Relationships

I was going to write about the difference between equality and equity in relationships this week, but I found others have already done a lovely job of writing what I would have, so rather than re-invent the wheel, Imma just drop some links here with a pull-quote or two:

“Equality is the access to and distribution of a set of resources evenly across people. Equity, in contrast, is the access to or distribution of resources based on need. Equality and equity are separate concepts. Both have to do with fairness and justice, but how society achieves them and what they ultimately look like are different.”

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“Equality” in a relationship or marriage often makes individuals aware of amounts, like trying to balance two sides of an equation. For example, if one partner spends an hour doing the dishes, then the other should spend an hour doing some other type of chore. This type of “tit-for-a-tat” scorekeeping corrodes relationships, especially if this type of equality becomes the measure for a relationship’s success. Far too often we use this “equality” measuring stick to determine how much each person is bringing to the relationship, which means we’re focusing on things done or achieved rather than the person as a whole.
 
     “Equity” and its attempt to make things “fair and impartial” is a very different perspective in terms of relationships. Rather than keeping score on hours clocked or items checked off lists, striving for marital or couple equity means creating an overall sense of fairness and balance. And, because equity implies being impartial, it allows us to remove our ego and selfishness, looking at the strengths and abilities of our partner in order to determine what’s best for them to bring to the table.

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I hear the wounded cry of “It’s not fair!” from my relational clients A LOT. After being raised in societies, cultures, family environments that drive home the importance of EQUALITY, it’s what a lot of us expect on the interpersonal fronts as well, only to find that people are way more complicated and nuanced than that. The biggest problem with the Equality model in relationships is the baseline assumption that everyone involved in the relationship (family, friends, coworkers, lovers, etc.) is both ABLE and WILLING to provide exactly what you do, the way that you do, with the prioritization or urgency that you do. More often than not, those assumptions get entrenched as invisible expectations we’ve projected onto others around us, without any explicit negotiations or consent. We just ASSUME that because these are OUR values, they must be universal values, right?

Most of us have seen variations of this image going around the net for a while now, illustrating the different ways we construct the value of what’s “fair”.

(Any person who has ever come to therapy because they are at their wit’s end dealing with a partner who does not seem to “pull their weight” around the house or family duties is probably screaming right about now…)

There are a LOT of reasons, legit and otherwise, why Equality does not happen in relationships:

“I don’t want to.”
“I don’t value that/I don’t care about it like you do.”
“I don’t know how.”
“I didn’t know you expected/needed/wanted me to.”
“I don’t have time to do that.”
“It’s just not a priority for me.”
“There are significant obstacles to my ability or willingness to do that.”

But the biggest struggle often happens as relational partners come up against the need to let go their Equality assumptions and look at what the other person is ACTUALLY providing, or capable of providing; will what’s being offered equitably address the desired relational outcomes? Learning to appreciate each other’s way of participating in the relationship, and explicitly, effectively navigating the places where participation doesn’t meet our expectations, is how we get to the presumably shared, presumably desired outcome of a healthy, long-lasting relationship.

This is the foundation of how Equity works. This is also, among other things, the general principle behind Gary Chapman’s Love Languages. We all need different things and bring different skills, competencies, and characteristics to the table. Even when we need the same or similar things, we can vary wildly in how we expect it to look when those needs are being met. Equity means providing each person with what they need to do their individual best in the relationship, while understanding they each may need different things, in different ways, at different times, knowing there’s no guarantee of getting exactly what they want as the outcome. It’s work, creating equity, but out of that understanding relational partners stand a much better chance of creating something stronger and more adaptable over time.

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, self-perception

The more I work with adult clients raised in environments where parental or caretaker love was NOT present, or was inconsistent at best, the more I come to recognize a stance in many of my clients in which they have learned to substitute “being needed” for authentic love. Substituting need for love can manifest in many different ways, but often embodies a significant portion of care-taking for others as a core practice, as if to say, “If I can prove my value to you through taking care of you, you’ll just love me, right?”

