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

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.

 

Learning to Reconnect

It had started like a regular day weekend day.  John and Patti were taking a walk.  The sun was shining.  Life was good.  But then, John sheepishly told Patti that he would not be working on a project they had told Patti he was going to do, and that had been planned for that weekend.  He said that he felt too busy and had other things he would rather do that day, and that there would be lots of time to get it done.

A cloud immediately moved over Patti’s world. She felt as if a rug had been pulled out from under her. She didn’t know why.  Over and over she heard the words in her head, ‘you are all alone, you can’t depend on anyone.’  She felt herself pull back away from John.  She realized she felt set up.  He had promised something and had broken his promise.  She felt as if she could not trust him and as if he was ‘taking the easy way out,’ instead of honoring his word. For Patti, it was a big injury.  She needed to know that she could rely on him.  Trust was very important to her.

John on the other hand felt as if he had been backed into a corner.  He didn’t know how to explain how he felt.  He didn’t fully understand why Patti was so upset.  As they talked, he was able to say that he hadn’t told her he didn’t want to do it on her time frame because he didn’t want to disappoint her, so he had agreed to keep her ‘happy.’  He realized that he didn’t know how to get to be himself and get his needs met when they were different than hers. He didn’t know how to say no and feel safe.

Because of the disconnection that occurred, both John and Patti fell into deep feelings of despair and hopelessness.  They each moved into their own ‘default places.’

Over the difficult conversations that continued throughout the day, Patti was able to convey that she didn’t know how she could trust him, trust his word, and also how she could feel as if they were a team, as if he would take care of things she needed him to address, without her keeping an eye on his progress.  And John said that he understood that it was wrong of him to have ‘set her up’ with a false expectation and a broken promise, and that he needed to learn how to articulate his real feelings.

The break was partially repaired because they were able to talk about the deeper attachment issues that had been activated – things like:

 

  • Are you really there for me?
  • Can I be myself and still be okay in this relationship?

 

Patti and John were not able to ‘compromise’ until each of them had their real feelings on the table.  Then they could address the underlying issues. They had worked out a way that Patti’s need to have John participate in some of the projects that were overwhelming her, could be met by John, without him feeling as if he were having to ‘answer’ to her.  Patti could address John’s need to not feel controlled, and to have his different process and way of taking care of things respected. John could address Patti’s need for someone who was helping her and not just leaving her carrying a load of responsibility that was too big for her.  He could also address her need to be able to trust his word – that he would do what he said he would do, and not make promises that he was going to break. But they both were still quite raw and not yet back to their regular sense of connection. Because of this they were vulnerable to having their wounds get re-triggered.

Later that evening, they fell into a very unproductive conversation when they were talking about what happened in ways that weren’t related to their deeper attachment needs.  As John talked, he implied that Patti’s more conservative financial view was the problem in this situation.  This tact effectively stopped the conversation for Patti because it wasn’t addressing the deeper attachment needs of ‘I need to know I can trust you,’ ‘I need to know you have my back,’ and ‘I need to know you will be happy even if I want something different than you.’ Instead of continuing to connect over their deeper needs, Patti became more frustrated and tense and the conversation became difficult.  She felt as if he was taking an ‘I’m right and you’re the problem’ stance.  As she became more upset, John felt the pit of his stomach tighter.  He became confused. He didn’t understand what just happened.  He was just talking. What was happening?

They dropped the conversation and both moved into their own confused and separate upset worlds. The intensity of each of their feelings shows how this situation tapped into old wounds for each of them.  Because of this intensity, both of them got lost in a private world of hurt feelings. Although they were able to talk and were attempting to be supportive of each other, it wasn’t until the following day that they were clear enough to be able to see the other’s vulnerabilities and reconnect.

The next day it was much more clear.  Patti was back in her ‘regular’ reality and as she looked back at the previous day, it seemed like another reality. Those intense feelings had evaporated and no longer had any hold over her. Patti realized why she had been so intensely triggered, both the first time when John went back on his word, and the second time when he was talking about the problem in a way that could only turn into an argument.  She realized that the intensity she had experienced was due to old wounds from various events in her childhood and life.  She felt as if she had stepped into, and then back out of, a time warp. The day spent in that time warp had felt like falling into shards of glass. She was relieved to have gotten through it.

