Relationships, Uncategorized

Have you ever had a complete conversation with someone in your head, someone not physically in the room (office, car, bathtub) with you? Most of us do; some of us even make a recurring habit of it. *raises hand guiltily*

In some ways it’s a decent way of sorting out thoughts or practicing potentially difficult things we want to say. On the other hand, as a habit it can lead to a particular kind of short-circuiting of opportunities for vulnerability and intimacy when we start to invest and even PREFER those internal conversations to actual face-to-face discussions.

I don’t remember where in my training I first came across the idea of these internal constructs; certainly the concept of them runs through a number of therapies. I do remember the first time my own therapist called me out on the practice of using these internal constructs as a shield to protect myself from having arguments with my then-partner; the givewaway was when I described unleashing a torrent of anger on the poor man for simply walking into a room, unsuspecting the rage I had built up in my head over something that started as an innocuous thing. “Going supernova” was a term my ex-husband and I came to use for those unpredictable explosions; they generally happened after I’d had plenty of time to work myself up through these invisible conversations and could or would no longer contain that vast sea of seething anger.

It’s not a bad thing in and of itself to talk to these constructs. The PROBLEM happens when the process starts to look more like this:

  • We have a thought.
  • We have feelings about that thought.
  • We start to imagine what we might want to say to the Other about those feelings (or thoughts).
  • We imagine, based on exposure and experience, what they will say and do in return.
  • In pondering that assumed response, we begin to react emotionally (in our heads).
  • We use that reactivity to justify taking a STANCE (in our heads).
  • We get entrenched in emotionally defending that stance (in our heads).
  • We leverage brilliant arguments (in our heads).
  • We imagine them counterarguing.
  • “How dare they!?”, we think (in our heads).
  • We escalate (in our heads).
  • They defend (in our heads).
  • We are positively incandescent in our righteous rage (in our heads).

…and then the Other walks in, all unknowing, and inadvertently joins the Invisible Battle Already In Progress (in our heads).

When we become emotionally invested in these internal constructs, when we habitually engage with them more readily than we do with our flesh-and-blood partners, when we rage dramatically at the invisible as if it were as real and valid is breathing, corporeal entities, THIS is Masterpiece Sock Pippet Theatre. It is also Masterpiece Sock Puppet Theatre when our conversations with the puppets result in us talking ourselves out of doing something because we anticipate rejection, obstruction, dismissal, etc., from our partners. When the sock puppets in our heads convince us that we can’t say, do, believe, have what we want, we’ve bought into that internal piece of theatre… but at what price?

We create puppets, internal 2D constructs, that only ever respond as we EXPECT and ASSUME they will. And therein lies the death of intimacy. By choosing to engage with these sock puppet versions of Others on difficult topics more commonly than we do so with their real counterparts, we deny ourselves and our partners an opportunity to practice vulnerability in relationships, shutting ourselves off from genuine intimacy in the process. Also, lashing out at, or disappointedly disconnecting from, partners without (from their perspective) clear provocation, means we’re often engaging in what appears to be “disproportionate response”, especially if we’ve worked up a serious emotional mountain from a potential molehill of a trigger.

When I worked a tech writing contract at BlackBerry a few years ago, we in the Global Product Security team had a motto that steered everything we did with vulnerability reports: “Trust, but verify.” This meant we take the report at face value, that there was an exploitable weakness in our hardware or software, but verify the report in-house with the experts before acting on the report. I have learned that this “Trust, but verify” motto also works exceptionally well when sock puppets are present in a relationship dynamic. Nowadays I challenge clients on their assumptions of how they believe a partner will think/feel/behave, and I explore when they last validated their working models by engaging a partner directly on the topics that most commonly take the stage in their respective versions of Masterpiece Sock Puppet Theatre.

The part that makes this vulnerable is that these internal models *ARE* often based in experience. Sometimes that experience is particular to the current relationship under examination; other times, it’s a response to a very generalized set of assumptions accumulated over multiple relationships (non-specific language about “all men”, “all women”, “all my relationships”, etc., are the key flags for generalizations). If the experience to date justifies *expecting* certain responses from a partner, that’s useful information; we TRUST that the client has come to this conclusion for good reason. But then we also have to VERIFY that the assumption remains valid over time, or as relationships change. This requires looking at how those triggering topics get addressed in the relationship context: is the issue with the assumptive response based in communications patterns we can change for improved reception and connection? Are there ways we can tailor the discussion to decrease reactivity in the relationship dynamic, hopefully without also introducing or increasing emotional labour on the client’s part?

Verifying internal models sometimes means we have to risk having rough conversations, so we coach clients on how to do so in safest possible terms; sometimes this is the point at which we suggest individual clients seek relational counselling or family mediation. Yes, it will almost always feel safer to interact with ONLY those sock puppets. But that won’t guarantee we’re making decisions or choosing a course of action based in the most accurate information available. Masterpiece Sock Puppet Theatre is all about self-protection and control; if we control the sock puppets, we have a sense of control over the situation, and we make decisions based on “safe” information, even if it’s unverified information in the freshest sense. To seek interactive, fresh information means putting ourselves in a vulnerable position, and there may be reasons why that is at best uncomfortable, and at worst, feel completely untenable and personally unsafe.

But we also acknowledge that we, ultimately, are NOT the Subject Matter Experts on other people, no matter how heavily we invest in our internal working models (no, not even therapists). Talking with the sock puppets can help us prepare for a tough conversation, but in the end, if we want to make INFORMED decisions, we really should ensure we have the most accurate information we can acquire from the verified source of that needful information. Before we get emotionally invested in our reaction to a decision made with a sock puppet, we should step outside the theatre and ask a real human for their input. It’s risky, but it’s also the only way we get true intimacy in relationship. We may never completely break the habit of those internal, preparatory, conversations… but when we catch ourselves having them, they can become a flag that we haven’t verified that topic or outcome with the real-life Other in the equation… and especially if it’s something important to *us*, we should probably set the sock puppets aside to address that.

Relationships, Self-Development, Uncategorized

There are some good and bad aspects to considering the difference between “I” and “we” in relationship. On the one hand, there is a general undercurrent of connectedness in “we” language that can feel intimate and close. On the other hand, however, a tendency to ONLY assume a “we” perspective means we sometimes miss something important happening with the “I”… until the “I” explodes in some fashion that probably surprises everyone involved, even the “I” in question.

We know I’m a writer, and that I believe in my mitochondria that words are incalculably important. So I listen as much for HOW people say things to me as I listen for the message threaded through/behind/underneath their language choices. It becomes REALLY apparent when I ask someone to tell me about their individual experience or feeling, thoughts, or opinions… and all of their responses are couched in “we” language. Even when I gently call attention to that language and get curious about it, if we’re not diligent in calling it out, it slides back in within a few minutes.

The discomfort of having to even THINK in terms of “I” often winds up being a struggle for women in particular, and I suspect there are myriad reasons for this:

1. Inclusive/collective pronouns speak to the idealism of the intimate unity–whether that intimacy is present in reality or not.
2. It softens the woman’s presence by obscuring or sublimating the individual; this fits with what I have observed over the years regarding women feeling selfish for even having needs, let alone articulating them, or (heavens forbid!) expecting their needs to be effectively met in relationship. We’re not yet clear of the culture that instills in women the belief that our core purpose is to sublimate our needs and care-take everyone around us.
3. It speaks to an assumption of shared values and desires that may have been verified at one point (but often not), and rarely updated or challenged over the lifetime of the relationship.
4. The speaker may struggle with the concept of “I” because of family of origin issues or programming or personal trauma, and retreat to obscuring collective pronouns as a kind of camouflage. To have individuals with differing or conflicting stances may introduce an untenable degree of tension for anxious partners especially, so “absolute we-ness” becomes a requirement for emotional safety. (From a family systems perspective, this is one of many ways in which fusion can become A Thing in relationships.)

