Uncategorized

This fall I am embarking on two separate professional development (education and training) pursuits, one long planned and the other rather spontaneous. I’ll have more about finally taking the Gottman Institute Levels 1 & 2 training programs later in November, assuming my brain doesn’t explode with drinking from the firehose while on course. Before then, however, I’m unexpectedly but delightedly finding myself down the very deep rabbit hole of Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS). One of my partners pointed me in this direction as a result of some of their own personal work, but given my background in systems theory, family systems in specific, it’s kind of a wonder I hadn’t crossed paths with IFS long before now.

In essence a “system” is a bunch of interconnected parts that can and do influence other system components both directly and remotely. Sometimes the influence is harmonious and the affected parts resonate in sync; sometimes the influence is discordant and jarring, and the constituent members of the system create friction, tension, or even breakage. In a healthy system, each part maintains its own discrete spatial and behavioural boundaries when interacting with other parts of the system, though as we see in many types of systems, boundary violations can rapidly become a system-wide problem as parts start to behave erratically or destructively.

“In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior. Changing one part of the system usually affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. For systems that are self-learning and self-adapting, the positive growth and adaptation depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment. Some systems function mainly to support other systems by aiding in the maintenance of the other system to prevent failure. The goal of systems theory is systematically discovering a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned and applied to systems at every level of nesting, and in every field for achieving optimized equifinality.[1]” —Wikipedia

A FAMILY system looks specifically at the interconnected constituent members involved with and influencing a specific individual–usually my client(s). Family of Origin is usually the biggest source of our internalized values and beliefs/expectations about how people work, how parents and parenting work, how intimate relationships work. Even if we’re too young to understand much of the dynamics, we observe and create or invest in stories about both what we observe and what we’re taught, even when there are discrepancies in those models. A lot of my therapeutic work uses family system modelling to uncover some of the background to my clients or their current challenges and dilemmas. I use an analogy from my long years in software development to explain the value of looking backward into our origin stories before we look forward to a change process: before we can change existing pieces of code in a software package, we have to understand why that code is there in the first place. What was it meant to do? Are there any dependencies we need to investigate to loop in or remove with impending code updates? Is this a critical function that must be replaced, or is it old, superfluous functionality that we can afford to dump completely? Is the original functionality relevant or is it interfering with desired functionality?

These questions remain important when we look at how an INTERNAL family system works. Richard Schwartz, the progenitor of IFS, apologizes often for the fact that his descriptions of our internalized parts sometimes sound like he’s describing completely individuated personalities. This is not, he assures his audience repeatedly, about having some kind of dissociative identity disorder. It’s simply a way of recognizing that certain internal behavioural patterns serve distinct and unique purposes, just like human individuals in a relational system likewise inhabit distinct roles and places within that system.

There are three types of parts in IFS:

The exiles are the deeply-internalized (often to the point of compartmentalizing right out of the picture) attachment wounds that have never been adequately identified or addressed, and therefore never really given opportunity to heal. These may be early childhood issues and traumas, or emotional or psychological injuries garnered through other critically damaging experiences as adults. These are the pains we work hardest to bury so that we don’t have to deal with either the root pain, or with the fear of what that pain might cause us to do when it surfaces.

The protectors, sometimes called the firefighters, are the behaviours we adopt over time to suppress or distract the exiled pain, to keep us from looking at it or having to be disrupted by it. This is the level on which we develop our reactive coping stances, including the maladaptive ones like addictions or binge/purge behaviours, or losing ourselves in work, sex, relationships, hobbies–anything that distracts us from the pain.

The managers are the behaviours that we develop in our outward interactions with the world around us in ways that are intended to protect us. Their job is to manage the interface to others in ways that don’t trigger the exiled hurts or the protective coping strategies that mitigate those core hurts. Manager behaviours include everything from outward anger and belligerence meant to keep everyone at a Minimum Safe Distance, to compulsive care-takers who assume that “Keep Everyone Else Happy At All Costs” = “keeping myself safe from their displeasure/disappointment.”

Most of the time, the only parts of another person that those on the outside get to interact with are the manager parts, the behaviours specifically tasked with managing external interactions. For example, in individual with an angry or abusive alcoholic partner generally gets faced with the anger and abusive behaviours; they can probably see the drinking but they can’t call that out or challenge or explore it directly. The angry Manager part gets in the way every time, and drives partners back or away. The alcoholism is the Protector part, trying to self-medicate and suppress an Exiled part buried somewhere deeper in the system (fear or shame, typically).

Somewhere at the centre of all of these parts, Schwartz posits, is the core Self. Within the Self are the roots of our sense of being, which Schwartz identifies as calm, connection, compassion, and curiosity. When we can get the Managers and Protectors out of the way more effectively, we have an opportunity to heal the old wounds by bringing them into this space within the Self. IFS provides a framework to become first aware of, then acquainted with, all of the parts in systemic orbit around this core identity, working eventually towards discovering ways of more effectively smoothing out the discordance into a more-balanced, whole self.

–from Don Mangus’ “It Only Hurts When I Smirk” (click image to link)

One of the reasons why IFS resonates with me as strongly as it does is, I suspect, how it echoes many of the precepts set out by Chogyam Trungpa in his work, “Uncovering the Sanity We Are Born With.” The intersection of Eastern Buddhism and Western psychology is largely concerned with uncovering and freeing “the authentic Self” by exploring and gently uprooting the collective neuroses throttling our authentic Self over the course of our lifelong interactions with others’ expectations and projected values. IFS as a framework also provides externalizing language that gives clients some distanced perspectives on their own behaviours. Sometimes this shift is subtle, a nuanced change. Sometimes it’s earth-shattering for the client to move from, “I am an angry person” to “There’s a PART of me that is angry all the time”, a shift that represents meeting a Manager part and recognizing there’s almost certainly more going on there than just the anger. And THAT’s a shift that opens up considerable opportunities for curiosity, and maybe even a little bit of peace: if only PART of me is angry all the time, I wonder what the rest of my parts are doing? Can I connect with any of those other parts and explore them for a while, or invite them to take over for a bit?

Working within the IFS framework therefore involves sitting in a multi-way exploration of these parts; this is where it feels a little more like multiple personalities at the table, as we get curious about the purpose and function of each part in its process. We acknowledge it and ask it to step aside so that we can glimpse or interact with whatever’s buried under under that layer. I liken it to the layers of an onion, something that becomes VERY important when I confront people on their communications challenges: we’re only as good at communicating as we are at knowing WHAT it is we’re trying to communicate. And if we only know ourselves to the level of our outward Manager behaviours, that’s all we know to communicate. That’s the barest tip of a very large and complicated iceberg, and what’s BELOW the waterline is the stuff that’s probably complicating or making us miserable in relationships. But we don’t (yet) know what’s going on down there, behind the Managers and Protectors, so there’s no effective way *TO* communicate all of that.

When we lose our authentic Self like that, it’s very hard to be in healthy relationship. Rediscovering our core, exploring and learning about it, then developing the skills to communicate that understanding to others, is something IFS therapy can certainly help navigate. There is nothing more vulnerable than exploring our authentic Selves, and vulnerability is the heart of intimacy. This is as true for our relationships with ourselves as it is within our relationships with others.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

Humanity is a bunch of curious monkeys. It’s in our nature to question things, to look for explanations to experiences that make sense of those experiences (we’ll leave aside for now the utmost importance of pursuing or ignoring scientifically *accurate and relevant* explanations). It’s totally okay when the first exposure to something results in not understanding it. Coming to understanding is a personal growth opportunity and process that we have to actively choose to undertake–we have to WANT to know why something is or does what it is or does. When faced with questions of Why or How, it’s totally okay to not know the answers even when those questions are about ourselves.

It’s okay to not know the answers… up to a point. After that, however, “I don’t know” starts to become an increasingly problematic response. There’s genuinely not knowing the answer to a question, and then there’s deliberately avoiding learning or sharing the answer for fear it means we’re locked into or committing to that being the ONLY answer, implying a singular, correct response we have to get right.

What happens when one uses “I don’t know” as a way of avoiding committing to specific answers or presumably-limited paths forward?

I can answer this one best from my own personal experience as a recovering committmentphobe:

It goes very, very poorly.

It’s a lot easier for me to spot the pattern of fearful, stubborn entrenchment now than it ever was when I was the one clinging to “I don’t know”, but I imagine it’s every bit as harsh and terrifying when I call my own clients out as it was when I got called out for it. The problem with “I don’t know” as a long-term answer is the implication that we’re not doing the work of developing self-understanding. We’re not trying, or we’re actively avoiding, to discern and share information that is immediately relevant to our partners and the functioning of our relationships. “I don’t know” for many becomes coded language for, “I don’t want to commit to an answer on this topic”. In my case, it became a way of avoiding ownership and responsibility for my own actions when questions about my motivations or behaviours arose; but it also avoided my taking ownership or responsibility for committing to a change, ANY change. “I don’t know” leaves open all the doors of possibility, because until we have an answer then (on some quantum level) ALL options remain possible. “I don’t know” was a favourite tune for my own internal brain weasels to dance to. And it frustrated the everlovin’ hell out more than one of my partners over the years… just as I watch it frustrate, upset, or disrupt partnerships coming into my office now as clients.