What happens instead, however, is a slippery slope of enablement and reinforcing potential entitlements. How this plays out in a lot of relational dynamics (at least insofar as we therapists see it in the counselling office) looks like this:

A caretaker personality is often hyper-attentive, or hyper-vigilant, to the moods of a partner. At the earliest signs of partner distress, the care-taker is *right in there*, sometimes asking explicitly, “What can I do for you? How can I help you? What do you need from me?” More commonly, however, the care-taker often guesses or tries to anticipate what needs are going unaddressed, to take care of them BEFORE the distressed partner can increase distress (either internally at themselves or outwardly at the care-taker or other vulnerable others). While this care-taking practice seems a noble gesture, the problems it introduces are manifold.

First, it removes responsibility for practicing emotional self awareness and self-regulation from the distressed party; they never learn how to manage themselves or their own needs. Secondly, it creates undue stress on the care-taker, not only because they’ve taken on emotional labour that, truthfully, isn’t theirs to manage, but also because it generally encourages care-takers to compartmentalize or bury their OWN needs, anxieties, or distresses without effectively addressing them. Third, it reinforces the codependent fusion by reinforcing the notion that neither can effectively exist without the other, since a care-taker by definitions must have others to care for in order to feel validated, and they believe the Other cannot exist without them to manage every little detail for them (something those Others may often be too willing to accept if it means less work for them to handle on some front or other).

It may be true that very few of us *LIKE* seeing our partners in distress, but there’s a massive difference between being ready to assist, or simply bearing witness, and moving in to “fix” things for another. When I was a teenager taking swimming lessons up to and including training as a lifeguard, the VERY FIRST lesson they teach us about rescuing drowning swimmers is that it’s a REALLY BAD IDEA to get close enough to the drowning swimmer to make contact. The swimmer in their panic will grab on to the rescue attempt and completely overwhelm the rescuer… and they both drown. So lifeguards are trained to use a “reverse and ready” position that lets them push a flotation device to the swimmer and instruct them to grab and hang on until they are calm enough to be assisted back to safety. This analogy is one of the most powerful ones I can give to care-takers who insist on swimming in after distressed partners, then wonder why they always feel so overwhelmed by their efforts, almost to the point of drowning themselves.

This state of emotional enmeshment, where care-takers deflect or defer their own anxiety by hyper-attentively managing others’ distress is something Murray Bowen identified in (family) systems as “fusion”:

?Fusion or lack of differentiation is where individual choices are set aside in service of achieving harmony in the system? (Brown, 1999)

Fusion is where ?people form intense relationships with others and their actions depend largely on the condition of the relationships at any given time?Decisions depend on what others think and whether the decision will disturb the fusion of the existing relationships.? (Papero, 2000)

Care-takers come by this fusion through their early training; they learn that they cannot be emotional safe, acknowledged and validated for any reason other than a service they can provide. Parentified children, for example, or displaced children, often internalize early on a strong sense that they are valuable for what they DO, rather than simply for being lovable and worthwhile people in their own right. (The displacement may happen within the family system for a variety of reasons, such as parental preference for a first-born or male child over a female child; or one child is perceived as a “problem” child while other children might be left to manage on their own or manage the family while the parents cope with the “problem”; children may also feel ostracized in a variety of ways by their care-takers for not conforming to or complying with both explicit and implicit systemic values.) They learn to fear what happens if they do NOT provide the service they believe is expected of them. Seeing loved ones in emotional distress may trigger intense surges in their own anxiety; perhaps their own early care-takers tended to act out with violence in distress, so any emotional distress in the adult client is intolerable, for fear of such violences returning. Or the adult client may simply not recognize the value of anything other than performing service; if they themselves have no memorable experience of being loved for themselves, they may be unable to distinguish a difference between “being needed” and “being loved”, and the idea of not being needed to take care of someone threatens their very self-definition and sense of self-worth.

