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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.

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“Woke is a political term of black origin which refers to a perceived awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice.” —Wikipedia

Today’s post is borrowing, with respect and apology, a very heavily-laden term from one highly-charged political context to another. Justice and oppression are deeply concerning topics in the news right now. Many individuals are struggling to “wake up” to clearer understandings of their actions and consequences, of the impacts those consequences have when they move out from the individual to a broader societal context (when many people “normalize” a particular behaviour out to the broader group-level enactment of that behaviour, and when that behaviour has been normalized on the broad spectrum for so long that it has become embedded or entrenched as a defensible cultural VALUE). Systemic oppression is a factor hitting many people in a maddening variety of ways: sexism, racism, ableism, classism.

Add to that list: relationism.

Okay, so that one’s not really a word, but in its own way, relational systems (family or intimate/romantic) *CAN* be as oppressive as any other system we encounter. We don’t start out to enmesh ourselves in oppressive systems, but it sometimes happens so subtly we never see it coming until we start to wake up to the weight holding us back. In family dynamics, it’s not like we really have much choice for most of our formative years BUT to live in and survive families as best we can. Sometimes the erosion of connection and intimacy in our romantic relationships becomes the thing that slowly buries us under the weight of invisible expectations and assumptions and the (sometimes non-consensual) enforcement of hidden values.

When people come into counselling, either in a couple/group relational format or as individuals, those of us who work from a systemic perspective are KEENLY aware that one person pursuing individuation, or attempting to create differentiation from an oppressive system, face particular challenges. One of the first steps in any differentiation process is to step back a little from the system and simply observe it, and to observe the self as it reacts within the systemic influences: where do we feel hooked in, and where can we choose a different behaviour when we become conscious of the patterns we’re observing? What do we see in terms of systemic values in action, and how do we become aware of where we reflect those internal values outwardly, inside and outside of the system? What do we think or feel about the values we’ve internalized, and the somewhat instinctive behaviours that enact them?

We encourage clients to observe their relational systems for a while and ponder their observations once they get clear somehow of the provocative circumstances. It’s damnably difficult to make decisions about change processes while one is sitting in the discomforting fire of an actively-provoked mindset, so gaining some kind of minimum safe distance is also part of the process. With observation and distance, we gain space to make decisions and consider how best to enact changes in our own behaviour within those systems.

That’s when things get REALLY complicated.

As soon as we introduce change in our own behaviours, we invariably destabilize a carefully-balanced system of expectations and assumptions. As soon as we start to behave in what appear to our relational counterparts as unpredictable or opaque ways, they will (in clinical, formal parlance) lose their shit. Harriet Lerner, in much of her writing on the dance of connection and intimacy, refers to the “CHANGE BACK!” pressure that is the common result to one person differentiating within, or from, a system. For the person struggling to differentiate, the challenge lies in being what feels like the ONLY person who seems aware of the behaviours in operation to enforce compliance and conformity to systemic values and expectations.

We often hear relational partners lamenting in therapy about one or the other making “arbitrary decisions and changes” that are disrupting the longtime stability of their status quo. One person’s attempts to carve out and defend the new boundaries that define their individuated space from the systemic collective will, quite often, be perceived as excising themselves from said system. Especially in family and intimate relationships that have never experienced healthy boundaries, ANY boundary will be met with resistance when others encounter it by running into it unexpectedly. It’s about as pleasant as running face-first and full-tilt into a brick wall you didn’t expect to find blocking the previously-open thoroughfare. (Why yes, I do speak from some personal experience there; why do you ask? Also: Ow.)

Individual clients who are themselves trying to differentiate, trying to change themselves, struggle with how to do so while remaining within a system: how do I not alienate my partner? How do I not cut-off from my parents? How do I not estrange my children? How do I become more of the person I see myself as being, while still honouring those relationships I want to be part of, but who may not have signed up for this kind of upheaval?

