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.

When Love Stops Working – Getting It Going Again

Almost everyone wants love in his or her life. It is a vital ingredient of our humanness. We are born through the bodies of our mothers, most likely have nursed on her breasts, were held, touched and attended to. We develop in connection to others. Our survival depends on our relationships. We are not designed to be without relationship. We cannot exist without them.

When relationships stop working, there is often a wound that needs to be attended to. Many of us grew up in homes with various kinds of disconnection occurring. Whether our caretakers were preoccupied, angry, needy or impatient, we may at times have felt uncared about. We may have lost someone we loved, or have been completely disregarded or abused. As children, we had to survive this pain. We may have learned to push our feelings out of our awareness. Ultimately, we developed ways to tolerate and survive these disconnects. These are the survival techniques that we have brought into our current relationships. And they often don’t work.

Connection and safety are intricately bound. Our relationships trigger primal survival needs and feelings, and when threatened, the primal fears of an infant emerge. Survival is at the root of our relationships. It is difficult to play or be vulnerable when you do not feel safe. When our relationships are threatened or we are insecure, we become afraid of abandonment or of being overwhelmed or trapped. Those feelings emerge as rage, fear, longing and grief, and cause us to react rather than respond reasonably. We often do not see where these feelings are coming from. We have no way to link them to an actual past events. All we know is that something feels awful and we are in a struggle to be seen, heard, and understood. The emotional dance that emerges is not logical, but born of deep longings for safety and connection. Feeling safe, asking for what we need and being responsive to the other is paramount to our health and happiness. Safety must exist for both intimacy and play to be present in a committed relationship. While we do not necessarily have to delve into the past to change things, it usually helps. And we do have to start looking at and improving our current relational skills.

Do you accept too little in a relationship ? – If you accept too little, it is time to decide that you deserve more and figure out what is stopping you.

Are you too demanding? – If it always has to be your way, you will need to trust you can get enough of what you need without misusing your power. The cost of powering your way through a relationship is too high.

Can you ask for what you need? – Do you believe that you have impact, that you are worth listening to and being responded to? Why not?

What are the ways that you disconnect? – Are you willing to re-engage?

Do you feel safe and loved in your relationship, safe enough to both be vulnerable and to play? – What do you need to help you feel safer and more connected?

Are you responsive to your partner? – This will help your partner feel safe with you.

 

We are imperfect beings, who love and are loved by other imperfect beings. While disagreements and differences are part of life and growth, conflict can make us feel vulnerable and react to these differences. Deep down, we are afraid of losing or not getting what we need, of not being loved. Are you secure enough to have your feelings, yet also listen to your partner’s feelings, without making them wrong? Sustaining a connected relationship (with the right person) requires a number of skills. Mostly, we have to be solid enough to tolerate differences and still stay in responsive and loving contact even when we are uncomfortable.

Originally published here, also published on GoodTherapy.org

How To Stop Those Repetitive Fights

George had been very upset about the actions of an ex friend. Susan could feel his pain and asked him if there was anything that she could do to make him feel better. George replied, “I could think of something”. Susan retorted, “I wasn’t talking about sex”. George responded, “So what’s new?” Susan feeling criticized, said, “you don’t care about me, all you care about is sex”. George responded back, “well you asked, next time don’t ask if you don’t care”. “Don’t worry, I won’t, Susan snarled. She walked away and they didn’t talk till the next day.

The interaction that Susan and George had was a familiar and repetitive one. They had started out okay, but somehow both misunderstood the other and ended up in a fight.

Lets replay this, except George and Susan are more conscious about their wounds. Instead of fighting, they are going to get closer and build more trust between them.

