s negotiated. There will only ever be 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, and we cannot “make time”, we can only rebalance priorities to allow new things entry onto the schedule. I often suspect that people who start out relationships with the adamant and unrelenting position of, “Take me as I am, I refuse to compromise”, do so because of a fear of the expectations for compromise or sacrifice. One the one hand, sacrifice is seen as virtuous and noble; on the other hand, in relational contexts, we fear losing autonomy and “disappearing” under the rise of The Relationship’s dominating presence and the Royal We-dom of couplehood.

I believe a healthy, effective balance lies somewhere in the middle. Usually these things also involve a long, hard look at WHY we use the language we use when we talk about expectations in relationships: where does our use of that language come from, and what weighty meanings do we ascribe both consciously and unconsciously, to their application? Do we use “sacrifice” when we mean “compromise”, or even “concession”? (Compromise is defined as, “an agreement or a settlement…that is reached by each side making concessions”.) It’s reasonable to wonder at what point are we splitting hairs in looking at the lexicon, but I can absolutely guarantee that some words carry more weight than others, and as my own recent reactions show me, we all react to words different based on the weight we apply to their meanings. I have less trouble with compromise than I do with sacrifice, and yet they both (be definition) involve yielding or conceding something in order to get an acceptable solution.

So when we look at tensions in relationship in the counselling room, we have to look at what the words mean to each individual participant, and strip them down to the meanings that trigger our emotional connections and reactions to those words. I *EXPECT* to negotiate compromises and collaborations in relationship, but I *RESENT* being told I’m expected to make sacrifices for the relationship, and yet the words bear striking similarity in meaning. So my reactions are apparently tied to internalized meanings that clearly differentiate both words.

Some days, being a writer really complicates the therapeutic process. But at the end, the thought exercises that come out of looking at words on a purely etymological level lets us get deeper into personal narratives and core value explorations. And that will never, in my opinion, be wasted effort if we walk away with clearer understandings of ourselves in and out of relationship.

Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development, Uncategorized

Sometimes when people approach the process of ?trying to get their lives in order?, either as a choice for general improvement or in the aftermath of some kind of major upheaval, they may find themselves flummoxed at the scope of change, and unable to pinpoint a place to start. When clients come into my office for help with this kind of reconstruction work, we often start with the Needs and Wants work discussed in previous posts, so that we know what kinds of needs the client is seeking to address, going forward from this moment in their lives. After we know what port they’re trying to make for, we create a roadmap, something that gives them a framework to approach changing important aspects of their lives by adjusting how they express and boundary the needs and wants attached to those aspect. A roadmap identifies specific goals the individual wants to meet, and a reasonable, realistic plan for attaining them as best they can.

When creating a personal roadmap, these kinds of general goals are a second or third step in the process. They help define things we feel are needful, but they don’t address the very important question, “why?” Why are these kinds of changes necessary? What are they intended to move a person towards? What needs are they intended to meet?

The purpose of a roadmap, generally speaking, is to help define and prioritize meeting an individual’s needs and wants. By defining a high-level need in one’s life, then defining all the intermediary needs that make up that culminating purpose,?then?defining all the goals the individual feels they need to achieve to meet those needs, a person creates a customized list of short-term checklist goals that are congruent both with the larger needs, and the overall purpose. Employing the map analogy to full effect, it’s like charting a high-level, low-detail map of the globe, then zooming in until, at the most detailed level, you have a street map of your own neighbourhood. Each level of the roadmap is designed to refine the goals at that particular level, the needs that goal meets, and/or the actions or changes required to address the needs that meet the goals.

Many people struggle to communicate their own needs, for two main reasons:

  1. They don’t know their own needs, and
  2. They don’t trust that communicating them will get them met.

A roadmap is a tool for?better understanding your own needs. It may be that your needs are not being met because you’re unclear or inconsistent in their presentation, or you frequently downplay their priority when presenting them to others. This exercise is going to be most difficult for people who lack a willingness to be honestly introspective, or who have difficulty finding their own voice in relationships, but if you’re willing to tough it out, you’ll have the start of a improved, more consistent understanding of yourself, and that?can?help ease communicating this material to people around you.

Grab pencil and paper; I’ll wait.

