Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health, self-perception

Why are you so petrified of silence?
Here can you handle this?
Did you think about your bills, you ex, your deadlines
Or when you think you’re going to die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?

Alanis Morrissette, “All I Really Want” (1995, Maverick/Warner Music Group)

Decades ago, when I first tried meditating, I could not sit for more than a couple of minutes at a time. A dozen or so years ago, when I finally got serious about the practice, I could finally get past the physical fidgets and sort myself out around chronic pain, but I couldn’t get around the Squirrel Brain for the longest time. The silence, as “they” like to say, was deafening, and my own thoughts would often redouble their efforts to drown it out.

Often, in the silence when I’m trying to fall asleep, I tell myself stories that are half Mary Sue fantasies, and half a way of setting up semi-lucid dreaming as I transition into sleep patterns. They often run on recurring, familiar themes with recurring, familiar characters, like favourite bedtime stories read to us repeatedly in childhood.

These two pieces of information are the backdrop to an experience I had in a guided meditation last week, during a training course in working with internal Parts. As part of the meditation, we were invited to notice what aspects of our thoughts or feelings wanted to follow us on this path in towards silence, and gently encourage those heel-dogging experiences to wait off to the sidelines and give us some space. It’s a lot harder than we think to try to distance ourselves from our own thoughts and feelings; even as a relatively seasoned short-term meditator, I still struggle with intrusive thoughts that just don’t like being ignored. And I don’t mean “intrusive thinking” the way we often do in psychotherapy; I just mean the kinds of everyday thoughts we have about things we need to do, meant to do, random memories, feeling flashes and reflections on things that happened in the day—the usual jibber-jabber of mental cognitive load.

As I engaged in the meditation, I managed to get most of the regular Intruders to fall away, and I was good for a while. But there’s a part of me that shows up, especially in the calm and quiet moments, that starts to spin up stories. Sometimes I think of this part as my Muse, and like typical Muse Moments they always seem to show up when I am least equipped to make notes about what might be a good storyline to flesh out; once a Writer, always a Writer, after all. One ignores the whimsical and fleeting visits by their creative Muse at one’s own peril. Sometimes this part simply likes to provide some internal companionable distractions to the quietness around me. It’s generally a soothing presence, more in line with calming me than getting me fired up with creative sparks. The version that showed up in the meditation definitely had this latter energy. And while it wasn’t necessarily the bent of the exercise to converse with our Parts when we’re supposedly walking towards Silence, I still opted to get curious about what it was doing here.

This part of me has been around since early childhood. Since I was old enough to understand and appreciate people reading to me or making up stories. I don’t have any specific memories of either of my parents reading me bedtime stories, but I know it must have happened as both my parents were avid readers and encouraged my own reading. Both my parents were also alcoholics. Once they drank themselves into a stupor, they would retreat to their separate spaces and not talk to themselves, each other, or me. There was a LOT of silence in my home as I was growing up. Most of my memories of childhood Christmases, for example, are of them starting with Galiano and vodka in the orange juice and being separately passed out by early afternoon. I would escape into the books I inevitably received that morning or was assembling my own toys. The house would be silent, and those stories would be the place to which I could flee and find companions, and engagement, and solace. I spent a lot of time alone as a child; on a farm until I was 7, and in the small town I grew up in from 8-19 (though at least in town I could and did make friends I could spend more time with, perilous and political as childhood and teenage relationships could be).

Silence was also a herald of uncertainty and instability for me: I never knew what kind of adult was going to come out of those silences. Was it going to be “drunk and hyperfocused on me”, “sober and hyperfocused on me”, “emotionally estranged and distant”, “calm and friendly”, “angry and antagonistic at each other”, “angry and antagonistic at me”, or any one of a random number of other states common to alcoholics. Escape into the stories I could explore in the silence gave me consistent refuge, and that was so invaluable to me as a child and teen, and probably explains why some of the inner-world storylines I developed in my younger years are still so strongly with me even well into my adulthood.

Most people have some kind of Storyteller part, often an intellectual, “thinking” part. This is the part of us that narrates or describes an experience we’re having, rather than standing down and allowing us to be fully in the emotional experience of the moment. Intellectualizing an experience often feels more normal, or even considerably safer, than allowing our feelings to come to the surface. Sometimes the Storyteller is our fully human need to make sense of a set of confounding circumstances, connecting the dots (rationally or not) to create a narrative that makes sense at least to us, if no-one else, that we can run with as if it were incontrovertible FACT. Sometimes this Storyteller part is so strong that it retells the same story, over and over until it is a well-polished, almost scripted delivery.