At the same time John was realizing that his fear of reactivity also came from events in his life when a person would ‘switch.’ The unpredictability and emotional volatility he had witnessed as a child had left him scarred and scared.

Although Patti felt relieved herself, she realized that still had to help John to recover as he was still lost in old feelings.  She knew none of it had been done on purpose by either of them. John had some learning to do about how to be fully present as her partner. She knew that she was now able to reconnect. She also knew that reconnecting without understanding what had happened meant that this kind of event might continue to occur without hope for improvement. She told him that she had gotten the oxygen mask on herself, and she was now available to get one on him. As they talked, what had overtaken them became clearer.  They were able to reconnect emotionally and previous day’s pain faded into the background.

The reconnection included both of them realizing more about their own and their partner’s needs and difficulties. They were understanding how deep their wounds were, and how important a ‘safe’ attachment was.  This insight allowed them to reconnect more easily and quickly each time they had a disruption. As their relationship continued, both John and Patti continued to heal, because they were willing to explore what had happened between them, and attend to each others’ injuries.

 

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 »

The Three Interdependent Dimensions of Our Relationships

(The material in this article comes from understanding gained by training in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples)

Working with couples effectively means you understand the three dimensions of our relationships: Attachment, emotions and cycles.  Learn about what needs to be focused on to do effective couples work, or to work on your own relationship.

1)   The dimension of attachment: attachment is a framework that underlies all intimate connection even if we are not aware of it.  Most of us aren’t.  It is a term more used by psychologists, therapists and people working with infants than the general public and many people don’t know anything about it.  Attachment means that we look at important connections through a lens that asks questions like, “Am I important to you?” or “Do you really care about me?” or “Am I enough for you?” etc. It is hard wired into us. As babies, connection means life. Disconnection is death. Attachment is about relationship and it brings with it questions about safety, belonging and meaning. It asks, “What do I mean to you?” “Am I safe with you?” “Do I belong?” It is through an attachment lens that we interpret the actions of our partner.   Events that are upsetting to us bring up attachment related questions.  We are often not aware of these attachment related questions, and when they get activated by a lack of connection or another attachment threat, they get translated into negative thoughts like, “You don’t care about me” or “You never put me first” and actions like yelling or withdrawing. We react because we are afraid that we are losing our connection or being overwhelmed by it. Our fears that we are not enough, or not important or valued enough emerge. What we aren’t aware of is that our partner is responding to his or her own attachment fears and isn’t yet conscious or, or doesn’t know how to sort through this.  The screaming partner is screaming for closeness. The withdrawing partner is withdrawing because the distance is how he or she maintains the relationship when he or she feels criticized, not understood, or not good enough. When we learn this lens and practice seeing through it, we will be able to re-interpret what is going on and understand it in a new and much more constructive way. Without this lens, it is very difficult to develop empathy for our partners when they are behaving in hurtful ways.  But once we see that they are struggling with their own attachment issues, it is possible to feel less threatened and have more empathy. This is important because we want to change our stance so we can reconnect more easily.

2)   The dimension of emotions:  when we feel emotion, we feel it in our bodies. It is visceral – we shake, cry, ‘see red’, hunch over, look away etc.  The dimension of our emotions is about feeling.  Exploring our feelings helps us understand more about ourselves, about our reactions, about old feelings that we are still trying to avoid.  Many people are uncomfortable with their feelings. Some people don’t have a very good vocabulary developed to describe their feelings, or their feelings have been compressed, pushed down and aren’t an active part of their reality.  This can change. We can and need to get to know our feelings better if we want to expand our ability to relate. The dimension of emotions can be experienced more deeply, navigated more easily and articulated more clearly. When our attachment questions get activated our feelings also get activated. And when our feelings get triggered, so do our attachment questions.  But as we understand our feelings more and experience them more fully, we can learn to witness them and talk about them rather than react from them. This helps calm down the dimension of cycles.

