Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Self-Development

Lately I’ve been noting another repeating conversation with several clients who are struggling to make changes in their relationships. Whether I cover this topic with individuals or with couples, it often starts with a similar refrain:

“I’m doing all this work and making all this effort, and my partner’s making no effort at all!”

While no therapist in the world will dispute that sometimes partners DON’T engage in a change process for a variety of reasons, there are innumerable ways in which a partner might be engaging in an *incredible* amount of effort… just not where it’s visible.

One of the ways I’ve been noticing lately in which this perspective becomes hugely important in relational work, is in considering the notion that in partnerships, we have a tendency to ASSUME that our partners are enough like us that their baselines for many things are comparable (equal) to our own. Emotional baselines is a concept I’m extrapolating from Martin Seligman’s work on happiness, in which he notes that everyone has a different baseline for happiness, and while they may be able to move above or below their respective baselines as provoked by circumstances, the individual baselines to which they return are not guaranteed to be equal to anyone else’s: not a partner’s, not their family’s, not their colleagues, not their therapist’s… sometimes, not even the individual’s own expectation for where they think their baseline SHOULD be.

If we run with the assumption that happiness as an emotional experience can have wildly different individual baseline settings, then it seems to follow that ALL emotional experiences have different individual baselines. From there, recognizing we all have different baseline skillsets for self-reflection, or different baseline aptitudes for change feels like a natural corollary.

In relationships, especially those trying to change out of crisis into stability, we have to take into consideration the idea that all parties are NOT starting the process from the same place. They may be on the same page about agreeing change is necessary, and even agreeing what change is necessary, but where the wheels come off the wagon in therapy is discovering the hard way that this in no way guarantees starting from the same place to effect those changes. Ergo, the partner who can more readily engage changes in personal or interpersonal behaviours is always going to seem and feel like they are making all the effort while the other partner makes no visible effort at all.

This is where we go looking at what’s happening below each partner’s individual waterline. Anxious or avoidant partners will always struggle longer and harder to overcome their fears than a securely-attached partner, or even one who may be anxious but more motivated by fear of losing the relationship to try pretty much ANYTHING to head catastrophe off at the pass. So there may be HUGE efforts on the part of one partner, but because they involve trying to surmount the internal fear-drenched scripts and anxious narratives or negative self-talk, all of that work remains invisible to the external perspectives. It takes enormous effort for the lower baseline partner to even get up to where the higher-baseline partner is starting from… and all this time, the higher-baseline partner is moving ahead, moving away, assuming their partner is in lockstep with them, disappointed when they discover this isn’t the case. Advancements are happening, more often than not, or at least effort is occurring, but imagine starting a straight-course race in which the two runners start out with one already 50m in the lead; obviously, they’re going to move ahead at their own pace which the other runner is going to take some time to even reach the former’s starting block, never mind catch up.

We also have to consider the potential disparity in *ability* to change, and the capacity to tolerate the impact of change (uncertainty, instability, discomfort, mistrust of Self/Other/process in general, fear of failure… this is a sampling from a long list of potential effects). We already recognize that not everyone shares a common baseline for self-observation and non-judgmental self-analysis. These are key components in engaging any kind of developmental change process for the self or within relationship. Avoidance of looking into the fire of our own discomfort is going to make it considerably more of a challenge to look at what CAN change, let alone face the risk of what is intrinsically a risky, trial-and-error process with what feel like astronomically high emotional stakes.

Yeah, confronting those kinds of emotional terrors, I know *I* have historically failed to joyously embrace change processes, even ones I cognitively understood to be vast improvements on current situations.