Years ago, my friend and Dora-award-winning actor and director Philip Akin shared this piece of perspective on directing Shakespeare. He said you can always tell when an actor has no clue about the meaning of the words coming out of their mouths, because they simply seem to “drop out of” the lines, and if you know what to look for as a director, it’s an easy thing to spot. The words are there, but the presence of the character or actor inside them just disappears for a moment. I began to notice that in my work as a theatrical director and at some point, in the clinical office, I began to notice that with my clients as well. I could more readily spot when something they were saying to me felt like that polished script, because emotionally they would kind of “drop out” in the same way actors do. I started to get curious about what those words meant to them, and sure enough, more often than not I’d get variations on the theme of, “That’s just how it’s been for years.” They have created such a familiar and refined narrative that they can safely disconnect any emotional content from the words and recite the words now without any risk of recurring pain from vulnerable and tender lived experience.

Now I know that in the moment, I’ve been in the presence of their Storytellers. These are the parts of their internal processing system that carry the load of explaining their internal experiences to the outside world in ways that seem palatable in whatever ways seem necessary to that external audience. These recitations have become polished deliveries based on repetition and refinement based on the speaker’s perception of how Others are receiving and responding to those stories. We tweak the recitations to elicit some specific responses and minimize others, thus controlling the engagement and/or the environment in which we are ostensibly revealing some quasi-vulnerable part of ourselves—this identifies the Storyteller as what Internal Family Systems terminology recognizes as a Manager. Its job is to mitigate outward circumstances that could lead to harm, for example by controlling the narrative during disclosures, or (as in my case) protecting a child from the pain of isolation and profound loneliness.

It was lovely to have a few moments alone recognizing the presence, and now appreciating the workload, of my own Storyteller. It was nice to have the container of a silent meditation in which to walk alongside it and allow it to put down the work of keeping me calm and distracted and safe; I was able to show it where I was in life, and how I have learned to appreciate silence very much in my life (rampant Squirrel Brain during my own meditation notwithstanding). My Storyteller seemed to appreciate that understanding and was quite happy to walk along with me without needing to spin a yarn as if to keep a small child entertained. It was a lovely moment.

Do you have an internal Storyteller? Are there polished pieces of your own experiences that you keep reciting time and time again? Is there a part of you that prefers to think its way through experiences rather than feel them? Are there rich, old narratives that flow into those silent moments to accompany you when the silence feels somehow like it’s too much? What else might you be wary or afraid of encountering in those moments of silence?

Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health, Self-Development, self-perception

[I wasn’t going to write a post today because I’ve been sick for a week, but the kernel of this one appeared in my head at 2am two nights ago as the Ick was finally starting to loosen; as every writer knows, when the Muse shows up, you shut up and write what she tells you to write.]

The scene: a comfortably furnished counselling office on a weekday evening; seated as far as they can possibly get from each other on the tufted velveteen sofa, a man and a woman. Across from them, quietly observant, their therapist.

Woman, angrily: How can you not see what’s happening right in front of you? I am SO FUCKING TIRED of feeling like all of the relationship shit falls on MY shoulders to manage for us both! I feel like you don’t even know what it takes to be in a partnership with someone, and I’m so resentful now that I’m the only one trying to make anything better!

Man, pleading: I know you’re unhappy! I don’t know what to do! Can’t you just tell me what you need me to do??

Woman: I need you to step the hell up. Do the fucking WORK.

Man, turning to the therapist, hands dangling limply between his knees, defeated: I don’t even know what that means.

Woman: [throws up her hands, exasperated]

Most of us who have done couples work will have seen variations of this scene play out time and time again. Even if we’re working with individuals, we’ll often hear variations on statements like, “I need (or need someone else) to DO THE WORK”, or “I don’t know what DO THE WORK actually means.”

So… How is it that some of us know what this phrase, “Do the Work,” means, and some of us don’t?

Usually, it boils down to something simple: it’s a commonly used (some might suggest “overused”) phrase that has come to mean a lot of different things to different people, and while you may have an idea of what it means to YOU (whether you have even a vague clue of HOW to do the Work or not), you may have no idea what someone ELSE means when they’re shouting it at you in anger or frustration or disappointment. All you’ll know in that particular moment is that whatever you have been doing, clearly hasn’t been working.