It’s a tricky thing to suss out what’s happening with clients who fall into the category of “substituting need for love”, because the patterns are hard to verify in the light of things like Gary Chapman’s Love Languages identifying “acts of service” as a bone fide love language. Where we start to see the substitution becoming problematic is when the underlying attachments themselves become a struggle to manage; care-takers doing this kind of substitution often have anxious attachments in which any failure of the partner to validate the care-takers efforts become a source of significant distress in the care-taker themselves. There is no healthy sense of differentiation between the care-taker and the target when the smallest bump in this “transference of care” can send one or both parties into distress. It’s too easy for the receiving partner to simply become complacent with being cared for, especially if it means they never have to learn to self-manage their own distress when someone else is always there to take care of things for them. And it certainly seems a common social pattern for individuals to gravitate into relationships with complimentary, familiar care-taking patterns. The patterns in and of themselves may not be problematic, but they bring with them a weighty potential for invisible expectations and unspoken needs around reflecting validation. Care-takers will sometimes chase target recipients even if the relationship as a whole is one they recognize on some level as unhealthy for them; that’s certainly a Big Red Flag in the therapy room that we’re dealing with someone who is potentially chasing validation for being needed, and a historical or Family of Origin snapshot will tell us in very short order whether or not the client recognizes the experience of being loved, or if they respond more to being needed.

To be clear, in healthy intimate relationships, there is generally a balance of love and need, and sometimes there is less need than love. When need overshadows love, however, or subsumes it completely, we stand at high risk for having less stable, less satisfactory relationships overall. In therapy we might find that care-takers who only (or predominantly) identify with meeting needs more than recognizing love as their primary avenue of attachment are insecure not only in their relationships, but in themselves. We see a lot of co-morbid symptoms tied to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and profound exhaustion, with a potential raft of physical/health issues that often come along for the ride with ANY of these mental health challenges. Unraveling this convoluted self-identity can be a lengthy process; there are no “silver bullet solutions” when countering a lifetime’s worth of programming around a person’s sense of intrinsic sense of worth. We start with the basics of Human Worth, and look at how those lessons may have been twisted early on, reinforced by a lifetime’s worth of relationship practices, and how the errant substitution of need for love is probably sabotaging self and self-in-relationship in the client’s current situations. We can unravel understandings and begin the work of creating a new sense of self, but as with all things, it takes time and patience, and a willingness to self-love that can sometimes be every bit as challenging as loving others

But the work is worthwhile, however difficult. We are all worthy of love, not just because of what we DO for others, but simply because as people we have a value all our own. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of that fact, and taught (as we maybe weren’t in early life) to see that in and for ourselves.

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

I’m not saying Freud was right to blame everything on our mothers (his misogynistic views on women are well documented), but he did have the root of an idea that Murray Bowen leveraged decades later into Family Systems Theory. Sometimes it’s easy to trace our personal challenges as adults to specific events or traumas tied to our personal histories, but other times it’s a far more subtle, potentially insidious thing to trace the nuanced impact of internalized behavioural models and “invisible values” inherited from our family systems.

Even clients who have no notable red-flag-raising events in their loving, textbook-perfect families can be surprised at just how much of their behaviour *can* be tied directly back to how they were raised, or what they experienced in the home where they grew up. One of the most common examples of this that we see in relationship counselling with individuals, couples, or poly groups, comes from people who present as happy, seemingly-well-adjusted people from families where the parents never fought, who come into counselling because they have issues connecting with their partners, or because they are anxious in their attachments, and they can’t figure out why. “My parents never argued” is probably the single most common indicator that this was likely to be a family with unhealthy coping strategies for tension and conflict, up to and including outright avoidance of contention. Given that kids inherently use their family of origin as models for behavioural development in most things inter-relational and (once they are adults) and intimacy-building, it’s unsurprising that otherwise “happy home” kids grow into adults who don’t do well with emotional intensity or all-out conflict.