For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll start with a familiar, reasonably common goal. For most people (at least in our own culture) the overall goal in life is?to be happy. If this is true for you, pick up your pencils and write that in the middle at the top of your paper:?“I want to be more consistently happy”. If happiness?isn’t?the be-all and end-all of your life’s purpose, write a more appropriate mission statement – where “appropriate” means “applicable to yourself, personally” – and leave me a comment to tell me what you chose, because I’ll be curious to see how the process works out for other goals. For the purpose of documenting the exercise (and partly because I’ll be using myself as an example), I’m going to continue with increasing happiness?as this particular roadmap’s destination point. As the highest?priority, ?everything else on your roadmap should be pointing at this goal, and giving you something to which you can align your decision processes.

Creating a Personal Mission Statement

When you look at that statement,?“I want to be more consistently happy”, what does that mean to you? When you consider?happiness?in the in the big picture?of your life overall, what contributes to your happiness? For many, if not most, of us, the answer to this question will amount to something that feels like a personal mission?statement, such as “I want to improve the quality of my life such that I am secure, comfortable; my needs are met and I have some degree of luxury”. If this assessment doesn’t fit for you, insert your own mission statement, one that encompasses your highest-priority need(s). Yes, these statements may seem banal and obvious at this stage of the game, but you’d be amazed at how many people have *never* thought to make these intentions for their lives explicit – and not clarifying the overall intent makes it difficult in both the long and short term, to do the evaluative assessments in situ that tell them whether or not they are behaving congruently, moving towards their priority need(s). Remember the Seneca quote from last week: “When you don’t know what port you’re making for, no wind is the right wind.”

Applying the Needs Framework

Now look at that mission statement and ask yourself, what needs must you meet in yourself to achieve your definition happiness, your priority need as you have defined it? These are the overall?life needs?or goals that you will strive to attain over the term of your life, the larger motivators that will help you shape decisions that make you happy, or move you towards your priority need. List everything that comes to mind on a second line under?“I want to be more consistently happy”, in a column of its own.

For myself, this second line contains the following column headers:

  1. Good Physical Health
  2. Good Mental Health
  3. Financial Stability
  4. Strong & Healthy Relationships
  5. Comfortable Home

You can re-arrange the items on this line according to priority, if they are not all valued equally in your personal roadmap. For my roadmap, I?value all five of my entries on this line equally. If any *one* of these items slides sufficiently off-kilter, it will pull all the rest of the items on this line out of balance?fairly quickly.

Next, draw lines on your paper to form columns for each of these secondary-level needs. In this stage of the exercise, I?want to document the?core personal needs, the emotionally-invested requirements you have for each of the categories of life needs defined in the column headings. For some of you, this section may be the most difficult, because it requires you to look inside and become aware of, and give name to, some fairly intimate needs. In many cases, you may not know what some or all of these needs are, and that’s okay?- a roadmap is a lifelong project-in-progress; you can come back and fill in the blanks (or adjust previous content) later as you become more aware of your own?core needs.

Breaking Down the Emotional Needs

The importance of this exercise comes from knowing what sub-level, emotional needs are likely to skew your attempts to meet your high-level life needs. If you find you are consistently not achieving some degree of success with the need identified in the column heading (such as “Financial Stability”), look at the emotional needs you’ve connected with that life need. For example, my map has “Meaningful Work” tied to “Financial Stability”, because when I don’t have work I find meaningful, my own unhappiness jeopardizes my willingness to stay in unsatisfying jobs, which has incredible impact on my financial stability.?Honestly assess whether your emotional requirements are being fulfilled. If what you’ve written on paper here doesn’t feel like it’s?the issue, perhaps there’s another emotional need you haven’t yet identified but are responding to as it goes unmet below surface-level consciousness. Or perhaps one of the needs in another category is sliding, and pulling everything else with it (as when pervasive job dissatisfaction starts to manifest as conflict or struggles in relationships). Knowing the emotional needs as well as the life goals becomes an excellent diagnostic tool when you become frustrated at a perceived lack of progress in any one area, because you can come back to your roadmap for reference to see where an identified, prioritized need is sliding.

Being aware of your emotional needs, and how they map to your life goals and global need, also makes the whole deal a hell of a lot easier to communicate clearly, and with relevant priority, to those people with whom you share your life.