You need something TO work. You might even need to DO work to change things, hopefully for the better. But you have no idea what that actually entails. If you’re on the receiving end of someone’s demands to “do the Work,” the message you’re probably hearing is, “Everything you do sucks and why can’t you just magically and instantaneously be a better lover/partner/spouse/friend/parent/sibling/whatever??” I can guarantee that’s not ACTUALLY what your partner is trying to communicate to you, but by the time you end up in my office (or one like mine), you’ve probably heard frustrated iterations of this messaging so often that you can’t hear them as anything else. And if you’re on the delivering end of this message, it probably means something to the effect of, “You need to change so I feel better, and you should just magically intuit what I need that to look like from you.” And I can also guarantee this kind of approach is setting up everyone in the relationship for mountains of frustration at best, and catastrophic sabotage at worst.

So… what is “the Work”?

In an introductory note to her book, How to Do the Work, Dr Nicole LePera describes, “A long, rich tradition of the work of transcending our human experience […]” involving “the pursuit of insight into the Self” and the development of “tools to understand and harness the complex interconnectedness of your mind, body, and soul.”

Or, as we like to say in The Biz, “Figuring your shit out.”

By the time someone(s) gets into a therapist’s office, especially from the perspective of relational conflict, “the Work” means “learning how to see and understand how your own patterns of thinking and acting are (negatively) impacting your life and/or the lives of those around you and changing those thoughts and behaviours in positive ways.” While it’s not entirely true that knowing is half the battle, admitting there’s a problem in what you’re bringing to the table is kind of a crucial starting point. “You can’t fix what you can’t see” is only nominally less true than the idea that you can’t fix what you WON’T see. At its core, “doing the Work” means first learning to see and accept that there IS a problem in how we engage in the world, then figuring out how to improve the ways we engage.

I often break the Work down into the following stages of personal development, each with its own subset of tools and tactics and potential revelations:

  • Self-observation (looking inward at our own internal workings with genuine, nonjudgemental curiosity)
  • Self-reflection (thinking critically – as opposed to simply being self-critical – about what we perceive when we look inward, exploring where those thoughts, feelings, behaviours come from)
  • Self-connectedness (this is a new piece of the process in my approach, because I realized the skillset for seeing and understanding how our individual existence impacts others in systems around each of us is its own piece of Work)
  • Articulation (the ability to communicate what we’re observing and learning to the Important People in our lives is a skill unto itself)
  • Implementation (navigating the actual iterative change processes within ourselves and our relational systems)

The Caveats of “The Work”

Jessica Grose, Opinion writer for the New York Times, encapsulates a lot of the current backlash against the phrase itself and what it has come to mean in pop culture, in her article, ‘Doing the Work’ and the Obsession With Superficial Self-Improvement (New York Times online, June 3, 2023; free account subscription required):

I confess a visceral aversion to “doing the work” used in this particular way. My gut reaction is: I simply decline to do more work. My life is already filled with many kinds of labor. I work full time; I cook dinner every night; I shuttle my children to and fro. I’m not asking for a medal here. This is just what’s in many people’s inboxes. But does tending to my mind and soul have to be framed as yet another job, another box to check, another task to optimize and conquer?

I asked [The New Yorker journalist Katy] Waldman over email what she made of my aversion. She also finds “doing the work” a “uniquely annoying phrase” and explained that it “can come off as patronizing.” It implies that our big issues in life “are simple and clear-cut, that everyone agrees on what they are and that the only reason a problem hasn’t been solved is because somebody isn’t working hard enough.”

Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had a similar take. “This idea of ‘doing the work,’ is just the latest manifestation of the kind of self-improvement culture that has long permeated American society and that is closely linked to America’s obsessively individualistic bent,” she told me via email. Self-improvement culture can deny the larger societal issues that often cause people strain, and it “can lead us to punish people who are struggling or deny them the support they need,” Calarco wrote. Therapy is expensive, and having time in your day to reflect can be a luxury, something that’s rarely mentioned when “doing the work” is used.

These are all good and valid concerns around the way the terminology has evolved culturally over time, especially both the connotations of Yet More Emotional Labour, and the chilling divisiveness when the term is used to dismiss those who haven’t done some unclear amount of said emotional labour towards self-betterment. I remember reading a science fiction novel decades ago—I don’t remember anything else from the book except this particular plot point—that made a sharp class distinction not between the rich and the poor, but between the Therapied and the Untherapied, and all the snobbish, snubbing judgement you’re probably already reading into “Untherapied”.