Mr. Spock, in his tragic death scene at the end of “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan”, articulates something that has been bred into the marrow of womenkind of millennia as a silent, unquestioned expectation, yet for men (at least in this case) is the embodiment of Noble Sacrifice:

So, lemme say this again for those in the back: in men, the individual Self is All, and to sacrifice the individual Self for the Many is Noble. For women, however, to sacrifice the Self is so commonplace an expectation as to merit no wonderment at all, except to wonder that we have any sense of Self at all by now. Our sacrifice isn’t Noble; it’s Just How It Is.

With that kind of thinking at the root of our cultural values, is it any wonder that we have a hard time justifying and exonerating the “I”? I’ve already explored some rudimentary thoughts on the difference between being selfish versus self-centred, which go some way towards explaining why we come to believe the needs of the one have no place in relationship, at least until we’re so unhappy about not getting our individual needs met that we erupt from slow simmers to pyroclastic boil-overs.

Women in particular have been battling uphill against the “selfish” label for a very long time. When I’m calling attention to the undifferentiated “we” language in client sessions, upwards of 80% of the time, it’s with women. The vast majority of the time when I do, the subtext proves to be some variant of, “I must assume the needs of my partner/children/family have higher priority over my own needs, therefore I must couch my needs in safe, soft, collective language for any traction for them at all.” And more often than not, part of the communications issues driving one or more of members of the relationship into therapy stem from an increqasingly problematic assumption tied to “we-ness”: if the other half of “we” does not buy into the assumptions presented as collective thing, then what happens?? (Spoiler alert: generally the result is along the lines of, “WE” don’t do the thing “I” am trying to achieve, because “YOU” don’t want to.”) The assumption of collective consent to, or shared investment in, an idea or opinion is a common place for relationships to run aground, yet the ability to separate out the “I” from the “we” remains elusive in relationship dynamics.

When we couch our individual wants in the language of “we”, to some extent we’re giving away a degree of autonomy to someone else’s desires. If the partner resists or refuses the overture on the basis of their own individual desires, we can’t help but allow that reluctance to be the definitive answer, because we’re not good (again, I’m painting the situation with a VERY broad brush of generality here) at defending our autonomous selves. Having tied ourselves into the “we” for safety, when the other half of “we” shoots down a proposal, the proposal dies; it’s another way in which we externalize our personal locus of control. We can’t extricate ourselves far enough from the collective camouflage to assert what the originating “I” wants or intends. (My next Language Lesson post should maybe be about tackling a personal bane of relational communication, the “soft ask”, but that’s another post for another day.)

When I work with people stuck in the assumptive unity of “we-ness,” step one is often the process of reintroducing the “I” to the conversation. We sit with the feelings that come of voicing things in terms of the individual motivation, and perhaps more importantly, we explore what it feels like to make room for not one collective set of unified ideas, but two individual, hopefully complementary sets of ideas. A corollary benefit we sometimes observe is the partner’s sense of relief in being released from the claustrophobic fusion of that “we”. We work on the more insecure aspects of their individual attachments to shore up security and unity within the relationship without sacrificing the one OR the many. It’s a tricksy balancing act to develop from scratch, but not impossible, and usually each person HAS a raft of individual strengths we can leverage to accomplish this.

“But intimacy need not undermine autonomy, and vice versa; in fact, they support each other. Intimacy fosters autonomy since repeated experiences of caring connection, particularly in childhood, are critical for the development of normal ego functions, personal worth, and confidence; healthy relationships provide the ?secure base? from which we engage the world as an individual. Autonomy ? both yours and the other person?s ? nurtures intimacy in many ways, including its reassurance that you can still protect yourself when you?re wide open to another person, and by giving an extra oomph to relatedness: it makes such a difference when you know that the other person really wants to be with you.”Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Uncategorized

“Woke is a political term of black origin which refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice.” —Wikipedia

Today’s post is borrowing, with respect and apology, a very heavily-laden term from one highly-charged political context to another. Justice and oppression are deeply concerning topics in the news right now. Many individuals are struggling to “wake up” to clearer understandings of their actions and consequences, of the impacts those consequences have when they move out from the individual to a broader societal context (when many people “normalize” a particular behaviour out to the broader group-level enactment of that behaviour, and when that behaviour has been normalized on the broad spectrum for so long that it has become embedded or entrenched as a defensible cultural VALUE). Systemic oppression is a factor hitting many people in a maddening variety of ways: sexism, racism, ableism, classism.

Add to that list: relationism.

Okay, so that one’s not really a word, but in its own way, relational systems (family or intimate/romantic) *CAN* be as oppressive as any other system we encounter. We don’t start out to enmesh ourselves in oppressive systems, but it sometimes happens so subtly we never see it coming until we start to wake up to the weight holding us back. In family dynamics, it’s not like we really have much choice for most of our formative years BUT to live in and survive families as best we can. Sometimes the erosion of connection and intimacy in our romantic relationships becomes the thing that slowly buries us under the weight of invisible expectations and assumptions and the (sometimes non-consensual) enforcement of hidden values.

When people come into counselling, either in a couple/group relational format or as individuals, those of us who work from a systemic perspective are KEENLY aware that one person pursuing individuation, or attempting to create differentiation from an oppressive system, face particular challenges. One of the first steps in any differentiation process is to step back a little from the system and simply observe it, and to observe the self as it reacts within the systemic influences: where do we feel hooked in, and where can we choose a different behaviour when we become conscious of the patterns we’re observing? What do we see in terms of systemic values in action, and how do we become aware of where we reflect those internal values outwardly, inside and outside of the system? What do we think or feel about the values we’ve internalized, and the somewhat instinctive behaviours that enact them?

We encourage clients to observe their relational systems for a while and ponder their observations once they get clear somehow of the provocative circumstances. It’s damnably difficult to make decisions about change processes while one is sitting in the discomforting fire of an actively-provoked mindset, so gaining some kind of minimum safe distance is also part of the process. With observation and distance, we gain space to make decisions and consider how best to enact changes in our own behaviour within those systems.

That’s when things get REALLY complicated.

As soon as we introduce change in our own behaviours, we invariably destabilize a carefully-balanced system of expectations and assumptions. As soon as we start to behave in what appear to our relational counterparts as unpredictable or opaque ways, they will (in clinical, formal parlance) lose their shit. Harriet Lerner, in much of her writing on the dance of connection and intimacy, refers to the “CHANGE BACK!” pressure that is the common result to one person differentiating within, or from, a system. For the person struggling to differentiate, the challenge lies in being what feels like the ONLY person who seems aware of the behaviours in operation to enforce compliance and conformity to systemic values and expectations.

We often hear relational partners lamenting in therapy about one or the other making “arbitrary decisions and changes” that are disrupting the longtime stability of their status quo. One person’s attempts to carve out and defend the new boundaries that define their individuated space from the systemic collective will, quite often, be perceived as excising themselves from said system. Especially in family and intimate relationships that have never experienced healthy boundaries, ANY boundary will be met with resistance when others encounter it by running into it unexpectedly. It’s about as pleasant as running face-first and full-tilt into a brick wall you didn’t expect to find blocking the previously-open thoroughfare. (Why yes, I do speak from some personal experience there; why do you ask? Also: Ow.)

