Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health

I’m a big believer in the notion that we all HAVE feelings. I’m even a big believer in the idea that we all FEEL feelings. I also happen to have a front-row seat for the myriad ways human beings try REALLY, REALLY HARD a lot of the time to AVOID feeling their feelings, especially the difficult, rowdy, dark, threatening ones.

A favourite avoidance mechanism for many of us (yes, myself included) is to subvert feelings we don’t want to have into actions that make us feel better, at least in the short term; for example:

Sad => Eat
Sad => Shop
Depressed => Sleep
Anxious => Clean

It’s the short-term, pleasure-seeking action into which we channel our temporarily imbalanced emotional state that might, indeed, work in the short term; it never seems to get at the root of whatever’s prompting those feelings in the first place, though. It turns us into what someone (I can’t now remember who) once termed, “Human Doings, not Human Beings.” How many of us recognize the phrase, “I eat my feelings”? That’s subversion.

Another common reaction to the feelings we don’t wanna feel is scapegoating:

[T]he practice of singling out a person or group for unmerited blame and consequent negative treatment. Scapegoating may be conducted by individuals against individuals (e.g. “he did it, not me!”), individuals against groups (e.g., “I couldn’t see anything because of all the tall people”), groups against individuals (e.g., “He was the reason our team didn’t win”), and groups against groups.

A scapegoat may be an adult, child, sibling, employee, peer, ethnic, political or religious group, or country. A whipping boyidentified patient, or “fall guy” are forms of scapegoat.

Scapegoating has its origins in the scapegoat ritual of atonement described in chapter 16 of the Biblical Book of Leviticus, in which a goat (or ass) is released into the wilderness bearing all the sins of the community, which have been placed on the goat’s head by a priest.

from Wikipedia

René Girard aptly describes how scapegoating becomes an outlet for feelings we can’t or don’t want to examine within ourselves for the ACTUAL source of them:

In a world where violence is no longer subject to ritual and is the object of strict prohibitions, anger and resentment cannot or dare not, as a rule, satisy their appetites of whatever object directly arouses them. The kick the employee doesn’t dare give his boss, he will give to his dog when he returns home in the evening. Or maybe he will mistreat his wife and his children, without fully realizing he is treating them as “scapegoats.” Victims substituted for the real target are the equivalent of sacrificial victims in distant times. […]

The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the anger.

Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning; 2001, Orbis Books, NY

Projecting our feelings onto others isn’t new; nothing abhors a vacuum more than the human brain, not even Nature. So when we don’t understand why we feel what we feel–or we don’t want to look at why we might feel as we do–it’s sometimes MUCH easier to scan around for an easier target and make them bear the emotional burden for us. In taking those feelings out on the unsuspecting victim, we complete the ritual of metaphorically driving our burdens out into the desert to perish somewhere far, far away from us and our shame-stirring occupancy of those emotions. It’s devastatingly destructive on relationships, however–trust me on this one, I’ve personally lost entire marriages to not recognizing this pattern in time. (I had an excellent therapist who helped me figure it out afterwards, at least.)

A third way we often create distance from our own feelings is something I recently labelled as “surrogate catharsis.” A client was telling me how they often watched episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” for the soap-opera-ish melodrama that readily provoked great, heaving snot-filled sobfests the client could not otherwise allow themselves to express. It called to mind a lesson observed a very long time ago in the BDSM community, where I learned that bottoms/submissives/slaves can use the often-ritualistic container of a scene, or playspace, or a Dominant/submissive relationship, to express things we can’t always express in the other contexts of our lives. We can scream out the rage and pain, we can struggle hard against the bonds, we can let go of higher cognitive function and allow ourselves to fall into certain physical sensations, we can cry and sob and beg and plead and just generally let go of the behavioural constraints to which we normally cling.

A surrogate is a person or thing we substitute for another in the same role. Like scapegoating, but so unlike scapegoating, the mechanics of surrogacy are somewhat similar. For a variety of reasons, we cannot or don’t want to access our own feelings directly; this is fairly common with clients who bear the scars of profound trauma (or are still immersed in ongoing trauma scenarios). We are aware of the buildup of pressure alongside these unwelcome feelings, however, and seek to find a way to release the pressure without ever actually accessing the feelings and/or their roots directly. Unlike scapegoating, however, we don’t project those feelings onto another and then follow up with punitive measures. Instead, we actually allow ourselves to experience the feelings but in a different association than their actual origin. We can feel, and we can express, but it’s almost directed harmfully AT another… and it’s almost never connected to directly processing our internal traumas. For some of us, we achieve surrogate catharsis when we read or watch something that gives us permission to cry. Unlike the act of subversion from the top of this page, we choose acts that DO access and express our feelings, we just don’t connect them to their sources.

Some people default to a particular method of rerouting their emotional experiences. Some of us will move between all three as circumstances dictate. In many cases, these are self-defensive mechanisms designed to protect us from what we instinctively believe to be threatening experiences. In a lot of cases, these defences have become maladaptive and problematic for the person or their relationships. We create barriers between our day-to-day cognitive functioning and our emotional experiences for a lot of reasons, but chiefly because we’re taught to be afraid of, or to doubt the veracity of, our feelings. But feelings are most often just our brain’s way of running a flag up the pole to indicate, “Hey, You–something is going on here that needs tending to.” Therapy can often help people learn to connect safely with their own feelings, and find ways of both allowing them to surface without so much overwhelm, and choosing different default actions when they are present.

To borrow from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for a moment: Feelings are not Facts. They’re just a transient internal experience of the situation, the context, of this moment. When we deflect away from them, however, whether we subvert, scapegoat, or surrogate them, we can often give them more power and influence over us (or others) than they deserve. As a closing meditation on the transient nature of even the most overwhelming feelings, I offer my favourite poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks):

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

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.

Article links, Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence

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

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

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

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

Big Boys Don’t Cry

Cracking the Code of Men’s Feelings

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