Embrace the Suck

Embrace the Suck

I’m writing and will be presenting a Continuing Education course for therapists called Clinician Use of WeConcile® to Facilitate Couples Work. (You can find the course here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/clinician-use-weconcile-facilitate-couples-work-web-conference.html). Doing this work is making me think about what it takes to make a change in a relationship, and about the couples who choose to stay stuck instead of tackling this significant part of their lives. And it is making me again look at what actually happens in a person to allow the kind of change that transforms a relationship to something amazing. Yet, so many people are scared of this.

Precisely what is scary for them?  I think it is simply having to experience painful feelings and begin to sort through them. An example of a problematic feeling could be feeling awkward or gross in front of someone else hence feeling a sense of shame. Of course, we have difficult feelings, regardless, but we aren’t consciously choosing to look at them. They just leap out and grab us when we get triggered. We react, and then those feelings subside, or we put them away. We create an outside reason – she made me mad. We aren’t looking deep at why we were triggered. How what she said made us feel unseen or less than. How what she said, triggered an echo of our feelings about how our father made us feel.

This is a quote from Sue Johnson, founder of EFT for couples. “Awareness of emotion is central to healthy functioning …. Since emotional responses orient the individual to his or her own needs and longings and prime the struggle to get those needs met.”

So, for example, suppose Joe had a very successful father, and nothing Joe does makes him feel as if he can match what his father did. So, underneath Joe is going to have some feelings of not being worthy, or not being good enough. Joe’s deep longing is to feel worthy. What does Joe do about this feeling? He pushes it away. He doesn’t feel it. He’s not even aware of this feeling. Instead, he puts his wife down. He takes his yucky feelings and gives them to her – and he’s not even aware of it. She is too controlling, too annoying, too this or that. And she, of course, has her own dynamics that interlock with his. So, they bicker a lot. Sure, they love each other, but they are both in their individual defensive places much of the time. Neither Joe nor his wife has that sense of leaning back into the soft cushion of their relationship because emotionally, they don’t feel fully safe. Who knows when a harsh word will come, or one will criticize the other.

And yet, the process of changing this dynamic is known. Opening up each partner’s inner emotional experience, with a focus on emotional engagement and corrective experiences will allow new ways of relating and new self-structure to emerge.  We just don’t know how to do this. That is why therapy, workshops, and experiential educational systems can help.

What if Joe became able to realize and talk about how being raised by his very successful father impacted his feelings about himself. What if he realized that he was continually reacting to issues that triggered a deep shame he had around feeling as if he was not good enough. What if, as he talked about these feelings, his wife began to understand him better, and he began to understand himself better. What if she began to see how what she did triggered him, and she developed more empathy for him. What if he also came to see how he triggered her and what if in this process of exploration and reconnection Joe began to see her value, and he began to want to connect, rather than push her away. And what if in this process, he found his own worth. And because of all of these shifts, he no longer put his wife down. Because they are now connecting on a deeper level.

Each person has the enormous opportunity to expand and reorganize their inner experience, transforming their relationship.

This quote from Brene Brown encapsulates the way to change, “I believe that you have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage, therefore . . . embrace the suck. I try to be grateful every day, and my motto right now is ‘Courage over comfort.’”

Courage over comfort. That is the key. The primary vehicle for change in a relationship really is developing a better relationship with our own feelings and unpacking why we feel what we feel when we are having that feeling.

To learn how WeConcile protects your privacy go here: https://www.weconcile.com/privacy.html

The Journey of Improving A Relationship

The Journey of Improving A Relationship

How does having a significant illness relate to being in a relationship that doesn’t work? How do we take that understanding and apply it to improve our relationships?

In 2016, when I was struggling with Lyme disease, in desperation, I went to an alternative treatment center. The treatments included shots, IV’s and fevers which could get out of control, body temperatures moving to unsafe levels. The needles pushing through tender skin, hurting despite the icing of the area previously. The weight of the IV needle in the vein hindering easy movement. There was no way to escape the discomfort of the treatments that went on from morning into the night for several months or the exhaustion from both the illness and the remedy. I found the treatment to be stressful, traumatic and at times painful. But I knew I needed to get better and I was willing to suffer to find my health again.