So when we find these kinds of statements cropping up in the counselling room, we detour off the process track a little ways, and sit with the partner “in the lead” of the change process, and consider what they know or understand about their partner. There’s usually (not always, but more often than not) something we can discern about the “lagging” partner that lets us glimpse a little below the waterline to reframe what may be happening as a difference in starting points. We can then introduce a number of options to help mitigate the frustration of that perceived disparity of effort: we illustrate the potential efforts being waged internally by the partner to just get up to the other’s starting point. We introduce compassion for that catch-up effort, and consider whether there is value in slowing down the leading partner’s efforts to include more coaxing/coaching/collaborative support rather than frustration and berating, or if there are ways to stay engaged while still moving ahead at separate paces. We can introduce a variety of new communicative check-in options that encourage partners to share more transparently the experiences and challenges of their own change process and attendant emotional experiences. We build understanding (and hopefully respect) for those differential baselines, and how understanding where those baselines rest impacts almost everything about relational dynamics. We discuss whether or not baselines can be adjusted as individual work or part of the relational development work.

But at all times, we maintain a check on the assumption that all things are equal, especially in change processes. We want to believe our partners are “just like us”, but it’s the places where they are different that make relationships both some of our greatest excitement, and some of our greatest strain, but always our greatest adventures.

Relationships

“I often say to couples I see, ‘You can be right, or you can be married. Which is more important to you?’” — Terry Real

One of the more uncomfortable therapeutic aspects of working with couples in relationship crisis, is the role we therapists seem destined to forever trip around: playing referee between two teams, each utterly convinced of, and and emotionally invested in, a subjective truth based on a combination of facts and interpretations of their individual experiences. And because neither team feels safe in the vulnerability required to listen non-judgmentally and explore each other’s perceptions, they instead become entrenched in their defensive positions and the need to BE RIGHT about their subjective experience being acknowledged as the ONE TRUTH of whatever events have transpired.

Referee
Therapist need a system for throwing flags on the play in client sessions.

Entrenchment feels stable to many of us. We get to dig in our heels and lock our knees on an issue, to use anger as a defense and a fuel to hold that stance. We invest in our conviction, to the detriment of all comers against our position. It feels strong to us. It is, unfortunately, about as far from intimate as we can get. And the things we say from within those entrenched positions is likely to have a damaging effect on the relationship, short- or long-term.

I first learned about the idea of “subjective truth” in an undergraduate philosophy class, the context of the surrounding discussion long lost to the dim murk of time and a probable degree of hangover (then, not now). But I do remember the professor’s illustrating comment: “I could give the same set of facts to three different people, and have each of them extrapolate a different interpretation of those facts into what becomes for them their subjective understanding of those facts, and therefore, becomes their subjective truth.” Couples stuck in entrenchment dynamics will have the same challenge: each has an interpretation of what happened that fits their internal narratives about themselves, their partner, the relationship; each is convinced they are right, and the Other is committing some treasonous act of “revisionist history”.

“Defending our position is the opposite of addressing it. And commitment to a relationship entails addressing, processing, and resolving our personal and mutual issues. If we fear real closeness, we will run from the thought of such a process. We have to feel safe enough to look at what we might have kept hidden in ourselves or avoided addressing in our partner. Of course, most of us have the knack of not heeding what we know will require a difficult or painful response. But such denial can cost us our own sensitivity and vulnerability.” — David Richo, How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving (Shambhala Books, 2002)

Many of my clients lament, “I just want my partner to UNDERSTAND what it’s been like for me, my experience,” or point of view or perspective or the like. But instead, when a contentious topic hits the table and provokes each partner to their respective defensive entrenchments, it’s generally a signal that one or both parties are taking something personally, feeling attacked or harshly critiqued, and they are taking to the trenches because it hurts too much to stay present and explore whatever it is their partner is trying (effectively or not) to communicate.

It’s not what we like to think intimacy looks like, but this is often how it feels.

Entrenchment often means invalidating (or trying to) each other’s felt experience, their perception and perspective. This often manifests in the counselling room through myriad variations of a familiar dynamic:

Partner A: I feel really hurt when you do this.
Partner B: That’s not what I meant by that at all. [or] That’s not what happened at all. [or] That’s not my intent, you’re wrong to feel that way.
Partner A: The actions still hurt.
Partner B: You should just get over that, then, you’re reading too much (or the wrong things) into what happened. It doesn’t mean anything.
Partner A: You’re not listening to me. Fine, you just tell your version.