I use the family of origin “snapshot” fairly extensively with many of my clients. It helps me create a picture of the client in terms of where they come from, what kinds of models they grew up with, what kinds of default responses might have been programmed in for emotional self- or co-regulation within the family system from a potentially early age. Within the first session or two, we don a verbal sketch of the principle members of the system: mom and dad, siblings, step-parents and blended family members. If there are interesting things in parental histories that seem impactful on the client’s development, we often look at the relationship between parents and grandparents as well. This tells us what family values might have been passed (or shoved) down from that generation onto the parents that potentially informed how the parents raised their own kids, at least one of whom is now sitting in my office in crisis. It’s this part of the process that’s more about the art of reconstruction, interpreting what we can discern about the family behaviours through the lens of Bowen’s System Theory into a narrative that sheds a little light on why my otherwise-happy client can’t now seem to tolerate any kind of disagreement in the relationship, and falls into an anxious fugue at anything even remotely suggesting that conflict is present.

The family of origin snapshot also sheds some light on intersibling dynamics that may impact personal development into adulthood. Looking at where the client falls in a multi-child birth order, for example, might tell us something about issues like “middle child syndrome” (perhaps the client IS the middle child, or was heavily impacted by a middle child’s behaviours), or parentification of an eldest child. Unconscious parental favouritism can have a huge impact on how kids in such a family develop into adults, as can being the “normal” child in a family that also includes a differently-abled, ill, or developmentally-handicapped child.

Sometimes the family of origin snapshot can pinpoint exact historical incidents that manifest as seemingly-disconnected physical trauma much later in life. Sometimes the group portrait makes it very clear up front that there is a systemic behavioural pattern that has produced challenging or toxic patterns in the client’s own adult life and relationships; toxic parenting or corrosive sibling rivalries will also have a profound effect on how the adult client has come to view relationships.

Once we have created the word picture of the family and the set players on the stage, we use that construct to look at how the client perceives both their role in relational drama, and how they are likely to interpret the behaviours of others around them based on what their families taught them. This runs the gamut from uncovering anxious narrative of imperfection to ego-invested narratives of “Of course I’m always right”, to “Love mean we never fight, doesn’t it? So if we’re fighting all the time, why does my partner hate me??” Because this is an interpretation, I make it clear to the clients when we do this work that just because we construct a narrative explanation that resonates with the information as we perceive it, that doesn’t mean it’s the truth, or that it’s the only truth. We put all the pieces on the board: what the client can relay about their own lived experience, what the therapist can bring in terms of clinical education and observational perspective, and we move the pieces of information around on the board until we have a storyline that explains what is known in a way that fits with both shared and unshared information (clients *ALWAYS* have more information in their heads than they share verbally in therapy; that’s just a truism of the work). Theories that don’t fit get tossed and we start again; the therapist’s own flexibility and refusal to get stuck on their own perspectives becomes a key component here, just as the client’s own willingness to see their long-held historical snapshot explained in a new perspective is important.

This part of shifting perspective is part of the narrative reframing process in which we challenge the client’s understanding of “how things work” on which they have quite likely based their adult values and decision-making models. And if they are coming into therapy because their internal models don’t seem to be influencing or sustaining the kinds of connections they say they want to have in their lives and relationships, the family of origin snapshots will go a long way towards potential roots of the problem. When we change the historical perspective, we also open the opportunity to change how the client relates to both their own history and, perhaps more importantly, the future of their own relationships. For example, a client coming from what they described on intake as, “really close and super-happy home” was struggling with the surprise dissolution of the parental marriage at the same time as the client was facing a power struggle in their own marriage. Because they feel they “turned out just fine” from this “super-happy home”, to the client it was apparent that the parenting strategies that raised them “are obviously the right ones, so if I’m using them to raise *MY* child, I’m obviously right, aren’t I?” But when we circled back around to the dissolution of the parental marriage and all the conflict that was engendering in the family, we had cause to wonder about how it was that the parents were so unhappy for so long that dissolution finally seemed the only option. That led to a conversation about emotional suppression and what that taught my client about emotional suppression and emotional validation, and we began to see how the parental choices had informed my client’s development… and how if we began to see the parental model as potentially deeply flawed in new or still-unseen ways, what did that mean for how my client had internalized that “perfect parenting model” that was at the heart of their own relationship power struggle? Suddenly, simply by looking at the family of origin snapshot from a new angle, we had a whole new perspective on what was happening for the *CLIENT* in terms of attempting to implement a flawed model, or a flawed understanding of an imperfect model.

