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.

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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

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.

When Wounds Collide

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is going on here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you describe your wound?

Can you describe your partner’s wounds?

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

Are you exploring how to heal this wound?

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