What’s happening in this exchange is an invalidation of an emotional experience (Partner A’s interpretation of events) in favour of an entrenched defensive stance (Partner B’s version). Partner A generally becomes equally entrenched in wanting the hurts acknowledged, while Partner B continues to refuse to engage on and explore their partner’s perspective. The invalidation that occurs on both sides of the engagement happens for a variety of reasons; some people can’t tolerate the general intensity of conflict and retreat to defensive positions at the first whiff of confrontation and conflict. Others respond to the sense of feeling critiqued or attacked with anger, either as a standalone reaction or as a mask over guilt and shame as their respective life experiences and filters have programmed them to react.

The end result is that the couple devolves into dysfunctional partnership and a power struggle, with each partner trying to emerge victorious, and RIGHT. The therapist, then, becomes the monkey in the middle, trying to de-escalate the rising reactivity in the room… and in the relationship overall.

Just another day at the office, or something.

It’s hard as a therapist to avoid getting as trapped as our clients in the “he said/she said”* dynamics of the relationship, but I’ll let you in on a little secret from the therapist’s chair: most therapists care less about revisiting (aka, getting bogged down in) the clients’ understanding of “how we got here”, and are more interested in looking at “where CAN we get to from here?”. Honestly, if we get stuck in those entrenched re-enactments, we’re not going to be any significant use to anyone in the counselling process, probably including ourselves. However, it’s also not our job to do all the work FOR our clients, so it behooves us to disrupt that pattern of stuckness as early and as often as possible. Breaking out of entrenchment means the clients themselves need to find a way of facing the risk of being shot when they climb out of the foxholes, set aside their defensive weaponry, and try to engage. Yes, that can be brutal and risky, and painful when we do, in fact, get shot. Sometimes we only get past that risky stage by a “fake it till you make it approach” aimed at de-escalating the process first and making space to try different things later.

So what lies BEYOND that painful state?

Hard decisions, for the most part. Reconnection and repair involves making the choice to relinquish those treasured entrenchments. Some clients lament feeling forced to “give up” or “give in”; they equate the loss of the entrenched stances as “taking the blame for things I didn’t (mean to) do”, or bearing what to them feels like a disproportionate amount of responsibility for a situation that it does, in fact, take two to get into. But the Terry Real quote at the top of this entry is a stark reminder that entrenchment and intimacy stand at very distant odds with each other, and sometimes we have to choose carefully the hills we want to defend and die on. Sometimes it’s not about what we *DID*, but rather about managing the unexpected emotional consequences.

People react to each other based on the smallest indicator possible: visible behaviours. How we behave triggers for others an entire landscape of internal experience, however, that carries with it weight from personal narratives, relationship histories, learned behaviours, active and latent models of expectation and value. And how a partner reacts to us comes as a result from processing all of THAT information, often unconsciously and nearly-instantaneously. But it starts with something we DID, regardless of what we might have INTENDED. Intent is material that exists below our individual waterline, obscured to others’ perceptions.

Iceberg! Dead ahead!

Breaking through reactivity to listen and engage with a partner’s concerns requires an ability to sit and sift through our own provoked reactivity, a willingness to see the trenches ahead of us and choose to NOT step into them. I won’t lie, Bob, it’s a LOT of work to see our own reactivity when it’s overwhelming us; “soldiers under hard fire” is certainly an apt description with a solid side order of “duck and cover”. Unless we’re absolutely secure in ourselves and our partnership, hearing concern or challenges around each other’s emotional states is hard to accept; no-one wants to be the partner who inflicts pain or harm on our supposed-loved ones, we can’t see ourselves as That Kind Of Person, and if we get swamped in our own guilt and sham, it’s going to be next to impossible to stay present in that heat. And from the other side of the engagement, it’s going to be a very finite, possibly very short, time we’re going to be willing to continue trying to engage with a partner whose default reaction is defensiveness, deflection, invalidation. We can’t connect with that, we feel further damaged by that invalidation, and eventually we give up.