It’s common for clients to wonder why their families become important to me as a therapist when we’re talking about what they perceive as disconnected issues. I explain about my Systems Theory background, and how it’s part of my job to hold in mid the potential impact these other factors might have on our work. It’s a lot like radio astronomy, I tell them; there are a lot of important objects out in deep space, like black holes, that we can’t see directly, but we can see and measure the effect they have on the things we *CAN* see. Family impacts on client issues work the same way; we can only determine the impact those factors have when we observe the client’s behaviours as an adult. And I freely admit, the times when my clients are most likely to perceive what therapists do as Pure Magictm is when we can put the pieces of their intake story through the Family System Theory filter and feed back to them an enhanced reflection that suddenly “explains so much”. Being able to see light bulbs or couch bombs go off in client’s heads is, I also admit, a big secret part of why we therapists Do What We Do. We love those moments when the revised narrative gains a toehold, and the new vista opens up for the client; it’s one of the things that makes it easier for clients to go forward into the work they’ve come to do. It’s like we’re the mountain sherpas who, by showing them a new understanding of the past, have opened up an unexpected path to go forward from there… and simply catching a glimpse of the path, that new understanding, gives the client tremendous hope that they’re in the right place to do the right work.

Some days, what we do really does seem like a kind of magic 🙂

Family Issues, Relationships

There are times when being a prolific LJ poster, even one who tries with some diligence to use the tagging system, can’t find what I’m looking for in the morass of data piled on over the course of a dozen years (tomorrow is my official 12th LJversary, actually; how cool is that??).

Recently family foibles a friend is experience triggered a bunch of thoughts about transactional affection, which is, by and large, another term in my head for what I have previously explored as “relationship ledgers“:

“In times of relational tension and crisis, many of us (me included) find ourselves tallying the internally-maintained ?list of grievances?, or clinging to the hurts to justify retaliatory behaviours. This is how people most commonly respond to the balance tipping towards the negative side of the relational ledger. It?s a kind of psychological narcissism (making the hurt and pain all about ourselves as a means of justifying further responses to and on the negative ledger), and leads to something called ?destructive entitlement?, in which we inefficiently attempt to rebalance the ledger by forcing another party to ?pay for our hurts?. (The principle of ?destructive entitlement? is, by the way, a whole other post or series of posts; it sometimes ties in with legacy values we inherit from others, particularly previous generations in our family of origin, or legacy values that we inherit from chosen family or social spheres, any or all of which we respond to in ways that come only at cost to someone else.) Equally often, by the time a relationship reaches the point of drastic rebalancing on account of pervasive negative focus, one or more participants are past the point of being willing or capable of considering, or even viewing, the positive aspects of the relational ledger.”

It’s not just the list of grievances for which we sometimes keep score; sometimes it’s all of the Good Deeds we’ve done. In my friend’s situation, a family member tallied a lengthy list of “things I did for you”, within a very clear context of the implicit expectation of, “…and therefore you owe me [X]”, where [X] resolves to affection, respect, attention, prioritization… any one of a number of values.

Within a family system, contextually most of us are taught that unconditional love and respect is something we as children owe our parents, and that love and support are owed to us by our parents. Within a cultural system, we see this pattern writ large recently as issues of “Nice Guy Syndrome”, for example. In both systemic contexts, the script being followed is that, “I did something nice for you, therefore I *EXPECT* you to do something nice for me”, with all kinds of variable expectations around what that “something nice” is supposed to look like, even if never explicitly stated, negotiated, or consented to. This is what I have come to label as “transactional affection”. In any transaction, something is given with the expectation of something in return. Commerce is a series of financial transactions for goods or services in return. Relational transactions are less clearly defined, but no less-laden with expectations. And therein lies the big problem.