You might ask how this situation relates to being in a relationship that isn’t as good as it could be, or where a couple is struggling. These two journeys are somewhat different, but parallels exist. In both cases, we are in a state of dis-ease and we are looking for healing or wholeness.

When I was at that clinic, I created a mantra, which I used to focus my intentions and attitudes.

Please help me find health.

Please help me be safe.

Please help me have courage.

Please help me hear the guidance of my higher self.

I silently repeated this mantra over and over. When I was getting a painful shot or sitting in a bathtub full of ice and ice water in an attempt to keep my fever from getting dangerously high, I would say this mantra to myself. I used it to ground myself. I used it to keep my focus clear. I used it to reassure and soothe myself.

A person in a failing relationship can easily get overwhelmed with distress, with feeling unsafe emotionally, with not knowing if they can get through the difficulties, with lacking clarity and not knowing which way to turn or how to navigate through the disruptions between themselves and their partner. Like my Lyme journey, a relational journey also requires courage, reassurance, guidance, safety and the desire for the relationship to return to health or wholeness.

I was lucky to have mostly kind staff and nurses, and the patients were silly and playful with each other. We created the support we needed amongst ourselves. Connection is another part of what gets us through difficult times. In a relationship that works, we have connection that supports us through life’s challenges. But in a relationship that doesn’t work, often we do not have that safe connection with our partner.

It is painful when we fight, when we don’t know if our relationship will survive. It is painful to feel confused and not know which way to turn, or how to get an argument to turn into a more productive conversation.

Yet our desires for a better relationship are achievable. We can learn how to create healthy emotional and relational selves. We can create safety in our relationship. We can find our courage if we have guidance. And we can learn to ‘hear’ the right way to go.

But without new information coming into our ‘system’ we often don’t know how to proceed.

WeConcile is a do-it-yourself online relationship course designed to teach you how to change your relationship, how to make it safe and healthy. You can find your courage and become a full team with your partner. You will learn new ways of being that will open up new connections in your relationship. And unlike dealing with a major illness, you can enjoy the process of gaining more contact with, and understanding of your partner.

Recovering from Lyme disease is a long journey. Some of the people I went to that clinic with have passed. They were not able to defeat the disease. Others are still struggling. Some, like myself, are more or less, better. I never gave up. I sought to recover, to find new knowledge, new tools. It took many treatments, a clear focus on what I wanted, and continued courage and persistence. I was one of the lucky ones who found what I needed.

You are on your own journey. But a journey is just that – moving through terrain, from one location to another. Your journey can lead you to a place where you have the love you have always desired. Don’t give up on your dreams. It is completely doable to create a nourishing and peaceful relationship and the process of doing so is no longer a mystery. A science of love exists with the tools you need. You only need to choose to begin the journey of healing your relationship.

How Unspoken (And Unanswered) Needs Sabotage A Relationship.

June: I don’t like our gardener. I don’t like how he trimmed the roses. I don’t think he did a good job on the grass. I don’t like…

What is going on here? – Disguised and unspoken feelings. (I feel uncomfortable; I want you to hear my discomfort. I want to know that you will be on my side.)

Bob: Oh. Well, they are all like that. I’ve worked with a lot of them.

What is going on here? – Logical explanation. (I want you to see that it is okay. I don’t want you to be unfair to the gardener. Why aren’t you happy? Everything is okay.)

June: You never listen to me – storms off.

Bob: What happened? What is wrong with her?

Bob didn’t listen to his partner’s unspoken and underlying feelings and needs. He gave a logical explanation instead.

June felt unheard and reacted.

Bob felt ambushed by the emotional reaction of his partner. He hates this feeling of being powerless. He doesn’t know what to do.

How can this couple repair this recurring scenario?

Move in closer to reach for underlying feelings.

Ask yourself, what is June trying to say (but not able to say directly?) What feelings is June experiencing?

Bob’s task is to learn to listen, explore and reflect rather than explain. – I’m sorry you don’t like the gardener. How did that make you feel when the gardener did that? What do you think we should do about it? (Empathy and reflection of what was said, curiosity of deeper feeling, teaming up to solve problem if needed and to show that on partner’s side.)