In and of itself it’s not a bad answer. When it remains the long-term answer to questions like, “What do you WANT this relationship to look like?” or “What are you willing to do differently going forward from here?”, however, it’s anathema (if not outright death) to connection and intimacy. “I don’t know” becomes a way of holding the relationship hostage at a distance: “we can go no further and get no closer, because I cannot/will not do the work to answer these questions.” The partner who is unable or unwilling to face the answers becomes a gatekeeper for the entire relationship, because–and I observe this to be the truth most of the time–they are afraid. WHAT they (we, I) are afraid of, is highly contextual, and variable. Sometimes it’s an unwillingness to be held to one option. Sometimes its a fear of committing to trying something and getting it wrong, if the perception of trial and failure is equated with things only ever getting worse for the failure. If the fears are strong enough, the gatekeeping and distancing can seem insurmountable obstacles to progressing towards intimacy. Overcoming those fears seems an unobtainable goal to the fearful. Ultimately, the partners end up in a stalemate.

That distancing fear serves a purpose:

“If there is one over riding reason why our world and relationships are in such a mess, is that we try to get rid of our anxiety, fear and shame as fast as possible, regardless of the long term consequences. In doing so, we blame and shame others and in countless ways, we unwittingly act against ourselves. We confuse our fear driven thoughts with what is right, best, necessary or true.”
― Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

In the moment, it will often seem like there is no better antidote for fear than to simply not engage it: hold it away from us where we don’t have to look at it, or do anything about it. “I don’t know” means not having done the homework, and potentially not doing the homework going forward, either. As long as the gatekeeper holds themselves in limbo, they can hold off confronting their fear. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of the health of the relationship over the long term, often in the short term as well.

“If you pay attention, you may find that it is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable, so you avoid doing the thing that will evoke fear and other disquieting emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid.”
― Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

Sometimes, doing our own homework is the bravest thing we can do.

Book Recommendations, Community, Current Events, Emotional Intelligence

November 2015, Bataclan Theatre, Paris: a terrorist attack kills 89, including the wife of Antoine Leiris. Leiris later wrote something in a Facebook post that has become a manifesto to many who struggle with responding to this kind of attack on our basic humanity:

“So, no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. That is what you want, but to respond to your hate with anger would be to yield to the same ignorance that made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have failed. I will not change.”

July 2016, Nice, France: “a 19 tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, resulting in the deaths of 86 people[2] and the injury of 458 others.”

April 2018, Toronto Ontario: a man drove a van into pedestrians along a busy city street, killing ten and wounding 15 more. When police apprehended him shortly thereafter, he purportedly approached them, saying “Kill me.” Police refused to shoot, subduing and arresting him without further harm.

We think, “This is Canada; this isn’t supposed to happen here.”


I’ve recently been reading Brené Brown’s latest book, “Braving the Wilderness”; it was there I first hear about Leiris and his anti-hate manifesto. She explores the experience of connection and disconnection in human relations, including the ways in which we find it easier to hate amorphous groups far more easily than we can hate individuals; how the quest for true inclusion leaves us grappling with profound fears of being or feeling excluded, and how those fears can be manipulated into creating the false dichotomy of “us versus them”, or moral exclusion.

Moral exclusion as a broad-scale social phenomenon is the basis for a variety of dehumanizing practices, in which dehumanization is “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of human treatment.” (Brown 2017, pg 72)

“Groups targeted based on their identity–gender [or orientation–KG], ideology, skin colour, ethnicity, religion, age–are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil. The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion, and dehumanization is at its core.” (Brown 2017, pg. 73)

The rhetoric that has been building south of the border since well before the last presidential election has opened the door to see this “us versus them” in harsh detail. Arguably it truly launched after 9/11 provided the US with a solid platform to vilify “Muslim terrorists”, conflating an entire culture with its most ardent and evangelical outliers and dehumanizing them all. More crucially, we’ve seen how infectious that kind of thinking is as we’ve watched it creep north of the border; we’re watching it reignite as we move into another election year of our own.

There’s always an “Us” ready to hate “Them”.

As soon as news of the van attack hit the feeds yesterday, those sides polarized, even here among the “polite Canadians”. The association of the driver (male, light-skinned) with a movement that has become tied to angry entitlement and the alt-right men’s movement has been constant fodder as people try to make sense of the senseless, try to manage their fears with information that (in theory) will explain everything. As nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the human mind abhor not having answers to, or neatly-contextualizing information explaining, major emotional experiences. We process our shock, and fear–and yes, anger–together, but in that togetherness, the polarization seems to occur seamlessly. And we want nothing more than to be on “the right side” in choosing our responses to such an event.


“Common enemy intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion. And if we live with any level of self-awareness, it’s also the kind of intimacy that leaves us with the intense regrets of an integrity hangover. […] I get that these are uncertain and threatening times. I often feel the pull of hiding out and finding safety with a crew. But it’s not working.” (Brown 2017, pg. 136)

I made the #1 Internet Citizen mistake yesterday as the news was breaking: I read the comments. Even on reputable news sources, the rampant hatred of some respondents was an unavoidable thread among the otherwise-fulsome outpouring of love, shock, support, condolences, sadness. The ideological camps were staking out their territories in UsandThemism language of anger and hatred.

Since the above sections of Brené Brown’s book were still fresh in my mind, I kept coming back to Leiris’ letter to the Bataclan attackers:

“Of course I am devastated by grief, I grant you this little victory, but it will be short-term. I know she will accompany us every day and we will find ourselves in this paradise of free souls to which you will never have access. […] [W]e are stronger than all the armies in the world.”

As a woman, as a feminist, as someone who has experienced rampant misogyny on personal and professional levels nearly all my life, it would be so terribly, terribly simple to buy into that hate, to dehumanize Yet One More Violent Man as part of that more anonymous collective. There’s a seductive truth underlying most of our UsAndThemism: there are more than enough individual examples of anything we collectively hate to justify assuming there’s a systemic problem encompassing a LOT of individuals into some kind of cohesive larger unit. So we come to hate what we assume to be a cohesive collective, and forget (or choose not) to see the individuals within that presumed collective. We have effectively dehumanized them.

Brown talks about how, during the research process for “Braving the Wilderness”, she often felt like screaming, “Screw you and screw the pain of people who are causing pain. I will hold on to my sweet, self-righteous rage.” (pg 66)

“But to what end? [Clinging to rage and] Not caring about our own pain and the pain of others is not working? […] One response to this is “Get angry and stay angry!” I haven’t seen this advice borne out in the research What I have found is that yes, we all have the right and need to feel and own our anger. It’s an important human experience. And it’s critical to recognize that maintaining any level of rage, anger, or contempt (that favourite concoction of a little anger and a little disgust) over a long period of time is not sustainable.
“Anger is a catalyst. Holding onto it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice. […] [A]nger is a powerful catalyst, but a life-sucking companion.” (pg. 67-8)

Not responding in anger and hatred is hard; harder still when attacks hit close to home, metaphorically or geographically. Terrorism is meant to provoke fear; it’s meant to send a message of power and control, introducing a non-consensual power dynamic across a broad ideological system. Fighting back is as instinctive for some as accepting subjugation is for others, so where is the presumedly RIGHT “Us” in this mix, the one we join to stay safe?

The whole premise of Brown’s book is that in stepping outside these ideological camps to choose love over hate, and to transform anger into one of those life-sustaining alternates, we are braving our own individual, ideological wilderness. Embracing something other than UsAndThemis encampments is hard; it often feels like eschewing the safety of numbers for a unique position of disengagement from that anger and hatred. But as Leiris’ post and Brown’s research conclude, there’s a massive difference between disengagement on a systemic level, and choosing to lean in close and find the aspects of us as individuals that illustrate we’re more alike than we’re maybe comfortable admitting out loud. That illustrate that even amidst vast ideological differences, there ARE similarities of human experience in each of us to which we can relate. We may not WANT to; we may not CHOOSE to.

Brown herself admits there’s a safe harbour in staying angry and holding ourselves ideologically separate from those who hurt or anger us, who provoke us to fear and hatred. We join with others in our respective camps, believing in those superficial bonds of unified hate (in which one can argue the “Us” suddenly looks an awful lot like the “Them” we claim to despise for doing exactly the same thing). we buy into the entrenchment because, hey, safety in numbers, and we want to be in the Right Camp at the end of the day, yes?

Letting go of anger, stepping away from the entrenched encampments: this is the wilderness Brown explores. She quotes Dr. Maya Angelou:

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place–you belong every place–no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” (pg. 5)

And so… you will not have my hate.

I may be afraid. I may be angry, but I will not hate. I may not have explanations that make any sense at all, but I will not hate. I will practice leaning in close, leaning into the sharp things, and I will not hate.

You will NOT have my hate.

Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Language, self-perception, Uncategorized

One nebulous advantage of being a Marriage & Family Therapist, trained in family systems theory, is that we have ample opportunity to explore our own origin stories, as well as those of our clients. We gain new perspectives or information that reframes our understanding about where we come from, and how that changes our perception of who and how we are in the world.

In psychotherapy, there are generally some firm boundaries around “safe and effective use of Self” for therapists that are all about understanding and/or mitigating how WHO we are impacts HOW we are in our work with our clients. Understanding the formative and often invisible impacts of our families of origin can be a part of that work, as our early models often influence our values and inter-relational patterns in all kinds of relationships. We don’t use it necessarily as an excuse to talk about ourselves in client sessions, though careful and limited use of personally-relatable anecdotes can be a useful tool for illustrating to clients just how much we do (or don’t) *get them*.