Individual clients who are themselves trying to differentiate, trying to change themselves, struggle with how to do so while remaining within a system: how do I not alienate my partner? How do I not cut-off from my parents? How do I not estrange my children? How do I become more of the person I see myself as being, while still honouring those relationships I want to be part of, but who may not have signed up for this kind of upheaval?

These are challenging questions for any relationship to navigate. When we’re trying to change how we engage in dysfunctional systems, the pressure to stay in and confirm, to engage in the safe herd patterns, is often overpowering, and can become harsh or toxic in short order. When we “become woke” to systemic values or individual enactments of those values within a system, especially once we begin to change how we interact with those others, our tolerance for those behaviours also drops quickly, and sometimes dramatically. We may not feel safe calling them out, so we find new ways to deflect them, or remove ourselves from engagement arenas. We will be challenged at every turn, and the sicker the system, the harsher the judgments and emotional penalties. The greater the perceived cost of differentiation, the greater the risk of capitulation.

“Being woke” to systemic (dys)functions means needing to make a hard choice about our place within those systems: maintain silence and implied or complicit support for those systemic behaviours, or take a stand against them, either in terms of our own engagement with them, or attempting to introduce change across the system. When clients confront this decision point, we discuss as many options as we can identify: we do a risk/return, ROI-type analysis; we talk about the scope of change the client desires for themselves. We talk about consent, especially if their differentiation attempt involves introducing expected change on others in the system, and how to shape conversations that invite others into that change process, rather than dropping arbitrary changes.

And we spend a LOT of time sifting through the frustrations and disappointments of integrating their own observations and newfound (hard-won) perspectives into relational systems that don’t want to be as woke to those challenges as the clients are. We discuss the desire to have partners “want to change for the better as much as I do”, and how that can add a lot of pressure and tension to a relationship, to a partner who maybe isn’t so keen to wake up. It’s a lot like Morpheus and Neo discussing whether to take the red pill or the blue pill, to stay asleep in Wonderland or to wake up and see how deep the rabbit hole goes; we can only choose for ourselves, we cannot force someone else to take the pill with us.

When we look at the risks of being woke versus remaining asleep, some people make the wistful remark of wishing they could “go back” to the simpler times, before they became aware of just how much of their systemic life makes them unhappy or dissatisfied. They talk about feeling exhausted with the effort of maintaining vigilant observational posts, of defending those nascent boundaries from the pressure to “CHANGE BACK!” I gently disabuse them of the notion that we even CAN go back. At the end of the day, we can’t unknow what we know, no matter how much we wish otherwise. We have to integrate new perspectives and understandings gained from observation into every decision we make going forward; mindful self-awareness and awareness of the systems in which we operate can never be unseen. It’s the cost of being woke: once we see the “violence inherent in the system”, we either consciously choose to do something about it (or ourselves in relationship to it), or we have to willfully choose to do nothing, and then what does that say about us? Will that be something we can live with?

Being woke isn’t always a blessing. It can mean loss and distance or disconnect, but it also creates new opportunities to examine the people we chose to be, and the decisions we make, or values we enact, in becoming that person. It allows us perspective to examine and selectively maintain or jettison systemic values that we determine are no longer welcome or applicable to who we choose to be. We create inviting space to examine our behaviours within relational contexts and ensure we are congruent within ourselves, and work to improve our willingness and ability to communicate what’s going on within our new internal processes to those important relationships outside our heads.

And once we learn how to wake up in our close or intimate systems, it becomes harder to turn off the observing capacity in broader systems. Many of us become sensitive, sometimes, to the oppressive factors in broader systems, and find the same kinds of decreased tolerance and/or increased motivation to do *something*, even on a small scale, to push back against the dysfunctional aspects of those systems, and to wake up others as we go. (I freely admit, part of why I became a therapist when and how I did was, in part, to help wake people up so I didn’t have to be out here by myself… but that’s a story for another day.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relationships, Uncategorized

A friend of mine recently asked me for my thoughts about the process of recovering relationships after a particularly disruptive and emotionally demanding situation. Specifically, how do we put Humpty Dumpty back together after a crisis has demanded all of our time and energy and focus and resources to be focused on something other than the “us”? In the aftermath of the storm, what happens then? How do we process who we’ve become on the other side while still holding the relationship together?

The answer to this question is a little complicated in that “recovery” as a process is largely contingent on two principle factors: the crisis context, and the individual resiliency of the relationship members. (I’m going to deliberately leave aside the issue of recovering from infidelity; in my not-so-humble opinion, the definitive work on recovering from that particular crisis is Janis Abram-Spring‘s book, “After the Affair”.)

Context is difficult to address as a general factor. One partner losing a job or dealing with an extended period of unemployment is a very different kind of crisis than, say, the death of a child or the diagnosis of a debilitating or fatal illness in a child or a partner. Different contexts paired with differing resiliencies (which will determine our coping strategies) often define what kinds of support we NEED to navigate both crisis and recovery… but don’t tell us what happens when we lack those resources.

Relationships are, ideally, organic and evolutionary things, in that they are meant to change over time (individual resistances to change notwithstanding). What a crisis situation does, potentially, is to force some kind of emotionally intense change on the relationship in a relatively short period of time; it often happens without warning, and therefore with little or no preparation (emotional or otherwise). The speed and degree of crisis will strain even strong and healthy relationships; in dysfunctional ones, crisis exacerbates whatever weaknesses already exist and strains what little tolerance we have for upheaval to, and sometimes past, breaking points.

Navigating recovery also looks different when the precipitating crisis was about something internal the relationship that disrupted or threatened default expectations about the attachment (discovering a partner is a drug user or alcoholic, spent all your joint savings on a questionable investment without consulting you, or is not-so-closeted Trump Supporter, for example), versus something that happened external to the relationship that managed to impact all members of the relationship to some degree (losing a job or being required to uproot and move across the continent for a job, or sudden issues with extended family members, for example).

It’s a common thing to hear people describe how their relational communication either saves or burns them in crisis situations. We already know that our communication skills are generally only as good as our ability to know what it is we’re trying to communicate in the first place, so there’s no way to know if in a crisis we’ll magically transcend our general day-to-day patterns or not. Therefore, in the post-crisis-recovery stage, it’s a reasonable assumption that whatever we were able to do under extreme circumstances will revert to whatever our baseline interactive styles were, after the fact.

Sometimes, having seen how we can band together and work well in crisis, makes that post-crisis reversion a lot harder to bear. Sometimes, if we don’t navigate the crisis itself terribly well, it really drives home the parts of the relationship that don’t work effectively in ways that we can no longer easily ignore. Either way, afterwards, things are often different, and many people don’t know what to do when confronting differences that don’t point towards the relationship being “better, stronger, faster” for having survived the storm.

There are some really important things to remember or consider from a relational standpoint when we’re confronting the aftermath of a storm:

Everybody’s wrung out and exhausted. This means very few of us are at cognitive functioning’s peak capacity. After any kind of exertion, bodies and brains need a break. There may be day-to-day necessities that must be addressed, but no-one’s going to be doing them gracefully in the aftermath. Cut yourself and your partner(s) some slack for a while to be less than “on”.

Recovery times vary. Just because you and your partner(s) are ostensibly in the same relationship, that’s never going to guarantee we all process events, crisis and otherwise, the same way to the same degree or in the same time frame. You may be ready and raring to go with a good night’s sleep; someone else may be weeks in the recovery trough before they can poke their heads back up. Make sure you check your assumptions that other crisis parties will be working “just like you” in the aftermath.

