Uncategorized

I like it when the universe provides me a thematically-associated set of triggers to point me at a blog topic. This time around we’re looking at the concept of the “locus of control”, the aspect of ourselves that enables us to either internalize and trust our personal agency, or leads us to believe we have little to no control over ourselves and we’re simply reactive agents to external forces operating upon us.

In psychology, the locus of control is often tied to the individual experience of success or failure. In relationships, however, the locus of control issue manifests a variety of ways, from the learned helplessness of a victim stance, to a common but insidious relinquishing of response agency in favour of reactivity.

This latter issue is one that has been cropping up recently in multiple conversations in and out of the therapy office. My observations of its simplest form look like this:

“I’m waiting for X to decide what to do, and the not-knowing is driving me crazy.”
“I can’t be happy/calm/less anxious until my partner is happy/calm/less anxious, but whenever I try to fix things, it seems to make everything worse.”
“I walk on eggshells whenever I don’t know what’s happening.”
“I don’t know where I end and you begin.”

Assuming we’re not dealing with any known trauma-based reactivity in the situation (hyper-vigilance as a trauma/abuse response, for example, is a whole different kettle of fish), these kinds of statements can indicate the presence of what we consider to be an externalized locus of control.

Externalizing the locus is another way of describing what Murray Bowen’s Family Systems theory describes as enmeshment or “emotional fusion”:

“Emotional fusion is emotional togetherness without the freedom of individuality. It is an unseen, unhealthy, emotional attachment where people lose their sense of self and […] unique identity […]. Emotionally fused people are needy. They look to others to mirror to them their sense of identity. Because their identity is defined by others, they require constant validation, becoming what they think others want them to be. When that occurs, relationships are not as fulfilling as they could be and there can be a sense of emptiness and feelings of “I’m not enough,” or “what’s wrong with me.” Emotional fusion can also lead to feelings of detachment and even rebellion in families as those who are hurting try to gain a sense of self.” — Kathryn Manley, MS, LPC, CST, “Be Yourself: Don’t Become Emotionally Fused,” April 16, 2015 for www.agapechristiancounselingservices.org

When we create healthy bonds in intimate relationships, we achieve in effect a kind of emotional co-regulation that includes all kinds of good things, like validation, secure attachment, supportive and reciprocal emotional labour. When we don’t have a healthy bond, when we have unhealthy or ineffective (or completely absent) boundaries within our intimate relationships, then all kinds of issues arise. We feel we can’t act independently, but must tie our emotional options reactively to other people’s choices–prioritizing their behaviours, choices, needs above our own without balance. We absorb a need to control partners, or at least their emotional states, so that we can mitigate our own, rather than maintaining clearer boundaries around “what’s your reactivity” and “what’s my reactivity” to focus on more effectively regulating our own experiences internally.

There’s a fine line between effective collaboration–choosing or creating plans with a partner that effectively reflect multiple sets of needs, values, and perspectives–and an externally projected or fused locus of control, in which we feel like we CANNOT function except as a reaction to someone else’s behaviours. If a client expresses frustration and helplessness, we almost always come back to explore where the control in the situation seems (to the client’s perspective) to reside.

Image courtesy Sally Butler
www.fish4development.co.uk

In my observations, there are some common indicators signalling potential externalized locus issues:

  • constantly waiting for someone else to say or do something so we know how to react, rather than creating initial responses that address our own needs
  • waiting or allowing other people to define what is right for us
  • requiring or responding ONLY to (or even primarily to) external validation, and feeling anxious or out of sorts when that external validation is absent (see also, broken mirrors)
  • increasing sense of responsibility and self-blame about things that go wrong in other people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (in some cases, internalizing responsibility for other people’s actions is actually more about hanging our sense of self-worth on other people; it’s both a complicated self-esteem issue, AND a case of putting our self-identity in the hands of other people–a definite externalization of our locus of control)
  • feeling like we have to accept whatever comes our way from our partners, that we have no control and/or no right to ask for anything different
  • attributing even the good things that happen in our relationships to outside factors, rather than to anything we have done or factors intrinsic to ourselves

(There are some other indicators for emotional fusion in relationship listed in this article here.)