Then again, I’m also a writer by trade long before I was a therapist, and a principle tenet of writing is to “write what you know”. Since people are often curious about how therapists wind up becoming therapists, I thought I’d for once break the silence around personal stories, and share my own origin story. In doing so, it also helps me recognize that a lot of this has the ring of well-honed narrative, meaning that every time I tell some of these stories, I’m (subtly, perhaps) reinforcing those storylines and their underlying values in my head. I’m also giving myself an opportunity, however, to reflect on those storylines a little more and see whether there’s anything to be altered in the current moment, applying years’ worth of reflection to temper something I’ve been telling myself, in many cases, literally all my adult life. As an exercise, I’m going to bold the parts of it that are the internalized scripts, the narrative lines that I’ve carried and polished the longest.

WHO AM I, a story by Karen, age 50 and 3/4

To start with, my family structure itself was odd. My parents met in Toronto in 1965 when my recently-divorced mother and her four-year-old daughter were trying to make a new life for themselves. The mid-60s weren’t exactly hospitable years for divorcees and single mothers, and my mom has admitted that what she was looking for was financial support more than romance. My mother’s first daughter was a handful, however, and sometime just before my parents met, my mom made her daughter a ward of the Crown; in short, voluntarily relinquished her into the fostercare system. Mom had also had a second child out of wedlock after the marriage ended; he was given up for adoption at birth.

My father was working as an industrial architect with a side passion for big-band jazz. I’ve got ancient newsclippings of my dad on an upright base playing with a then-unknown black kid by the name of Oscar Peterson on the piano. My dad was 17 years older than my mom. They connected through unknown-to-me circumstance. Two years later, they had me; I was planned. I grew up knowing about my half-sister, as she came and went from my life on whirlwind visits. I don’t remember how old I was when I discovered the birth documents for my half-brother, probably around 8 or so, but thereafter I know I internalized the idea that “I was the one she/they kept”. I also internalized the idea that if they gave away two other babies, obviously they could give ME away any time they wanted, too.

As a young adult, I took to describing my homelife as a “Cold War zone”. My relationship with each of my parents was okay and as “normal” as one might expect for the 70s and 80s–their relationship with each other was a different story. Of note: my parents were never married; they both commented over the years that having each been burned by previous marital heartaches, there seemed no good reason to go through the motions a second time. The scripted line was, “They lived together for 19 years, and hated each other for 17 of them,” which, while lacking in the accuracy of the minutiae, certainly encompasses the overarching tension of my homelife. My parents never slept in the same bed, and round about the time we moved into a small town when I was 7.5, they didn’t even sleep in the same room on the same floor of the house. Mom always maintained it was because of Dad’s snoring (which was prodigious), but I never believed that was all, or even the bulk of her reasoning.

It’s worth noting: I never knew my dad’s family. His parents were long dead before I was born, as was one of his sisters (Scarlet Fever in her case); what family he had through his remaining sister was scattered on the East Coast. I have a vague memory of meeting a couple of his cousins or nephew/niece when I was very young, but I remember their dog better than I remember them. I also met the daughter of his first wife once in my early teens when she came west to visit, but that once was all the exposure I had until I tracked her down through FB last year to inform her of Dad’s passing. My mother’s family is its own tale of dire dysfunction, including her alcoholic mother with undiagnosed suicidal depression (though some of my mother’s tales ring the bells of Borderline Personality Disorder); my mother tells of the day my grandmother tried to kill herself by driving the family car off the road… with my mother and her younger brother loose in the back seat. My grandfather was unwilling to confront or deal with his wife’s obvious mental health issues, so he didn’t intervene even when she beat her daughter or emotionally terrorized either child. MY mother finally fled as a teenager, as soon as she was old enough to work to support herself. She married young; her first husband was an abusive alcoholic. She was 20 when her first daughter was born.

Both of my parents were high-functioning alcoholics. My mother also suffered from undiagnosed depression. Neither of my parents finished high school. Dad enlisted in the army at 18, which got him to Europe for the last rounds of WWII. His work ethic meant both a workaholic, emotionally-unavailable father-figure, and that my university education was paid for long before I graduated high school, about which I was constantly reminded, and an investment I promptly lost by failing out of my first year of university. I was the first generation of the family to attend university; between my mother’s and her brother’s kids (her 2 daughters, his 2 sons), only two of us completed undergrad. I’m the only one with a post-grad degree. None of us has had a stable, successful marriage (including our parents). Only one of the four of us ever had kids. The eldest in both sets of siblings has significant mental health issues including drug or alcohol issues and numerous run-ins during “troubled youth” with law enforcement. That left myself and my younger cousin to be the “good kids” in a widespread system of familial dysfunction. My running joke for a long time was that David (said cousin) and I were the white sheep of the family, notable for our rarity.

So… that’s the bare-bone systemic model in which I grew up. Even glossing over so many details about the intergenerational and inherited trauma normal to family systems, that’s a lot of self-defining scripting I’m carrying forward into my adult life, the echos of which still occasionally rattle the windows and shake the walls of my current life.

When we dig into the narratives I’ve bolded, there’s an incredible amount of tension touching on several aspects of my core family dynamics:

  • The incredible pressure of growing up as “the one they kept”, believing that if they could give the other children away, I had to be EXTRA GOOD to make sure that didn’t happen to me.
  • The weight of expectation tied to my going to university, even if I proved terribly unready for the responsibility of “being launched”.
  • Being the Adult Child of Alcoholics (OMG, I don’t even know where to start with what I’ve learned about this one, but here’s a good suggestion).
  • The dynamic of seemingly overbonded mother and underbonded father (and let me tell you, THAT dynamic has been a major undermining factor of EVERY heterosexual relationship I have ever had, including both my marriages).
  • Undiagnosed mental health issues galore, up to and including my own until-recently-admitted depression and anxiety.
  • The “Cold War” aspect of my parents’ relationship as the foundational model I took away for “how intimate partnerships should look” (and my own deeply-disconnecting behaviours when stressed in relationship).

It’s not uncommon that “relationship issues” such as faltering intimacy or communications challenges in relationship are what drive an individual or partners into a therapist’s office. One of the reasons the family of origin snapshot is such an integral part of my own intake process is that it shapes for me a picture of the significant early and formative influences on the participants in the current conversation.

Having spent so much time navel-gazing my own origin story, and listening over the years to how I tell my origin story, I’ve learned something about how to listen for those polished-sounding phrases, lines and phrases that crop up time and time again in conversation. I can’t always put my finger on what it is about a particular choice of wording in a client’s story that sets my Spidey-senses tingling, but my accuracy is (in my not-so-humble opinion) better than just average in catching the tones. There’s just something about a precise choice of words; or something about how they all run together like a phrase we haven’t actually had to think about constructing for a long time, dropped in the midst of an otherwise thoughtful conversation.

(I’m not ruling out the idea that I’m just projecting onto my own clients, at least some of the time; on a good day, I’m self-aware enough to be aware that’s a potential inadvertent-thing-wot-therapists do, yo.)

We all have these stories, these pieces of personal narrative we just carry with us as shorthand descriptions of things that actually carry an incredible significance to those willing to get past the polish and gleam of scripting. I joke sometimes that my job as a therapist is to be a “professional disruptive influence”, and more often than not, what I’m looking to disrupt is the attachments we invest in those safe scripts. Scripts around our origin stories, like any other experience, in many ways function as cages that contain complex emotional experiences. Language is a tool we use to define and shape experience into something we can wrap our heads around. Dispassionate versus passionate language and delivery, for example, is discernible through listening to word choice as well as tone. Applying language to an experience is, in and of itself, a very cognitive process, and in pushing emotional experience through cognitive filters, we already begin to separate ourselves from the immediacy of the lived and felt experience. Our word choice actually informs our brain how we want to qualify and quantify that experience; we can use language to embrace or distance our selves from the feelings. Our origin stories are the stories we have been practicing and polishing the longest of all our scripts. Sometimes we need to just scrape off the years of accumulated polish to see the actual grain and bones of the experience underneath, to understand what happened in different lights and perspectives, and maybe learn something new about ourselves in the process.

Self-care, Uncategorized

Ah, Christmas.

Ah, family.

Ah, chaos.

Nothing brings out the best and worst of us like this time of year. I don’t know a lot of people who get through the six weeks from December 1 to mid-January without a great deal of stress and anxiety, whether it’s about money, work, family, the increased workloads involved in balancing work + social event schedules + family, weather (especially for those of us in northern climes)… The amount of work most people I know put into trying to get to a point where they CAN relax over the holidays is phenomenal. When I still worked in IT, nothing crushed the heart and soul out of many employees like the workload of trying to clear a project schedule just to afford a couple of days off between Christmas and New Years, and that’s assuming that you have vacation time available, or work some place flexible enough to allow banking lieu time at this time of year. Not everyone has those luxuries.

Client schedules at this time of year become extremely unpredictable. Clients with benefits that renew at the beginning of the calendar year may be gleefully maxxing them out while they can, or they may find themselves eaten by other schedule requirements requiring them to rebook or miss appointments. A lot of seasonal sickness makes the rounds at this time of year, too. For psychotherapists like myself who may not be covered by most benefits, we find (unsurprisingly) that as much as our clients appreciate their work with us, they will often (understandably) choose to pay for Christmas rather than therapy, even when they (ruefully) admit they probably need the therapeutic support more now than other times through the year. We’re pretty understanding of that, though obviously it impacts OUR seasonal income as well. And honestly, there’s generally no good way for us to predict from one year to the next what any given holiday season is going to look like.