“Recovery” may mean different things to different people. Even if you came through the same set of circumstances together, everyone may see the situation differently, and there may be differences in how each of you responds to the crisis. It’s safe, therefore, to assume that recovery will look and play out differently to all involved. In the counselling room we see a variety of responses to crisis, from utter emotional chaos to absolute emotional disconnection–sometimes in the same relationship. Sometimes one party falls apart while another steps up to deal with the logistical details to pull everyone through the crisis; in the aftermath, one party may need therapy, and the other needs an equal opportunity to fall apart in a delayed emotional response. Maybe they both need therapy. Maybe there’s a grief or health-recovery process involved (how many of us catch a cold or other transient sickness once a period of stress eases off?) Some partners need to keep talking to process what happened, while others just want to forget or let go and move on, leaving the turmoil of crisis times in the rearview as quickly as possible.

Even if crisis brought us closer together in the moment, recovery might not keep us there afterward. Tied to the idea that recovery might mean different things, is the idea that who we are in crisis does not always indicate who we are, or might become, in the aftermath. If partners have differing tolerance for emotional intensity, for example, then what they are willing to handle during a crisis might be far more intensity and vulnerability afterwards, so they retreat; it’s safer, it demands less, it’s familiar and predictable than trying to integrate and sustain what we managed to handle during the storm. We perhaps communicated with great purpose and clarity when the situation demanded our full attention, but left to our own devices we see that as being too much work, too much vulnerability, too much of something we don’t want to face even without the pressure of a crisis.

Navigation in the aftermath is, obviously, not going to be an easy thing.

As with any kind of change process introduced into a relationship framework, there are some strategies that might ease the strain change will introduce.

Offer your partner(s) opportunity to reflect with you on what happened: what went well through the crisis, what you would all want to do differently in future, what you might need to do to improve resilience as individuals or as a relationship.

Discuss what each of you needs for recovery, and how best to go about getting those needs addressed effectively. This is especially crucial if you discover you need different things. If one of you needs to talk and the other just needs to forget, for example, then clearly there won’t be a lot of comfort, and possibly a lack of consent, to force “talk processing” on unwilling or unavailable partners.

Discuss expectations. Once you have all articulated recovery needs, make a plan for what meeting those needs can look like, so that everyone knows what part they can or need to play, what costs might affect the relationship, what kinds of interactions might be required (especially if they are different from pre-crisis norms). This is a negotiation process; we all have expectations for ourselves and those around us, but those around us may not always be aware of those expectations, which makes it challenging for them to meet us in them. Maybe they can help us address our underlying needs but NOT in the way we expect. It’s most useful if we can allow openness to how our needs get addressed as a collaborative process; a partner may not be able to meet our expectation exactly as expressed, but if they know what need we’re tying an expectation to, they may be able to suggest an alternative that works for everyone. And especially on the heels of a potentially resource-exhausting crisis, this negotiation process may be extra-challenging. Be patient and gentle all around. As you wouldn’t push someone in recovery from surgery to commit to doing too much too fast, don’t push anyone recovering from an emotional or relational crisis that way, either.

Recognize that intimacy and vulnerability are choices we make every day, sometimes moment-to-moment. If the crisis was something that introduced or increased distance in a relationship, then it can be hard to feel like we want to come back into connection afterward. If we feel unsupported or abandoned by our partners through a crisis situation, we’re going to have to find ways of articulating and addressing that hurt–even if we consciously choose to not make an issue of it ourselves and just “forgive and forget”–before we can focus on the relationship or reconnection. There may have to be some emotional work done to figure out why a partner wasn’t where we needed or expected them to be in crisis, and we may have to balance our own hurt/disappointment/frustration with understanding why they couldn’t be in the fire with us as we wanted them to be. At the end of the day, though, we each choose for ourselves whether we sustain the distance exacerbated by crisis, or introduce connection bids and repair attempts.

Crisis can introduce a lot of upheaval in a very short period of time; crisis recovery by design happens at a slower pace, allowing for reflection and redefinition, and retooling of current process where necessary. Knowing whether all parties involved are even starting from the same place in defining what is or is not a crisis is the first step in determining how best to get clear of stormy waters and into a calmer state. Give yourselves time, then work out what directions you need to go, individually and as a relationship, at a pace you can each sustain. Don’t allow crisis recovery processes to become the trigger for another round of crisis!

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I like it when the universe provides me a thematically-associated set of triggers to point me at a blog topic. This time around we’re looking at the concept of the “locus of control”, the aspect of ourselves that enables us to either internalize and trust our personal agency, or leads us to believe we have little to no control over ourselves and we’re simply reactive agents to external forces operating upon us.

In psychology, the locus of control is often tied to the individual experience of success or failure. In relationships, however, the locus of control issue manifests a variety of ways, from the learned helplessness of a victim stance, to a common but insidious relinquishing of response agency in favour of reactivity.

This latter issue is one that has been cropping up recently in multiple conversations in and out of the therapy office. My observations of its simplest form look like this:

“I’m waiting for X to decide what to do, and the not-knowing is driving me crazy.”
“I can’t be happy/calm/less anxious until my partner is happy/calm/less anxious, but whenever I try to fix things, it seems to make everything worse.”
“I walk on eggshells whenever I don’t know what’s happening.”
“I don’t know where I end and you begin.”

Assuming we’re not dealing with any known trauma-based reactivity in the situation (hyper-vigilance as a trauma/abuse response, for example, is a whole different kettle of fish), these kinds of statements can indicate the presence of what we consider to be an externalized locus of control.

Externalizing the locus is another way of describing what Murray Bowen’s Family Systems theory describes as enmeshment or “emotional fusion”:

“Emotional fusion is emotional togetherness without the freedom of individuality. It is an unseen, unhealthy, emotional attachment where people lose their sense of self and […] unique identity […]. Emotionally fused people are needy. They look to others to mirror to them their sense of identity. Because their identity is defined by others, they require constant validation, becoming what they think others want them to be. When that occurs, relationships are not as fulfilling as they could be and there can be a sense of emptiness and feelings of ?I?m not enough,? or ?what?s wrong with me.? Emotional fusion can also lead to feelings of detachment and even rebellion in families as those who are hurting try to gain a sense of self.” — Kathryn Manley, MS, LPC, CST, “Be Yourself: Don?t Become Emotionally Fused,” April 16, 2015 for www.agapechristiancounselingservices.org

When we create healthy bonds in intimate relationships, we achieve in effect a kind of emotional co-regulation that includes all kinds of good things, like validation, secure attachment, supportive and reciprocal emotional labour. When we don’t have a healthy bond, when we have unhealthy or ineffective (or completely absent) boundaries within our intimate relationships, then all kinds of issues arise. We feel we can’t act independently, but must tie our emotional options reactively to other people’s choices–prioritizing their behaviours, choices, needs above our own without balance. We absorb a need to control partners, or at least their emotional states, so that we can mitigate our own, rather than maintaining clearer boundaries around “what’s your reactivity” and “what’s my reactivity” to focus on more effectively regulating our own experiences internally.

There’s a fine line between effective collaboration–choosing or creating plans with a partner that effectively reflect multiple sets of needs, values, and perspectives–and an externally projected or fused locus of control, in which we feel like we CANNOT function except as a reaction to someone else’s behaviours. If a client expresses frustration and helplessness, we almost always come back to explore where the control in the situation seems (to the client’s perspective) to reside.