The opponents to the terminological hijacking are dead right; therapy IS expensive, and for a lot of people, time to reflect IS a luxury. Being asked to take on more emotional labour IS going to be a big NOPE for a lot of people. As I have written often throughout the years in the blog, change IS hard, and some will work their asses off for literal YEARS in or out of therapy for the smallest of incremental changes. Other people can read one self-help book and suddenly seem like they’ve seen into all the deepest secrets of the universe**.

I am always honest with my clients when I’m explaining what this loaded term means in MY office, and how I approach being a guide/coach/teacher/companion/witness/emotional sherpa for my clients doing their individual versions of the Work: I have NO idea what the Work will look like for each of you. I have NO idea how long it will take you. Until we do the Gap Analysis to understand what resources are already available and which might be lacking or needed to reach the goals you set for yourself, we really have no framework in which to understand what Work is necessary. And even once we do start to fill in those gaps, a lot of the Work isn’t going to be silver bullet-level magic fixes; it will be trial and error, assessment and adjustments based on what you learn along the way and over time.

And that can be disheartening to hear for people who come to therapy believing that just walking through the door is enough to check a box labelled “Did the Work”. Therapists have a name for the broad category of potential clients who come in once or twice to try on the idea of changing things in themselves or their relationships but decline to take on the process, or maybe aren’t even ready to admit yet there IS a problem, let alone they might be the source of it; we refer to these kinds of potential clients as “precontemplative”, taken from the Transtheoretical Model of Change. Not everyone who comes into therapy is ready to change, and we must respect that. Not everyone who is ready to change comes equipped with the tools for change, and we must respect that, too. Sometimes before we can build a house, we must make the tools with which to build the house.

The onus is on us as therapists to be honest about these realities, and to be clear about both how we define the Work, and what we bring to the table to help our clients in that Work. But once we’ve gotten that straight and mostly clear… the responsibility then shifts entirely onto the client to (you guessed it) Do the Work.

(**—someday I will tell the story of how Gloria of Sainted Memory unleashed the self-developmental equivalent of The Big Bang the day she put into my hands my first copy of Bennet Wong & Jock McKeen’s The Relationship Garden. That story is not for today, but it is an excellent example of how “doing the Work” can literally become a lifelong endeavour.)

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.

Uncategorized

This fall I am embarking on two separate professional development (education and training) pursuits, one long planned and the other rather spontaneous. I’ll have more about finally taking the Gottman Institute Levels 1 & 2 training programs later in November, assuming my brain doesn’t explode with drinking from the firehose while on course. Before then, however, I’m unexpectedly but delightedly finding myself down the very deep rabbit hole of Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS). One of my partners pointed me in this direction as a result of some of their own personal work, but given my background in systems theory, family systems in specific, it’s kind of a wonder I hadn’t crossed paths with IFS long before now.

In essence a “system” is a bunch of interconnected parts that can and do influence other system components both directly and remotely. Sometimes the influence is harmonious and the affected parts resonate in sync; sometimes the influence is discordant and jarring, and the constituent members of the system create friction, tension, or even breakage. In a healthy system, each part maintains its own discrete spatial and behavioural boundaries when interacting with other parts of the system, though as we see in many types of systems, boundary violations can rapidly become a system-wide problem as parts start to behave erratically or destructively.

“In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior. Changing one part of the system usually affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. For systems that are self-learning and self-adapting, the positive growth and adaptation depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment. Some systems function mainly to support other systems by aiding in the maintenance of the other system to prevent failure. The goal of systems theory is systematically discovering a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned and applied to systems at every level of nesting, and in every field for achieving optimized equifinality.[1]” —Wikipedia

A FAMILY system looks specifically at the interconnected constituent members involved with and influencing a specific individual–usually my client(s). Family of Origin is usually the biggest source of our internalized values and beliefs/expectations about how people work, how parents and parenting work, how intimate relationships work. Even if we’re too young to understand much of the dynamics, we observe and create or invest in stories about both what we observe and what we’re taught, even when there are discrepancies in those models. A lot of my therapeutic work uses family system modelling to uncover some of the background to my clients or their current challenges and dilemmas. I use an analogy from my long years in software development to explain the value of looking backward into our origin stories before we look forward to a change process: before we can change existing pieces of code in a software package, we have to understand why that code is there in the first place. What was it meant to do? Are there any dependencies we need to investigate to loop in or remove with impending code updates? Is this a critical function that must be replaced, or is it old, superfluous functionality that we can afford to dump completely? Is the original functionality relevant or is it interfering with desired functionality?