We CAN largely expect that many of our conversations with clients will revolve around how holiday stress impacts their relationships at home, or with larger family groups. Nothing seems to spark relational conflict or communications issues like a bucketload of conflicting priorities and obligations packed into the short window of Christmas.

Most therapists will tell you flat out, there’s no magic wand we can wave to take all of that strain away. The holidays really do bring out the best and worst in us. Google will helpfully provide pages and pages of links in response to typing “surviving the holidays” into the Search bar, but at the end of the day, I think the basics of Seasonal Survival Strategies look the same:

1. There should be some place that becomes your “safe space”, a respite from the Holiday Craziness that will, in fact, infect just about every aspect of your world for six weeks. (Even if you’re from a culture that doesn’t celebrate a major holiday at this time of year, if you’re reading this you’re probably living somewhere where most people around you seem to have almost literally Lost Their Minds). Whether this is a place in your home, your workplace, your car if you have one, or some place like a public library, make sure it’s a place you can get to on a regular basis. It should be some place you can keep mostly clear of the trappings and noise of the holidays, or at least have a higher degree of control over said trappings and noise.

2. Spend time in that safe space whenever you can. Make it a deliberate and mindful choice to “leave Christmas at the door” when you enter the space. The lists, the schedules, the noise, the chores, the negotiations, the frustrations… leave them outside. They’ll still be there when you come out (trust me) but for a few minutes or even an hour, give yourself the gift of Not-That-Chaos. It may seem like a luxury, an outrageous demand, to walk away from it all for a while, but honestly, this is nothing more than developing good boundaries, and valuing your own mental health in the mix of temporarily-extraordinary life. Everyone else will tell you that it’s important to be empathetic and compassionate to everyone else, because everyone else is stressed, too… but I can guarantee it will be damned hard to find energy to BE empathetic and hold compassion for others if you DON’T create some protected time and space to recharge yourself along the way.

3. Relax rigid expectations. This is a hard one for many of us, myself included, but absolutely powerful when we manage it. We all love the illusion of having control of situations and people; it brings us a sense of calm, or something. But honestly, this time of year is all about requiring some flexible adaptability. Herding cats never goes like we expect, and trying to muscle everyone’s obligations onto a singular rigid schedule that can then be skewed by weather, who-forgot-to-pack-that-Very-Important-Thing, sudden illness, unexpected upheavals in family politics, and any number of other factors over which we have ZERO control… this is the recipe for disaster we hand down between generations almost as faithfully as we’ve passed on great-grandmother Janette’s fruitcake recipe. If there is one gift I could give all my readers this holiday season, it’s this reminder: SHIT HAPPENS. You can wallow in your outcome attachment and get angry/disappointed/hurt/frustrated/upset, or you can roll with it and just “be there when you get there”. (I write that with a certain amount of personal irony as I am also trying to shore up scheduling with my mother that has my travel time contingent upon how long we need to roast a ham for Christmas Dinner, especially as I’m the one bringing said ham from KW to a city two hours away in GOOD driving conditions…)

4. Remember that “This too shall pass”. The work seems overloading and perpetual when you’re in it, and it never seems like family helps or supports you as much as you might want or hope it will; doubly so if your family life/relationship(s) is in any way already unsettled or contentious. But the holidays are a time-boxed event. January brings its own strains, but worry about those in January. Your job is to just survive December, and know that the holiday efforts will end, as they do every year, eventually.

Honestly, I look at a list like that and think to myself, “How hard can this be?”, and then I find myself, or at least a little part of the back of my brain, making high-pitched, hysterical giggling noises. And this is a GOOD year: other than Christmas Day at my mum’s since we’re the last of my family, I’m working through the bulk of the holidays. Excepting a small tea date this coming weekend and going out for NYE, I’m not hosting anything, I’m not doing any other travelling, I’m just looking after myself and my geriatric cat. And yet even then I can’t escape a degree of the holiday craziness. I still scrambled a weekend earlier this month to put up my tree and decorations at home; I still have to contend with cranky seasonal crowds almost everywhere I go. I’m definitely at the simple end of the seasonal spectrum, but I still vividly remember the days of travelling to my ex-husband’s family in Ottawa for multiple days, then having to squeeze my late dad in Orillia and my mum in Owen Sound somewhere else around the schedule, plus respective office Christmas events, our hosting massive NYE events, and probably one or the other of us working in between, trying to fit in the gift shopping and groceries and… and… and…

I know what it’s like to lose one’s Self amid the requirements of the Family Obligation World Tours. We lose the quiet moments in our own spaces, we lose the opportunity to just roll the schedule as we see fit, when everyone else’s timetables suddenly seem (or have) to take precedence. We lose sleep. We lose patience. We lose tempers. We lose perspective and equilibrium. I get it, I do. I don’t miss it, but I’m in a weirdly luxurious position of having as much time and space as I want for *my singular self*, and I recognize that. So much empathy for those who don’t have that same luxury. Time and time again, year after year, I find these are the four points that resonate most when talking with people trying to find a sane path through the messier parts of the season. We feel so much pressure to “be of good cheer” and wish “joy to the world” and all of that romantic holiday fiddle-faddle, but we can’t always get there from here when we’re viewing the season through the filters of our own personal stress and anxiety. We can’t even get to the relationship-management skills necessary to get through the season effectively when we’ve lost our personal footings, so I’m not even talking about those today.

Make some space, take some time, practice flexibility, and believe this will all be over in time.

However you celebrate the holidays, I hope you find a degree of peace in the process, moments where you remind yourself WHY you do what you do for these celebrations. Find love and joy where you can, rest when you need to, and please accept warm seasons greetings from my house to yours.

[Please note: the blog is on hiatus next week, as we prove that therapists can, and sometimes do, follow our own suggestions.]

Emotional Intelligence, Self-care, self-perception, Uncategorized

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m sitting in the coffee shop with my colleague, and largely induced by last night’s dose of Nyquil, I’m in a mental fugue state that just Does Not Want To Write. It’s not quite “stomping my little feetsies and howling” levels of resistance, but it’s a big chunk of mental Don’Wannas that just won’t respond to coffee or placatory scones. I’m trying to force myself to go through archived posts to see if there’s anything I can repost for more meaningful content, trying to force myself to write on a difficult topic currently whirling around my hindbrain, I’m trying to force the groove that just resists me at every turn…

Then I go get another coffee from my favourite barrista, Ben, and realize I’m missing a beautiful opportunity right here and now to observe myself in the moment. The heart of mindfulness is the ability to witness ourselves in the moment of whatever experience we’re having, without judgment. We approach our own experiences with a curious mind; it’s an exploratory mindset rather than a harshly manipulative one. In the moment it becomes less about enforcing my own will over my own obvious reluctance, but it’s a chance to observe that reluctance and give space and voice to whatever’s going on right here, right now.

When I set the noise of my own performative expectations aside (Must! Write! Blogpost! Must! Continue! Generating! Original! Value-add! Content! Musn’t! Disappoint! Readership! Must! Drive! Traffic! To! Website! Create! Revenue! PanicpanicpanicEGO!), there’s a whole lot of silence in the ensuing space. It’s silent, because today I am exhausted. Some of that is grogginess from the cough syrup taken before bed last night, but most of it is the drained aftermath of an emotionally tumultuous week on social and inter-relational fronts. It’s a resistance based in wanting to bask in the flexibility of my schedule by NOT doing work today, and resenting the fact that the only reason I got out of bed this morning was a barely-disciplined drive to keep up a habit. (Don’t get me wrong, this weekly workdate is a godsend as far as habits go, for someone like me with a very wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey relationship to “work ethic”, but it really does happen largely by dint of willpower, rather than an actual love of getting out of bed early on my plausible day off to go write.)

The trick with mindfulness and self-observation at that point, is what happens next. Having observed these feelings running rampant through the room, now what? More importantly, if I’m actually under pressure or deadline to get things done, what can I do with these feelings to accomplish something?

This is a decision point, if we’re aware in the moment to recognize such. Today, I have the luxury of being under no deadline but my own, so I can afford to slack the performance-writing pressure off, and come home to finish the post in my own time. We don’t always have the luxury of time, however, or at least we perceive that we don’t (which is, in part, how the “cult of busyness” has become the implacable force it has for many of us), so we can’t cut much slack into the timetable to sit with our own discomforts. Then what?

I liken this part of the process to the film technique of split-screening, with two or more windows on screen showing different people in different places, talking to each other or others. In a mindfulness exercise of self-observation, we make a space to hold that self-observation in real-time while ALSO doing whatever needs doing outside the realm of our internal experience. I refer to my “observing self” as having a little Zen Master who sits a little above and behind my shoulder, observing the Self in action while the rest of my brain goes about the external business (or busyness) of the moment. We hold space for the in situ observations with a non-judgmental curiosity, and worry about assessing later. This doesn’t always negate the stress or performance pressure in the moment, but it makes space to allow it to happen and flow through us without necessarily being blocked or bottlenecked as we fight it or try to compartmentalize it into some other corner of our mind.

For the record, I’m not always great at this practice myself, even after almost fifteen years of practicing (with wildly-variable degrees of success) self-observation in my daily life. My biggest pitfall is common: I get trapped in judgmental assessments and harsh critiques of my own internal experiences, rather than simply being curious about what’s happening. Instead of simply observing my resistance this morning, I became frustrated by what I was noting. In being curious about what I was feeling, I critiqued the choices and actions that presumably led to my current state and then passed judgement on myself for being an idiot last night and taking Nyquil later than I should have, knowing I had an early alarm set, blah blah yadda yadda blah.