Image used with permission, courtesy Teresa Gregory, LPC, MAAT, ATR-P
Psychotherapist | Art Therapist
www.illuminatingyou.com

In my observations, there are some common indicators signalling potential externalized locus issues:

  • constantly waiting for someone else to say or do something so we know how to react, rather than creating initial responses that address our own needs
  • waiting or allowing other people to define what is right for us
  • requiring or responding ONLY to (or even primarily to) external validation, and feeling anxious or out of sorts when that external validation is absent (see also, broken mirrors)
  • increasing sense of responsibility and self-blame about things that go wrong in other people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (in some cases, internalizing responsibility for other people’s actions is actually more about hanging our sense of self-worth on other people; it’s both a complicated self-esteem issue, AND a case of putting our self-identity in the hands of other people–a definite externalization of our locus of control)
  • feeling like we have to accept whatever comes our way from our partners, that we have no control and/or no right to ask for anything different
  • attributing even the good things that happen in our relationships to outside factors, rather than to anything we have done or factors intrinsic to ourselves

(There are some other indicators for emotional fusion in relationship listed in this article here.)

“Locus of control is often viewed as an inborn personality component. However, there is also evidence that it is shaped by childhood experiences?including children?s interactions with their parents. Children who were raised by parents who encouraged their independence and helped them to learn the connection between actions and their consequences tended to have a more well developed internal locus of control.” Richard B. Joelson DSW, LCSW, “Locus of Control: How do we determine our successes and failures?” Aug 02, 2017 for www.psychologytoday.com

There isn’t a lot of significant study yet into the family of origin impact on internal versus external locus development, though some research suggests that “Warmth, supportiveness and parental encouragement seem to be essential for development of an internal locus”. How we form and view our connections to the world around us is often informed by family models, however, often in tandem with experiences that reinforce those inherited perspectives. Ergo, it makes a certain amount of sense that we carry into our intimate adult relationships a degree of conditioning about where our personal source of agency lies. We learn through a variety of mechanisms that our success or safety or happiness is intrinsically tied to making other people successful or safe or happy, be it parents, partners, employers, children, or any other external force. This is a common underlying theme for caretakers and self-sacrificing nurturers in particular. Nurturance isn’t in and of itself a negative thing, but when we feel we cannot function unless it be in reaction to Other People’s Needs, to the point of forgetting or denying or downgrading our own repetitively, THEN there’s an externalized locus of control issue.

Part of the struggle to correct externalized loci once we’ve identified them, however, is that there is often a comorbid self-esteem issue. After a lifetime of externalizing one’s sense of validation and self-worth, it becomes difficult to trust that we even have our own needs, or have the right to ask them be met in relationships defined up to this point by our caretaking others. We have to confront anxiety issues around separating our choices from other people’s reactions; emotional initiative seems risky, if not selfish, and hard to find a balance between “you do you and I’ll do me” and feeling like we’re somehow abandoning our emotionally enmeshed posts.

What Harriet Lerner calls the “distancer-pursuer” dynamic becomes another key indicator of externalized loci in intimate relationships:

“A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression. They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and take it personally.

They criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable. They believe they have superior values. If they fail to connect, they will collapse into a cold, detached state. They are labeled needy, demanding, and nagging.

A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want physical and emotional distance. They have difficulty with vulnerability.

They respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. They see themselves as private and self-reliant. They are most approachable when they don?t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued. They are labeled unavailable, withholding, and shut down.” — Steve Horsmon, “How to Avoid the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern in Your Relationship”, March 6, 2017 for www.gottman.com

When we project our locus of control onto another, and that other person moves emotionally away from us somehow, OF COURSE we’re going to feel destabilized: anxious, upset, fearful, even threatened. It’s like an important part of us is being taken away, though in truth it’s more like we’re giving it away. The lack of autonomy that we feel binds or traps us, the zero tolerance for a partner’s differing perspective or opinion that threatens us–these are indicators that we have tied ourselves to someone else, that we have given our agency and control of our own emotional selves over to them… whether they have asked for and consented to that control or not. Re-developing in INTERNAL locus of control, therefore, involves a multipronged approach:

  • rebuilding self-esteem
  • developing self-trust in our choices and actions
  • internally validating our own thoughts and feelings
  • creating boundaries around our emotional experiences and those of others
  • recognizing the potential impact of our behaviours without over-assuming ownership of other people’s reactions to them (which can tie back to learning how and when to apologize effectively when we’ve transgressed)

Seems like a lot of work when we break it down like that, right? None of these steps, in and of itself, will be a small piece of work. We know that. Bringing home an individual’s locus of control is pretty much “core definition” work, for people who have never had, or never been allowed to have, a strong sense of differentiated self in their lives. As a therapist, I can’t sugar-coat what kind of challenge this sort of work will be for many. But consider the alternative…

Two weeks ago, in response to my post about differentiating between “selfish” and “self-centric”, a friend commented about “the aspect of trusting our feelings in determining our own needs and wants […] in a world that constantly tells [us] we’re “over-reacting” or “imagining it,” etc.”. Internalizing our individual locus of control is ALL about differentiating the “I” from the “we” or the “you”, in a world that tries to teach us that “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.” Yes, it’s potentially some significant amounts of personal development to establish healthy differentiation in a relational system, especially for those raised in cultures, communities, families, or relationships where good boundaries are a foreign concept, or systemically destroyed from the outset. At the end of the day, however, the more we know and strengthen in ourselves, the more we have to build on when we get into relationships with others.

It’s not about jettisoning the “we”, but it IS about establishing boundaries that break the fusion, that provide us with tools to self-regulate when we don’t actually know what’s going on with or inside our partners, to break off the clinging pursuit, to work on settling our selves BEFORE we wade in to do something to or for someone else. There is a huge difference between “I want to be happy with you and be happy with myself”, and “I can’t be happy UNLESS you’re happy” (or “I need to fix your unhappiness before I can be happy myself”). The problems lie when we make our own state conditional upon, and therefore subordinate to, the state of another.

We have to do this work in a way that doesn’t keep reinforcing the enmeshment ideal of, “I contribute or affect to the success of this relationship by FIXING THE OTHER PERSON”, a tangent that comes up periodically in relational work; that still supports an externalized locus of control by hanging the idea of success on said Other Person accepting our efforts to fix them/us/the relationship. That’s not how this process is meant to be interpreted. It’s more along the lines of, “How do I become the best Me that I can? What do I bring to benefit the relationship by being confident and secure in myself?”

Breaking enmeshment or fusion and (re-)establishing an internal locus of control puts us back in control of our own lives, in charge of our own emotional well-being. It decreases our dependency on someone else’s emotional condition, and decreases the amount of emotional labour we need to do just to maintain status quo, because we’re primarily addressing our own needs and state and building faith in *that*, which can overall decrease our reactive tension in relationship and also leave us open for healthier ways of approaching intimacy.

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Okay, so you’ve all figured out by now that, me being a writer, WORDS and their nuanced meanings are very important to me, and central to the work I do as a “talk therapist”. Once in a while, I get what my mother used to call “a bee in my bonnet” about certain words or concepts, and while I may be a one-woman wave in a tide of slow sea change, I do like to advocate for reclaiming words and concepts when I think there’s good purpose in doing so.

A common conversation that comes up, most often with female clients, is the idea of differentiating between what they know as “being selfish”, and being (in common parlance) “self-centred.” My first line of question almost always goes like this:

What on earth will ever be wrong with being centred in the Self??

self?ish, adjective
(of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.
“I joined them for selfish reasons”
synonyms: egocentric, egotistic, egotistical, egomaniacal, self-centered, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-seeking, self-serving, wrapped up in oneself

self-cen?tered, adjective
preoccupied with oneself and one’s affairs.
“he’s far too self-centered to care what you do”
synonyms: egocentric, egotistic, egotistical, egomaniacal, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-seeking, self-interested, self-serving

In common usage, these concepts are largely interchangeable; the implication is that a concern chiefly focused on oneself and one’s experiences is an inherently negative thing. In a culture that is very much fixated on community and herd mentalities, individuation is often observed with suspicion and wariness, or treated with a weird mix of appreciation and resentment. One of the fundamental principles of Bowenian family systems psychotherapy that initially hooked me in, is the focus on a process of individuation within a system, meaning there is space to become both self-observant and centred-in-self in ways that can dramatically shift how one defines one’s own place within that system.