For myself, mapping emotional needs for my life goals looks like this:

  1. Good physical health: I?need to feel attractive (in my own eyes, at least), and physically capable, strong enough to be (by and large) physically independent.
  2. Good mental health: I?need to feel like I’m doing more than coping from one day to the next, that I’m actively resolving, or at least working on, my own issues.
  3. Financial stability: I?need to feel like I’m responsibly managing my resources so that I?can both cover my basic expenses, and allow for a reasonable degree of discretionary luxury, and am planning adequately for future/retirement necessities.
  4. Strong & healthy relationships: I?need to feel like a respected and respectful equal; I?need to feel desired and desirable; I?need to feel I?am trusted enough to have some degree of decision-making autonomy; I?need to communicate effectively, and be communicated with likewise; I?need to be able to continue with intimate (invested/emotionally engaged), non-primary relationships, both sexual and non-sexual in nature.
  5. Comfortable home: I?need to feel secure in my home; I?need to feel it is a place of peace and comfort. I?*want* to be surrounded by items of beauty and quality; I *want* to be able to have at least adequate space for all my myriad hobbies.

The Action Plan

Now we come to the portion of the exercise with which people have the least amount of difficulty producing, if a harder time maintaining. In this stage, you’re going to list what you’re doing, not doing, and planning to do, to address the emotional needs that drive the life needs that direct you towards your priority need. (Are you seeing how this all starts to hang together now?)

You may have to go to a second sheet of paper somewhere around here; I?often do.

Keeping your *emotional needs* firmly at the forefront of your mind, look at everything you have written in each column, and under that information, I?want you to outline the definitive actions you are doing to meet those needs. Try to word things in the positive if you can; it helps clarify forward focus?when we?define plans by what we’re doing rather than what we’re NOT doing. For example, instead of saying “stop eating junk food”, say instead, “eat more balanced meals, more healthy snacks”. Working in the positive gives you actual goals to move towards; working in the negative declines only a small number of possible options for your actions, which leaves you with unclear goals and a harder time measuring congruency in meeting or moving towards your stated global and personal needs. Think positive!

Next, list the things you aren’t doing but WILL do to help meet that need. These are going to be the larger milestones on your roadmap, goals that may take some work to manage, but real, achievable things you can reach either immediately or with some degree of short- or long-term directed planning.

My milestones-in-progress:

  1. Good Physical Health: a. rebuild spinal integrity as much as possible; b. rebuild general fitness level (aquafit/swimming, cycling); c. moderate food intake to reasonable portion sizes; d. reduce the carbs-content of that intake (not necessarily to Atkins-level, but down); e. eat more home-cooked meals and less fast food & junk.
  2. Good Mental Health: a. continue my own therapy; b. address/resolve known outstanding fears of feeling undervalued or minimized in my intimate relationships; c. continue to practice and evaluate and refine my risk assessment processes.
  3. Financial Stability: a. redo the monthly budgets and see how much money I actually?have?when all the bills and standard personal and professional expenses are paid each month; b. move investment portfolio to a better-managed, higher-yield program; c. determine whether I?can safely increase monthly contributions to that portfolio base, or increase loan payments; d. create list of high-want items, and look at short- and long-term budget options for planned purchasing.
  4. Strong & Healthy Relationships: a. clarify relationship structures?and expectations tied to those structures; b. re-evaluate and clarify any changes to the?Relationship Framework & Needs; c. apply improved tools and techniques as developed via counselling, evaluate and tweak as needed; d. continue to evaluate and improve communications (especially where prioritized needs and wants are concerned); e. invest more time in discovering the things we enjoy doing together
  5. Comfortable Home: a. improve chore and general maintenance schedule; b. ask for more help when necessary; c. check the budget to see if hiring even occasional professional help is possible; d. rearrange space to make sure prioritized activities have priority access.

Evaluating Obstacle Risk

Now we’re getting to the closing sections of the roadmap.

You have now defined, or at least begun sketching in, your needs: global, life, personal. You’ve developed some milestones that set you on the path of meeting those identified needs, achievable goals that are not out of your reach (even if they may take some planning and effort to attain). But any pragmatic planning requires a degree of Risk Evaluation: you have to know what hurdles stand between you and your milestones, what dependencies you must factor in (either things you have to do in a specific order, or factors that may be beyond your control), and your contingency plan for managing your way over those hurdles. You’ll need to know which hurdles can be surpassed in the short term or with relatively minimal effort, and which ones require mini-roadmaps of their own to circumvent.