Bob’s possible resistance – I don’t want to ‘take care’ of my partner that way. I want him/her to be able to tell me what he or she is feeling directly. I shouldn’t have to.

Answer: We all have to ‘take care’ of our partners at times. Especially while they are reaching for support and don’t know how to do it yet.

If you want THIS relationship to work, you have to learn to communicate in a way that your partner can hear you. You aren’t going to get different results from the same actions.

Pull out for birds eye view to see the cycle.

June reaches for support indirectly.

Bob explains to ‘make it all okay’ and to be fair to everyone.

June feels unheard and reacts, in this case perhaps gets angry and attacks

Bob feels ambushed and confused.

June storms off very upset and feeling abandoned.

Bob apologizes but is confused and doesn’t know what to do to fix this.

June ‘beats Bob up emotionally’ because she still feels that it is Bob’s fault.

June eventually and briefly realizes that it wasn’t all Bob’s fault but isn’t able to ‘hold’ onto this awareness.

June and Bob are caught in this dynamic and need to unpack it to ‘see’ what they are caught in and step outside of it TOGETHER. (Not just feel what they are caught in)

How can they talk about the pattern they see happening?

Bob’s new conversation

It seems that when you reach for support and I don’t realize it, I try to make everything okay by explaining. You feel unsupported and abandoned and get angry and lash out at me. I feel punished by your anger. It hurts a lot. I will try to slow down and be more curious about your needs. I need you to try to tell me what is going on.

June’s new conversation

Yes, I guess I am reaching for support and I don’t even realize it until you talk in a way that feels so unsupportive to me. I will try to let you know that I am feeling let down and needing something from you instead of flying off the handle. I need you to try to pay attention to what I am really saying. I’m not so good at realizing what I am asking for until I am disappointed and we are in a fight.

Bob and Jane are working on building an more solid place to stand, where they are there for each other emotionally and also talking about the cycle or pattern they get caught in.

 

Announcing WeConcile™

Architecting Your Own Intimacy – Repairing, Rebuilding & Creating Love

I have been deep in writing a new web-based and interactive program to help couples (or any two people) connect more fully and resolve conflicts, bringing harmony and peace to their relationship. This is something that I have been working on for nearly two years (and with some months to go before it is complete).

How I make my own life meaningful, and what inspires me, is the process of focusing on and stepping into the dark parts of myself, my relationships and my world in order to bring light, peace, beauty and love into those areas that are un-enlightened, fearful, suffering or in pain. As I look at the trauma and darkness in the world around me, this feels especially pertinent at this time. For me, life is a metaphor of bringing light into our own darkness, whether it is external in the outer world, or internal, in my own self and process. Consequently, bringing harmony, peace and love into our lives and relationships is a process that I am deeply involved in.

Because I grew up in an environment with emotional trauma, conflict and disconnection, and have spent years not only undoing the damage caused by that, transforming my own negative parts, and expanding and developing myself, this mission is close to my heart.  I believe that we can all learn to engage in the ‘underground’ processes of healing, and collaborate and support each other in this endeavor.

Over the years of working both as a therapist and a couples’ therapist I have come to believe that something more is needed to help all of us with our relationships.  Many of us just don’t have the skills we need. Therapy has limitations due to its cost, and many therapists, though effective with individuals, don’t have the specialized training needed to be effective when working with couples. The time constraints of people’s busy lives, and the stigma that therapy has for some also inhibit people seeking help.  Additionally, I have wanted to expand out of working one-to-one to a place where I could do more writing and impact a larger group.

I began to think about a low cost way to ‘teach’ people while overcoming these obstacles. I began to wonder if I could make experiential relationship help available to the many who cannot afford couples counseling – a place where they could learn, while collaborating and supporting each other. I found the idea exciting, although scary. Am I wasting my time? Can this actually be done and can I do it?  Couples therapy is hard enough with a therapist in the room. How could it possibly work on the web?