These are challenging questions for any relationship to navigate. When we’re trying to change how we engage in dysfunctional systems, the pressure to stay in and confirm, to engage in the safe herd patterns, is often overpowering, and can become harsh or toxic in short order. When we “become woke” to systemic values or individual enactments of those values within a system, especially once we begin to change how we interact with those others, our tolerance for those behaviours also drops quickly, and sometimes dramatically. We may not feel safe calling them out, so we find new ways to deflect them, or remove ourselves from engagement arenas. We will be challenged at every turn, and the sicker the system, the harsher the judgments and emotional penalties. The greater the perceived cost of differentiation, the greater the risk of capitulation.

“Being woke” to systemic (dys)functions means needing to make a hard choice about our place within those systems: maintain silence and implied or complicit support for those systemic behaviours, or take a stand against them, either in terms of our own engagement with them, or attempting to introduce change across the system. When clients confront this decision point, we discuss as many options as we can identify: we do a risk/return, ROI-type analysis; we talk about the scope of change the client desires for themselves. We talk about consent, especially if their differentiation attempt involves introducing expected change on others in the system, and how to shape conversations that invite others into that change process, rather than dropping arbitrary changes.

And we spend a LOT of time sifting through the frustrations and disappointments of integrating their own observations and newfound (hard-won) perspectives into relational systems that don’t want to be as woke to those challenges as the clients are. We discuss the desire to have partners “want to change for the better as much as I do”, and how that can add a lot of pressure and tension to a relationship, to a partner who maybe isn’t so keen to wake up. It’s a lot like Morpheus and Neo discussing whether to take the red pill or the blue pill, to stay asleep in Wonderland or to wake up and see how deep the rabbit hole goes; we can only choose for ourselves, we cannot force someone else to take the pill with us.

When we look at the risks of being woke versus remaining asleep, some people make the wistful remark of wishing they could “go back” to the simpler times, before they became aware of just how much of their systemic life makes them unhappy or dissatisfied. They talk about feeling exhausted with the effort of maintaining vigilant observational posts, of defending those nascent boundaries from the pressure to “CHANGE BACK!” I gently disabuse them of the notion that we even CAN go back. At the end of the day, we can’t unknow what we know, no matter how much we wish otherwise. We have to integrate new perspectives and understandings gained from observation into every decision we make going forward; mindful self-awareness and awareness of the systems in which we operate can never be unseen. It’s the cost of being woke: once we see the “violence inherent in the system”, we either consciously choose to do something about it (or ourselves in relationship to it), or we have to willfully choose to do nothing, and then what does that say about us? Will that be something we can live with?

Being woke isn’t always a blessing. It can mean loss and distance or disconnect, but it also creates new opportunities to examine the people we chose to be, and the decisions we make, or values we enact, in becoming that person. It allows us perspective to examine and selectively maintain or jettison systemic values that we determine are no longer welcome or applicable to who we choose to be. We create inviting space to examine our behaviours within relational contexts and ensure we are congruent within ourselves, and work to improve our willingness and ability to communicate what’s going on within our new internal processes to those important relationships outside our heads.

And once we learn how to wake up in our close or intimate systems, it becomes harder to turn off the observing capacity in broader systems. Many of us become sensitive, sometimes, to the oppressive factors in broader systems, and find the same kinds of decreased tolerance and/or increased motivation to do *something*, even on a small scale, to push back against the dysfunctional aspects of those systems, and to wake up others as we go. (I freely admit, part of why I became a therapist when and how I did was, in part, to help wake people up so I didn’t have to be out here by myself… but that’s a story for another day.)

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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.

Communication, Relationships, self-perception

There’s an old warhorse of a trope that I first encountered in the poly communities that, thanks to various (sub)cultural overlaps, rears its head in certain monogamous circles these days as well. You may have heard it; it goes something like this: “All your relationship problems will be solved if you just COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE!”

Yeah… no, not really.

I mean, as a relationship therapist it’s kind of my job to work with people who come in and say, “I/we want to improve our communications within our relationship,” and it’s work that’s both rewarding and fulfilling, generally (on both sides of the therapy process, even). So it’s not that improving communication DOESN’T solve problems, because improving the articulation and reception process CAN change things significantly.