You can make separate lists of these as needed. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, because this is the stage where it becomes easy to become bogged down in the details, or dismayed by the hurdles. The purpose of this part of the roadmap is awareness, not obsession. You’re not documenting the known hurdles in order to throw them up as excuses to step off the roadmap and slide into despondency – to do so defeats the work and purpose of the roadmap exercise itself. This part of the roadmap simply lists the known challenges, like a topographical map might list mountains (take *THIS* pass through them), or rivers (detour to *THIS* shallow ford), or simply, “Here Be Dragons, avoid at all costs”.

And here we come to what should for all of us be the battle cry for this work: “Don’t let the fact that the work is hard become your excuse for not doing the work”.

I?suspect most people won’t be able to pull a detailed roadmap together in one sitting, certainly not without some degree of mental stressing. It took me several sittings to write?this post, with several revisions over the years since it first appeared, and now multiple attempts to prep it for this release?and the roadmap concept is one I’ve been actively working with now for *years*. I’ve had to go back rooting through some of the more introspective relationship-building posts I’ve written over the years to find places where I’ve already done some of the work, or explained some of the concepts. Trying to distill the process proved to be a hard exercise in and of itself, but?it has proven to be a useful tool for myself and my clients over the years as we try to shape a frame of reference for their self-development.

When we ask question in session like, “What kind of person do you *WANT* to be?”, we have to know as much about the needs their answer is trying to address as we do about the obstacles they perceive getting in their way. Then we figure out what we need to do about the goals of meeting those needs and working around the obstacles. This roadmap is a good way of allowing people a means of thinking about those questions, then measuring their own progress along the route they’ve plotted.

Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development, Uncategorized

I know I promised last week that we’d get to roadmaps this week, but it occurs to me we may need to delve first into how to develop a framework understanding of our own needs and wants. In the course of my own early counselling sessions as a client, I framed in what I consider to be my five cornerstone principles of a good relationship (be it a friendship, a professional relationship, an intimate, emotionally-invested partnership, etc.). These principles represent a framework on which I later hung the needs and wants I identified as important to my ability and willingness to engage in relationships. This particular structure has subsequently become an intrinsic piece of the work I do with my own clients engaging in self-discovery. Most clients come into therapy looking to change or improve some aspect of themselves, and especially with couples I often hear statements like, ?We want to improve our communications, and our intimacy.?

That’s all well and good, say I, but what do these words actually mean? What do they look like when they are being adequately addressed? What does it look like when they’re not? So we start with what I think of as big umbrella words, words that cover a lot of terrain and (frequently, as we discover) mean different things to different people. When we start with the big words, we can begin to drill down into expectations and values attached to those umbrella words, and often find a host of more detailed needs and wants lurking in the shade underneath. Sometimes it takes a therapist to figure out how to extract the name of the need from the broader discussion around these frameworks, but often we can get to them on our own by breaking down the umbrella-level lexicon with two particular questions: What’s important about [principle] to you? What need(s) do those important factors meet for you?

Note: Bear in mind, what I identified as foundational for myself may not look the same for everyone; for example, someone coming out of very different life experiences may identify ?Safety? as a cornerstone principle. For some, the ambiguous term ?intimacy? might be at the top of their list, if they feel they need those needs met first and foremost before committing to emotional engagement and investment. My personal list below also makes the implicit assumption that basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, employment, income, etc., are already being addressed and met. In the case where any of these baseline safety needs are NOT being met, we often must address those first; if you know your Maslow hierarchy of needs, you’ll know that an individual cannot proceed to self-actualization work (which is largely what I write about) while their basic existence is uncertain or threatened.

Most of the list below falls under the Maslow category of Love/Belonging or Actualization.

My five principles are: communication, consideration, responsibility, availability, and collaboration.?Using this 5-point structure, I am now going to attempt the death-defying feat of mapping these five cornerstone principles to a host of specific relationship needs. As this remains an organic work-in-progress for myself, some of these principles and needs remain general, and deliberately so; I also didn’t want to get distracted by the trap of trying to define my needs as they might pertain to *specific* relationships.