One day, a web programmer friend was visiting.  As he talked about his web-based product, a light bulb went off.  ‘This can be done,’ I thought.  At the time, I was continuing in advanced training in couple’s therapy.  So along with my knowledge of self-growth and healing and my ability to write, all the pieces were there.  Thus began the birth of WeConcile™.

Let me present some broad ideas about what needs to happen in any ‘self growth’ endeavor by starting with some observations and analogies.

I was watching TV the other night and a dancer/choreographer whose name I don’t remember was talking on a panel. The other 4 people on the panel were not dancers.  I was very aware of how evolved this man’s body and being appeared, how he moved his arms and gestured when he talked, how he carried himself, how his body and self seemed much more alive than the others.  It was clear that as a dancer, he had developed a relationship to his body, lets call it his mind/body, extensively, and in a way the others had not.  In comparison, they appeared almost unintelligent.

In contrast to those who are highly developed, are those of us who are ‘regular,’ with more typical levels of skill and ability.

And then there are those of us who have been deprived, neglected or even abused in some way while we were developing.  Our development has actually been suppressed, leaving us with gaps in our skill set, or perhaps having to adapt, almost the way a tree that is growing under a large object has to bend and twist and turn to find its way to the sun, or how one that is growing in bad soil or a harsh environment may end up smaller.

This is the spectrum, ranging from the full development of one’s capacity, even beyond what most people do, through the realm of normal, all the way to a place where there are scars or underdevelopment caused by abuse or limitations.

Lets apply these ideas to relationships.  Successful relationships often require all three things:

  • The correcting of places where our development had been hindered (which we are often unaware of, but our partners will be feeling the consequence of.)
  • The healing of actual emotional wounds that cause reactivity and pain.
  • The further development of our potential in ways that surpass the current norm, as the ‘normal’ level of relationship skills alone often isn’t sufficient to have a truly satisfying relationship at this time in history.

In overcoming a deficit or injury, we may actually have to overcompensate and develop capacities that are generally greater than what the ‘regular’ person has.

Given that relationships often bring up anything that is undeveloped or unhealed in ourselves, how do you get a relationship that is more peaceful, harmonious and loving?  Lets switch contexts for just a moment and look at a similar but different question.

How do you get a healthier body? You have to look at what you are feeding the body, how you are using it and taking care of it. We can put it in a list:

  • Learn and apply over time the guidelines of nutrition
  • Learn and apply over time appropriate exercise
  • Learn and apply over time the reduction of stress
  • Attend to and heal any injuries
  • Build up and support any areas of weakness
  • Utilize a community of people who continue to develop these ideas and/or     provide support.

That was easy.  We all know how to create a healthier body, whether we have the support to do it or not.  But we don’t all know how to create healthier relationships.  In fact, creating a healthier relationship can be incredibly difficult – just look at the divorce statistics.  But the same principles apply.  Lets look at what it will take:

  • Education – feeding your body new guidelines of ‘relational nutrition.’
  • Exercise – experiential exercises to help you ‘rewire’ and develop aspects of your brain to improve your ‘relation-ability.’
  • Communication exercises, tools and guidelines to help you and your partner learn to communicate in a different and more supportive way.
  • Questions and exercises to identify and attend to old wounds.
  • Questions and exercises to identify and attend to areas needing development.
  • A community of others who are involved in the same process and willing to talk about it and support each other.

So like changing your body, changing yourself or your relationship requires education and knowledge over time. It requires the application of that education and knowledge allowing for new habits to build, and support, whether from a therapist, a friend, or a community of like-minded others.

The first question I ask a couple or family unit who is coming to see me is, “What do you want?”  Or “What do the two of you want?”  Generally the answer I get is: “We want to get along, we want to stop fighting, we want a peaceful, harmonious and loving relationship.”

This is what WeConcile™ will help you do.  It should be out by the end of the 2013.

Emotions and Emotional Release

Emotions are intense.  They rock us.  We have to deal with them. Someone says something the wrong way, or we are in a difficult situation and all of a sudden we might find ourselves in a fury, or in deep grief, or perhaps an awful sense of embarrassment and shame as if we are ‘bad’.  When we are in these feeling places we usually don’t have any perspective, or not much.  It is like we got dropped off and lost in some horrible bad place and we cannot get ourselves out.  We have no control.  We don’t know what happened to us.  And on top of that, we often judge ourselves for having these lapses of control, or even worse, deny they ever happened. (This last one is sure to wreck havoc on your relationships.)   And it is scary.  What if our out of control feelings cause someone to judge us or reject us?