It’s always nice to receive positive interactions, be it compliments, gifts, affection, deeper intimacy, etc.; some people are adept at giving such things without attaching an expectation to it, but in my experience (personal and clinical), such true altruism is incredibly rare. Parents *expect* that their children will love and revere them, no matter what. When their children start to differentiate from the family system, that creates a backlash because in part (I suspect) the parental expectation of being loved and revered is no longer guaranteed, and that creates a kind of doubt or distress that all the effort was for what, exactly?

Transactional affection also exists outside of family systems, in all kinds of social and relational systems. Friends do things for friends, immediately or eventually expecting “favours” to be returned. Ever helped a friend move then asked them to help you move in return? To some extent, the very framework of real-time social networks are founded on this kind of interwoven support, which is no bad thing. Where it becomes problematic in ANY system is when someone in the system starts keeping score and using perceived transactional disparities in the ledger as a stick to “get what they feel they are owed” from someone else in the system. Families in particular get really tetchy when it comes to transactional ledgers, because value systems are often based in inherited values for what constitutes “fair”, what looks like “love”, meanings for “duty and obligation”, and sometimes those inherited values blind some members of the system to the fact that the differentiating individuals might have developed different values for any and all of those concepts… meaning the nature of the transactions also change. One of you is still trading in old British coin, the other in new Canadian dollars. Unsurprisingly, those coins and dollars no longer carry equal weight, and expectations tied to those words have to be renegotiated as the system around them evolves.

Likewise in intimate relationships, much woe I see in and out of the counselling office seems tied to the process of “keeping score”, especially when one partner uses the score card to justify a hard or distant stance out of hurt, fear, or spite. Commonly, I hear the despairing cry of, “All the things I do for you, why don’t you ever/you never do anything nice for me?” or “I’ve met all your needs, it’s not fair that you’re not meeting mine.”

Something that has to happen is a conversation about the difference between “equal” and “fair”. Transactional affection always presumes that effort put out will be rewarded by equal or greater effort in return. Fair, on the other hand, is a discussion about options; what is the need to be met, and if I cannot do the thing you explicitly expect, what else might I be able to offer that can, or comes close? How can we manage it if what I have to offer does NOT meet the need as expected?” In short, the process of defining the value of the transaction becomes a collaborative effort, not a prescriptive (and often invisible) set of assumptions.

It’s my growing suspicion as I write these thoughts out that relational ledgers (transactional affection) is ALL ABOUT outcome attachment, specifically, seeing as a return on one’s own efforts and investments a very specific desired outcome, and being anywhere from disappointed to downright pyroclastic f thwarted in “getting what I deserve”, “getting what’s mine by right”, or even “getting what I deserve”. This attachment to outcome, and failure to manage the intensity of disappointment when expected outcomes don’t manifest as assumed, is nowhere more clear than in the internet-wide phenomenon that was The Nice Guy Issue, in which self-reporting “nice guys” on dating sites and elsewhere lamented at great length about putting time and energy into being great friends with a woman IN THE HOPE AND EXPECTATIONS that she would then fall in love with them instead of Some Other guy, and how put out they felt that their obvious efforts were not being rewarded.

This is transactional affection in its core state.

“I do all this for you, of *COURSE* you owe me in return. Wait, what do you mean you have your own thoughts and feelings on the subject…???”

“I am your parent, I did all of these things for you my child, of *COURSE* you owe me unquestioning respect and affection in return. Wait, what do you mean you have your own thoughts and feelings on the subject…???”

Unraveling the implicit, sometimes hereditary expectations and assumptions built into a transactional system is hard work, I’m not going to lie. (I’m also not going to tell you I’m an expert at it myself; if I were, I might still be married, personally. But I digress…) First of all, you have to go through the process of letting go of an expectation of equal, in favour of a floating and flexible understanding of fair, and sometimes that means letting go of the scorecard while trying to start from where you are right now. A lot of people won’t let go of that stance-justification; many have no clue who they are without it. Score cards give them purpose, even if toxic ones.