Principle: Communication

Needs: create time and space to talk and listen; create a shared lexicon of important terms; be willing to inform each other when needs/wants/expectations/plans/etc change, and stay present to create a solution (see Availability); question for clarity and understanding when one of us doesn’t understand something;?don’t make assumptions or draw conclusion in the absence of information/answers from the other party–if the only reason you don’t know something for sure is because *you* failed to ask the questions, the responsibility for those possibly erroneous conclusions is all yours.

Principle: Consideration

Needs: treat me as you want me to treat you (compassion); take those wants/needs/expectations of mine that you are aware of into consideration before making or acting on a decision that affects me or us, and let me know when your decided outcome runs contrary to what you know of my stance; be respectful of how you represent me to other people (whether I’m present or not); be supportive when I’m stressing; don’t deliberately risk the physical or emotional health and stability of the relationship (this is a catch-all for many things, best translated as, “Think many times before you introduce anything with a potentially negative influence or impact to our relationship”; tell me respectfully and in a timely manner if I’m being inconsiderate of you and your needs/wants/etc.; understand (and help me understand) that we are two distinct entities with two distinct purposes, two distinct perspectives, two distinct drives, two distinct methods of interacting with our respective worlds; help find a means of making those differences work for us, rather than drive us apart.

Principle: Responsibility

Needs: be willing to recognize, understand, and accept ownership for your actions, and the consequences thereof; don’t expect me to solve all your problems for you (trust that while I’m here to help, I am not your personal Quixotic hero, nor do I expect you to be mine); drive the process for resolving any issues you bring up that require such action (I don’t read minds, so if you have a need or expectation that isn’t met, it’s your responsibility to make that known to me, not mine to guess) – WHO HAS THE NEED, DRIVES THE SOLUTION; help me avoid known patterns like passive-aggressive ?blamestorming? and skittering away from tense topics, and be cool when I call your patterns to attention in return; don’t assume that because I’ve asked for your input, that I’m expecting you to solve all my problems for me: DON’T OWN MY SHIT, DON’T EXPECT ME TO OWN YOURS.

[A recurring lessons originally phrased by a good friend as, “Don’t be complicit in your own subjugation”, also falls into this area of responsibility and owning your own actions, but as it wasn’t really something I could tie to a specific relationship *need*, per se, I didn’t initially include it. Maybe for future blog fodder, I might ponder a list of ?lessons learned? that have been important steps on the path to that fifth Maslow tier of self-actualization– but not today.]

Principle: Availabilty

Needs: stay present when we’re talking about serious stuff, or, if you can’t stay present, tell me that you can’t (and preferably why), and let me know when you *will* be available; make time for me in your life, in your social circles and activities (let me discover and decide for myself which ones I’ll join you in, and which I won’t); make time for a physical relationship (sex, snuggles, touches, showers, play, whatever); provide timely information about your schedule so we can make joint or solo plans accordingly; be honest about your interest in any plans that come up (if you think you’re going to hate it, we can almost always find ways around requiring your attendance)

Principle: Collaboration

Needs: jointly establish mutual/shared goals and plans for achieving those goals; communicate interest and desire for collaborative projects (generally and specifically), along with identified degree of prioritization; be honest about your interest in collaborations, and communicate any influencing factors you are aware of that will impact joint efforts; if I explicitly ask for help with a challenge, work with me to determine what kind of help I’m asking for, and determining what kind of solution/resolution process I’m seeing help with; be willing to bounce ideas around together without assuming there’s any pressure on you personally to come up with the Ultimate Right Answer To Fix Everything.


Intrepid readers may note, “Intimacy” is not listed here as one of my foundational principles. For myself, I find intimacy is a reasonably natural by-product of these needs being met effectively within relationship. Intimacy is a willingness to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is something that develops in an environment where people feel safe and respected. If meeting these needs results in my feeling securely attached, then increased vulnerability and intimacy are the result, rather than needing to be a core principle themselves. If intimacy is NOT present in my relationships, however, you can be sure I’ll take that as a barometric measurement that one or more core needs are not being adequately addressed.

This list doesn’t even begin to cover my wants, because for many of us, “wants” are things that can change on an almost hourly basis some days. I have learned a few very important lessons about wants, though: first, if there’s something I want, I stand a better chance of getting it if I *ask* for it directly, rather than hint about it or approach the topic obliquely – or worse, say nothing and just assume people will figure me out. Just because something is a high-priority want in my mind, doesn’t mean that want will be clear and prioritized for anyone outside my own head. If it’s important, ask explicitly.