“Locus of control is often viewed as an inborn personality component. However, there is also evidence that it is shaped by childhood experiences—including children’s interactions with their parents. Children who were raised by parents who encouraged their independence and helped them to learn the connection between actions and their consequences tended to have a more well developed internal locus of control.” Richard B. Joelson DSW, LCSW, “Locus of Control: How do we determine our successes and failures?” Aug 02, 2017 for www.psychologytoday.com

There isn’t a lot of significant study yet into the family of origin impact on internal versus external locus development, though some research suggests that “Warmth, supportiveness and parental encouragement seem to be essential for development of an internal locus”. How we form and view our connections to the world around us is often informed by family models, however, often in tandem with experiences that reinforce those inherited perspectives. Ergo, it makes a certain amount of sense that we carry into our intimate adult relationships a degree of conditioning about where our personal source of agency lies. We learn through a variety of mechanisms that our success or safety or happiness is intrinsically tied to making other people successful or safe or happy, be it parents, partners, employers, children, or any other external force. This is a common underlying theme for caretakers and self-sacrificing nurturers in particular. Nurturance isn’t in and of itself a negative thing, but when we feel we cannot function unless it be in reaction to Other People’s Needs, to the point of forgetting or denying or downgrading our own repetitively, THEN there’s an externalized locus of control issue.

Part of the struggle to correct externalized loci once we’ve identified them, however, is that there is often a comorbid self-esteem issue. After a lifetime of externalizing one’s sense of validation and self-worth, it becomes difficult to trust that we even have our own needs, or have the right to ask them be met in relationships defined up to this point by our caretaking others. We have to confront anxiety issues around separating our choices from other people’s reactions; emotional initiative seems risky, if not selfish, and hard to find a balance between “you do you and I’ll do me” and feeling like we’re somehow abandoning our emotionally enmeshed posts.

What Harriet Lerner calls the “distancer-pursuer” dynamic becomes another key indicator of externalized loci in intimate relationships:

“A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression. They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and take it personally.

They criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable. They believe they have superior values. If they fail to connect, they will collapse into a cold, detached state. They are labeled needy, demanding, and nagging.

A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want physical and emotional distance. They have difficulty with vulnerability.

They respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. They see themselves as private and self-reliant. They are most approachable when they don’t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued. They are labeled unavailable, withholding, and shut down.” — Steve Horsmon, “How to Avoid the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern in Your Relationship”, March 6, 2017 for www.gottman.com

When we project our locus of control onto another, and that other person moves emotionally away from us somehow, OF COURSE we’re going to feel destabilized: anxious, upset, fearful, even threatened. It’s like an important part of us is being taken away, though in truth it’s more like we’re giving it away. The lack of autonomy that we feel binds or traps us, the zero tolerance for a partner’s differing perspective or opinion that threatens us–these are indicators that we have tied ourselves to someone else, that we have given our agency and control of our own emotional selves over to them… whether they have asked for and consented to that control or not. Re-developing in INTERNAL locus of control, therefore, involves a multipronged approach:

  • rebuilding self-esteem
  • developing self-trust in our choices and actions
  • internally validating our own thoughts and feelings
  • creating boundaries around our emotional experiences and those of others
  • recognizing the potential impact of our behaviours without over-assuming ownership of other people’s reactions to them (which can tie back to learning how and when to apologize effectively when we’ve transgressed)

Seems like a lot of work when we break it down like that, right? None of these steps, in and of itself, will be a small piece of work. We know that. Bringing home an individual’s locus of control is pretty much “core definition” work, for people who have never had, or never been allowed to have, a strong sense of differentiated self in their lives. As a therapist, I can’t sugar-coat what kind of challenge this sort of work will be for many. But consider the alternative…