Culturally, women especially are (still) taught that our role is to set aside our own needs and wants in favour of caretaking others. This is as much a gendered dynamic as it is a structural one. Men are also taught to suppress their own experiences in favour of presenting an image or occupying a rigidly-defined role, so this suppressive expectation as an invisible value affects everyone across the gender spectrum to one degree or another. Part of the problem with this expectation is that we become disconnected from our Selves, in every sense from not understanding or trusting our own emotional experiences are real and valid, to feeling potentially tremendous anxiety when we contemplate stepping outside those rigid roles.

One of the core principles of my work lies in challenging clients to consider, “What are my Needs? What are my Wants? How clearly do I express them? How do I ask partners and others to meet them with me?” After years in practice, it never fails to surprise me, however, how many people can NOT identify their own Needs and Wants. They’ve been conditioned to not look at them, or to not value them, largely because to ask for what we want is culturally embedded in us as “being selfish”. Therefore it’s easier to trick ourselves into believing we don’t HAVE wants and needs, than it is to believe and invest in our Selves, and be told repeatedly that we’re being selfish in doing so.

Indoctrinating values for being selfish start in babyhood/toddlerhood. We’re taught that not sharing our toys, our space, is “bad”. We’re taught to value “good” socialization skills long before we’re taught anything useful and healthy about establishing boundaries and consent. We’re implicitly (if not explicitly) taught that appeasing others to keep the peace is more important than defending those boundaries. In short, we’re taught that our personal Self is unimportant, not valued, yet others’ Self very much is to be valued and respected. Roll this forward into intimate adult relationships, and you’ve got the underpinnings of some bona fide emotional or physical disasters in the making.

So what, exactly do I mean when I talk about reclaiming and reframing “self-centred” to mean something different than being selfish?

In Buddhism, as in most of western psychology, there is a long-standing struggle to understand “self” as a concept. In Buddhism, the sense of “no-self,” egolessness (in Freudian terms) or anatta (in Sanskrit), factors heavily:

“Very basically, anatta (or anatman in Sanskrit) is the teaching that there is no permanent, eternal, unchanging, or autonomous “self” inhabiting “our” bodies or living “our” lives. Anatman is contrasted with the Vedic teachings of the Buddha’s day, which taught that there is within each of us an atman, or an unchanging, eternal soul or identity.

Anatta or anatman is one of the Three Marks of Existence. The other two are dukkha (roughly, unsatisfying) and anicca (impermanent). In this context, anatta often is translated as “egolessness.”

Of critical importance is the teaching of the Second Noble Truth, which tells us that because we believe we are a permanent and unchanging self, we fall into clinging and craving, jealousy and hate, and all the other poisons that cause unhappiness.”

O’Brien, Barbara. “Self, No Self, What’s a Self?” ThoughtCo, Feb. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/self-no-self-whats-a-self-450190

Most people, I expect, have a very understandable struggle with the concept of “no-self” from a psychological perspective. It seems like a notion that feeds traditional patriarchal structures, from a woman’s point of view. So I like to approach the idea of “Self” from a perspective of valuing and validating our perceptions and experiences, but with the non-attachment twist that challenges us to not invest heavily in the narratives we will inevitably construct around those perceptions and experiences. Our Self then becomes a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts vessel that contains all of that good stuff, but it is, in and of itself, not a fixed and rigid Thing. This gives us a flexible framework in which to explore as many aspects of our own experiences, those we observe and reflect on internally or those that arise from external observation, as we can grasp.

It’s been my observation over the years, starting from my own experiences as a therapeutic client, that we all move to get our needs met, but when we don’t have an effective practice for looking inwards to our core Self, we find, like many of my clients discover, that we don’t actually have a freaking clue what those needs might actually be. We barely know the difference much of the time between “moving toward something I want” and “moving away from something I don’t want”, because we can’t actually articulate what it is triggering the movement, desire or aversion. We are disconnected from Self in ways that block us from understanding our most basic of motivations, presumably beyond Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs.

To be centred in the Self, in my view, is to avoid the presumably-dangerous “preoccupation” level of focus. I accept that in a system-centric society, however, any view that differentiates the individual from the system is going to be given a little bit of hairy-side-eye from those within the system who feel threatened by any form of individuation by others. Spock was wrong, I think, when his dying words to Kirk spoke of “the good of the many outweigh the good of the few, or the one”. All things working best in moderation, I think the “good of the many” can only function optimally as a focus when held IN BALANCE with the “good of the one”. My primary example in the counselling room is illustrating how many of my clients will run themselves ragged or burn themselves out entirely for partners, family, employers, anyone depending on them for something, really. And not just once; this becomes a significant personal and societal problem when that level of self-immolation becomes the default expectation, the norm (I talk elsewhere about burnout, and I suspect it’s not done as a topic here yet, either). We can’t/won’t/don’t draw boundaries that defend the Self, so we sacrifice the Self to appease the potentially-unrealistic expectations of others… because we are taught from the get-go that to do otherwise is “selfish”, and inherently “bad”.

So, it becomes clear(er) why I as a therapist might have a problem on my clients’ behalf with this concept, yes?

To accept our Self as a valuable part of what we do, requires looking inward and getting know that Self. It starts with some basic needs & wants framework, then moves out to explore the expectations and values we carry that maybe still have validity in our day-to-day experiences, or maybe don’t. Sometimes it’s a process of simply giving people safe emotional space to just talk about their own experiences in ways they may not have experienced previously, to validate them with an experience of being *heard*. We explore stories and beliefs, working on strengthening some narratives or jettisoning others as seems useful to the client. But always, the purpose of the exercise is to create space and allowance to deliberately focus on Self in a way that isn’t preoccupation level, and isn’t a negative or detractive factor to the individual whose Self is coming under internal observation.

To be “centred in Self,” then, becomes a process of developing trust and confidence in what we know about our own needs and wants, how they motivate or goad us, what boundaries we drawn around them and other internal spaces or experience we come to value as at least equal to those of others around us. Balancing the Self in relationship, balancing Self with Other, becomes another step in the process that goes along with boundaries and consent development, sometimes at the level of teaching people for the very first time that they are entitled to even have boundaries.

It’s a process, this differentiation between selfish and centred-in-selfness, and sometimes an emotionally heavy one. It involves a lot of conscious script challenging, standing up to our own embedded beliefs about our roles, and cognitively challenging or stripping down the values that have been imposed on us. Redefining Self requires learning first how to see what has probably never been clearly seen before, then learning to understand what we’re seeing, and figuring out what battles are worth fighting. I’m pragmatic about this kind of work with people; I often tell them, “It took you [client’s current age] years to get to this point, it’s not going to be anything we can reprogram overnight.” But we have to first recognize we HAVE permission to self-observe, self-reflect, then self-direct based on the most important word in that process: SELF.