These questions remain important when we look at how an INTERNAL family system works. Richard Schwartz, the progenitor of IFS, apologizes often for the fact that his descriptions of our internalized parts sometimes sound like he’s describing completely individuated personalities. This is not, he assures his audience repeatedly, about having some kind of dissociative identity disorder. It’s simply a way of recognizing that certain internal behavioural patterns serve distinct and unique purposes, just like human individuals in a relational system likewise inhabit distinct roles and places within that system.

There are three types of parts in IFS:

The exiles are the deeply-internalized (often to the point of compartmentalizing right out of the picture) attachment wounds that have never been adequately identified or addressed, and therefore never really given opportunity to heal. These may be early childhood issues and traumas, or emotional or psychological injuries garnered through other critically damaging experiences as adults. These are the pains we work hardest to bury so that we don’t have to deal with either the root pain, or with the fear of what that pain might cause us to do when it surfaces.

The protectors, sometimes called the firefighters, are the behaviours we adopt over time to suppress or distract the exiled pain, to keep us from looking at it or having to be disrupted by it. This is the level on which we develop our reactive coping stances, including the maladaptive ones like addictions or binge/purge behaviours, or losing ourselves in work, sex, relationships, hobbies–anything that distracts us from the pain.

The managers are the behaviours that we develop in our outward interactions with the world around us in ways that are intended to protect us. Their job is to manage the interface to others in ways that don’t trigger the exiled hurts or the protective coping strategies that mitigate those core hurts. Manager behaviours include everything from outward anger and belligerence meant to keep everyone at a Minimum Safe Distance, to compulsive care-takers who assume that “Keep Everyone Else Happy At All Costs” = “keeping myself safe from their displeasure/disappointment.”

Most of the time, the only parts of another person that those on the outside get to interact with are the manager parts, the behaviours specifically tasked with managing external interactions. For example, in individual with an angry or abusive alcoholic partner generally gets faced with the anger and abusive behaviours; they can probably see the drinking but they can’t call that out or challenge or explore it directly. The angry Manager part gets in the way every time, and drives partners back or away. The alcoholism is the Protector part, trying to self-medicate and suppress an Exiled part buried somewhere deeper in the system (fear or shame, typically).

Somewhere at the centre of all of these parts, Schwartz posits, is the core Self. Within the Self are the roots of our sense of being, which Schwartz identifies as calm, connection, compassion, and curiosity. When we can get the Managers and Protectors out of the way more effectively, we have an opportunity to heal the old wounds by bringing them into this space within the Self. IFS provides a framework to become first aware of, then acquainted with, all of the parts in systemic orbit around this core identity, working eventually towards discovering ways of more effectively smoothing out the discordance into a more-balanced, whole self.

–from Don Mangus’ “It Only Hurts When I Smirk” (click image to link)

One of the reasons why IFS resonates with me as strongly as it does is, I suspect, how it echoes many of the precepts set out by Chogyam Trungpa in his work, “Uncovering the Sanity We Are Born With.” The intersection of Eastern Buddhism and Western psychology is largely concerned with uncovering and freeing “the authentic Self” by exploring and gently uprooting the collective neuroses throttling our authentic Self over the course of our lifelong interactions with others’ expectations and projected values. IFS as a framework also provides externalizing language that gives clients some distanced perspectives on their own behaviours. Sometimes this shift is subtle, a nuanced change. Sometimes it’s earth-shattering for the client to move from, “I am an angry person” to “There’s a PART of me that is angry all the time”, a shift that represents meeting a Manager part and recognizing there’s almost certainly more going on there than just the anger. And THAT’s a shift that opens up considerable opportunities for curiosity, and maybe even a little bit of peace: if only PART of me is angry all the time, I wonder what the rest of my parts are doing? Can I connect with any of those other parts and explore them for a while, or invite them to take over for a bit?