By learning how to let go of that critical analysis that for many of us leads to inevitable internal name-calling and denigration, we cut ourselves some slack. We let the pressure off. We allow ourselves to recognize that we are thinking, rather than simply feeling, to tell ourselves, “stop”. In most meditation practices, the sitter will invariably get distracted and pulled into thought processes. We can either get wrapped up in those thoughts, or we can recognize “thinking” and permit the process to just drift away. Normally we call attention back to the breath, or something specifically centred in the moment, to help turn mental power away from distracting or disruptive thoughts, and we can do the same thing when trying to simply observe what’s happening in the moment. It’s a simple refocusing choice: “What’s happening right now?” We discipline ourselves to observe only the observable, and to let go of anything that feels like a thought.

When we don’t have the luxury of taking all day to do what we meant to do in a two hour window in the morning, the split-screen approach enables the observations to happen in one window while the forward momentum happens in the other. “What is the next step in what I am doing?” becomes a way of restructuring the need to push forward when half our conscious cognitive power is suddenly rerouted to self-observation. We shift focus to the smallest progressive component in our current task: do the next small thing; when that’s finished, do the next small thing after that. When that’s complete, do the next small thing after *that*, and so on until the self-observation of whatever is happening on the other side of the screen has run its course as best it can.

When we are mindful and self-observant about our own internal experiences, we stand a better chance of making more effective decisions about ourselves and our needs in the moment. It requires being fully present, in the sense of being open to, the feelings themselves; as soon as we start to layer rationalizations, justifications, judgments, or narratives over top of those feelings — in other words, as soon as we start to tell ourselves stories about why we feel what we feel, or where those feelings must/probably come from — then we are trapped in a cognitive process that is more about manipulating our own feelings than it is about simply allowing them to be. That in turn often introduces a great deal of tension or anxiety into the mind, and can in turn create significant dissonance and distress between what we feel and what we do in REACTION to those feelings (or rather, what we’re telling ourselves about those feelings). For example, I spent a relatively lengthy part of this morning beating myself up for failing to function this morning, and for failing to adhere to my own best-practices around managing drowsy-making medications int he evenings. Letting go of my own expectations, all rooted in my ego, around my vaunted prowess for pulling lengthy blog posts outta my arse in two hours or less, meant letting go of that harshly-critical voice in my head and just allowing myself to observe what lay beneath. And when I was able (and willing) to recognize the exhaustion that is more pervasive than a simple late-night dose of cough syrup could explain, it was much easier to release the expectations of ego and say, “Well, okay then… what’s the next small step that I *can* do?”

And so, it’s mid-afternoon on Tuesday and my small steps have included things like, “letting the pressure off myself,” “shut up and enjoy my coffee,” “chat with cafe friends,” “enjoy the mild sunshine on the drive home,” “write some more,” “snuggle my aging cat,” “write some more,” “do some small tidying efforts,” “finish the post,” “publish the post,” then whatever else comes next in line. If I had pushed to write something as I had initially felt compelled to do, I would have been unhappy with the end product and disconnected from myself for the rest of the day because of how I would have failed to just listen to myself. (I also would have cheated myself out of both a great experiential learning opportunity* AND blog content, but that’s neither here nor there 🙂

So, when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, resistant, anything really — cut yourself some slack. Even if it’s only just enough to take a moment and turn the observant eye inward, get curious about your own internal state. Dismiss the negative narratives that may come along for the ride, and just give some space to what you note in your own experience of that moment. If you need to continue being productive because you don’t feel you have the luxury of time, then leave part of the mind on observation mode and let another part of the mind break down the required forward momentum into next-small-step-sized parcels. Let the feelings be just feelings; they may not require action, so just let them run their course. They’ll subside in scope and intensity much fast than if you engage and fight or throttle them. And you’ll hopefully feel considerably more grounded once they do.


(* — Or, as we like to call them in some circles, “Another F***ing Personal Growth Opportunity”.)

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

“Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.”
― Amy Bloom

Have you ever wondered how prickly creatures like hedgehogs and porcupines ever manage to get close and snuggly with each other? The punchline to the untold joke is, “Very carefully.” If you can picture in your mind those spikes and barbs intermixing in vulnerable proximity, you’ve got a good working image of human intimacy as well.

It’s rumoured that Freud kept a statue of a porcupine on his workdesk as a reminder of a Schopenhauer fable:

“A troop of porcupines is milling about on a cold winter’s day. In order to keep from freezing, the animals move closer together. Just as they are close enough to huddle, however, they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread out, lose the advantage of commingling, and begin to shiver. This sends them back in search of each other, and the cycle repeats as they struggle to find a comfortable distance between entanglement and freezing.” — from Deborah Leupnitz, Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Intimacy and its Dilemmas, Perseus Books, 2002

There is a vibrant, powerful, push-me-pull-you dynamic to most intimate relationships; this is the Hedehog’s Dilemma. Most humans crave connection with others, regardless of whether you believe it rooted in primal, umbilical attachment or simply a principle of unity; it’s a cliche, perhaps that “no man is an island”. But the truth of our pursuit of intimate connection is a prickly process at best, because the closer most of us get to true intimacy and vulnerability, the more likely we are to push those getting close away from us, but quiet shutdowns or forceful ejections, and many ways and means in between. Perhaps it’s the fear of being seen; for others it’s the craving for close connection rubbing raw our fear of losing ourselves, of becoming something less than autonomous:

“In adulthood, when we find ourselves in an intimate relationship, we each experience again, even if only in attenuated form, those early struggles around separation and unity–the conflict between wanting to be one with another and the desire for an autonomous, independent self… each [adult] brings with her or him two people–the adult who says “I do,” and the child within who once knew both the agony and ecstasy of symbiotic union. […] Of course, as adults we know there’s no return to the old symbiotic union; of course, survival is no longer at stake in separation. But the child within feels a if this were still a reality. And the adult responds to the archaic memory of those early feelings even though they’re far from consciousness. Thus we don’t usually know what buffets us about–what makes us eager to plunge into a relationship one moment and frightens us into anxious withdrawal the next.” –Lillian Rubin, “Fears of Intimacy”, Challenge of the Heart: Love, Sex, and Intimacy in Changing Times; John Welwood, ed. Shambhala Books, 1985

The closer we get to allowing someone to truly “see us” — warts and scars and sabotaging behaviours and thought patterns and insecurities and all — the more terrified many people will become at the idea of BEING seen. We become terrified at the “what if” scenarios to follow someone catching even a glimpse of what we believe to be our core selves, our “hearts of darkness”.

The more fearful we become, the more our native defenses kick on, or into overdrive, to protect that terrified core self. That darkened spot is home to our chiefest vulnerabilities, our quintessential attachment wounds, and must be protected at all costs. Et voila! Prickliness that makes it seemingly impossible for someone to get past our defenses… right around the same time someone is probably erecting defenses against US.

“We long to be seen, understood, and cherished. But so often we have felt betrayed, hurt, and devalued. As a result, we may carry a rawness that we don’t want people to see or touch. We may not even allow ourselves to notice this place when a protective scab has numbed its presence. Confusion and conflict reign when we pull on people to soothe an inner place that we have abandoned. […] Sadly, we often perpetuate a loop in which our fear of rejection or failure or our continued isolation creates a desperation that drives us to attack or shame people to get what we want… Beneath this display of hostility, we are hurting or afraid. But instead of sweetly revealing these tender feelings, we’re on the warpath, although we’re often punching the shadows that linger from our past.” — John Amadeo, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships; Quest Books 2013

The challenge of getting through the spines and barbs of another person’s defensive strategies is developing the patience and willingness to sit in the fire of discomfort: both our own, and our partner’s. This can be made easier or more difficult depending on the shape of those defenses. Patterns of aggressive defensive can break us down over time when we’re on the receiving end, as can the internal cost of maintaining our high-drain defense systems. Intimacy is the result of vulnerability, which itself is the result of developing sufficient trust in both ourselves and our partners (and the attachment systems operating between us) to lower the defensive mechanisms, to let someone get close to our secret, core selves. David Richo refers to “erasing the storyboard” as a metaphor for detaching ourselves from the stories we carry about our personal attachment injuries:

“The more challenging surrender is to a person, to a commitment to a relationship of trust. It is said that we…have problems surrendering to someone because it feels as if we are giving up our freedom, something we may cling to as our most prized possession. This is why we so often feel a fear of closeness and commitment, actually a fear of trusting how we will feel in the midst of those experiences. […] It may take a partner a long time to convince us that it is safe to love… unreservedly. [They] will have to be willing to allow a long series of open-ended experiences, ones in which the door is continually visible and open in case we need to make a fast getaway. It may be hard for us to find someone with that kind of patience, and would we respect someone willing to be that self-sacrificing with no promise of return?” — David Richo. Daring to Trust: Opening Ourselves to Real Love and Intimacy; Shambhala Books, 2010

Learning how to detach from our beliefs about our own experiences, how to “love like we’ve never been hurt”, and to trust that our partners are building connection with us with GOOD intentions, is in many ways the core work of simply being in relationship. For many of us, the exhilaration of discovery and being seen is coloured by the fear of actually BEING SEEN, of recognizing our defensive challenges and knowing it’s going to take work to lower them. Many of us who have grown up in situations where we have learned a desire to have someone else overcome our defenses for us, are missing the opportunity to learn the scope of our own power and agency; to be overpowered still introduces uncomfortable power dynamics and potential boundary issues, whereas exerting personal agency to chose when and how we allow someone to see our vulnerable cores, is all about learning the shape of our own selves. The more we invest in a defensive stance, the more we risk remaining on the outside of powerfully intimate connection. But the intensity of the fear, the intensity of having our raw selves scrutinized by the Other and potentially judged as harshly as we judge our own faults and flaws, is often to much for people; we make an attempt, can’t stand the heat, and flee.