3)   The dimension of cycles: cycles occur in all relationships.  If we are struggling in our relationship, our cycle will be contributing to our difficulties. Our cycle is what occurs between us over and over again. I feel disappointed and cry, you get frustrated and yell or withdraw. I cry harder. You withdraw more.  The dimension of feelings and the dimension of attachment both interrelate with the dimension of cycles.  If I experience my relationship as unsafe because of a disconnect, I might feel sad and cry, while thinking, “nobody loves me” and as I do this, you withdraw because you think that you can never make me happy and this feels bad, shameful, scary to you.  I feel abandoned and sad. You feel alone and inadequate. We both want to be close. We cope by crying or withdrawing. Gaining control over our cycle is important. First, we must develop a conceptual picture of what our cycle looks like, of what actually occurs.  As we understand our cycle, and see how it relates to attachment issues and feelings, we aren’t so threatened by it and our reactivity goes down. We understand how it gets fueled, and that it doesn’t need to go on forever. As we gain control of our cycle and understand that we can influence it, we start to feel even safer.

Copyright 2010 Jennifer Lehr

How to talk about what we can’t talk about, but need to talk about

Sometimes our wounds collide in such a way that we hit a roadblock.  One of us has an intense need to talk about something.The other can’t bear hearing about it.  For example:  Jane was worried about how her partner took care of everyone in the world except himself, including his health.  He seemed weak to her in this area and it bothered her. She felt a burning desire to talk to him about this. She couldn’t stand being silent.  One night she brought it up, but Steve only heard what was wrong with him, how he wasn’t good enough.  He felt ashamed, upset, angry, abandoned and sad.  “Get me out of here,” his brain screamed. Jane realized it was going all-wrong and she felt frantic and bad. This isn’t what she wanted.She wanted him to understand what she was saying, to see what was wrong and change.  Instead, he left saying he needed to be by himself to think.  “Oh God,” she thought, “What did I do? How do I deal with this?”

Jane and Steve have hit a roadblock.  In this case, one of the party feels that they MUST express their feelings and what they see, and the other party feels that they MUST get away because they feel so hurt or trapped as a result. There is no space to talk. Both parties are caught in intense feelings and fears.  Neither can move in any direction without a reaction, without bumping into a ghost from their past, or their partner’s.When a couple finds themselves in this dynamic, stuffing feelings doesn’t work and isn’t the answer, nor does pushing the agenda.There is only one way out that works. The answer is this:

Jane says to Steve (or vice versa), “We are really struggling talking about this.  Lets talk about why this discussion is so hard for us and what it is bringing up for us.”  Jane and Steve are no longer talking about the issue itself.  Now they are talking about the minefield within which the issue resides.  Jane says further, “I grew up watching my parents behave in ways that was really painful for me.  My mom never confronted my dad on how he ignored me. She babied him instead. She took care of him instead of me. I couldn’t stand it.  There was nothing I could do.  I felt helpless and it hurt. So when I watch you behave in certain ways, taking care of others instead of yourself (and therefore us), I am terrified. I feel turned off.  I don’t know what to do.  I am afraid you aren’t taking care of your health and I will lose you eventually. Then when I can’t talk to you about what I see, I feel stuck. It also scares me because I want to be with you, but what if I get trapped?  Trapped the way I felt as a kid with my parents. I don’t know how to talk to you and get you to understand me in a way that feels safe to you and I really want to.  I don’t know how to be there for you and myself at the same time in this area.”  Steve thinks about this for a minute. He replies, “I need to know that you are not trying to change me, that you care about me the way I am.  I have plenty of history around not being accepted, being put down, and being controlled so when we get into this area, I feel so hurt that I just want to run away.  I feel unloved. I feel not good enough for you, or even for myself.  It is such an awful feeling.  How can I talk when it feels like you are criticizing me and I feel so horrible about myself?”

Steve and Jane are not talking about the issue of “You don’t take care of yourself.”  Instead, they are talking about the issue of, “It is really hard to talk to you when I love you, but what I have to say will hurt you. I am scared of you reacting and being hurt and leaving.” And they are talking about, “It’s really hard to talk when I love you and am scared of losing you but I feel criticized,  not good enough, and think I am disgusting to you.”  Steve and Jane need to talk about how difficult it is to talk about this, rather than the issue itself of Steve’s caretaking of others.  That is how they will eventually get to that issue.

The conversation continues.  Jane says, “When I try to talk about this with you, you get hurt and I get really scared.  I don’t want to hurt you. I want you to know how much I care about you and how much I want us to be able to talk.”  Steve says, “When you try to talk about this with me, I feel hurt and want to leave and I don’t want to leave you.” They talk more about their fear of both losing each other and of being trapped in something that is not good for them.  They talk about how this issue is so “hot” for both of them that they cannot talk about it. They talk about their histories and where these intense feelings are coming from. As Steve and Jane talk, they are opening up space around their wounds and fears.  They are bringing in some fresh air and getting to know and understand each other better.  They are learning new things about each other and themselves.  Steve doesn’t take care of himself because he doesn’t fully value himself.  He’s learned to value his ability to give to others instead.  Jane pushes to be seen, because she was so unseen as a child.