The epiphany I had a while ago, as I was trying to articulate any one of the many reasons I have come to hate this particular trope (other than its oversimplification of how *easy* it implies communication SHOULD be), is this:

We can only ever be as good at communication in general, as our ability to recognize and understand what it is we’re trying to communicate.

Let me illustrate this with an example from my own life, because this epiphany pretty much encapsulates a big part of the communications failure on my part of my marriage’s collapse.

We can only communicate what we know. If we can communicate that much effectively, that’s great; that can be a LOT of useful information to give and receive and integrate into personal and relational understandings. But when things continue to bamboozle us or upset status quo AND WE DON’T KNOW WHY, then there’s a limit to how much information we can communicate about what’s going on. In my case, I knew I was thrashing emotionally, but I couldn’t say why. I could talk about a lot of things–for all the relationship’s natural flaws, one thing we did well was “talk about our feeeeeeeelings”. But the things I couldn’t talk about were the things even I couldn’t see and therefore didn’t understand… and they were the things I was, unfortunately, highly reactive to in the final stages of the collapse. I didn’t know then what I know now, for example, about attachment theory (especially in the area of early attachment injury) or common issues around being an adult child of alcoholics, let alone the intersectionality between those two topics. I didn’t know then what I know now about self-regulation of anxiety through meditation practices as simple as mindful breathing and body scans. I didn’t know then what I know now about entering into communication attempts with statements of intent for the conversation (or at least, I/we weren’t practicing that consistently).

The point is, there is always so much more TO know that we simply can’t communicate, because we can’t see it (yet). It’s not uncommon to get one or more members of a relationship in the counselling room and have someone own the fact that one or the other is not prone to a lot of self-observation or self-reflection. And therein lies a massive part of the problem. If you’re not looking inward, then what, exactly, do you know about yourself *TO* communicate to a partner? And this doesn’t even begin to cover what happens when someone who is self-observant and self-reflective but far too wrapped up in anxiety to share those thoughts and observations effectively with a partner. Another issue that contributed to capsizing my marriage was an issue from my partner who struggled to disclose information at times.

So:

  1. Just because stuff is happening in our internal landscape, doesn’t mean we’re observing it.
  2. Even if we’re observing it, it doesn’t mean we’re reflecting on it as a way of trying to better understand ourselves and what’s happening inside us.
  3. And even if we’re reflecting on it, we might not feel safe or secure in disclosing those observations and reflections.
  4. And even if we do feel safe and secure in making those vulnerable disclosures, it doesn’t always mean we have the SKILLS to effectively engage in conversation about them.

When clients come into therapy, they’re usually assuming we start with that final point: working on the communications SKILLS to articulate something important about their experiences to a partner. But when the communications skills don’t always fix the problems as presented on intake, the same clients often come back frustrated with the process, with each other, with the therapist. And that’s when we have to start working backwards through the rest of the list to discern whether the things we’re talking about are actually the things needing to be discussed.

Sometimes therapists can observe places where words and nonverbal information seem incongruous, but honestly, the onus needs to be on the clients themselves to up their game when it comes to internal work. And this can be a difficult challenge for a variety of reasons, starting as simply as, “I don’t know how”. Since we can only communicate what we know, this gives us two avenues to start: What do I know about myself because of what I can *observe* about myself, and what do I know about myself because of what I interpret or believe or tell myself? Neither avenue ever presents a full story, because people are generally more complicated than that, especially in times of distress or crisis. However, we can approach both observable behaviours, and the interpretable aspects (motivations, beliefs, scripts, etc.) with an open-minded, non-judgmental curiosity: where does that behaviour or thought come from? What do we feel like it motivates us to do? What feelings or additional thoughts do we observe being associated with, or triggered by, the catalyst? Do we recognize it as being a component of larger patterns? Can we separate out the catalyst thought or action from what we feel are default reactions, to see other potential available options?

