Toughing It Out

We all have emotional survival strategies that do not work. A common one is ‘going it alone,’ ‘sucking it up,’ or ‘toughing it out.’ We put our heads down, close our eyes and push forward, as if we are in a blizzard miles from home, and no one is with us. We aren’t even aware of what we are doing. We’ve adapted. We are survivors. We will make it. But it is lonely and it isn’t fun. I’ve been in this mindset and situation many times in my life. I’ve seen many of my friends do this as well. While it is a great ability to have if there aren’t any resources, often that is not what is going on. Too often we aren’t saying to ourselves, to our partner, to our life – I need more.
Why is this? Why do we not ask for support when we need it? Why do we accept too little? Why do we tough it out instead?
In relationships we often do not ask for more, because we don’t know how to get our partner to see our needs. Maybe we’ve tried and it hasn’t gone well. Maybe our partner is caught in his or her own struggle and isn’t available. Maybe ‘keeping the peace,’ has become more important than ‘bridging the gap.’ Maybe we are more afraid of being alone than we are of ‘toughing it out.’
Often it is our own generous natures that plays a role in our ‘toughing it out.’ We’ve learned to take care of ourselves and we learned to take care of non-nurturing others and not put that person out. Perhaps our childhoods were such that we had to take care of ourselves emotionally. We never learned what a reciprocal and supportive relationship looks like. What we learned was to ‘not rock the boat.’ This habit pattern has been wired into our brain. We trudge forward, only to realize later that we are starving and need more.

How do we change this?

• Trust the importance of asking for what you need. Although it may create a strain in the relationship, it is also what will allow it to move forward. If the relationship breaks, then there is a deeper problem present.
• Trust that there is support and that you can access it.
• Be willing to let go of situations that are not nourishing.
• Know that love is not about sacrifice and going it alone. Love is about supporting each other on our journey to wholeness.

These kinds of changes are scary. What if we lose the person we need? What if the support we want isn’t possible in this particular relationship? What if we open up a messy conversation or bunch of feelings?
Asking for what you need takes courage. Relating is challenging. Our old wounds are sure to be activated. Yet, if the other person is 100% committed to making this relationship the best it can be (and nobody deserves anything less) these challenges can be worked out. They won’t break the relationship. They will ultimately make it more connected, more supportive and stronger.

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.

 

Standing In Your Shoes

(Names and details have been changed.)

I was recently talking to Cathy, a friend of mine.  She and her girlfriend Sammy were having a tough time in their relationship and had just gotten into a fight. She explained what had happened. They were decorating the house for the holidays together, but Sammy got upset and said it was all for her, her tree, her project. She lashed out at Cathy and left. From Cathy’s perspective, Sammy was having a temper tantrum.  She didn’t understand why Sammy was getting so upset. Why couldn’t they have a nice evening together?  What went wrong?

We talked for a while about what Sammy’s ‘triggers’ were and why she was upset at Cathy.  Shee had multiple unresolved stressors in her life that were getting activated. Mostly it seemed that she just didn’t believe in herself.  There were a number of reasons for this, including having  famous parents whose reputations she would never live up to, an achievement oriented girlfriend who had very little free time and as a consequence wasn’t as available as she needed.  Sammy struggled with her sense of not being who she ‘should’ be and that she should somehow be ‘more.’  This was part of a bucket full of difficult issues going on for her – some she was probably not fully aware of, and we were not yet to the heart of the problem between them.

Eventually we got to my friend’s ‘part.’  What she was doing that was contributing to Sammy not feeling a part of this family event.

Sammy had been busy, so Cathy had picked up the tree.  They were living in Cathy’s house.  They were decorating with her ornaments.   They were doing it on her schedule because this is when she had time.  The holiday decorating was very important to her.  It meant family to her.  She wanted to do it with Sammy. But somehow the ‘WE’ evaporated (at least from Sammy’s perspective) and decorating had become yet another project to be squeezed into an already tight schedule.  Somehow the project became something that actually interfered with the act of connecting and being a ‘WE’ with her partner.  She wasn’t intentionally casting Sammy aside. She wanted her to be part of this ritual.  But she hadn’t been standing in Sammy’s shoes.  She hadn’t been able to see what was happening through Sammy’s eyes.