If the transactional ledger is writ full of negative things, in which one party keeps track of all the negatives about another person(s), then you have to make every effort to create a positive ledger as well. Only living in the negatives while never acknowledging the positives is a kind of darkness in which no-one thrives in. John Gottman has come up with a mind-bogglingly accurate statistical model for relationship success and failure, with in the neighbourhood of a 94% accuracy. As part of his model, he stipulates,

“In the world of relationships, the most important numbers to learn are: five to one. That is the ratio of positive interactions to negative ones that predicts whether a marriage will last or become one of the sad statistics of divorce.”

While this kind of transaction system isn’t entirely within the same context as transactional affection, it does provide a framework for reflecting on positives within the context of moving out of a negative-based transactional ledger. It also begins to provide a framework for talking about individual interpretations of value (specifically, degree of emotional investment) for those transactions. “I am offering you positive interactions” often comes with the unvoiced expectation that, in a relationship or family system, we’re all in this together, so, “I’m expecting you to do the same in return.” Is that mutually understood and agreed upon? Is what’s being offered coming from a sense of love, is it a gift, or is it a transaction with the implied obligation of something in return? Have we each a clear understanding of that implied obligation, and do we each consent to the transaction on the basis of that expectation? What are our options if that’s not the case?

We begin to change how these conversations happen, not out of a need to nit-pick so much as a need to understand and be open to shifting from a transactional score card to something based more in flexible, collaborative, and above all, explicitly-shared understandings. Differentiation is never easy, and challenging the ledger is definitely hard work given the likelihood that *someone* in the system is using it as a justification for interactive behaviours. But it is necessary for systemic health that things be balanced fairly, and not with a rigid sense of what’s equal. That kind of implicit scoring system only guarantees almost everyone stays miserable for the duration.

Self-Development

Something a friend wrote recently sparked a thought that is the tip of a larger iceberg on the topic of the difference between?feelings and thoughts (specifically, value judgments).

This post is entirely predicated on a statement about “feeling unworthy”; “unworthy”, and worth in general, is a value judgment, which puts it in the Thought category because it comes as part of a deeply-unconscious-but-process-driven experience of defining value. My teachers have taught me that processes like this frequently gets mistaken for feelings because they happen at such an unconscious level that we forget they ARE processes, but they actually occur somewhere far higher up the cerebral chain than feelings. The mistaken attribution makes it much harder to get to them, however, to name the actual feelings and give them safe space to just exist before we examine and/or release them.

Value judgments of worth (or unworthiness in this case) generally correlate to a feeling of shame, specifically. It’s different from person to person, but that’s the most common associated feeling; “When I believe I am found to be unworthy by myself or others, what I feel is ________”. A friend reframed that as, “more like an intuitive process pulling together non-consciously collected data and slapping logic to explain the shame feeling as a more distant and vague sense of unworth”, which is a reasonably astute way of describing the process. I’m a firm believer that “intuition” is just “deep processing we don’t know that we do”; I’m not sure “logic” applies, beyond a certain point, or perhaps it is generally “flawed logic”, the kind children create self-defensively as part of their emotional development when they have to process, internalize, make sense of emotionally-impacting events in their lives that may be beyond their ability to otherwise cope ? the kind that leads to broken or errant narratives that we build on all our lives.

“Shame” is such a big and monstrous feeling that as children AND as adults, we do everything we can to escape it, so we bury it and mislabel it and pretend it’s all kinds of other things. The same friend posited it as a “social tether”, “the bit of deep programming that tells us when we’re in danger of losing the safety of the community by breaking our part of our contract with it”. I think that’s just one piece of it; that it’s nothing so simple (and yes, “simple” is perhaps the wrong word there). Most of the approaches I’ve had to the topic of shame come roundabout from the world of addictions, but in its own way, clinging to the broken narratives to avoid the direct experience of shame is also a kind of addiction, like armor we never take off (if we change the narrative, we’re vulnerable, and that Just Cannot Be Allowed).