George had been very upset about the actions of an ex friend. Susan could feel his pain and asked him if there was anything that she could do to make him feel better. George replied, “I could think of something,” He was thinking about sex. Susan immediately thought to herself of “He’s upset and angry, I don’t want to have sex with somebody who is angry”. She was silent for a minute, trying to figure out what to do. A few minutes later, George said, “that would have been the perfect opportunity for you to have initiated sex, which you never do. ” He was frustrated and disappointed. Susan could feel his anger. She felt hurt and she felt like he was taking the anger that he was feeling about his ex-friends and dumping it on her. They were looking at each other, as it was clear something serious was occurring between them. Susan mustered up her courage and responded, “I just initiated last night”. George got still for a moment and realized that she had. He responded by saying, “yes you are right, you did. They continued to talk.
Susan “remembered” and recounted that she had grown up in a family where she had to take care of other’s needs at her own expense. “Nobody was really interested in what I needed,” she said. ,”And when you wanted to make me to make you feel without considering how I felt, I got hurt. I am afraid to be vulnerable when somebody is angry and for me, having sex is being vulnerable. George responded, “when you didn’t move forward and make it all okay, my disappointment about always being let down came up. So many times in my childhood and other relationships, I’ve been let down. I just wanted you to make me feel better and it felt like you were failing me too.

Both George and Susan had been feeling unloved and not understood. But as they talked, they began to piece together the old stories feeding their reactions. They were able to talk it out and avoided a fight. They helped the other heal by listening and empathizing. And they both became more conscious of who they were and were gaining the ability to not allow the past to haunt them.

But how do we do this?

When we get reactive or triggered, it means we’ve opened an old can of worms. Think of each worm as an old story that is a wound around which we have unhappy feelings. These feelings lurk below the surface, ready to come up under the right circumstances. Rather than being in touch with our present reality, we relive old stories. Some of those stories make us angry, some make us sad. These stories can be like gasoline on a fire. They are lenses through which we view our lives and they distort our perceptions. We disproportionately and quickly escalate our emotional responses to what appear to be very inconsequential events. These stories need to be recognized as old wounds and told, both to each other and to ourselves, if we are going to be able to stop these repetitive patterns.

There are several tools to help us remember that we are caught up in a wound and repair it:

* The 90/10 rule. If we are upset, often it is 10% about the present situation and 90% about the past.

* Telling our story to our partner is building a relational bridge. Reacting as if we are right is blowing up the relational bridge. Remember, your partner is your friend. Treat him or her as if he or she is, and talk, don’t react or accuse.

* Find the sadness, loss or grief that is under the anger. It is hard to build a bridge when you are yelling and screaming, or withdrawing.

* To have a successful relationship, you have to be a person who can have a successful relationship. Become a person who is communicative and open. This is more important than trying to get your partner to change. If they don’t change, the relationship may end, but your power lies in you, not them.

* Accept that what is happening in the present moment demands your love and attention. The present moment is your friend. It is an opportunity to discover your emotional wounds and the wounds of your partner. It is an opportunity to start unraveling the old stories and stepping out of being driven by old wounds.

* Remember, we all have wounds. A relationship is an opportunity to repair these wounds. A relationship is a journey that allows us to create “home” both within ourselves and with another.

Making Love Last

Making love last is a concern for anybody with a relationship history that has included disappointment, pain and loss. How do we do it differently the next time around?

What starts for so many as a blissful connected loving state often turns into sadness riddled with problematic behavior and seemingly un-resolvable conflicts. How can we learn to have lasting, productive and satisfying relationships? While innate chemistry and compatibility are important, creating fulfilling relationships that last, is far more complex than that. Is it possible to learn to create connections in which love can flourish? Not only is it possible, it is necessary.

It is necessary to look at successful relationships as a developmental milestone and life skill. Just as other tasks in life require knowledge and practice, learning to create the context for a successful relationship also requires the development of specific abilities, awarenesses and skills. (Assuming that you have a committed partner you can work with.)

How we know somebody else is related to how we know ourselves; how we construct our own reality. We live in stories; we carry our unconscious stories as roadmaps that most of us are not fully aware of. We live not just in current “reality” but also through acts of imagination and meaning making. When we experience the unweaving and understanding of our own stories and how we identify ourselves, we become capable of re-envisioning ourselves and allowing for new stories to emerge. For example, if someone were always attracted to “sad” women, because he was re-enacting (unaware) the story that his “sad” mother needed his help, as he becomes aware (often through therapy) of that story and its impact on his romantic choices, he can change his story to one that serves him better. The importance of self-reflection becomes clear. It allows us to understand our role in repetitive self-defeating choice patterns in our romantic relationships.