As Sue Johnson – founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy – says, ‘if it’s emotional and packs a punch, it is about attachment’ – or “Am I important to you?”  When Sammy was upset, it was because she didn’t feel important, wanted, needed or good enough.  When Cathy got upset, it was because she felt mistreated by Sammy’s behavior and felt that her intentions were misunderstood.  She wanted the ritual for both of them, but her ‘get it done’ skill set wasn’t working in this scenario.

The world of our partners may be complex. We may struggle to understand their experience. Their reactions may appear mysterious to us. We may have no idea why they are behaving as they are.  We may not see how our actions contribute to our ‘cycle’ of conflict.  We may not wish to take responsibility because we feel innocent. And in we actually are innocent in that we are not hurting our partners on purpose.

We hurt them when we lash out because we feel hurt, or because we are caught in a way of being that just isn’t right for the other person.  And sometimes hurting someone else is unavoidable and part of the friction of growing.  The pain makes us look deeper.

My friend and her girlfriend are both really good people. Neither of them would intentionally hurt someone else.  Sammy acted out because of her own sense of needing to feel more special. And Cathy had no idea that Sammy would experience her actions this way. But unexamined ways of being, old issues or unidentified needs can blind us.  Nobody is at fault here.  But there is an opportunity to learn more about each other and ourselves.

Our imagination is one of our greatest gifts. And when we link our imagination with empathy we have the power to step into another’s world and understand their experience not just with our minds, but also with our hearts. Empathy = em+pathos or ‘from emotion, from suffering, from experience.’ We have to experience another’s emotion, suffering, experience. It is this ability that allows us to address how we are impacting another.  Yet if we are unable or unwilling to experience our own guilt, or for some of us the shame of hurting another, we cannot link our imagination and our empathy. We cannot step into another’s world, take responsibility for our actions and make the changes needed.

What if we were to step not just into the world of our partners, but also into the world of the animals we raise for food, of the humans who serve us, or sew the clothes we wear?  What if we were to step into the world of children growing up with no opportunity for education?

As we use our imaginations and also our empathy, our excuses for unacceptable situations can no longer hold.  We can no longer say, ‘it has to be this way – it isn’t cost effective to do it another way.’  We can no longer justify taking care of ourselves first at the expense of others. There was a great war over slavery in this country because many could not see how the economic system would work without it.  Yet it did and it does.  When we make changes, new ways emerge – whether in the larger systems already in place in the world, or in the intimate and personal interactions of our own relationships.

It is up to each of us.  Use your mind and your heart. Step into that place of imagination and empathy. Then decide what you are and are not willing to change.

 

 

 

 

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?

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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

Setting Boundaries

Can you set a boundary (say no) to somebody when you are not angry?  Often, we can set a boundary if we are angry, but cannot if we are not angry.  We use anger to assist us because saying no isn’t so easy (for some of us). Saying no when we are so mad we don’t care isn’t so hard. Caring and saying no at the same time is more difficult. The other person might get mad, their feelings could get hurt, or they might reject us. To set a non-angry boundary, we have to be willing to have the other be mad at us or have whatever reaction they have.  We have to take the position that something is not acceptable to us and we simply are not going to allow it.  Can you say no without being angry?  If you can’t, is it because your safety is endangered?  If that is the case, why are you in this relationship? (And get help.)  If that is not the case, you have some work to do around your fear of the other’s reactions.  What are you afraid of?  Why?  What part of yourself needs support so that you can overcome this fear?