Second, it’s OK to take risks with wants. Wants are (almost) never going to be deal-breakers in a relationship, because if they are, then chances are *very* high you’re dealing with a mislabeled or misunderstood need. Therefore, ask for everything – you never know what you *can* have, until you ask for it. By the same token, however ? and I cannot stress how critical this understanding will be ? don’t *expect* that just because you’ve asked for something that you’re now entitled to have what you’ve asked for, because sooner or later, someone’s going to say No. In the vein of not counting chickens before hatching, don’t get emotionally invested in your wants until you’ve got the *thing* in your hands (metaphorically or literally), because again, sooner or later you won’t get what you want. And if you’re even moderately invested in getting that want met, it’s going to feel like a crushing defeat. Anticipate, sure – but don’t expect. There’s a whole other topic around wants & needs and outcome attachment, but I’m now getting several weeks worth of blog topics ahead of myself.

Next week we’ll finally get to looking at how to work all of this into an actual roadmap, I promise (assuming I don’t remember any other process steps between here and there…)

Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development

Something that comes up a LOT with both my individual and couple clients tends to be a sometimes-surprising lack of self-awareness around our own needs and wants. I suspect this tendency to not know, or not admit, to what we need and want comes from a couple of different places, starting with cultural messaging around how “wanting things” = “being selfish”, and reinforced by a million small disappointments throughout life that inevitably instill in us a message that there’s no point in wanting what we want because “we’re only going to be disappointed anyway”, either by not achieving what we want, or by achieving it and finding out it’s not what we thought it would be (see an earlier post on achieving our dreams). I used to think that women are doubly-hampered in that many of us are culturally-conditioned on the basis of gender to be silent, or to be nurturers putting other people’s needs ahead of our own. I don’t think it’s so obviously-gender-biased a phenomenon any more, however. I see an increasing number of men in my office who are, for many similar reasons, also adopting the kind of care-giver roles that have kept them so reactively bound to meeting a partner’s needs that these men haven’t had any more time to observe and develop their own needs than many women have.

This kind of cultural messaging is something we internalize from an early age, starting from the first time we as toddlers throw a tempter-tantrum in the toy aisle and get told we can’t have what we want. Maybe we grow up in financially-constrained environments where we can’t have what we want for economic reasons. The lucky and privileged ones grow up in environments where they learn they can have what they want without potentially asking for it at all. Many of us get into relationships as young (or even older) adults in which we attempt to attune to what our partners want so quickly that we put our own self-identifying desires on hold to be everything (or even just something) to our partners, risking a situation in which we create a pattern of back-burnering our own needs for so long that we forget we even have them. A long-time friend of mine refered to this many years ago as “becoming complicit in our own subjugation” — complictly enabling someone else’s needs to take such priority over our own for so long that we create a significant disturbance in the Force when one day those needs begin to reassert themselves.

For the purposes of perhaps gross-oversimplification, I define needs and wants as different things based on our abilities to flex where and how these needs are met, especially in relationship, and even *whether* these needs are addressed in specific relationships. In my lexicon, needs are generally the deal-breaker, gotta-have-them requirements one identifies as crucial foundations for secure attachment, for feeling content over the longer terms, for feeling like there is room to flourish and grow. Some of these may be tied to a basic Maslovian structure of needs, and some of them may be refinements of concepts like social belonging, esteem, or self-actualization. Wants, then, are those “nice to have” elements on which we are likely to be more willing to alter our expectations, or even voluntarily sacrifice them outright. (Note: Needs and wants are inherently different from values we hold, but for many people are intrinsically tied to those internal values. We’ll explore that idea in more depth in a futre post as well.)

There are two recurring issues I see time and again in the counselling office:
(1) people don’t know how to identify their own wants and needs at all, or
(2) people can’t tell the difference between needs and wants because they have allowed their needs to have as much of a transient nature and permeable boundaries as their wants have.