Working within the IFS framework therefore involves sitting in a multi-way exploration of these parts; this is where it feels a little more like multiple personalities at the table, as we get curious about the purpose and function of each part in its process. We acknowledge it and ask it to step aside so that we can glimpse or interact with whatever’s buried under under that layer. I liken it to the layers of an onion, something that becomes VERY important when I confront people on their communications challenges: we’re only as good at communicating as we are at knowing WHAT it is we’re trying to communicate. And if we only know ourselves to the level of our outward Manager behaviours, that’s all we know to communicate. That’s the barest tip of a very large and complicated iceberg, and what’s BELOW the waterline is the stuff that’s probably complicating or making us miserable in relationships. But we don’t (yet) know what’s going on down there, behind the Managers and Protectors, so there’s no effective way *TO* communicate all of that.

When we lose our authentic Self like that, it’s very hard to be in healthy relationship. Rediscovering our core, exploring and learning about it, then developing the skills to communicate that understanding to others, is something IFS therapy can certainly help navigate. There is nothing more vulnerable than exploring our authentic Selves, and vulnerability is the heart of intimacy. This is as true for our relationships with ourselves as it is within our relationships with others.

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“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.)

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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.

Communication, Relationships, self-perception

There’s an old warhorse of a trope that I first encountered in the poly communities that, thanks to various (sub)cultural overlaps, rears its head in certain monogamous circles these days as well. You may have heard it; it goes something like this: “All your relationship problems will be solved if you just COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE!”

Yeah… no, not really.

I mean, as a relationship therapist it’s kind of my job to work with people who come in and say, “I/we want to improve our communications within our relationship,” and it’s work that’s both rewarding and fulfilling, generally (on both sides of the therapy process, even). So it’s not that improving communication DOESN’T solve problems, because improving the articulation and reception process CAN change things significantly.

The epiphany I had a while ago, as I was trying to articulate any one of the many reasons I have come to hate this particular trope (other than its oversimplification of how *easy* it implies communication SHOULD be), is this:

We can only ever be as good at communication in general, as our ability to recognize and understand what it is we’re trying to communicate.

Let me illustrate this with an example from my own life, because this epiphany pretty much encapsulates a big part of the communications failure on my part of my marriage’s collapse.

We can only communicate what we know. If we can communicate that much effectively, that’s great; that can be a LOT of useful information to give and receive and integrate into personal and relational understandings. But when things continue to bamboozle us or upset status quo AND WE DON’T KNOW WHY, then there’s a limit to how much information we can communicate about what’s going on. In my case, I knew I was thrashing emotionally, but I couldn’t say why. I could talk about a lot of things–for all the relationship’s natural flaws, one thing we did well was “talk about our feeeeeeeelings”. But the things I couldn’t talk about were the things even I couldn’t see and therefore didn’t understand… and they were the things I was, unfortunately, highly reactive to in the final stages of the collapse. I didn’t know then what I know now, for example, about attachment theory (especially in the area of early attachment injury) or common issues around being an adult child of alcoholics, let alone the intersectionality between those two topics. I didn’t know then what I know now about self-regulation of anxiety through meditation practices as simple as mindful breathing and body scans. I didn’t know then what I know now about entering into communication attempts with statements of intent for the conversation (or at least, I/we weren’t practicing that consistently).

The point is, there is always so much more TO know that we simply can’t communicate, because we can’t see it (yet). It’s not uncommon to get one or more members of a relationship in the counselling room and have someone own the fact that one or the other is not prone to a lot of self-observation or self-reflection. And therein lies a massive part of the problem. If you’re not looking inward, then what, exactly, do you know about yourself *TO* communicate to a partner? And this doesn’t even begin to cover what happens when someone who is self-observant and self-reflective but far too wrapped up in anxiety to share those thoughts and observations effectively with a partner. Another issue that contributed to capsizing my marriage was an issue from my partner who struggled to disclose information at times.

So:

  1. Just because stuff is happening in our internal landscape, doesn’t mean we’re observing it.
  2. Even if we’re observing it, it doesn’t mean we’re reflecting on it as a way of trying to better understand ourselves and what’s happening inside us.
  3. And even if we’re reflecting on it, we might not feel safe or secure in disclosing those observations and reflections.
  4. And even if we do feel safe and secure in making those vulnerable disclosures, it doesn’t always mean we have the SKILLS to effectively engage in conversation about them.

When clients come into therapy, they’re usually assuming we start with that final point: working on the communications SKILLS to articulate something important about their experiences to a partner. But when the communications skills don’t always fix the problems as presented on intake, the same clients often come back frustrated with the process, with each other, with the therapist. And that’s when we have to start working backwards through the rest of the list to discern whether the things we’re talking about are actually the things needing to be discussed.