An analogy borrowed from the realm of astronomy comes in handy here: there’s a lot of stuff out in the depths of space that we can’t actually *see*. So from an “observable phenomenon” perspective, we can’t actually look at a thing and know it for what it is. But what we CAN observe, is the impact the invisible thing has on objects we CAN see; for example, something exerting a significant gravitic force on bodies in a solar system will cause the orbiting bodies of that system to shift in their transit paths. We may not be able to see what’s causing the shift, but we’ll certainly notice when one or more celestial bodies make relatively sudden, incongruous shifts in their expected movements. In cognitive psychology terms: we may not be able to see what’s causing a reactive behaviour, but the fact that we can see and experience the behaviour will strongly suggest there is something invisible provoking it.

This is where, when luxury of time permits, we can delve deeper into the emotional experience of the moment: does it feel like anything else we remember experiencing? How do we feel now about those earlier experiences, and are we seeing any similarities in our current situation, both in terms of the perceived triggers, and in the perceived reactions? What can we share about those observations? There’s potentially a lot of cognitive and emotional processing that comes as part of the package when learning to develop the self-observation and self-reflection skills; observation means learning to see what’s happening in and to us, and reflection means finding ways to think about/assess/analyze the experience and sort it into something meaningful to us. And we have to do all of that work, ideally, BEFORE we even get to the point of trying to articulate that information to someone living OUTSIDE our own heads.

So far, we’re still just looking at figuring out how to handle the self observation/self-reflection part. We haven’t even begun to tackle the aspect of learning HOW we communicate: how do we know *TO* communicate? How do we decide WHAT to say, how much do we selectively self-edit (and at what cost)? How well do any of us articulate our thoughts and feelings at best of times, never mind at the worst? Do we make effort to effectively shape the INTENT of any communication process we engage?

This sounds like a tremendous amount of work, doesn’t it?

It certainly can be. After the marriage ended, I spent six months intensely, and other year a little less intensely, digging as deeply as I could get on my own and with my own therapist, into what we uncovered about where some of the invisible baggage I was dragging around came from. That was a hugely painful time of confronting a lot of moments of, “How the hell did I not know this about myself??” or “Why the hell couldn’t I have figured this part out BEFORE everything went sideways??” And I watch my clients struggle, time and again, with the same frustrations. The discovered information is never wasted, but it doesn’t always come to light in time to reverse course, either; and when partners, even armed with new perspectives and understanding about themselves, can’t summon enough energy or belief in things being different to mount a new development plan for the relationship, it can be hard to avoid wondering, why bother?

It’s this complexity that fuels my growing dislike of the “communicate, communicate, communicate” adage. It strikes me as a dangerously reductionist approach to something that is anything but simple for many people, creating an almost caricature-like presentation that leaves some people feeling like failures because “we talk and talk and talk, but nothing gets any better”. Communication as an intimate process has to be effective in and of itself, absolutely; but beyond that, we have to do the work to effectively understand WHAT needs to be communicated. So the next time the phrase crops up (especially if you move in circles where it’s bound to crop up eventually, possibly repeatedly), consider this as a response:

Communicate! = Do we know WHAT to communicate?
Communicate! = Do we know HOW to communicate?
Communicate! = Do we know WHY we communicate? (the *INTENT* or expected outcome)

It’s not just about the talking. It’s as much about saying the useful and needful things, and it’s about how we shape those communications, as it is about simply making the effort to talk in the first place.

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.

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.

Community, Life Transitions, Self-Development, Uncategorized

A colleague of mine and I were reflecting recently on our respective middle-aged women clients who are grappling simultaneously with perimenopause, empty-nesting impacts on their intimate partnered relationships, job issues and the looming shadows of the second halves of their lives. Laurie commented that she was noticing women clients using this stage of their lives as a period of discernment. I figured I understood what she meant from the context of the discussion, but at the same time, “discenment” is more than just simple decision-making, so, being the Word Nerd that I am, it behooved me to both look at the word itself, and reconsider what I thought I was understanding about its deployment in the context of the discussion.

Turns out, there’s a lot more nuance to the word than my internal working definition of “a more in-depth analytical process underlying decision making”.