One way around this is to prevent ourselves from having feelings.  When I run into this in my practice, I generally refer to the ‘basement’ with all the feelings that are locked in and can’t get out.  You have to disconnect from yourself to do this.  You may feel more in control, but it is a disastrous state for a human being who has to know his or herself and relate to others.  We end up depressed, or detached and shut down, or having reactions way out of proportion to events that jump out and ambush whoever is unlucky enough to trigger us.

Recently for me, I had some very large feelings come up. They just pushed their way through and I let myself experience them. Meanwhile I felt confused, ashamed, and small, wondering what was wrong with me.  Pretty interesting as I’m somebody who is extremely good at unearthing and processing the hard stuff.  It made me realize how primal these feelings were and how hard it is for all of us as emotional beings to let the emotions take over and just experience them without judgment and without control.

The fear I think, is that either we are crazy, or that these feelings will pummel us for the rest of our lives and we won’t be able to live with ourselves, be adult, logical, and rational.  And yes, this can be part of the process of somebody with a major mood disorder, but that means they don’t have the other piece of solid ground they can hold onto and use as an anchor.  Instead it is a place they live in.  But this isn’t true for most of us.

I realized something else too.  The only way I was going to transcend what I was struggling with was by allowing the feelings to come through.  So, lying on my yoga mat during savasana, I just let the tears come up and I let myself completely feel the shame and grief that was moving though me.  Then it got clearer.  I could see a piece of my past differently than ever before.  I could see a very specific negative message I had gotten and how it had hindered me.  And I could see that by allowing myself to feel, I was processing and letting go of this belief.  I couldn’t change the belief until I experienced and released all the feelings that were connected to it. I couldn’t transcend the old me until I let myself go and really experienced what these feelings were.  This type of change is not a mental decision, but an emotional process.

This is the part of therapy that people who haven’t had therapy don’t understand. Yes, we talk about things and make sense of them, but often, for many of us, there is a very emotional piece that must occur.  It is like a tidal wave coming through, taking whatever is not solid with it, so that after it retracts the landscape is different.  Who we are has been changed permanently.

Yes, it is scary to descend into the depths of our feelings where the logical rational world isn’t present.  But it is also a very important aspect of healing.   We do survive these lapses.  And we have to tell ourselves, “these are just feelings”. “I am not crazy.”  Experiencing feelings in this way is important. They are telling us something we need to know, something about how our reality has been constructed. This is the releasing process that occurs when we are making big changes in who we are.  It is part of what must happen when we have core beliefs that need to shift.

Experiencing feelings is part of being human.  It is also part of the process of healing.  Reacting out of our feelings is very different than feeling these feelings.  For instance, snapping at somebody and blaming him or her for something is very different than experiencing the grief of being disappointed and hurt.  Once you allow yourself to descend into the disappointment and hurt, you can find the part of you that wasn’t valued at another point in your life.  You can explore and come to understand how that has impacted you.  You can get to know that grief and then you can heal from it.

How do you deal with your feelings?

Do you recognize them as a valuable part of living?

Do you try to avoid them?

Do they jump out at inopportune moments and sabotage you?

Do you allow yourself to have them and process them?

Do you get stuck in them, or can you understand their message and release them?

Subscribe to the Healing Tips Podcast with iTunes

Listen to this podcast on jenniferlehrmft.com »

When Wounds Collide

When wounds collide, we suffer and we don’t feel safe. Our partner becomes somebody we no longer trust. It is one of the most painful aspects of a relationship. When we are scared, we act in ways that do not help our relationships. When we feel safe, our relationships can blossom.

Do you remember O’Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi”? In that story, Della cut off her most valued asset, her hair, to buy a watch chain for her husband Jim. Jim’s most valuable possession was his watch. He sold his beautiful watch, to buy a barrette for his wife’s gorgeous hair. It is a story of two people willing to sacrifice what is most valuable to them to express their love. The following story is about the opposite. It is a story of two people terrified to lose what they need most – a picture of what happens when our wounds collide.