Sometimes therapists can observe places where words and nonverbal information seem incongruous, but honestly, the onus needs to be on the clients themselves to up their game when it comes to internal work. And this can be a difficult challenge for a variety of reasons, starting as simply as, “I don’t know how”. Since we can only communicate what we know, this gives us two avenues to start: What do I know about myself because of what I can *observe* about myself, and what do I know about myself because of what I interpret or believe or tell myself? Neither avenue ever presents a full story, because people are generally more complicated than that, especially in times of distress or crisis. However, we can approach both observable behaviours, and the interpretable aspects (motivations, beliefs, scripts, etc.) with an open-minded, non-judgmental curiosity: where does that behaviour or thought come from? What do we feel like it motivates us to do? What feelings or additional thoughts do we observe being associated with, or triggered by, the catalyst? Do we recognize it as being a component of larger patterns? Can we separate out the catalyst thought or action from what we feel are default reactions, to see other potential available options?

An analogy borrowed from the realm of astronomy comes in handy here: there’s a lot of stuff out in the depths of space that we can’t actually *see*. So from an “observable phenomenon” perspective, we can’t actually look at a thing and know it for what it is. But what we CAN observe, is the impact the invisible thing has on objects we CAN see; for example, something exerting a significant gravitic force on bodies in a solar system will cause the orbiting bodies of that system to shift in their transit paths. We may not be able to see what’s causing the shift, but we’ll certainly notice when one or more celestial bodies make relatively sudden, incongruous shifts in their expected movements. In cognitive psychology terms: we may not be able to see what’s causing a reactive behaviour, but the fact that we can see and experience the behaviour will strongly suggest there is something invisible provoking it.

This is where, when luxury of time permits, we can delve deeper into the emotional experience of the moment: does it feel like anything else we remember experiencing? How do we feel now about those earlier experiences, and are we seeing any similarities in our current situation, both in terms of the perceived triggers, and in the perceived reactions? What can we share about those observations? There’s potentially a lot of cognitive and emotional processing that comes as part of the package when learning to develop the self-observation and self-reflection skills; observation means learning to see what’s happening in and to us, and reflection means finding ways to think about/assess/analyze the experience and sort it into something meaningful to us. And we have to do all of that work, ideally, BEFORE we even get to the point of trying to articulate that information to someone living OUTSIDE our own heads.

So far, we’re still just looking at figuring out how to handle the self observation/self-reflection part. We haven’t even begun to tackle the aspect of learning HOW we communicate: how do we know *TO* communicate? How do we decide WHAT to say, how much do we selectively self-edit (and at what cost)? How well do any of us articulate our thoughts and feelings at best of times, never mind at the worst? Do we make effort to effectively shape the INTENT of any communication process we engage?

This sounds like a tremendous amount of work, doesn’t it?

It certainly can be. After the marriage ended, I spent six months intensely, and other year a little less intensely, digging as deeply as I could get on my own and with my own therapist, into what we uncovered about where some of the invisible baggage I was dragging around came from. That was a hugely painful time of confronting a lot of moments of, “How the hell did I not know this about myself??” or “Why the hell couldn’t I have figured this part out BEFORE everything went sideways??” And I watch my clients struggle, time and again, with the same frustrations. The discovered information is never wasted, but it doesn’t always come to light in time to reverse course, either; and when partners, even armed with new perspectives and understanding about themselves, can’t summon enough energy or belief in things being different to mount a new development plan for the relationship, it can be hard to avoid wondering, why bother?

It’s this complexity that fuels my growing dislike of the “communicate, communicate, communicate” adage. It strikes me as a dangerously reductionist approach to something that is anything but simple for many people, creating an almost caricature-like presentation that leaves some people feeling like failures because “we talk and talk and talk, but nothing gets any better”. Communication as an intimate process has to be effective in and of itself, absolutely; but beyond that, we have to do the work to effectively understand WHAT needs to be communicated. So the next time the phrase crops up (especially if you move in circles where it’s bound to crop up eventually, possibly repeatedly), consider this as a response:

Communicate! = Do we know WHAT to communicate?
Communicate! = Do we know HOW to communicate?
Communicate! = Do we know WHY we communicate? (the *INTENT* or expected outcome)

It’s not just about the talking. It’s as much about saying the useful and needful things, and it’s about how we shape those communications, as it is about simply making the effort to talk in the first place.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Self-Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intimacy is truly a prickly business.