Discern, the verb:
1a: to detect with the eyes
b: to detect with senses other than vision
2: to recognize or identify as separate and distinct
3: to come to know or recognize mentally

Discernment, the noun:
1: the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure
2: an act of perceiving or discerning something

Google definition of dis·cern·ment
1. the ability to judge well. “an astonishing lack of discernment”
2. (in Christian contexts) perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding. “without providing for a time of healing and discernment, there will be no hope of living through this present moment without a shattering of our common life”

There are several aspects of these definitions that fascinate me in the context of applying the word to a midlife assessment process, especially such as I witness in women around me:

  • recognizing or identifying as separate and distinct
  • developing an ability to grasp and comprehend what is obscure
  • developing non-judgmental perspective with a view to obtaining direction and understanding (spiritual or otherwise)

The classic midlife crisis, as previously discussed, is most commonly seen as a catastrophic adjustment in relational and personal understanding. It’s a time when big changes occur, sometimes as knee-jerk reactions, and sometimes as calculated preaption responses. A friend of mine in a local service organization, told me recently that the single largest group of new members most service clubs take in annually are men in their 40s-50s. Service clubs report this being a confluence of factors, many of them tied to traditional masculine definition through actions, things men *DO*:

  • kids are older and more self-sufficient, or leaving/left home
  • more disposable time
  • more expendable income
  • a need to have “extracurricular activities” that look good padding out resumes for “C-Suite”-level executive or Board of Directors positions
  • a need to have something in place that will provide direction in terms of social and activity purposes after retirement (especially for candidates for early retirement)

Women, while they will also seek service club memberships for many of the same reasons at similar life stages, apparently don’t pursue these clubs in anything like the same numbers as men. The women to whom I’m exposed (personally and professionally) seem to see middle age as an opportunity or provocation for increasing self-reflection. It’s like we come of age and use our midlife point as the trigger to redefine what we know about who we are, why we are, what our lives mean to us as our bodies change out from under us in uncomfortable, unpleasant ways. Shifting from our “fertile years” into menopause means confronting a shift in our definition from Mother to… Crone, at a time when many of us still perceive ourselves as far from Old.

There has been a cultural shift as the Baby Boomers have aged into retirement that everything that happens from midlife on isn’t necessarily the death knell it once seemed to be. Retiring even at 65 means a significant stretch of life ahead of us, and 55 even more. Retiring men fret about what to do with their days, and as their boredom begins to blossom, they are frequently underfoot on the home front, or trying to assert some presence/input/control in the home sphere… and the women who have traditionally been the homesphere managers and controllers are increasingly finding they’ve Just Had Enough. These women are more commonly saying, “I just got done taking care of my kids, I’m damned well not going to take care of HIM now, too!”, but the process of watching their partners move from purposeful to less-purposeful lives is raising a lot of questions for themselves, too.

As I cooked dinner the other night, I thought about the women I had been talking to. They’re just entering, slogging through or just leaving their 40s. They belong to Generation X, born roughly during the baby bust, from 1965 to 1984, the Title IX babies who were the first women in their families to go to college. Or go away to college. Or to live on their own, launch a career, marry in their late 20s (or never) or choose to stay home with their children. They’re a Latina executive in California, a white stay-at-home mom in Virginia who grows her own organic vegetables, an African-American writer in Texas, an Indian-American corporate vice president who grew up in the suburbs of New York, and dozens more. They’re smart. They’re grateful for what they have. They’re also exhausted. Some of them are terrified. A few of them are wondering what the point is.

I called my best friend, a reporter a few years older than me who grew up in the Midwest. She has three children and lives on a quiet, leafy street in Washington, D.C., with her boyfriend. They recently adopted a dog.
“Hey,” I said, happy to have caught her on a break from her job, “do you know anyone having a midlife crisis I could talk to?”

The phone was silent for a second.