Jason had picked up his wife Mattie and they were driving to an event together. Mattie asked Jason if he had put the cats in for the night. Jason replied, “Well I got Fluffy in but not Whisper.” Mattie froze. “Did you shut the cat door?” she asked. “Yes, of course,” Jason said, not seeing what was coming. Mattie started to tear up. “What do you mean? Are you kidding?” she said. “No,” Jason said, feeling confused. “You locked Whisper out?” she asked again, incredulous. “I called and called and he didn’t come home.” Jason explained. “But there are coyotes,” she said. “What if he is chased and runs to the door and it is shut and he gets caught and eaten?” “That won’t happen,” Jason replied. “I’ve never seen a coyote around here and he is a smart cat. He can get on the roof or climb a tree.”

Mattie is sitting stiffly. She feels alone and trapped. She knows he could be right, but she also knows that if something happened, she wouldn’t be able to live with herself. She is imagining Whisper running for the door and feeling terrified as a coyote runs after him.

“Do you want me to turn around and ruin this evening?” Jason asked, his voice cutting through the air angrily. “No,” Mattie mumbled. She is silent and upset. She doesn’t know what to say. Jason also feels confused. He starts sinking into an overwhelming feeling of despair and hopelessness. “Why she is being so irrational? What just happened? How could my perfectly sane woman lose her mind?”

When they came home later that night, Whisper was at the front door waiting for them. Later they talked. Mattie said maybe it would have been better to have asked to turn around and have him be mad rather than to be unable to forgive herself if something had happened to Whisper. Jason said that if she had insisted that they turn around, he wouldn’t just be mad. He would be struggling with a lot of doubt about being in a relationship with someone who was irrational. He said that not turning around was a big deal for him. It had given him hope that she wasn’t crazy like all the others. Although they could talk about the incident, they were at an impasse.

What is going on here?

Mattie had grown up on a farm. She had many pets as a child, and these pets were very important to her. There were many tragedies over the years; pet ducklings brutally decapitated by a raccoon in the middle of the night, shrieks filling the air, a pheasant chick that was accidentally stepped on and died in front of her, the family dog shot by a hunter. With each of these tragedies and many more, Mattie had wished she had been able to foresee and prevent it. Instead, whenever one of her pets died, she felt responsible, scared and alone. For her, the idea of her beloved Whisper being locked out and perhaps unsafe, was intolerable. And the thought that Jason would get angry instead of have empathy and understand her, brought her right back to some of the feelings and events of her childhood.

Jason had grown up in with a violently alcoholic father who would taunt him and his siblings. He watched this wildly illogical man harm his family, watched as he beat them, and tormented them. He had watched his mother’s helplessness, the pain on his mother’s face and her early death due to stress. He had no tolerance for anything illogical. For him it was also a matter of life and death. Mattie’s seeming illogical thinking made him feel completely unsafe and scared him to death.

As Mattie and Jason continued to talk, they came to see that their wounds were very much alive for them. They realized that they both had a lot of fear around these areas that needed to be attended to. They also realized that they could be friends and talk despite the feelings that were being triggered in each of them.

“When Wounds Collide,” is a common dynamic and painful aspect in many relationships. For this scenario to resolve, both parties have to look at how fear is coloring their perceptions and gain some perspective.

Mattie needs to bring in some sense of reason. Yes, it could happen, a coyote could eat Whisper, but it wasn’t likely. Jason needs to realize that 1% craziness in somebody is not the same as 100% as in his father. Both parties need to understand and communicate their wounds. They need to see how their wounds keep them limited and that their wounds are calling to be tended to, healed, and transcended. Each needs to see that the other is not their mortal enemy, but another injured person. Each needs to develop empathy for the other, and be able to step out of his or her own perspective. As we share our wounds, affirm both ours and our partner’s, we are starting a healing process. We are no longer completely alone with our fear.

Is there a place in your relationship where this dynamic occurs, where your wounds collide?

Describe this dynamic in your relationship and the wounds that get activated.