It’s a remarkably telling moment when I ask someone, “What exactly are your *needs* in this relationship?”, and receive back a blank stare. It’s common that people can tell me what they DON’T want to have happening (usually the exact set of factors that drive them to seek therapy in the first place). While defining by negative space is a good place to start, it doesn’t tell us much about what they know in a more positive way what needs they are driving toward. A Roman philosopher, Seneca the Younger, wrote, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Most of us can tell when our needs are not being met, and if we’re happy in a situation, we simply assume that our needs for that situation ARE being met. But ask someone to identify WHAT needs are being met, and we’re most commonly met with silence. When we don’t know what needs we’re trying to meet in relationship, how do we know for sure when those needs are adequately met? Equally important, if we don’t know what needs we require to have met in relationship, how do we explicitly negotiate those needs with our partners such that our partners can explicitly consent to be part of the need-meeting process, or adequately negotiate what they *can* be available for??

(The topic of consent in relationships is a whole other ball of fish I’ll be writing about in a near-future blog post; stay tuned.)

At the very least, defining by negative space gives us a place to start by providing quick and convenient opposites we can use as a basis for explorations. If I know I don’t want sarcasm and mockery from a partner (for example), what would the opposite of that look like in my worldview, and do I want that instead? Or do I want something *like* that, but different? How would I describe or label that adjacent idea?

Sometimes it’s easier to step away from the framework of known don’t-wants (it can be difficult to convince people to let go of their anger over finally acknowledging their disappointments and frustrations) and challenge people to think in blue-sky terms about what they DO want. I like to refer to this process as “reinventing Self 2.0”. It’s largely predicated on one deceptively-simple question: “What kind of person do you CHOOSE to be?”, because when people can articulate the kind of person they wish they could be, they are often unconsciously speaking to their own internal needs; this gives us a very strong place to start a discussion about what gets in the way of meeting those needs, and how do we tackle those obstructions both real and perceived? It also sneakily inserts the concept of agency, based in the power of self-directed choice, into the lexicon of someone who may have a history of subsuming their own relational needs, resulting in an additional layer of disempowerment or disenfranchisement within their relationships.

Next week, I’ll offer some suggestions on how to build a “road map” to provide some direction when refining our self-knowledge about needs and wants, both in terms of building a lexicon and in terms of uncovering obstacles. Until then, consider the question of “WHAT KIND OF PERSON DO YOU choose to be?”, as a way of opening the internal exploration around identifying the kinds of needs that being that sort of person would meet for you.

Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development, Uncategorized

No-one who has seen any rendition of “Les Miserables” ever forgets the moment when one of the main characters stands atop the barricades waving the French flag as a symbol of defiant defense against the encroaching regular militia intent to tear the revolutionaries apart. Signalling our entrenched defense of a position is as much an act of rebellion or revolution as it is an act of fear or of outright war. This is as true in emotional conflict as it is in any more overt armed conflict.

People take positions or stances for a variety of reasons. For example, Virginia Satir defines four coping or “survival stances”, methods of establishing some kind of emotional equilibrium based on a set of “rules” that govern the association between (generally low) self-esteem, triggers, emotional reactions, and behavioural responses. Specifically, she writes,

“The four survival states… originate from a state of low self-esteem and imbalance, in which people give their power to someone or something else. People adopt survival stances to protect their self worth against verbal and non-verbal, perceived and presumed threats.” (Satir, The Satir Model, pg 31)

The four stances Satir identifies are the Blaming stance, the Placating stance, the Super-Reasonable stance, and the Irrelevant stance. And because people tend to adopt such stances or positions as survival mechanisms in situations where the attendant behaviours for each stance provide a barricade protecting us from those perceived threats, we can, over time, emotionally invest in our stances very heavily. If we come to believe that maintaining these stances will keep us safe, hen any perceived threat will be defended against, sometimes with subversion and sometimes with tactical precision and military-grade offence. When we’re significantly invested in defending those stances to the point where we have no openness or tolerance for any threat against them, we are considered to be entrenched. We become entrenched in a variety of ways; it generally indicates there is no resiliency for change, no way to integrate or even consider differing or opposing viewpoints. We become heavily invested in our perspectives or views of reality, even if they are (at least to external perspectives) distorted or dysfunctional perspectives. We cannot afford to be wrong, so we will defend the barricades we build around our entrenched positions until we (metaphorically) die through convincing and conversion, or exhausted capitulation.