Two weeks ago, in response to my post about differentiating between “selfish” and “self-centric”, a friend commented about “the aspect of trusting our feelings in determining our own needs and wants […] in a world that constantly tells [us] we’re “over-reacting” or “imagining it,” etc.”. Internalizing our individual locus of control is ALL about differentiating the “I” from the “we” or the “you”, in a world that tries to teach us that “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.” Yes, it’s potentially some significant amounts of personal development to establish healthy differentiation in a relational system, especially for those raised in cultures, communities, families, or relationships where good boundaries are a foreign concept, or systemically destroyed from the outset. At the end of the day, however, the more we know and strengthen in ourselves, the more we have to build on when we get into relationships with others.

It’s not about jettisoning the “we”, but it IS about establishing boundaries that break the fusion, that provide us with tools to self-regulate when we don’t actually know what’s going on with or inside our partners, to break off the clinging pursuit, to work on settling our selves BEFORE we wade in to do something to or for someone else. There is a huge difference between “I want to be happy with you and be happy with myself”, and “I can’t be happy UNLESS you’re happy” (or “I need to fix your unhappiness before I can be happy myself”). The problems lie when we make our own state conditional upon, and therefore subordinate to, the state of another.

We have to do this work in a way that doesn’t keep reinforcing the enmeshment ideal of, “I contribute or affect to the success of this relationship by FIXING THE OTHER PERSON”, a tangent that comes up periodically in relational work; that still supports an externalized locus of control by hanging the idea of success on said Other Person accepting our efforts to fix them/us/the relationship. That’s not how this process is meant to be interpreted. It’s more along the lines of, “How do I become the best Me that I can? What do I bring to benefit the relationship by being confident and secure in myself?”

Breaking enmeshment or fusion and (re-)establishing an internal locus of control puts us back in control of our own lives, in charge of our own emotional well-being. It decreases our dependency on someone else’s emotional condition, and decreases the amount of emotional labour we need to do just to maintain status quo, because we’re primarily addressing our own needs and state and building faith in *that*, which can overall decrease our reactive tension in relationship and also leave us open for healthier ways of approaching intimacy.

Emotional Intelligence, Uncategorized

Once in a while I notice there seem to be trends in conversations I have with friends and clients, or unintentional themes in the articles that cross my desktop in a flood most weeks. Recently, I’ve encountered a number of people who self-identify as empaths who seem to be struggling with feeling awash or drowning in the emotional tides of others in their lives.

This sent me scrambling after a while for a review of definitions. I was surprised to discover that, while the vaunted Merriam-Webster Dictionary (whose Twitter feed is delightful, by the way, both entertaining and informative in surprisingly equal measure) has definitions for empathy, empathic, and empathetic, it most decidedly does NOT have a definition for empath. This presents a bit of a conundrum, if so many people are self-identifying as something a dictionary doesn’t recognize, what does that mean?

Google defines the word as, “(chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.” Urban Dictionary suggests, “A person who is capable of feeling the emotions of others despite the fact that they themselves are not going through the same situation.” Many other web sources of varying repute associate empaths with Highly-Sensitive Persons (HSPs), with significant confusion around differentiating between apprehending (perceiving) the emotional state of others, *feeling* the emotional state of others, or simply being highly-sensitive to the intensity of people in highly-charged emotional states (which has little to do with effectively perceiving others’ states and everything to having little to no tolerance for the emotional intensity of others’ distress).