And so the hedgehog’s dilemma persists: we seek the warmth and closeness of others, but we can’t get around the sharp and spiky bits (ours or theirs), and we jerk away.

Intimacy is truly a prickly business.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

Plato thought what we see in the physical world is a dim reflection of the true ideal thing. For example circular objects are crude approximations to the ideal perfect circle. Platonic analysis aims to understand the physical world in terms of the ideals that capture the real essence that is dimly reflected in physical existence. — from here

It’s not very often I get to break out dead Greek philosophers before I finish my first coffee of the day. I’ve been reminded recently of a profound and repetitive pattern in relationship work that definitely gets in the way of effective intimacy, and that is the projection of some form of idealized partner in between us and the real, living, breathing, flawed human being(s) we’re partnered with.

The core of the Platonic ideal is that what we experience through the lenses of our flawed human-world existence, is simply a pale copy of an Ideal Version that exists on another plane to which we have no access. (Fans of Canadian fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay may be familiar with his “stacked worlds” in which all his novel settings are but pale copies in varying removes from the “perfect realm” of Fionavar.) I had opportunity recently to observe in action a series of client behaviours that reminded me that we sometimes similarly carry in our minds an ideal version of our partners that causes us significant frustration or distress when the reality and the ideal fall out of sync.

“My partner just never behaves the way I expect them to!”
“Why can’t they just be the better person I believe they can be??”
“I tried to change them.”

For better or for worse, most of us carry some kind of “romantic ideal partner” in our heads. This is the basic shape of the partner we wish to have, a perfect fit for all our needs and wants, the mold into which we then try to fit any human partners we acquire. Sometimes we do a reasonable job of adjusting our expectations down from that idealized, “perfect version” to fit the actual human we wake up to in the mornings, but sometimes we can’t let go of the ideals enough to fit ourselves in with this other imperfect human being.

(For the record, this happens almost as often with parents projecting their dreams and ideals onto their children as it does between romantic partners, and works out about as well as you’d think, when children fail to absorb and conform to those projections. This post concerns itself with the adult romantic version of the projection dynamic.)

There are all kinds of conversation triggers that indicate the presence of an idealized blockade. The sample quotes above are some of the more obvious ones I’ve encountered. Often we uncover a sense of what the speaker thinks or believes the Other COULD be, if only they were someone other than their imperfect selves. This method of projecting the idealized Other into a relationship is an absolute obstacle to authenticity and intimacy. If we insist on only interacting with the idealized Other, we set ourselves up for a great deal of frustration. Unsurprisingly, significant tension and eventual disconnect are what most commonly spool out from trying to force a partner to conform to our ideals (this is a major underpinning of Wexler’s “broken mirror syndrome”, for example) without a great deal of negotiation and consent.

There are a lot of theories swirling around the question of WHY we adhere to the ideal of the Other. Some theorists suggest we adapt our early, new-relationship-energy-fueled perceptions that our new partners are perfect and flawless into deep yearnings rooted in our earliest caregivers, looking for the perfect union or synthesis of need and provision on all levels. We carry an invisible internal model of that perfect provision:

As emotional bonding with our first caregiver follows us throughout our whole life and the child we carry inside us cries for love, feeling the need to love and be loved, we end up idealizing the other person without understanding it. We subconsciously want to revive the archetypal bond with our mother and more specifically the first year of our life[…] We project onto the person in front of us everything we want and miss. The empirical knowledge we have for the other person is then getting distorted, complemented, and enriched at will, namely according to our personal needs. Our partner is unintentionally turned into all the things we need him to be, things usually far away from what he really is. — Iro Dimitriou, “Looking for the Idealized Other

Spiritual theorists suggest it is a form of humanity’s drive to seek reunification with a divine Other that takes the shape of seeking “completion of self” through bonding with idealized Other:

Each is loved more profoundly in the ideal Other because each’s true self is realized through its unity with this ideal beloved; each’s agency is unified in this ideal Other, the abiding attention by whom, and the abiding intention of whom, purifies, joins, and sustains the manifold interactions of the universal community. — James Hart, The Person and the Common Life: Studies in a Husserlian Social Ethics

In both cases, we seek the ideal Other as a means of completing something in ourselves, addressing our internal needs in the most satisfying way possible. The ideal Other is the partner we desire above all else, the perfection we feel we deserve. The problems arise in confronting the uncomfortable truth that neither we nor our partners *are* perfect. How do we manage ourselves and our relationships when we realize that our partners cannot perfectly meet our needs?

In a projection scenario, what happens is that the disappointed partners continue to superimpose the idealized version between themselves and the source of their frustration. They come into the counselling offices seeking help with coping but what they really want is the secret trick to make partners conform perfectly to our needs and wants. “Tell me how to make my partner change!”

The problem isn’t necessarily that our partners won’t change, so much as it is our own stubborn refusal to accept what *IS* over the what *COULD BE*. I often ask my clients, “Knowing everything that you know about your partner right here and now, today, including all the thorny parts that are driving you nutty, is this someone you WANT to be in relationship with?”, because if someone can’t separate out what they see in real-time from the projection of that unrealistic Platonic Ideal, then we have a problem that isn’t about the relationship so much as it is an unyielding outcome attachment. If partners are only allowed to occupy the limited, confining space we make for them in our idealizations, then we’re not really allowing our partners or ourselves to be authentically in the relationship with our wounds, warts, and war stories. We may feel we deserve better. We refuse to let go of what the Other SHOULD BE, in our opinions, to the detriment of learning to see what really is.

It’s like getting into a relationship with someone, stapling a mask of a superhero to their face, and then never allowing them to be anyone BUT that mask. The implications and repercussions of any failure to conform to that constrained Ideal include personal dysregulation and overall destabilization of the relationship across a spectrum of severity.

This is the very antithesis of vulnerability, the core component of intimacy. It completely abnegates the potential for authenticity all around. The message we send by sticking to our projected Ideal Other is, “Who you really are is not good enough.” And if that’s a message you send to your flawed and human partners… why are you in relationship with them, then?

Working with clients to dismantle the projections is difficult work. We have to consider and discover (as best we can) where the need for the projection originates. We don’t really care where the projection itself comes from; why a client refuses to relinquish it, is the more important therapeutic question; like many defensive mechanisms, it was likely created to serve a purpose, but that original purpose may now be obstructing paths to mature relational intimacies. Being open to the less-ideal qualities of our partners means learning to sit with, and examine, the tensions and discomforts generated by encountering places where they are not what we expect, or not what we want. We balance what we know of them with what we know of our own needs, and we consider how to explore those intersections where the disconnect seems most problematic. What has been communicated and what has not? Is the message articulated effectively? Can we determine any obvious (or discoverable) blocks to reception of our connection attempts on the partner’s side? If our standard response to a partner’s failure to accept our idealized Other is to become critical, or manipulative to the end of forcing compliance and conformity with our needs, partners may understandably become resistant to their partners, or at least to their projections, over time. That potential resistance has to be taken into account when shaping expectations for any restoration phase.

Teaching clients how to let go of their projections, however, means teaching them how to open themselves up to the experience of the Authentic Other. We do this by reintroducing curiosity as a tool for navigating the rough waters between “What We Thought We Knew” (the projection) and “What Is Really In Front of Us” (the authentic other). We rebalance emotional investments by moving effort from “I must force you to comply so I don’t feel insecure” (Harriet Lerner’s “You change so I feel better!” dysfunctional relationship’s rallying cry) to, “How do *I* see, and choose to relate to, the actual person in front of me?”. We challenge clients to be better with (which is NOT the same as “be GOOD with”) the instability of dealing with another autonomous individual by strengthening their own internal sense of Self.

But always, we come back to breaking through the projection. We hold that there is a place to value ideals, but on a day-to-day basis, we have to relate effectively to the *real* Other who occupies that space with us. We can continue to choose to wield projections as obstructions to intimacy, or we can choose to explore and develop vulnerable connection.

What do you choose?

(There’s a whole related conversation I have with the *partners* of those who get stuck in patterns of Idealized Othering, on how to stand their ground and defend boundaries against the projections, but that’s a post topic for another day.)

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

It was reading bell hooks’ “All About Love: New Visions” that first introduced me to the idea of substituting care for love, specifically in the realm of substituting caregiving/caretaking in place of true intimate (romantic) love, in platonic friendships, and in familial relationships as well. The ideals of caring, caregiving, and caretaking seem indelibly intertwined in our culture, bound up in the complex realms of the transactional nature of emotional attachment, trading often-exorbitant emotional caring labour for the perception of security and protection. But it has become apparent in the course of numerous conversations lately, both in and out of the counselling office, that the issue is far more complex than a simple substitution of “care for love”. And it has been dawning on me over the past few weeks that we’re looking at a kind of emotional labour crisis in which expectations are tied to nebulous definitions for caregiving and caretaking , with emotional boundaries potentially being trampled in many directions at once.

There’s a commmon refrain I hear in two variants in both platonic and intimate relationships alike:
Variant 1: “I do all of these things for you, and you never acknowledge or appreciate them!”
Variant 2: “So-and-so keeps stepping in to try and do things for me or fix things for me that I never asked for and that I don’t want, that don’t meet my needs, then gets angry at me and calls me ungrateful [etc.] when I say, please don’t do that anymore!”