Last week’s blog post looked at gaslighting as a form of deliberate manipulation in the context of abusive relationships. It’s important to note that gaslighting sometimes also occurs as a consequence of entrenched individuals defending their defensive barricades. Most of us have probably uttered phrases, in jest or in seriousness, along the lines of, “You’re crazy!” or “You’re nuts, that’s not how it happened!”. It doesn’t happen out of manipulative maliciousness in many cases; it can also happen as a result of entrenchment defending its own invested worldview against the perceived threat of a different view. We can become dismissive of other perspectives, or possibly even contemptuous — remember, contempt is one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — simply because we don’t want to manage the internal upheaval that comes of having our entrenched beliefs, or entrenched narratives around our self-esteem, challenged by external, presumed-hostile forces intent on (presumably) destroying those beliefs. It’s often easier for people to repel the attack on our position than it is to self-regulate our inner turmoil.

And that’s the primary difference between two types of gaslighting: one is an active manipulation with intent to manage or force compliance from Other, the other is a way or repelling perceived threats as a defense of the Self. To the outside perspectives, it’s true that the effect may appear similar and the felt impact will be similarly painful. No-one likes being dismissed or diminutized, especially by someone close to us. But there are advantages in differentiating intent when it comes time to decode and deconstruct the defensive mechanisms when we get to working with this kind of challenge in the counselling room. In order to encourage entrenched perspectives to lower the barricades (or at least lower their defensive intolerance), we have to consider what it is they are protecting behind the barricades; what are they so afraid of? Roger Fisher and William Ury, authors of the classic handbook on negotiation, Getting to Yes, state from the outset in their works that arguing over *positions* is the most ineffective way of achieving a favourable resolution to any kind of negotiating or potentially challenging engagement:

“Whether a negotiation concerns a contract, a family quarrel, or a peace settlement among nations, people routinely engage in positional bargaining. Each side takes a position, argues for it, and makes concessions to reach a compromise. [..] When negotiators bargain over positions, they tend to lock themselves into those positions. The more you clarify your position and defend it against attack, the more committed you become to it. The more you try to convince the other side of the impossibility of changing your opening position, the more difficult it becomes to do so. Your ego becomes identified with your position. You now have a new interest in “saving face” ? in reconciling future action with past positions ? making it less and less likely that any agreement will wisely reconcile the parties’ original interests.” (Fisher & Ury, pgs. 7-8)

This is an excellent summary of entrenchment, and why it is so difficult to “win” confrontations or conflict with entrenched parties. We see this in the counselling room all the time. When the arguments become less about achieving a collaborative solution or even compromise than they are about “being right” or “saving face”, then we’re facing an entrenched adversary who will likely do everything they can to save their position. Learning what lies at the emotional centre of the defended position is a key part of a resolution process, because it’s sometimes not going to be obvious from the defensive strategies lobbed out by those behind the barricade. As we often say in relational therapy, “The thing that we’re fighting about may not actually be the thing that we’re fighting about” — the WORDS of the argument may be about leaving socks on the bedroom floor for the eighth time this week, but the FORCE of the argument is ACTUALLY about not feeling heard and respected; the entrenchment, the emotional investment in one’s stance in the argument, results from feeling hurt, or needing to be right.

These kinds of emotional entrenchment conflicts are an excellent place for emotionally-focused therapy to introduce way of opening up defensive stances between couples especially, of exploring the underlying narratives tied to esteem-based interpretations that keep getting in the way of partners hearing each other. When these kinds of issues come into the office with individual clients, sometimes we can apply a more narrative exploration to clarify why a person continues to emotionally invest in a particular survival stance, even to the potential or ongoing detriment of their current relationships. We’re constantly looking for ways to increase the native sense of emotional safety and bolstered self-esteem, as a way of introducing more resiliency to how we face challenges to our worldviews and our sense of Self. There are ways to increase one’s flexibility and adaptability in the face of differing perspectives that does not mean “we were wrong” or that we somehow cease to exist if we drop an invested stance.

Sometimes it takes time and work to build security that makes that kind of resiliency possible, though; it’s more than simply “wearing each other down” in the way the French militia and the Revolutionaries in “Les Mis” wore each other down through frequent battles. It’s about learning about the underpinnings of each other’s stances, understanding why they are important to us, and working that into collaborative discussion strategies that build tolerance. We can’t stand on the barricades and wave the revolutionary flag forever; sometimes we just need help to dig ourselves out of our own entrenchments.

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.)