Finally, she said, “I’m trying to think of any woman I know who’s not.”
Ada Calhoun, “The New Midlife Crisis: Why (and How) It’s Hitting Gen X Women”

Somewhere between the perimenopausal PHYSICAL transition and the retirement SOCIAL transitions, women are increasingly grappling with the destabilization, undermining, chaotic shifts in their identities. Middle-aged women suddenly find themselves social “invisible” in an extremely ageist culture. Menopause robs us of our identity as fertile creatures, menstruation being the one thing that sets us so far apart from men as to create unsurpassable gulfs in cross-gender comprehension; even those of us who never had or wanted children feels the shift as a curse we’ve been contending with since we were 12 or 13 first becomes wildly unpredictable, then disappears altogether. Most of us rejoice that absence, but the meaning, the impact of a self-descriptive, narrative level, is a different issue entirely. But it’s happening to women at a time when, on some societal levels, we’re just “coming into our own power” in our careers, at least in industries that allow equal advancement for all genders. Many of my friends experiencing perimenopause as they move up corporate ladders or across fields into other companies (or, in my case, across to another complete field) spin terrible, or terribly funny, tales of hot flashes and sweats or bouts of incontinence in meetings and interviews, or the disruptions of their personal AND professional relationships from hormonally-driven mood swings. We may be delighted to get past the symptomology, but things can often be as complicated afterwards when we’re left alone with the questions, “Well then… who *AM* I now?”

The discernment phase, then, is sparked by a multitude of shifts in a woman’s life. Men ask, “What do I *DO*?”; women ask, “What do I *MEAN*?” (…which is not to say they won’t also get to a point of also asking, “What do I do?”, but it’s not the typical starting point in a discernment process, rather more the outcome state as a result of the reflection).

Coming back to the three points that interested me, midlife individuation and differentiation mean a new opportunity for women to reconsider who they are inside or outside the family or group structures of their lives. They may find themselves examining their roles or functions within the relational partnership now that childcare is not the relationship’s primary focus. They may discover a lack of direction in their professional lives once their internal sense of meaning and purpose, especially if they are encountering any kind of glass ceiling effect in their chosen industry. What does it mean to be a “good employee” if any advancement path is limited by the very fact of their gender? What does it mean to be a woman in a world where these invisible boundaries and implicit expectations (from employers, colleagues, clients, families, and intimate partners alike) dictate what we’re PERMITTED to be? And what does it mean to be a woman “of a certain age” trying to function in a professional context when society in general is trying to render us invisible?

The discernment phase is one in which we as therapists see a lot of women “waking up” to a predicament of emptiness. The need to fill that emptiness is often what drives us into relationship in the first place, but over time, the relationship itself can become dissatisfying, disillusioned, disconnected. One of the questions either partner will often pose at this stage is, “Is it worth the work to effect repair and reconnection?” Men in therapy will often lament not understanding what it is their disconnected partner wants them to do; if they only know what to *DO*, they could do it, and everything will be all right. Women, however… it’s not about the doing, it’s about the hearing. Being effectively validated by a partner *MEANS* something significant to them; it tells them something about both their own value to the partner, and about the partner’s willingness to show that value, in ways that are substantially different than “If you tell me to just help out around the house more, that will make everything better, right?”

Wrong.

Ask a person in this stage of life, what is meaningful to them, and it might be an interesting experience to observe their reactions as they try to figure out what YOU mean, then try to figure out their answer. Ask a woman in the discernment phase, what is meaningful to her, and odds are good you may be the first person to have ever invited her to consider such esotericism. “My marriage, my kids.” Maybe, “My work.” Okay, so if we take away the ROLES of “Mom, Wife, Employee”, what’s left? Who is the person at the core of those roles, and what is meaningful to her? Marriages change into parallel lives rather than twined intimacy, kids grow up and (hopefully) move out, jobs may be less than satisfying. What, then, is left as our meaning in all of the space leftover?

