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, 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”.)

Self-Development

Something a friend wrote recently sparked a thought that is the tip of a larger iceberg on the topic of the difference between feelings and thoughts (specifically, value judgments).

This post is entirely predicated on a statement about “feeling unworthy”; “unworthy”, and worth in general, is a value judgment, which puts it in the Thought category because it comes as part of a deeply-unconscious-but-process-driven experience of defining value. My teachers have taught me that processes like this frequently gets mistaken for feelings because they happen at such an unconscious level that we forget they ARE processes, but they actually occur somewhere far higher up the cerebral chain than feelings. The mistaken attribution makes it much harder to get to them, however, to name the actual feelings and give them safe space to just exist before we examine and/or release them.

Value judgments of worth (or unworthiness in this case) generally correlate to a feeling of shame, specifically. It’s different from person to person, but that’s the most common associated feeling; “When I believe I am found to be unworthy by myself or others, what I feel is ________”. A friend reframed that as, “more like an intuitive process pulling together non-consciously collected data and slapping logic to explain the shame feeling as a more distant and vague sense of unworth”, which is a reasonably astute way of describing the process. I’m a firm believer that “intuition” is just “deep processing we don’t know that we do”; I’m not sure “logic” applies, beyond a certain point, or perhaps it is generally “flawed logic”, the kind children create self-defensively as part of their emotional development when they have to process, internalize, make sense of emotionally-impacting events in their lives that may be beyond their ability to otherwise cope — the kind that leads to broken or errant narratives that we build on all our lives.

“Shame” is such a big and monstrous feeling that as children AND as adults, we do everything we can to escape it, so we bury it and mislabel it and pretend it’s all kinds of other things. The same friend posited it as a “social tether”, “the bit of deep programming that tells us when we’re in danger of losing the safety of the community by breaking our part of our contract with it”. I think that’s just one piece of it; that it’s nothing so simple (and yes, “simple” is perhaps the wrong word there). Most of the approaches I’ve had to the topic of shame come roundabout from the world of addictions, but in its own way, clinging to the broken narratives to avoid the direct experience of shame is also a kind of addiction, like armor we never take off (if we change the narrative, we’re vulnerable, and that Just Cannot Be Allowed).

Complicating the issue of exploring shame is the fact that we use the word, but we all apply different nuances to it. And the closer we come to the actual experience, frequently the stronger the sense of needing to avoid or deflect the emotional impact altogether. It’s the child’s resistance to going into the darkened attic or basement or bedroom closet: Here There Be Monsters, and we *definitely* don’t want to go in there. That sense of slipping and sliding off the things I’m trying to observe is one with which I am frightfully well acquainted, as it’s where the origins of my personal Weasel Dance are rooted. I would do ANYTHING to avoid feeling shame, or feeling shamed (depending on whether I was applying the value judgement to myself, or perceiving it as being applied to me by external sources), and this has led over the years to some absolutely BRILLIANT bullshit tactics in deflection and diversion while I frantically dance to avoid looking at or naming the elephant in the room, which was (is) generally something associated with feeling shame or ashamed about something I want or have done.

That Weasel Dance is friggin’ exhausting.

One of the things I have learned only recently is that the more we struggle against something, the stronger it becomes. Force applied to force, isn’t just force doubled; there’s an exponential increase that has some complex mathematical formula I can’t remember, but I remember the “physics of increasing application” part well enough. That’s why the whole point of meditation is to not struggle against the thoughts that intrude, but just to let them be, then gently guide focus and breath back to stillness. There are entire streams of martial arts that stem from the idea of using an opponent’s force against them without exerting your own in opposition, and guiding their momentum past us safely to pull the opponent off balance and into us. It’s the same with these kinds of emotional internal struggles. We can apply force to force, or we can be still and use the momentum of the reactivity to draw the Thing at the other end of that reaction close enough to observe it, without putting ourselves off balance and at risk.

Anger, for example, is energetic force. A common response to feeling shame is to get angry, possibly to the point of aggression; shame reduces us, but anger makes us (temporarily, at least) feel big, powerful. We resist, and perhaps even drive back the Thing at the other end of that perceived value judgment for a little while, but in truth the emotional tinder is still in us all the time and while we’ve expended a lot of emotional energy, while we’ve destabilized the apple cart in whatever relationship housing the current emotional upheaval, we haven’t necessarily addressed that tinder that can be so easily sparked.

Until we recognize and understand the components of the bomb, we cannot understand how best to diffuse it effectively.

My friend Alf tells an amusing anecdote that, while appearing unrelated, is entirely related: Twice while visiting a friend in northern Ontario, he got tagged by highway OPP late at night, doing egregious speeds along the highway. The second time he was stopped, he asked the cop in humour why they spend their nights out in the wilds like that, just waiting for him. The cop smiled, then explained, “We’re saving lives, for real. If you hit a deer at 80kph, you have an excellent chance of walking away with nothing but some damage to the front of your car and probably a window replacement. If you hit a deer at 120kph or above, odds are good we’ll be scraping your remains off the next two kilometers of highway, because the impact will kill you.”

The more force you apply…

This all ties back to yesterday’s post about breathing, and emptying hands. There are a lot of images of breathing into hands that I find useful and evocative, from breathing warmth onto them, to breathing or blowing things out of them; blowing onto the dandelion head held in my fingers releases the fliers into the sky and freedom. Breath is both what fills and what empties. Breathing enables us to take the pause that pulls us back from the brink of picking up a weapon-of-choice and applying force where force is perceived; our reactivity to feeling shame, for example. The physical signals are the clue that something is amiss, and the cue to make a conscious choice rather than an escape into unconscious, reflexive, self-defensive reaction. We don’t want to, but to allow for change and growth, we probably have to.

It does get easier with practice, and it’s okay to ask for help. If this work was easy, everyone would be wearing saffron robes and eating granola.

One day at a time, one breath at a time; one foot in front of the other.