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It’s Happy Disclosure Hour at the OKblog Corral:

For most of my adult life (at least the parts to which I have been paying attention), I have been a *TERRIBLE* apologizer. My specialty was in “I recognize you have big feelings in response to something I have said/done, but I am not responsible for those feelings, and therefore don’t acknowledge any responsibility for having done something that impacts you as it does.” I thought I was being very well-differentiated: I don’t own your feelings, therefore I am not responsible for them. If you feel a reaction to something I’ve said, that’s on you, not on me. Or the ever-?popular?, “I didn’t mean to hurt you, therefore you must be hearing me wrong, and I don’t need to apologize so much as you need to fix your comprehension.”

Yeah. I’ve frequently been one of THOSE jerks. I’m ashamed to even admit that in a public forum, but vulnerability is part of compassion, so, here we are.

Why is this such a common behaviour in our culture? Why are so many of us terrible at simply meaning a genuine apology in the event of deliberate or inadvertent harm?

Harriet Lerner’s latest book, Why Won’t You Apologize? is a fabulous resource for anyone trying to understand why they don’t get solid, effective apologies from others, or why it’s such a struggle to provide them ourselves.

According to Lerner’s many decades of research on the subject of apologies, failure to create effective apologies comes from a lot of places. It may be cultural (in some cultures, a core assumption for intimate relationships is that apologies are implicit, so never offered explicitly) or a learned behaviour from within our families of origin or other high-impact social herds, like church communities. For many people, acknowledging we have done harm implies “we are/I am Bad People”, and that is a massive shame trigger for a lot of us.

Where the process truly falls apart, however, is in a staunch belief that INTENT trumps IMPACT when it comes to determining what merits apology and what (in our minds) does not. For example, consider this illustration:

Artist credit: Kelly Bastow

A very great many of us can probably relate to one or both sides of this type of exchange. One of the things that comes out of working with trauma survivors is an intimate understanding that it is never the offender who gets to define what is hurtful or damaging, it can only ever be the recipient of the behaviour who has that power. And like any accident response team learns, when doing damage control and medical response in particular, one MUST triage damage first and deal with the wounded in priority order of damage BEFORE doing anything else on scene. But admitting that perhaps one has caused damage to another means we react to that internal message of “I’m a Bad Person”, and we might dig in our heels in an entrenched defensiveness, where, “If you just understood my intent, you wouldn’t be hurting!”

Except…

The wounded party can’t get to a place of caretaking the offender’s anxiety because they’re too busy dealing with their own reactions first. Sometimes people can get to a place of contextualizing the offender’s intent fairly quickly, marshalling their own reactions UNTIL they know whether you MEANT to hurt them or not. But it’s been my personal and clinical experience that people who can self-regulate that quickly are definitely in the minority. Most of us will be awash in our own thoughts and feelings, and the offender’s intent is the least of our concerns right then and there.

But if I can’t get you to Just Understand, and I get stuck in defending my intent instead of acknowledging the unexpected impact of my initial actions or statements, then I’m failing to create vulnerable connection, I’m denying the repair attempt/connection bid (to use Gottman’s terms), and I am not triaging the accident effectively for anyone involved. As Terry Real says, “You can be right, or you can be in relationship; sometimes you can’t be both.”

Non-apologies tied to defending intent are further hurtful because they create a dynamic in which ONLY the offender’s intent has any validity or relevance to the exchange in progress. This has the unfortunate effect of pushing the other party out of the exchange, effectively “punishing” them for having a reaction that doesn’t mesh with the offender’s vision of themselves in that moment. Pushing back against the demand (or even implicit request or need) for an apology in this case is all about forcing people to (at best) outright validate us in our belief that we are seen as being Good People, or (at worst) return to conformity and validation-mirror alignment by at least silencing those who dare to suggest we might have maybe done something supposedly wrong.

There are a lot of other ways in which apologies undermine themselves as repair tools:

1. The Empty Apology. ?I?m sorry. I said I?m sorry.? The empty apology is all form but no substance. […]
2. The Excessive Apology. ?I?m so sorry! I feel so bad. I?m so sorry. Is there anything I can do? I feel so bad about this?? In theory, apologizing is meant to rectify a wrong and rebuild a damaged relationship. But with excessive apologies, you do no such thing. This tactic, instead, has the perverse effect of drawing the attention to your own feelings, rather than to what you?ve done to another person. […]
3. The Incomplete Apology. ?I?m sorry that this happened.? Sometimes your apology is edging toward effective and appropriate, but it just doesn?t quite hit the mark. […]
4. The Denial. ?This simply wasn?t my fault.? Finally, sometimes, your ego gets the best of you and you simply don?t apologize at all. […]

Harriet Lerner also flags:

* any apology that includes the words, “but” or “if” in it as a guaranteed failure as apologies go, because “[but] undoes the sincerity” (pg. 14), and “if” conditionalizes the apology in ways that make the receiver question the validity of their own feelings, rather than simply trusting and addressing them (pg. 18)
* “I’m sorry you feel that way”; “A true apology keeps the focus on your actions–and not the other person’s response.” (pg. 15)
* “mystifying” apologies that focus on aspects of the situation that are NOT something we could be expected to control (Lerner’s example contrasts, “apologize to your dad for giving him a headache” is ineffective, versus, “apologize to your father for not turning down the music when he asked you to” as the more effective approach) (pg. 18)
* viewing apologies as “an automatic ticket to forgiveness and redemption” and “getting over it” (pg. 21)
* intrusive apologies from people we just simply don’t want to hear from or interact with–boundary and consent violations, anyone? (pg. 23)

What constitutes a GOOD apology, then?

There are variations on the theme, and some fine-tuning particular to context or situation, and even individual love languages within the relationship under fire, but generally there are some standard key components:

1. A clear ?I?m sorry? statement.
2. An expression of regret for what happened.
3. An acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated.
4. An empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of our actions on the other person.
5. A request for forgiveness.
Guy Winch Ph.D., for Psychology Today

Interestingly, Lerner challenges the last point, that apology MUST include the request for forgiveness; she certainly doesn’t agree that offering or supplying forgiveness MUST be a part of the repair process:

“I disagree with these well-intentioned but potentially hurtful ideas; the idea that forgiveness is the ONLY path to a life that’s not mired down in bitterness and hate, and that those who do not forgive the unapologetic offender are less spiritually evolved persons at greater risk for emotional and physical problems. Contrast those ideas to the work of psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, whose books provide an excellent counterpoint to the blanket messages and cliches about the virtue and necessity of forgiving. Forgiveness, Spring says, is not a cheap gift. She notes that rushing to a premature and superficial peace can have its own costs.” (Why Won’t You Apologize? pg. 139)

(For additional reading on the complexities of forgiveness, look up Terry Hargraves’ work on families and forgiveness, also discussed here.)

Genuine apologies are, or should be (IMO) all about offering contrition in acknowledgement for harm done, however inadvertently. Intent is irrelevant until AFTER the pain is addressed. It matters less to me WHY your fist connected with my face while I’m still dealing in with the immediate shock and pain of the fractured cheekbone or broken nose; we can determine whether or not it was an accident AFTER we get back from the hospital. Apologies need to genuinely triage the harm done *IN THE MOMENT* before there can be ANY space for most recipients to make space for discussions of intent. Genuine apologies probably should NOT come with a built-in expectation for forgiveness; we can ask, but we cannot expect we’re entitled to receive it, and certainly not right in that moment.

Good apologies are difficult if we ourselves are not willing to look further than our own skin at how we move through the world. Sometimes we do harm without meaning to. Sometimes we do harm without even knowing we have done so. Decoding the internal messaging about what it says of us that we have done something harmful is a difficult process, but when we let that get in the way of being present with someone on the receiving end of our unintended harm, we deny space in that engagement or transaction to the other person present there with us. We make the situation all about us and defending our undoubtedly-righteous intentions… at the cost of being open and vulnerable in the face of someone else’s pain. It’s a damnably hard place to be, acknowledging effectively our own impacts on the world. But stepping outside of our internal blockades to be better at seeing those impacts, and the harm, and being better at being genuine in owning our impacts whether we intended them or not, is a HUGE part of creating safety and secure attachments in our relationships.