And giving up is the death knell of intimacy, if not of the relationship as a whole.

We often have to reinvent ourselves as risk-takers in relationship. Reconnection and repair after any period of trench warfare is entirely about practicing vulnerability, of letting go of the need to be right in favour of the need to be connected to this wonderful person you’ve chosen to partner with. We’re not going to get there in one or two counselling sessions, either; it may have taken clients YEARS to get into this place, it’s going to take a potentially long time to get back out of those ruts, to fill in the trenches, to have better tools for repair than defense. But it starts with getting beyond the dynamic of righteous and indignant entrenchment, the highly-defended individual versions of “what happened” that keep us (even your therapist, from time to time) stuck, and out into the open where we can practice staying out in the open, even under fire.


* — With apologies for the binary gendered language; I promise this relational dynamic is one of the many that transcends heteronormative relationships.

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I wasn’t always a therapist. It’s been ten years since I started grad school to begin this path, six years since I opened my private practice as a part-time operation, and T-minus one week until I begin working as a full-time  therapist for Bliss Counselling… in addition to maintaining my current roster in my own practice. Up until November, I was still working by day as a technical writer for Waterloo Region’s single biggest industry: the high-tech world of IT and software development.

The Regions is known as “Silicon Valley North” for good reason. Global businesses open development offices here because the University of Waterloo’s programming creates some of the best-of-the-best engineers and developers. Incubators and startups have been a part of the landscape since well before I moved here to go to UW as a bright-eyed undergrad in 1986. (For the record, I sent my first email in 1985; in 1986 when I became a UW student, I was given my own student email/internet account, and I have been online ever since.) I have been working in the local field as a writer since before I left my undergrad to become a tech writer full time, circa 1992. I survived the dot com boom and bust cycle, watching more startups come out of the woodwork in a five year window than I can count, and most of them fail within that same window.

I have worked for a LOT of companies in the intervening years before hitting a burnout in 2007 that wasn’t going to be fixed by simply jumping ship to a new company. At that point I came to realize something that has since influenced my therapeutic work with clients coming out of IT companies in the area: things rarely get better, because the mindset underlying many employers’ expectations is one deeply rooted in a deadly combination of aggressive, do-anything, self-sacrificing startup culture mentality, and the pervasive  requirements driven by shareholders and investors to maximize profits while minimizing cost margins. “We need you to do more with less, and for less” is a bottom-line narrative that benefits a corporate quarterly report, but often at the cost of those very-human resources expected to deliver products and services under often unrealistic deadlines.

Sometimes companies recognize the outrageous demands placed on employees, and try to help by offering incentives like cash bonuses, time in lieu, or benefits that include EAP access or incentives to join specific “wellness programs”. These often look good on paper, and at least in the short term can, in fact, bring some ease to the beleaguered workforce. But the bigger problem remains the internal culture of excessive expectation. The last job I held as a tech writer, I failed out of spectacularly in part because I couldn’t buy into the degree of self-sacrifice that had other team-mates working 80 hour weeks, driving from homes in other cities on weekends or logging in for hours from home at night to finish projects that were desperately understaffed *by design*.

This was not the first such company *I* had worked for with that kind of environment, not even close. It’s not unusual that when profits start to fall (note: when the profit margin merely decreases, NOT “when we actively start to lose money”), corporate management will cut the workforce by significant numbers YET STILL REQUIRE the same delivery of product and service without adjusting downward the volume of work to be executed by remaining team members.  But pushing back on those unrealistic delivery requirements? Is generally not only not encouraged, but sometimes actively punished:

“Nothing can alleviate the stress of overwork except working less. Like the road signs say, only sleep cures fatigue. We need to be reminded of this because tired long-haul drivers can be deluded into thinking that coffee, a can of Mother or an upbeat bit of music might help them stay awake. For the madly overworked, we need reminding that the only cure for working too much is to stop. It’s as simple as that.