Steve and Jane discover that they have a way to talk that they did not use to have. They both understand why they are reacting so strongly to the other.  They understand what they are afraid of.  This is what they need to talk about first, before they can ever get to the actual “issue,” because the issue is embedded in their wounds. Both come to understand and have empathy for the other.  Both become more able to see themselves and talk about who they are and how they impact each other.

Innovations in Couples Therapy

A while back I spent a week at a training workshop for therapists on Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. While I have been working with couples for years, there is always more to learn; I believe that this is the best couples methodology available today. Currently there are new frontiers opening in brain research, child development, and the need for safe secure connections in our primary relationships. These new areas of knowledge impact the practice of psychotherapy, especially around the areas of intimate relationships as well as how we have the power to alter our feelings, perceptions and responses.

What makes a relationship work? It is one of the questions I have been asking and answering in my own life. Because of my own history, developing the ability to have healthy nourishing relationships, to be present, direct and also be vulnerable has been a long and ongoing process. I remember once watching a romantic movie over and over again, gripped with the impending connection, the hope for absolute and complete harmony, for the feeling of truly loving and being loved.

Think about your relationship or what you imagine your relationship will be like. What do you long for? What do you dream about? What are the feelings you are looking for? Connection? Love? Safety?

As babies, we are held, fed, and attended to, and we grow in this context of connection. We continue to need connection throughout our adult lives. We long to be understood, to be cared for and to be loved. We long to know that we are important; that how we feel matters. We long to flow effortlessly between connection and autonomy. But our relationships are not so easy. Distressed couples are so because they do not feel safe connecting. As situations occur that frustrate that need for safe connection, disharmonies arise between us, as do both FEELINGS and behaviors. We develop strategies to not feel our grief, anger, shame and fear. We may cut off our own longing and not feel our need for connection. We may get angry and bitter to keep from feeling the grief that is underneath. These strategies that protect us, also limit our relationships.

As a therapist, I watch how couples interact. I notice how they talk to each other, who moves forward and how, who holds back. How we respond to each other creates a pattern. Noticing the pattern is important, because the pattern itself must be addressed.
This dance we do with each other stirs deep feelings that we act out causing painful cycles of interaction that repeat and repeat.

The other important piece is the feelings themselves. In therapy, we unpack feelings that are below the surface, below the mirage of the laundry that is never put away, or the frustration of a partner who wants to stay home instead of go out. Because we get stuck in the “above ground” issues, we don’t understand what is underneath; that we don’t feel cared for, loved, respected or understood. Most of us don’t fully understand our historical relational wounds and how they impact us. We often don’t face our partners and tell them about our hurts and what we need. When we do, they sometimes cannot hear us.

While straightening this out, both the therapist and the partners sometimes get caught in compromise. “If you do this, I will do that,” etc. Compromise doesn’t deal with the deeper longings for safe connection. It is like rearranging the furniture in a room that is falling down. Changing our relationships involves learning new ways of being, reorganizing our emotions and experience, and understanding ourselves differently EXPERIENTIALLY. As we interact with ourselves and partner differently, we are actually architecting a different brain. It also means that both parties will be emotionally uncomfortable for a while. And that is a big deal. I don’t know anybody who says, “Great, I want to be emotionally uncomfortable. I want to feel vulnerable, scared, or in pain.” It is inherently uncomfortable to connect with our primary feelings and communicate our vulnerabilities, yet it is an essential part of change. While the old pattern keeps us stuck, emotional responsiveness allows our love to grow. Are you willing to be uncomfortable?

Very briefly, here’s what has to happen:
We identify the relationship pattern.
We take responsibility for our part.
We get in touch with our deeper feelings including old wounds affecting our perceptions and needs.
We take responsibility for how our part of the pattern affects our partner’s feelings.
We listen to our partner talk about his or her feelings.
We share our own feelings.
We support each other in this process.