Either of these sound at all familiar?

After I’d listened to a friend recently describing an interaction with a friend of theirs along the lines of variant #2, it occurred to me to wonder about how we perceive care, both in terms of what we receive and in what we do for or offer (give to) others. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a major difference between the act of GIVING care versus the act of TAKING care, though part of the problem in sussing out the nuanced differentiation is that culturally, we seem to use both terms interchangeably.

For a clearer sense of potential differences, we can start with the basics of linguistic construction. There is a significant difference in how we perceive the acts of giving care to others, and taking care from others. We tend to see both as kind and noble acts, imbued with good and helpful intent. So from the start, I look at the actions involved:

When I GIVE something, is it an offering, a gift, or an imposition? Does the receiver have the right of refusal? Do I assume consent or do I seek it implicitly? Do I actually know for certain if what I am offering is something the recipient wants or needs? How did I validate that knowing?

When I TAKE something from another person, including their care about something, do I have their consent to do so? Do I know that what I’m doing is desired on their part? How have I confirmed or validated that knowledge with them?

In listening to the perspectives of people on whom caretaking in particular has been perpetuated, what becomes clearer in my mind is the notion that the caretakers often seem more motivated by the appearance of taking care, of being seen as “the good friend/partner/spouse/etc/”, and being validated as such, than by doing what the intended recipient of that caring behaviour might actually desire. The biggest flaw in the process when I’m listening to either side describe how these situations unfold, is a lack of explicit discussion and consent around what would be helpful TO THE RECIPIENT of the caring action. Caregivers will more often be inclined to ask first, then act: “What can I do to assist you?”; caretakers will often be more inclined to act first, then get upset if the action is not responded to as enthusiastically as imagined: “Oh I’ll do this really cool thing for X to make them feel better!”

The thing about caretakers is the hidden agenda aspect, often tied to an almost self-destructive behavioural pattern that pushes the caretaker to levels of self-sacrifice in the pursuit of something in return that may never have been consented to by the relational partner(s) in question.

In a nutshell, caretaking is a hallmark of codependency and is rooted in insecurity and a need to be in control. Caregiving is an expression of kindness and love. — Elizabeth Kupferman, RN, LMHC, LPC

Caring = giving to another from love, for the joy of it – as a free gift

Caretaking = giving to get love, giving with an agenda attached, giving yourself up

Even though the actions of caring and the actions of caretaking might look exactly the same, the intention behind each is totally different, so the energy of the actions is also completely different.

Sandy is a caretaker. She is constantly doing things for others – sometimes because they ask her to and other times because she believes that is what they want and expect. The problem is that Sandy often abandons herself to give to others, and then expects others to give back to her and fill the emptiness within her caused by her self-abandonment. — Dr. Margaret Paul

Looked at this way, caretaking becomes a fairly toxic form of transactional affection, one that abnegates both self-care and healthy, effective communications processes. It often rests on a presumption that the caretaker knows more about what the recipient wants or needs, or believes they “know what’s best for them”. And when we break down how that presumptiveness works in most relational dynamics, we often find that it has less to do with the recipient at all, and almost everything to do with how the caretaker will be perceived for the act of taking that care.; in short, it’s more about making themselves feel good or look good because they did what they believe to be the right thing, rather than asking the recipient and risking having all efforts and energies diverted by the recipient not accepting the care as intended.

(This is also an excellent example of how David Wexler’s broken or distorted mirror syndrome works, up to and including the caretaker “acting out” when the perceived care attempt is rejected, declined, or received less than perfectly.)

If we are genuinely moved to take care from the shoulders of another, we should first consider the following questions:
1. Do I really have the capacity to take on this effort?
2. Do I have the recipient’s consent to engage in this act?
3. Have I verified that my choice in actions is, in fact, both desired by the recipient and likely the most effective action option available?
4. Is there some way I can *give* care and support to the recipient so they learn to effectively manage this care themselves?
5. Am I aware of looking for something specific in response to taking this care away from the other person? How will I feel or respond in the absence of that expected feedback? Is the other aware of my expectation?

Sometimes it’s hard to be honest about who the process is intended to benefit, simply because outwardly the efforts are all directed at alleviating stress or strain from another. But it’s hard to be on the receiving end of caretaking when those efforts are NOT helpful, not effectively directed at what we know our own needs to be. It’s like receiving that awkwardly-unattractive hand-knit Christmas sweater from Aunt Agatha: you know she means well and thought you’d really appreciate it, but it’s not anything you’d ever wear and goes with nothing else in your closet. Really, that gift is more about Aunt Agatha’s wanting to make and gift that awkwardly-unattractive Christmas sweater, and less about her thinking of you and what would truly fit with your personal style and needs. Caretakers want you to want their gifts as much as they want to gift them, and that is the set of strings that comes attached to that care: I want you to validate me and my efforts for having done the thing, whether this was a thing you wanted done or not.

How do we deal best with those we recognize as caretakers, especially if those efforts are beginning to strain the relationship?

First, recognize there are probably a number of different boundary violations happening beneath the surface. If you’re on the receiving end of a caretaker’s attention, there may need to be some discussions around what is welcome and what is problematic, in terms of what you appreciate and welcome in terms of “helpful” intents.

Secondly, if you suspect the caretaking isues are in your court, consider the following symptoms:

What are some of the signs that you may be caretaking?

  • Others often accuse you of crossing personal boundaries, or meddling. But you believe you know what’s best for others.
  • Other people’s ability to take care of themselves seems unlikely. So, you tend to solve their problems without first giving them the chance to try it themselves.
  • Solving other people’s problems comes with strings attached, expecting something in return (whether unconscious or not). After all, you sacrificed all your energy and time for them.
  • You constantly feel stressed, exhausted, frustrated, and even depressed.
  • Needy people are drawn to you like a magnet.
  • You’re often judgmental.
  • You don’t take care of yourself because you think that’s selfish.

Nancy Ryan, MA LMFT, Relationship Therapist

Helping others is a great thing, but helping others to the detriment of ourselves and our own needs, especially if our internal programming leads us to believe that self-care is “selfish”, is problematic. That’s the point at which the caring process lands in jeopardy; we take care of others because we now NEED THEM TO CARE FOR US, because we cannot allow self-care to render us “selfish”. It’s a big, nasty, self-propelling downward spiral if left unaddressed or unmanaged. Those are the kinds of invisible expectations that rapidly unbalance any kind of relationship. So from a therapeutic perspective, we have to draw gentle attention to both the “selfish” narratives and find a framework in which to reprogram those, but we also need to make clear and observe the expectations, to get those articulated and negotiated like any other relational need; without clear consent attached to the expectation, we have little recourse for getting the underlying needs met by our partners.

It seems time to make sure there’s clarification about the terminology, as a starting point. There is a considerable difference in how we perceive something being given, versus something being taken. If you want to GIVE care, then make the offer, and make it in good faith, with no strings attached. If you find yourself more inclined to TAKE care of (or from) others, then perhaps it’s worth some self-observational reflection to determine how and why that happens, and what’s the real intent behind the taking.

(And don’t substitute either for authentic intimacy and love; but for more on bell hooks’ far more articulate thoughts on *that* subject, read “All About Love”.)

Emotional Intelligence, self-perception, Uncategorized

There’s an interesting trend across a number of conversations I’ve been having lately, predominantly (though not exclusively) with women, or with male clients generally under the age of 30. When they come in to see someone like me because of relationship challenges, or dealing with common personal issues like depression and anxiety, there are often significant factors in their respective backstories that provoke an increasingly common question from me as an outside observer: “How are you not ANGRY about this situation?”

I don’t think I’m super-sensitive but when the one thing I would, personally or professionally, expect to see as a reaction to certain types of situations is notably absent, I’m going to wonder why. And honestly, the situations that will drive someone to seek therapy are OFTEN going to be exactly the types of situations in which it would seem perfectly normal to be angry, even if we’re just angry at circumstances rather than angry at people, including ourselves. Yet when I ask my clients, bluntly, about that absence, sometimes they squirm uncomfortably, and sometimes they return words to me that acknowledge there is negative feeling present, but they use words like “frustration”, or “disappointment”. Okay. It’s not my job to own or correct a client on their experience — their feelings are theirs, not mine — but I will open the door to an “And Also?” kind of exploration that explores whether there’s possibly more going on under the hood, as it were, and also considers whether the feeling label is entirely accurate.

The presence of anger makes a lot of people uncomfortable, so sometimes before we go directly inviting it into conversation, we have to explore more generally at what “anger” as an experience means to the client. Most of us have a reasonable grasp on what outward anger looks like: aggression, hostility, violence. For some people with very low tolerance for emotional experiences, ANY intense emotional expression will read like anger, especially when they believe it to be directed at them personally. And most of us will have some sense of what happens when anger turns inward: self-esteem issues, self-loathing, shame. Unsurprisingly, very few people admit to being comfortable, let alone adept with managing, any of these anger-associated experiences, so culturally we have adopted an unspoken policy around suppressing or denying anger, then being surprised when it refuses to stay quietly in the box, leaks out around the edges, and inevitably comes back to bite us in our collective arses on everything from the interpersonal to the society-wide, endemic tide of hate.

And we, collectively and individually, are left without adequate tools to manage that anger regardless of whether it’s our own or someone else’s.