Empathy is an active ability: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner” (M-WD). The message I keep encountering from those who self-identify as empaths is the aspect of “vicariously experiencing the feelings” of someone else, to the point of their own emotional distress or physical fatigue. HSPs are hard to tell apart from various types of hypervigilant people; they pick up super-quickly, more so than most people, on nonverbal cues or tones and cadences of speech, and they interpret and react to those interpretations faster than many of us as well. It’s much harder to quantify accuracy in those interpretations, especially if the interpretation then results in not just one but two parties being subsumed by the emotional experience of the moment. What this looks like from a therapy perspective is a permeable-boundary issue, when a sensitive person does not possess effective means of differentiating others’ emotional turmoil from their own once proximity to intolerable intensity has triggered their own “stuff” into overdrive. They get swamped when someone else’s state over-runs their own boundaries, and suddenly, “your pain is my pain”… which is a rather *ineffective* way of simply being present with someone in their own moment of distress.

I sometimes come back to an analogy from my younger days when I was training as a teen to be a lifeguard. One of the Big Lessons the instructors always drive home to students is that when you try to save a drowning victim, you can swim out to them but if you get close enough for them to grab on to you, they will overwhelm you and the odds of you BOTH drowning go up astronomically. That’s why lifeguards train with rescue aids and flotation devices they can push to a drowning swimmer; it lets them remain present and calm and AT A SAFE DISTANCE while the swimmer gets a handle on the situation and can (hopefully) calm down. What these recent discussions around empathy are telling me, however, is that we’re raising generations of rescuers who think “empathy” means letting themselves be overwhelmed and drowning in another person’s emotions, and who believe this practice makes them better people for doing so.

Part of the issue of managing empathy effectively seems to be that somewhere along the way the western world’s interpretation has come adrift from a classical Buddhist interpretation. In the west, we have seemingly adopted the idea that “empathy” is the process of feeling what other people feel, literally absorbing those feelings as if they are our own. I’m not sure how we got there, given that in the Buddhist view of compassion and empathy, the empathy is all about “being able to relate to your emotional experience [generally because I have had similar kinds of experiences in my own past]”, NOT about “I must be awash in your feelings myself in order to relate to your feelings”. I think there may be (should be?) another name for the permeability issue when other people’s feelings trigger our own flooding that *isn’t* about empathy, but I’ll be darned if I can think of one. Discussing this with another therapist colleague, she looked at the description of empaths and empathy as sensitive clients have been using these words, and suggested, “Empathy has a boundary. I know I’m me and I know your feelings but they are not actually mine. The flooding you are describing is enmeshment. It’s not empathy.

Enmeshment, helpfully defined by Wikipedia as “personal boundaries are diffused, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomous development“,seems to mirror the described experiences of empaths when they become overloaded by others. They can’t function autonomously when it comes to separating out “what’s mine from what’s yours”, without breaking off from the contact completely and taking sometimes considerable time and distance to de-escalate their own reactiveness. This is not the same thing at all as being able to sit with a person in distress and recognize similarities in experiences in feelings, but holding one’s own emotional experiences (past AND current) gently to the side in order to remain present with the distressed party. When we are subsumed by our own reactivity, suddenly the encounter MUST become about managing that, rather than presence with the Other, and we miss the point of that compassionate, effectively-empathic ability to witness and relate. We have swum too close to the drowning swimmer, and now we are drowning, ourselves.

Working with HSPs and self-identified empaths is challenging from a therapeutic perspective, because we have to first create an awareness of boundaries and teach how to recognize their purpose (and instill a value for that purpose in people who may come from situations in which differentiation was dismissed or actively punished, and who therefore believe they still have a need to remain hypervigilant or susceptible to the silent barrage of non-verbal cues). We work to create an understanding of differentiation, usually through a variety of self-scanning and mindfulness mechanisms, and we introduce de-escalation tools as a final step in the process.

It’s a difficult thing to teach people how to “turn down the volume” on their own sensitivity without deadening them to the stream of input, so it’s very much a trial-and-error process that sometimes has to focus on subtly changing how people relate to that sensitivity, rather than trying to alter the sensitivity itself. But looking for signs of enmeshment, and starting with teaching people how to separate the “my stuff” from the “your stuff”, are critical components of helping sensitive or empathic people find more peace between themselves and the overwhelming emotional noise of the world around them.