Complicating the issue of exploring shame is the fact that we use the word, but we all apply different nuances to it. And the closer we come to the actual experience, frequently the stronger the sense of needing to avoid or deflect the emotional impact altogether. It’s the child’s resistance to going into the darkened attic or basement or bedroom closet: Here There Be Monsters, and we *definitely* don’t want to go in there. That sense of slipping and sliding off the things I’m trying to observe is one with which I am frightfully well acquainted, as it’s where the origins of my personal Weasel Dance are rooted. I would do ANYTHING to avoid feeling shame, or feeling shamed (depending on whether I was applying the value judgement to myself, or perceiving it as being applied to me by external sources), and this has led over the years to some absolutely BRILLIANT bullshit tactics in deflection and diversion while I frantically dance to avoid looking at or naming the elephant in the room, which was (is) generally something associated with feeling shame or ashamed about something I want or have done.

That Weasel Dance is friggin’ exhausting.

One of the things I have learned only recently is that the more we struggle against something, the stronger it becomes. Force applied to force, isn’t just force doubled; there’s an exponential increase that has some complex mathematical formula I can’t remember, but I remember the “physics of increasing application” part well enough. That’s why the whole point of meditation is to not struggle against the thoughts that intrude, but just to let them be, then gently guide focus and breath back to stillness. There are entire streams of martial arts that stem from the idea of using an opponent’s force against them without exerting your own in opposition, and guiding their momentum past us safely to pull the opponent off balance and into us. It’s the same with these kinds of emotional internal struggles. We can apply force to force, or we can be still and use the momentum of the reactivity to draw the Thing at the other end of that reaction close enough to observe it, without putting ourselves off balance and at risk.

Anger, for example, is energetic force. A common response to feeling shame is to get angry, possibly to the point of aggression; shame reduces us, but anger makes us (temporarily, at least) feel big, powerful. We resist, and perhaps even drive back the Thing at the other end of that perceived value judgment for a little while, but in truth the emotional tinder is still in us all the time and while we’ve expended a lot of emotional energy, while we’ve destabilized the apple cart in whatever relationship housing the current emotional upheaval, we haven’t necessarily addressed that tinder that can be so easily sparked.

Until we recognize and understand the components of the bomb, we cannot understand how best to diffuse it effectively.

My friend Alf tells an amusing anecdote that, while appearing unrelated, is entirely related: Twice while visiting a friend in northern Ontario, he got tagged by highway OPP late at night, doing egregious speeds along the highway. The second time he was stopped, he asked the cop in humour why they spend their nights out in the wilds like that, just waiting for him. The cop smiled, then explained, “We’re saving lives, for real. If you hit a deer at 80kph, you have an excellent chance of walking away with nothing but some damage to the front of your car and probably a window replacement. If you hit a deer at 120kph or above, odds are good we’ll be scraping your remains off the next two kilometers of highway, because the impact will kill you.”

The more force you apply…

This all ties back to yesterday’s post about breathing, and emptying hands. There are a lot of images of breathing into hands that I find useful and evocative, from breathing warmth onto them, to breathing or blowing things out of them; blowing onto the dandelion head held in my fingers releases the fliers into the sky and freedom. Breath is both what fills and what empties. Breathing enables us to take the pause that pulls us back from the brink of picking up a weapon-of-choice and applying force where force is perceived; our reactivity to feeling shame, for example. The physical signals are the clue that something is amiss, and the cue to make a conscious choice rather than an escape into unconscious, reflexive, self-defensive reaction. We don’t want to, but to allow for change and growth, we probably have to.

It does get easier with practice, and it’s okay to ask for help. If this work was easy, everyone would be wearing saffron robes and eating granola.

One day at a time, one breath at a time; one foot in front of the other.