Lets suppose we have a couple where one of the partners is closed down and the other is more volatile (this is very common). The closed down person (let’s say he) often doesn’t really know his feelings. He got away from them a long time ago, as they weren’t fun. Maybe as a child, he was criticized or his feelings weren’t supported. He suppressed those feeling; packed them away. He tends to be cerebral and logical. He doesn’t know how to open up and be vulnerable, and the idea of it is frankly, scary. The volatile partner is more connected to her emotions, but often it is anger that is expressed, not her longing for connection, or her feelings of not wanting to be abandoned, or wanting to be considered more. That partner has learned how to try to assertively get what she wants rather than be open and vulnerable as well as feel and then communicate her pain. What happens when these two get together? When they run into a conflict, he will withdraw, and she will attempt to get what she needs by moving forward, often with some anger. He hides more and she pushes more. They get caught in a cycle. Neither realizes that the cycle is caused by both of them. Both feel like it is the other person’s fault. Neither knows how to change the cycle. Neither person feels safe.

The mission of the EFT therapist is to enable both partners to experience their primary feelings and longings, explore, organize, and ultimately communicate them to their partner. This requires the partner who doesn’t have good access to his feelings to DEVELOP access to his feelings. It requires the angry partner to stop blaming and see the vulnerability of the more withdrawn partner, and later to also show her own vulnerability and need. When a couple begins to do this, they are responding to, and caring for each other rather than reacting, closing down, blaming or pushing the other away. As each develops in their ability to feel, understand feelings that they were not aware of, and open to the other, they become a stronger couple. They feel safer and more secure. They both change into people who are capable of a nourishing relationship.

Intimacy (Into-Me-See): Invite Your Partner For A Visit Into Your World

Most of us want to feel connected, loved and safe in a relationship, but building a relationship that works requires a number of abilities. Building a relationship requires building trust. It requires an attitude of kindness and curiosity towards our partner. It requires looking at our relationship as an adventure, rather than a problem or chore. And it requires being vulnerable – sharing who we are with our partner.

We often want to be listened to by our partners, but can we also listen to them? One thing that makes therapy beneficial is that the therapist is professionally trained not only in psychology, but also in listening. As we are listened to, and validated, we feel affirmed and understood. For example, if my partner says to me, “it really hurt me when you made plans without asking me how I felt about them.” If I respond by arguing and saying, “I thought you were busy,” etc., it could escalate into an argument. What if instead I said, “It really hurt your feelings when I made plans without considering what you might want. Do you want to tell me more?”

In relationships, each person lives in a different world. We will never live in the same world; never have the same past, the exact same experience or way of understanding our lives. We have different wounds and different sensitivities. When we are listened to, we feel less alone. We crave to be listened to without argument or interruption, to simply be heard. One of the things that make a relationship work is when we can listen to our partner, and conversely, know our partner will listen to us.

When we cross the bridge into our partner’s world, we leave our own opinions and self-protection behind. Instead, we bring in curiosity and caring. As we do this, we increase safety in the relationship. The other becomes safe to expose themselves to us. But to do this requires maturity. Listening and understanding without putting in our own two cents is a skill. It is not always easy to listen to the other. With every word they say, we may want to respond, to defend, or to disagree. Crossing the bridge into the world of our partner is problematic if we are reactive. It is hard to listen to another and hold back our disagreements if we are afraid we will be overpowered or lose ourselves by not speaking. It is important to trust that we don’t have to share our own opinions and counter every thing we do not agree with. It is also important to know that our partner will listen to us without argument.

Listening does not mean we agree. It does not mean we give up our own desires and needs. It just means that we listen and validate that we understand. It means we want to understand our partner’s world, even if it is not our world, even if it may cause us pain, even if we want them to change.

What is too hard for you to listen to? Why? Places we cannot listen indicate areas of deep pain. It might be that your partner has a need that makes you feel unimportant or abandoned. Can you listen anyway? What is your partner unable to hear about you? How would you feel if your partner could listen? Is there an imbalance? Does one partner always listen and the other always explain? If so, these roles will need to be switched.

I encourage you to open up the space to listen to each other in your relationship. If you find that either you or your partner is not able to fully listen without countering or arguing, get help. A relationship cannot truly have intimacy if each partner does not feel safe to share his or her feelings. Imago workshops teach people in relationships to build intimacy by listening. Therapy can also teach people to listen to each other.

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.