Relationship patterns also are influenced by our fears around connection and safety. We live in bodily and emotional connection to others. We are born through wombs and are nourished at breasts as infants. We experience love through emotional connection and touch. When our attachment needs are threatened, we move into fear and behaviors which attempt to help us to maintain safety and connection. Many of these behaviors however, sabotage the very connection we seek.

Instead of responding out of fear, we can look at our actions. Are we building bridges, or burning them? Are we caught in loops of behavior that we cannot control? Love cannot flourish when we behave in ways that break connection. Being disappointed with our partner is not the problem; it is the dialogue we have, both with our partner and ourselves that matters. The choices of behaving and thinking that we learn to make in the context of our pain and disappointment can allow us to create a satisfying love.

Making love last also requires curiosity, both about our own reactions and the reactions of our partner. Love cannot flourish if we blame, criticize, or do not take responsibility for our own responses. Love cannot flourish when we do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable or behave in a way that the other cannot be vulnerable with us. Because of this, habitual patterns of behavior that create safety and routine, but reduce risk and openness, while necessary for aspects of our lives and our relationships, can diminish connection.

A relationship is a living breathing entity created by two individuals. Creating a relationship is a commitment to the process of that relationship, thus it must continually be nourished. Nourishing a relationship requires the courage to take risks, to be vulnerable and curious rather than defensive. It includes the ability to tolerate and share uncomfortable feelings and experience ambiguity. Making love last includes a willingness to witness oneself and one’s partner with both compassion and openness.

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.

Telling The Truth: Creating Authentic Relationships

Sometimes it is hard to tell the truth because:

* We don’t trust our perceptions.
* We are afraid of hurting the other person.
* We are afraid we will make them angry or they will abandon us.
* We don’t realize that relationships are about relating.
* We have been taught to take care of others by not being ourselves.
* We assume that we are 100% responsible for the relationship.
* We see ourselves as powerless in the relationship.
* We are afraid of being transparent, real and seen.
* We are afraid of our power.

If we don’t tell the truth, the other person has no way of knowing who we are, what we are thinking or feeling, or how they are impacting us. We assume (perhaps unconsciously) that they do not have the ability to navigate through their own feelings in response to us. Although this may be true, by not telling the truth, we rob them of the opportunity to rise to the challenge of relating to who we are, of having a truly authentic relationship with us.

Learning to tell the truth is a big process. Often we have been taught since we were little to put other’s feelings ahead of our own. We have been taught that relating is being the same as the other, rather than allowing our differences. In order to alter this and honor ourselves, we need a new perspective. We need to know that as we take action and speak the truth in a way that empowers us, our lives will re-align. Our actions have impact and allow us to change, creating our lives. We are no longer held hostage by our fears of voicing ourselves, of being seen. As we become truthful, those we interact with get to choose whether or not they can also step up to the challenge. In either case our relationships will change. We will become closer to those, who whether they like it or not, support hearing our truth and honesty. These relationships will deepen and we will no longer feel as alone. We may lose relationships with those who do not want to hear how they affect us, who do not want to know who we are. When this happens, we may experience grief. Rather than being trapped in resentment, or fear, we have the opportunity to grieve and let go of our expectations, accepting the limitations of that person and relationship. A reorganization of our lives and relationships occurs.

How do you not tell the truth? Look at someone in your life who you don’t talk to directly about his or her impact on you. Imagine telling them something they do that is difficult for you. Notice what feelings come up: discomfort, fear, shame? Notice how you choose the feelings associated with not telling the truth: frustration, feeling trapped etc, rather than the feelings that emerge when you do tell the truth. Both sets of feelings are uncomfortable, but one will lead you to freedom and authentic, healthy relationships, and the other will keep you trapped and dis-empowered. It is your choice. What kind of relationships do you want to have? What kind of life do you want to live?