Relationships: The New Challenge in Self Mastery

One of the things I enjoy doing is reading a book with new perspectives and then applying those ideas to my own field.  I just finished reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  It’s one of those books that allow us to see the world differently.  Of the many ideas it describes, one is that as humans, we are creative and seek autonomy, mastery and purpose among other things.  We don’t need to be controlled, managed or manipulated. The use of the carrot and the stick as motivators actually reduce our productivity.  If we have our basic requirements met (food, shelter, adequate money) we will seek to fulfill ourselves through meaning making activities.  The old model of motivation, that we need to be managed, works with simple logical tasks, but our world is changing and these repetitive tasks are being outsourced or taken over by computers. This model doesn’t work with the duties of our current day, which tend to be the more creative and right-brained, rather than the more routine and left brained.  Another striking idea is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. To be intrinsically motivated is to care about mastery, agency and purpose.  A focus on external success actual hinders motivation and ultimately success because you get caught up in the goal (making money, becoming famous etc), rather than the process of developing mastery, giving back to the world, or having a purpose.  People who tend to be external focused (Type X) can learn to become more intrinsically focused (Type I). This is all very good news. Not only is our understanding of our world and ourselves changing, but our world itself and we as part of it are also evolving and developing.

Can these ideas be applied to self-growth?  Can they be applied to relationships? You bet! The last thing a therapist wants is to work with someone who isn’t self-motivated or interested in exploring who they are and creating purpose for themselves. Or someone who thinks the world (and their self and life) is static and that it cannot, or isn’t going to change. That would be akin to dragging a bag of rocks up a hill.  There are people (mostly not on the west coast, thankfully) who find therapy shameful or stupid.  This has always bothered me.  How can you possibly understand yourself, develop new parts of yourself and work towards mastery of your life, if you aren’t willing to look at yourself?  What is going on in our culture that this occurs? Somehow feelings have gotten a bad rap, both experiencing them and developing our ability to “language” them and be aware of them. But, back to the task at hand: as someone interested in helping people in this process of self-understanding and the development of self-mastery, these ideas are exciting. They mean that we want to grow, gain autonomy and mastery and that given half a chance, we will.  And yet we have many “failures” in the creation of our lives: trauma, depression, anxiety, broken relationships.  How can we use these ideas to create more success in our lives?  How do we apply these ideas to therapy, both the practice of and also the client’s ability to metabolize it?

First, I think it is important to recognize that the human race is not static but growing and evolving.  Our relationships are one of those things that are bearing the brunt of this evolution, for we have not yet caught up to who we are becoming. As we evolve, we need to develop new capacities.  As we develop new capacities, we need to learn to give them significance. One of these capacities is in the area of relating.  Relating involves many things including accessing and sharing feelings, understanding needs, and gaining control of destructive behaviors. Lets look at couple therapy, which is a pretty complex process.  As a client in couples therapy, we must learn enough about ourselves (among other things) that we can untangle a bunch of behavior that simply does not get us what we want: an accessible and responsive relationship. We supply the courage and tenacity on the road to mastery of this challenge, but we need more than motivation, creativity and desire for this purpose. We also need a map. This is new and for us, uncharted territory. We will need assistance in this undertaking as well as an understanding how a specific and possibly uncomfortable challenge relates to this goal.

Our symptoms (relationship dysfunction) are like the tip of an iceberg.  It is the part we see. In the cold icy water below this symptom we have a number of tasks, which include:

1               Understand the intricacies of the negative cycle

2               Experience (not just understand) the deeper (not surface) feelings that feed our ‘cycle’.

3               Become aware of the needs that fuel the feelings and how

4               Understand the interrelationship between all of this

This could translate to:  I have to experience some pretty painful feelings that I am not usually in contact with so that I can access parts of myself that I don’t really know and expand who I am to a more feeling based being, as well as understand how these parts are influencing my behavior, what it is that I really need, and (eventually) use that to be vulnerable and connect.

Here’s a short sample story of a couple fabricated from a number of people:

When you get mad, I feel unsafe, I feel as if I am completely alone, caught in a trap, whatever I do will be wrong and I am scared. I hate that feeling and I will do anything not to experience it, including not tell you the whole truth, cut off parts of myself, blame you, push you away, try to control you…. And I get mad at you for being mad and seeming mean…. It reminds me of when I was little and my neighbor was a bully. I decided then that being mean wasn’t okay, so now I take care of other people’s feelings and it embarrasses me when you don’t.  I get confused. I love you, but you have this side of you that is so hard and I cannot stand it and I am afraid of it and so we end up in a fight over how I behave… and because you feel like I don’t respect your feelings and don’t support you and underneath you feel abandoned too…. Because you never had anybody put you first or stand up for you…. I want you to not be mean so that you are somebody I can love all the time and so that you feel safe to me…. You want me to stop standing up for other people; because it that means that I can’t stand up for you or myself…. I need to feel like you are safe and responsive and loving to me and when you act ‘hard’ you don’t feel safe to me …and then you need to feel like I am safe and responsive and loving for you, but when this cycle occurs you don’t feel as if I am there for you either.  So we get stuck and we don’t have a good way to talk about it, because we don’t even see this yet. It’s all underneath and it just happens and takes over our relationship. Our relationship is held hostage to this pattern and this is an area where it cannot breath.

This is how we get trapped in the cycle. What’s the solution?  The only way out is to understand ourselves: emotions, needs, behavior, the way a surgeon understand how the muscles and bones and ligaments and blood vessels interconnect and populate a section of the body.  We must have that level of self-understanding.  And we have to be able to experience our feelings the way a poet experiences the world expressed through language. Our curiosity about ourselves has to come to the forefront, as well as our ability to tolerate pain, to step deep into our feelings, to make our own development and growth, our own attainment of mastery paramount. As we continue to evolve and to develop ways to support our evolution, we find new ways to think, experience and be in our lives and relationships. As we do this, who we are changes in ways we cannot even imagine.

Navigating Dreams of Love

I watched Alice in Wonderland recently.  As Alice was questioning the social customs and values of her time, she was advised to “follow the path,” to which she replied, “I make the path.” Alice spoke to the importance of knowing ourselves, of holding onto our dreams and fighting our demons in the process.

Dreams are important for they guide us, and we have all kinds of dreams; who we are going to be “when we grow up,” dreams of saving the planet, rescuing the underprivileged, meeting our prince and raising our children, etc. But sometimes we embark upon the path of our dream and lose our way. We do not necessarily have to tools to make our dreams manifest.

What happens when we have a dream, but fail at it?  We become failed heroes, initiates who do not pass the test.  Culturally, marriage is one of those precarious paths that many embark upon, but not so many navigate successfully. And yet relationships and the experience of love are so important.

I attended a “Hold Me Tight” couples workshop run by Sue Johnson recently.  Sue talked of research that had been done around POW’s who got through their difficult circumstances psychologically intact, versus those who did not.  Those who survived had done so by holding onto an image of a beloved.  They had pulled into their experience, memories of people and times of love.  As they focused on those memories over and over, they used those memories to sustain them.  They brought the experience of being loved into their present and often horrific circumstances and it allowed them to survive.

Our fairytales and stories present the dream of the happily ever after relationship.  Yet the tools we have are about as adequate as taking a 5-day hike with no food or water.  We follow our dreams blindly, with inadequate resources to make the journey successfully.  Recently, I saw a TV personality, “The Bachelor” being interviewed with his fiancée, except he was yelling, “Stop interrupting me!” and she crying bitterly, stood up and raced away.  Their blissful union fell apart so quickly.  What were they thinking? They believed the dream with no understanding of what it would take to make it work.

We need different maps with different tools for different journeys.  The journey of a successful relationship requires more than just a dream; it requires a multitude of abilities and skills, as well as an understanding of what will sabotage us.  Do you have the map you need to successfully navigate a relationship?  I recommend, “Hold Me Tight,” by Sue Johnson, to start with, although there are also other good books and workshops available.

Here are some questions to ask yourself: When I was young, how did I sooth myself when I was upset?  Did I go to anybody to talk?  Did I fight for what I wanted?  Did I retreat?  How does that tendency still occur? What did my partner do when he or she was young? Now look at those two tendencies.  How do they interact?  What pattern emerges out of them?  Can you and your partner talk about the pattern, or do you get stuck in blaming each other?  If you can’t talk about the pattern that you both get caught in, you will need to learn to do this, whether by seeing a therapist, attending a workshop or reading a book. Good relationships don’t just happen: they are made.  We live in a world filled with endless information. Educate yourself wherever you wish to have mastery.  There is no reason anybody should not achieve his or her dreams.