Michael White‘s narrative therapy includes a process called a “definitional ceremony” that becomes useful, if not downright significant, to the community of women waking themselves up into this lengthy space and time of their lives, wondering what it’s all supposed to mean:

“These ceremonies are rituals that acknowledge and ‘regrade’ people’s lives in contrast to many rituals in contemporary culture that judge and degrade people’s lives. In many of these degrading rituals, people’s lives are measured against socially constructed norms, and they are judged to be inadequate, incompetent, disordered, and often a failure in terms of their identities. Definitional ceremonies provide people with the option of telling or performing the stories of their lives before an audience of carefully chosen outsider witnesses. […] It is not the place of outsider witnesses to form opinions, give advice, make declarations, or introduce moral stories or homilies. Rather, outsider witnesses engage one another in conversations about the expressions of the telling they were drawn to, about the images these expressions evoked, about the personal experiences that resonated with these expressions, and about their sense of how their lives have been touched by the expressions.
In these outsider witness retellings, what people give value to in their acts of living is re-presented in ways that are powerfully resonant and highly acknowledging. Additionally, it is through these retellings that people experience their lives as joined around shared and precious themes in ways that significantly thicken the counterplots of their existence.” — Michael White, Maps of Narrative Practice

White is addressing a particular psychotherapeutic practice, but this use of the outsider witnesses also speaks very strongly to the phenomenon many women in this discernment phase pursue in the course of developing their own “tribe” or social connections. Midlife transitions provide their own definitional rituals, even if most of them seem, from a broader cultural perspective, informal, unconscious, or covert. Often starting from looking for socio-emotional connection and forms of support not accessible through family or employment connections, this deliberate tribal development is a part of how women moving through conscious discernment begin to reshape their environment. These outsider witnesses become sounding boards, reflective surfaces and sanity checks. These tribes speak to helping develop that third point, the non-judgmental perspective; women moving into discernment don’t always have answers for self-defining questions, so their tribes become the safe spaces in which they work out their clarified values and direction. Sometimes the outsider witnesses include professional therapeutic support as well, and those in the discernment stage look to uncover what has possibly been obscured in their lives by “putting pieces together” from such diverse resources in new ways. In the office I visualize this as spilling a bag of children’s letter blocks onto a table, and moving the pieces around until we spell something that resonates with the client. Women in discernment stages are likewise seeking something, some kind of meaning or purpose that that resonates.

Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of the Applied Positive Psychology movement, suggests that meaning is a fundamental element of well-being, and that it is not strictly subjective in its value (Seligman, 2011). Likewise, he also suggests that “positive relationships” are also a critical component of well-being, so it becomes very unsurprising that when women — anyone, really — feel they are in an unsatisfying or unsupportive relationship, they seek to establish both positive relationships and meaning (subjective or objective) as a way of resetting themselves for the next stages of their lives. It’s no coincidence that the highest-growing age group experiencing divorce, then, is the 50+ age group.

Women in this discernment process are uncovering themselves: values and needs and dreams that have quite possibly been buried by relational expectations for their entire lives (family of origin, their own family units, social/cultural expectations and messaging, etc.). Chogyam Trungpa writes often about “awakening the sanity we are born with“, describing how we strip away these layers of messages and imposed values to uncover our authentic selves. Women have, in many ways, been doing this work in a less-well-documented way for generations; sometimes we’re privileged enough to be able to break free entirely from the obscuring structures imposed on us; sometimes we find effective ways of achieving discernment, redefinition, and renewed headings in personal development, within the context of our existing valued relationships. Sometimes we’re not free to make that scope of change, but we can think about who and how we are within those relationships in new ways, and perhaps shift how we chose to relate and operate inside those potentially-inescapable contexts. In doing so, potentially for the first times in conscious memory they are invited to see themselves as distinct entities from the systems in which they are members (implicitly or explicitly). And in seeing themselves as something both part-of-yet-distinct-from, there is also an invitation to consider HOW we operate within those systems: what is meaningful to each of US?

With women living longer, there is a lot more to life from “middle age” onward than historically women have been granted. It would be nice if we had better tools to prepare ourselves to enjoy that “second half” in spite of the physical and relational changes that normal life process force on us, but historically, we’re not well-armed. Discernment therefore remains a largely individualized, somewhat-haphazard phase without clear processes and direction. But more and more women in middle age, both peri- and post-menopause, are beginning conversations that render us less invisible to *each other*, at least. And in doing so, in finding more of these communities and relationships with other women in the same boat, we find meaning in the shared experiences, those aspects of our stories that resonate.

We are not alone. And that’s the biggest joy in this entire transitional phase. We are NOT alone.

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.