And if that’s not something we consider worth the work, then why are we in relationships?

Self-care, Uncategorized

Ah, Christmas.

Ah, family.

Ah, chaos.

Nothing brings out the best and worst of us like this time of year. I don’t know a lot of people who get through the six weeks from December 1 to mid-January without a great deal of stress and anxiety, whether it’s about money, work, family, the increased workloads involved in balancing work + social event schedules + family, weather (especially for those of us in northern climes)… The amount of work most people I know put into trying to get to a point where they CAN relax over the holidays is phenomenal. When I still worked in IT, nothing crushed the heart and soul out of many employees like the workload of trying to clear a project schedule just to afford a couple of days off between Christmas and New Years, and that’s assuming that you have vacation time available, or work some place flexible enough to allow banking lieu time at this time of year. Not everyone has those luxuries.

Client schedules at this time of year become extremely unpredictable. Clients with benefits that renew at the beginning of the calendar year may be gleefully maxxing them out while they can, or they may find themselves eaten by other schedule requirements requiring them to rebook or miss appointments. A lot of seasonal sickness makes the rounds at this time of year, too. For psychotherapists like myself who may not be covered by most benefits, we find (unsurprisingly) that as much as our clients appreciate their work with us, they will often (understandably) choose to pay for Christmas rather than therapy, even when they (ruefully) admit they probably need the therapeutic support more now than other times through the year. We’re pretty understanding of that, though obviously it impacts OUR seasonal income as well. And honestly, there’s generally no good way for us to predict from one year to the next what any given holiday season is going to look like.

We CAN largely expect that many of our conversations with clients will revolve around how holiday stress impacts their relationships at home, or with larger family groups. Nothing seems to spark relational conflict or communications issues like a bucketload of conflicting priorities and obligations packed into the short window of Christmas.

Most therapists will tell you flat out, there’s no magic wand we can wave to take all of that strain away. The holidays really do bring out the best and worst in us. Google will helpfully provide pages and pages of links in response to typing “surviving the holidays” into the Search bar, but at the end of the day, I think the basics of Seasonal Survival Strategies look the same:

1. There should be some place that becomes your “safe space”, a respite from the Holiday Craziness that will, in fact, infect just about every aspect of your world for six weeks. (Even if you’re from a culture that doesn’t celebrate a major holiday at this time of year, if you’re reading this you’re probably living somewhere where most people around you seem to have almost literally Lost Their Minds). Whether this is a place in your home, your workplace, your car if you have one, or some place like a public library, make sure it’s a place you can get to on a regular basis. It should be some place you can keep mostly clear of the trappings and noise of the holidays, or at least have a higher degree of control over said trappings and noise.

2. Spend time in that safe space whenever you can. Make it a deliberate and mindful choice to “leave Christmas at the door” when you enter the space. The lists, the schedules, the noise, the chores, the negotiations, the frustrations… leave them outside. They’ll still be there when you come out (trust me) but for a few minutes or even an hour, give yourself the gift of Not-That-Chaos. It may seem like a luxury, an outrageous demand, to walk away from it all for a while, but honestly, this is nothing more than developing good boundaries, and valuing your own mental health in the mix of temporarily-extraordinary life. Everyone else will tell you that it’s important to be empathetic and compassionate to everyone else, because everyone else is stressed, too… but I can guarantee it will be damned hard to find energy to BE empathetic and hold compassion for others if you DON’T create some protected time and space to recharge yourself along the way.

3. Relax rigid expectations. This is a hard one for many of us, myself included, but absolutely powerful when we manage it. We all love the illusion of having control of situations and people; it brings us a sense of calm, or something. But honestly, this time of year is all about requiring some flexible adaptability. Herding cats never goes like we expect, and trying to muscle everyone’s obligations onto a singular rigid schedule that can then be skewed by weather, who-forgot-to-pack-that-Very-Important-Thing, sudden illness, unexpected upheavals in family politics, and any number of other factors over which we have ZERO control… this is the recipe for disaster we hand down between generations almost as faithfully as we’ve passed on great-grandmother Janette’s fruitcake recipe. If there is one gift I could give all my readers this holiday season, it’s this reminder: SHIT HAPPENS. You can wallow in your outcome attachment and get angry/disappointed/hurt/frustrated/upset, or you can roll with it and just “be there when you get there”. (I write that with a certain amount of personal irony as I am also trying to shore up scheduling with my mother that has my travel time contingent upon how long we need to roast a ham for Christmas Dinner, especially as I’m the one bringing said ham from KW to a city two hours away in GOOD driving conditions…)

4. Remember that “This too shall pass”. The work seems overloading and perpetual when you’re in it, and it never seems like family helps or supports you as much as you might want or hope it will; doubly so if your family life/relationship(s) is in any way already unsettled or contentious. But the holidays are a time-boxed event. January brings its own strains, but worry about those in January. Your job is to just survive December, and know that the holiday efforts will end, as they do every year, eventually.

Honestly, I look at a list like that and think to myself, “How hard can this be?”, and then I find myself, or at least a little part of the back of my brain, making high-pitched, hysterical giggling noises. And this is a GOOD year: other than Christmas Day at my mum’s since we’re the last of my family, I’m working through the bulk of the holidays. Excepting a small tea date this coming weekend and going out for NYE, I’m not hosting anything, I’m not doing any other travelling, I’m just looking after myself and my geriatric cat. And yet even then I can’t escape a degree of the holiday craziness. I still scrambled a weekend earlier this month to put up my tree and decorations at home; I still have to contend with cranky seasonal crowds almost everywhere I go. I’m definitely at the simple end of the seasonal spectrum, but I still vividly remember the days of travelling to my ex-husband’s family in Ottawa for multiple days, then having to squeeze my late dad in Orillia and my mum in Owen Sound somewhere else around the schedule, plus respective office Christmas events, our hosting massive NYE events, and probably one or the other of us working in between, trying to fit in the gift shopping and groceries and… and… and…

I know what it’s like to lose one’s Self amid the requirements of the Family Obligation World Tours. We lose the quiet moments in our own spaces, we lose the opportunity to just roll the schedule as we see fit, when everyone else’s timetables suddenly seem (or have) to take precedence. We lose sleep. We lose patience. We lose tempers. We lose perspective and equilibrium. I get it, I do. I don’t miss it, but I’m in a weirdly luxurious position of having as much time and space as I want for *my singular self*, and I recognize that. So much empathy for those who don’t have that same luxury. Time and time again, year after year, I find these are the four points that resonate most when talking with people trying to find a sane path through the messier parts of the season. We feel so much pressure to “be of good cheer” and wish “joy to the world” and all of that romantic holiday fiddle-faddle, but we can’t always get there from here when we’re viewing the season through the filters of our own personal stress and anxiety. We can’t even get to the relationship-management skills necessary to get through the season effectively when we’ve lost our personal footings, so I’m not even talking about those today.

Make some space, take some time, practice flexibility, and believe this will all be over in time.

However you celebrate the holidays, I hope you find a degree of peace in the process, moments where you remind yourself WHY you do what you do for these celebrations. Find love and joy where you can, rest when you need to, and please accept warm seasons greetings from my house to yours.

[Please note: the blog is on hiatus next week, as we prove that therapists can, and sometimes do, follow our own suggestions.]