Can you describe your wound?

Can you describe your partner’s wounds?

Are you willing to and able to talk about your wounds with your partner?

Are you exploring how to heal this wound?

Coming to understand and have compassion for each other’s wounds is necessary work in a relationship.

How Past Trauma Impacts Current Relationships

“The more quickly either person goes from disappointment or hurt to anger, defensiveness, or emotional withdrawal and remains stuck there, the less that person is capable of having a relationship and the more the other person will have to walk on eggshells.” – Mark Goulston

Why do some people have relationships that work and others don’t? One reason is past trauma is affecting the emotional safety of the relationship. Most of us don’t know what a “traumatized state of mind” is, but we do know when our world gets dark. We know when we feel as if we’ve been attacked or not considered by another. We know when we are so hurt we can’t talk, or we can only scream or react.

There are two things to consider here: one is actual trauma caused by another, such as being raped, hit, yelled at, picked on, etc., and the other is a “traumatized state of mind,” which is when one is experiencing intense disconnect or anger out of proportion to what is actually occurring. In this article, we are looking at the traumatized state of mind, not actual abuse. If you are in an abusive relationship, get help or get out.

Without going into what actually occurs in the mind/body during trauma, there are degrees of trauma, all of which causes disconnection. In moments of trauma, we don’t have external support. We are thrown back on ourselves. We are alone, no longer part of a matrix of connection and love. Later in life, various events can trigger that experience and those feelings. Whether it is a voice inside saying, “How could you treat me like that?” to a rage or withdrawal that you can’t get yourself out of, we find ourselves alone again. What we do with that experience varies. Some of us fight to be seen, to make it right, while others pull back and hide, or abuse substances. But while doing so we are not making a choice. We are reacting. Whatever the scenario, there has just been a disruption in our relationship.

When we move into and experience a traumatized state of mind, we lose perspective. Complexity collapses. The world becomes black and white, good and bad. We can no longer communicate rationally because we are no longer rational. Our world has fractured. From where we are, it appears that the other person has betrayed us. We are hurt and not thinking clearly. It is from this place that damage is done to our relationships. We are no longer capable of communicating rationally, and maybe not even treating the other person fairly. We are no longer in command of ourselves.

Changing this dynamic in a relationship requires:

* Understanding our past wounds so we can heal them.

* Seeing and taking responsibility for our own behavior and the damage we’ve caused our relationship.

* Learning to deal with hurts and disappointments differently.

* Seeing our relationship as a place to build a bridge between differences, not as a place with rights and wrongs.

* Sharing our wounds with our partner, our wounds are part of the relationship.

* Learning to reach forward with vulnerability and support each other when we are traumatized.

It’s up to us to master ourselves. We can change ourselves if we choose to, but to do so, we need to become aware of how we lose ourselves “under the influence” of our past emotional trauma. Only then we can be fully present for the other and be in a truly functioning relationship.

Emotional Courage

How do we change the direction of our lives? Despite our histories, why do some people create fulfilling lives for themselves while others do not? As a therapist, and as a person who has made her life about self-transformation and then later, the transformation of others, this is easy to see. But for many people, especially those who do not know much about “therapy,” and the process it entails, this is more of a mystery.

Have you ever said to yourself, “I will do whatever it takes to reach my full potential in this lifetime – no matter what”? This statement to ourselves, to our god, to the universe, is powerful and can open us up to change. There are several main ingredients in change: a desire to improve one’s sense of well-being, and a willingness to do whatever it takes. These qualities could be put together and called emotional courage.

Emotional courage means we are willing to connect to all aspects of ourselves, including old, scary and painful experiences, and feel whatever comes up, rather than cutting ourselves off to avoid pain, shame, grief, and sadness. Emotional courage means we will leave our comfort zone if it enlarges our lives, rather than live in a smaller but seemingly safer world. It means that we can have the courage to suffer if it enables us to grow and live a bigger life.

While there is much to be said for being kind to ourselves, to not always be pushing, when we avoid that which is challenging or enlarging, we keep ourselves from growing new muscle, developing new talents and abilities. Doing what is easiest is often a way of avoiding what is hard.

