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.

 

 

 

 

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.