In the last month or so I’ve had several clients raise the issue of overwork with their managers, with the following results. One had a consultant brought in to assess her team’s workloads against their position descriptions. Each member was found to be working at between 130 and 160% of their load. So the load was reset and anyone working at below 150% was told they weren’t pulling their weight.

Another workplace appointed an organisational psychologist to assess the team’s interpersonal relationships as a way of responding to a workload complaint. As a result, my client was told his personal commitment to reasonable working hours was putting his team at risk and he was put on a program of performance management. Another was simply told not to come in again.”

I hear the same stories over and over again from IT clients: often they want to seek therapists who are NOT with their EAP because they have come to mistrust the EAP motives and methodologies. EAPs are selected by the corporation, and are tied to benefits provisions, themselves provided by other corporations with a goal of paying out as little money as possible for a process aimed solely at returning the worker to functional/employable status as fast as possible. Therapists working for EAPs are often hamstrung in that regard, as we are required to employ short-term, solution-focused approaches as bandaids to symptomologies that may or may not themselves be rooted in different or deeper locations than we are allowed to explore in 6-8 sessions. That’s not to say there’s something wrong with short-term, solution-focused approaches. On the contrary, they’re very effective ways of developing tools and strengths with struggling clients. But when it’s the ONLY tool allowed on the board, there’s a limit to what we or our clients can achieve. And therefore, many EAP clients in high-stress fields often come in and out of therapy as the same problems continue to crop up again and again.

The problem isn’t the client. The problem isn’t the therapy. The problem is the workplace culture that often deliberately cripples its people by normalizing outrageous demands and rewarding the willingness to sacrifice everything outside of the workplace in the name of the corporation’s reputation or bottom line. And in Waterloo Region, that is an ENORMOUS problem. It’s not just one company who works that way, it’s the endemic mindset across a great many of them.

So it behooves us as therapists working in the Region, and working with clients who work in the high-tech industry, to be VERY aware of two particular issues:

  1. stress and anxiety related to job performance are HUGE factors for a very great many of our client base
  2. there is currently no effective way to push back against unrealistic corporate demands, nor is coaching a client to consider employment elsewhere likely to be a guaranteed change so long as the potential job field remains limited to IT

What’s left, then?

Normalizing the idea that this is what the industry itself has normalized. It’s been my experience over almost thirty years in IT that it’s rare to find companies who *genuinely* allow and encourage a balanced quality of life without at least hedging bets (“Well, it’s only like to get REALLY bad around project release time, ad that only happens a few times a year”).  We can encourage clients to have conversations with their bosses about setting reasonable expectations—and to me, being EXPECTED to persistently work 150% OVER one’s job description is not reasonable—but be aware the likelihood of effecting sustainable change without threatening employment status is realistically slim. Work with clients to change how they relate to the inherent stresses of their chosen profession.  American feminist and author bell hooks, in her book All About Love: New Visions, wrote:

“Work occupies much of our time. Doing work we hate assaults our self-esteem and self-confidence. Yet most workers cannot do the work they love. But we can all enhance our capacity to live purposefully by learning how to experience satisfaction in whatever work we do. We find that satisfaction by giving any job total commitment. […] Doing a job well, even if we do not enjoy what we are doing, means that we leave it with a feeling of well-being, our self-esteem intact. That self-esteem aids us when we go in search of a job that can be more fulfilling.”

Help clients learn to be realistic about what’s demanded of them, and work on finding some kind of balance with the rest of their lives. Help teach them how to create and sustain relationship intimacy in the face of their worklife demands, and work with them to develop effective emotional language to communicate with intimate partners authentically and realistically about the impact of their work on their availability to non-worklife demands.

Sometimes the best we can do is help teach swimmers how to stay afloat. Teach them to recognize the signs of exhaustion, but also be compassionate and educated in your own understanding about the realities of the industry they work in. IT is a wide ocean, and it takes a special swimmer to make it effectively from one side to the other. Being an effective swimming coach also means being aware of the conditions of the ocean we’re swimming in.

It’s not always a pretty reality, but it’s the reality of living and working in Silicon Valley North.