In therapy, we often have to remember old experiences that hurt us. We often have to sit in those re-activated feelings of shame or pain. We are taught to allow ourselves to let go of control and be disoriented. We come to know that we can survive this process and that in doing so we are opening bridges between different parts of ourselves. We have to trust that ultimately this is courageous and allows us to become stronger. We can be in contact with all we have lived with. We can look back and say, “gee that was really hard”, rather than dismiss it and say, “I had a great childhood”, or “I don’t want to wallow in the past”. Nobody had a perfect childhood, and we all have created ways of surviving. Some of those ways no longer work.

For example, Jane often attacked her partner George angrily when she felt uncared for. She wanted to stop this pattern and began to look at why she got so upset by things he would do that felt neglectful. As this pattern was explored, it became clear that as a child, her parents did not consider Jane’s needs and desires. Now, whenever George didn’t specifically consider her, she went into a rage. As Jane began to delve into her reactions (which were always much bigger than the situation at hand), she began to experience the pain that she lived through as a child, the feelings of unworthiness, the hurt, the loneliness, and the anger. She was able to start to communicate what was getting triggered in her, instead of attacking, and due to her courage both in delving into the pain of the past, and communicating her vulnerability openly, Jane began to rebuild her relationship.

Do you find yourself avoiding situations that trigger uncomfortable feelings? How is this holding you back? What might happen if you take the leap and trust that facing your fears will ultimately empower you? Will you speak up honestly? Will you stand in your vulnerability rather than be self-protective? Will you trust that you can survive feelings of shame or embarrassment? These choices become skills and abilities that allow us to create healthier lives and relationships.

Safety & Reactivity in Relationships

How many times have we begun a relationship, full of hope, only to have it crash and burn, or one party flee?

Many of us have relational injuries from the past. This often manifests as a “fear of intimacy.” Beneath this phrase, lurks not feeling safe in relationships. Our fathers may have had tempers, or our mothers may have been intrusive. A past partner may have been abusive, or perhaps their neediness or jealousy was a burden. A multitude of possibilities exist. Whatever the case, we found that relating to another could be costly. We learned to defend ourselves, to shut down, cover up, disappear, attack, or protect ourselves in some other way. We learned to not be too vulnerable, to only let the other in so far, or to run if we got scared. We learned to make ourselves safe by controlling the depth of the relationship in a variety of ways.

Often when we get scared, we react, we become irrational, we move into our limbic brain and rather than being rational, we respond from fight or flight. Some of us have trauma that is extensive enough that we move into dissociative states, fragments of ourselves that look like Dr. Jeckle changing into Mr. Hyde. Irrationality is scary to the other person and a major problem in relationships. It can trigger a variety of defensive postures including early abandonment of a promising relationship. Anger, irrationality, and mood swings directed at the other person almost always create a feeling of not being safe with that person.

Interactions with an intimate other ultimately trigger our deepest wounds, our attachment needs, feelings of vulnerability, and our need for safety. Anything unhealed is bound to get touched and come up. These wounds can vary from feeling judged, to not important, abandoned, or even abused. Regardless, these wounds trigger deep and primal feelings, feelings of desperation, anger, confusion, shame, etc and can cause us to react.

The real problem emerges however, when we cannot own our wound, but instead blame the other person, or expect them to “take care of it” or not trigger us. Ultimately, we have to learn to tend to our own wounds, as well as ask the other to be kind and gentle with our fragilities, to be safe for us. Both parties have to take responsibility for his or her own behavior before we become safe for the other. This requires open and non-blaming communication.

What are your deepest fears in relationship to others? Are these fears related to how you were treated in your past? Have you started to take responsibility for them? Do you have a partner who is willing to stay open and talk to you when you are triggered, when you trigger each other?

A relationship has the potential to be a cauldron for growth and transformation, or pain, fear or flight. Everything unfinished and triggered in that particular combination emerges to step into the dance of that relationship. In the process, we get to decide if this situation is safe enough, or if we want or deserve more. If we are attempting an intimate relationship with somebody who allows us to feel nourished and safe enough, we can stay and do the work and play of learning to love and grow in the matrix of connection with another.