“You’ll never guess quite how furious the women around you are, until you ask them. Some of the angriest women I know are also the sweetest, the kindest, the most personable and generous. Inside, they might be seething with rage they have been taught never to express, anger they can barely acknowledge even to themselves. They’d probably be surprised to find out how common that feeling is. They have learned that showing their anger is an invitation to mockery, shame, or shunning, so they displace their anger, try to smother it into silence, because they’ve learned that nice girls don’t get cross. Nice girls don’t speak out or stand up for themselves. It’s unladylike. It’s unbecoming. Worst of all, it’s threatening to men. Case in point: period jokes. How many times have you heard people dismiss and belittle a woman who dares to express emotion by telling her she’s probably menstruating? How many times have men in power — including Donald Trump — tried to push back and put down women who criticize them by implying that our opinions are nothing more than a mess of dirty, bloody hormones, none of it rational, none of it real? These jokes are never just jokes. They’re a control strategy.

The patriarchy is so scared of women’s anger that eventually we learn to fear it, too. We walk around as if we were bombs about to go off, worried about admitting how livid we really are, even to ourselves. There are real social consequences for coming across as an “angry woman” — especially if you’re not also white, straight, and cisgender.” — Laurie Penny, writing for Teen Vogue, Aug 2, 2017


One of the reasons my second marriage failed is because I was my own best example of how a failure to acknowledge anger became the corrosive factor undermining safe, intimate connection. My mother, an excellent example of her generation, raised by a mentally-ill mother who was an excellent example of HER generation, instilled in me a set of gender-biased, role-defining values that devalued my own experiences for the sake of care-taking another’s, without any ability to acknowledge that I even had my own needs, let alone a voice to address them adequately, and so as I tried to eat my needs, I got angrier and angrier at the costs of suppression and denial, and would periodically explode in uncontrolled rage at my bewildered (and unfortunately, very conflict-averse) partner. It took a long time to break down that pattern and recognize where most of it was coming from, and how I had become “complicit in my own subjugation” by being at first unable, and then later unwilling, to be more clear about what I was feeling and why, and what needs or expectations were attached, and why. My models did NOT prepare me in the least to be okay with being angry, so the only outlet it had was the explosive, all-eclipsing supernova once the fury was too big to contain.

Even on the lowest heat setting, a pot will eventually boil itself dry and set itself on fire.

So where does this silence come from as a mask for anger?

Largely, it comes from a pervasive cultural message, one especially damaging to women, that anger is a thing to be feared, that it is never anything but inappropriate, that it brings shame on us (for women in particular, anger is seen as a denial of our programmed nurturance and care-giver roles, so we are shamed on many levels for daring to stand up against expectations, for example, or assert our own needs against those of others). Children are often punished from the outset for their anger, though it’s tolerated more in boys than in girls.

Harriet Lerner, author of “The Dance of Anger, introduces anger this way, however:

“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing important emotional issues in our lives, or that too much of our self–our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions–is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably o or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say “no” to the ways in which we are defined by others and “yes” to the dictates of our inner self.” — Harriet Lerner, “The Dance of Anger”

Unfortunately, she goes on to describe the cost of anger that many women understand all too well:

“Women who openly express anger at me are especially suspect. even when society is sympathetic to our goals of equality, we all know that “those angry women” turn everyone off. …The taboos against our feeling and expressing anger are so powerful that even knowing when we are angry is not a simple matter. When a woman shows her anger, she is likely dismissed as irrational or worse. …Because the very real possibility that we are angry meets with rejection and disapproval from others, it is no wonder that it is hard for us to know, let alone admit, that we are angry. …Thus, we too learn to fear our own anger, not only because it brings the disapproval of others, but because it signals the necessity for change. [The resulting] questions can be excellent ways of silencing ourselves and shutting off our anger.”

Many of my women clients describe a common scenario: they get angry about something a partner has done, but when they raise the issue with the partner, especially if they are still angry when they do so, the partner dismisses them with some variant of, “You’re crazy.” Setting aside for a moment the entire issue of gaslighting, the sheer commonality of this dismissive response to a partner’s emotional state and area of concern tells me that there is, as of yet, no safe place in relationships for anger. We’re often taught first as children that anger is not allowed unless it abides by specific rules, if it’s allowed at all; we commonly learn about conflict and intensity management or avoidance as patterns of behaviour modeled within our families of origin. We’re taught by partners with differing tolerances for emotional intensity that it may not be tolerated at all in intimate relationships. We’re taught by employers and workplace environments that anger is completely inappropriate in professional settings.

Ergo, we (all genders) learn to suppress or misdirect the emotional intensity. We downplay it, until someone flags the use of descriptive labels that seem out of step with the nonverbal indicators, or simply wonders where the plain anger is. We dismiss it, and pretend we’re not angry even though nonverbally we may be broadcasting rage to the world, or having it leak out like toxic waste through the cracks in our facades. There’s probably not a person reading this who hasn’t had the experience of someone saying to them, “I’m FINE” in tones that clearly convey the speaker is anything BUT. (This one was always my personal downfall.) For many people, suppressed anger leads to depression and anxiety; for others, it leads to toxic and damaging behaviours covering a spectrum from emotional withdrawal to domestic violence. We– many of us–would rather talk about being strained, frustrated, disappointed than admit to outright anger.

Why?

The most-oft-repeating thread in the counselling is that people are afraid of “what happens when I get angry”. In short, it’s less about the feeling itself and more about the thoughts or the actions provoked by those thoughts. But we don’t differentiate well between feelings, thoughts, and actions, so the messy association paints all three components with the same brush. If I fear what I might *DO*, then I should also fear the feeling that drives the action… right?? Well, no… not really.

McKay, Davis, and Fanning, authors of the CBT textbook, “Thoughts and Feelings”, break things down this way:

“Thoughts cause feelings. This is the essential insight of cognitive therapy. All of the cognitive techniques that have been developed and refined in the last half of the twentieth century flow out of this one simple idea: that thoughts cause feelings, and many emotions you feel are preceded and caused by a thought, however abbreviated, fleeting, or unnoticed that thought may be. In other words, events themselves have no emotional content. It is your impression of an event that causes your emotions.”

They go on to describe a feedback loop that we all experience, consciously or otherwise, in which an event triggers a thought that incites an emotional response that triggers another layer of thought process that might trigger further layers of emotional reaction.

In the case of anger, a narrative we hear a lot from our clients is that something happens in the relationship, the triggering event, and in between the trigger and the emotional state, there is an assessment or interpretation that occurs. I sometimes refer to this as “the interpretive dance”, in which we receive the trigger and assign motive or value to it, and then we react to the interpretation, rather than to the original event. And THEN we tell ourselves stories about our reactions, either justifying our stance, or judging ourselves for it, and then we react emotionally to THAT level of thinking. And at some point in that mess, we might find ourselves acting–acting OUT, acting in DEFENCE, etc. It’s often more of a REACTION than a response, a default pattern of behaviour carved over time into a path of least resistance. And this is where communications often break down as the emotional intensity gets stuck in defaulting loops of interpretation and REACTIVE action.

Anger is a notoriously problematic emotion in this context because the default loop is often one of retaliation or punitive measures: we often react in anger when we’ve been hurt and so, reactively, we want the source of our pain to feel what we feel. But on the thinking level, we recognize that “hurting other people is bad”, so we suppress the tendency (or think we suppress the behaviour) by trying to suppress the emotional content completely. “I don’t want to be a bad person who hurts others” is a common cultural narrative, one especially laden with caretaking overtones for women. So we associate “bad” with both the action and the feeling, and accept training that creates aversion to both action and emotion.

So… what the hell do we do with all of that in the therapy office?

CBT provides some very excellent tools for separating out layers of thoughts from emotional reactions, so there are a lot of well-proven avenues for breaking out the components for the reactive feedback loops. Mindfulness and acceptance therapy introduces some very useful language around internal self-reflection and noticing the narratives as distinct from emotional states. But specifically when working with anger and women, I find one of the most important pieces of work we do is simply providing space and permission to name the emotion for what it is. We normalize the impact of the cultural suppression process, but we also allow for exploring the impact of what that suppression has taught us about disavowing and disallowing our own emotional experiences. We work to separate out the feelings from the choices we make about resulting actions, and we create space for clients to learn, as Pema Chodron calls it, to “sit in the fire of our own discomfort” WITHOUT impulsively committing to ACTION. We feel, we process (we learn to think differently), and then at some point we make different, conscious choices about ensuing actions. We create mindful responses, rather than knee-jerk reactions. In allowing clients to learn to sit with the anger and see that simply allowing it to be present without provoking reactive behaviours, we can allow space for the feeling without fear, or at least hopefully reducing the fear of what we might do BECAUSE we’re angry. (I have recognized three stages of angry communication patterns that help with this part of the process when I’m working with high-conflict couples, but I think I need to save that for a future post.)

There has to be space in relationship for each of us to be authentic in our emotional experiences, but because we’re afraid of our emotional expressions, we’re not generally very good at sharing those experiences. We’re afraid of the intense emotions for a variety of reasons, but predominantly because they make us feel unsafe, regardless of whether we’re the ones presenting or receiving the emotional content. We don’t know what to do with it, and at the more intense ends of the spectrum, it can feel like violence to those with low(er) tolerances. So we need to find balance, but we can’t find balance until we allow that everyone has a voice, and has to have space to exercise that voice. Anger is a damnably difficult thing to give voice to, but a hugely important indicator of relational and individual health and attachment. Learning to be present with anger is some of the most challenging work I will do, not just as a therapist, but as a woman, and it is so very necessary.