Upside down

 

“You look tired,” I tell him.

“I am,” he says.  “I woke up early and couldn’t go back.”

“Something bothering you?”

He nods.  “My son.”

“How is he?

“Still in the hospital, but getting out tomorrow.”

“You’re worried about him?”

“No,” he says.  “I’m angry at him.”

”Why?”

”He’s in pain, and a shitty mood – which is understandable – and he takes it out on me.”

“And it hurts your feelings.”

“Yes.”

“But he’s sick, so you hold back, and then you wake up thinking about it.”

”Right,” he says glumly.  “And I know what you think.”

“What do I think?”

“I’m being a big baby.”

“Actually that’s what you think,” I say.  “I’m thinking this must be hard for you.”

“Why?  He’s the one in the hospital bed.”

“And you’re the one getting triggered.”

“Triggered,” he repeats.

“Sure.  Isn’t this how you felt as a kid?  When your parents hurt your feelings and you couldn’t say anything?”

He exhales.  “Yes.”

“You’re forgetting something I know you know,” I say.  “Something we’ve talked about.  That there’s no really such thing as a…”

“…grown-up human being,” he finishes.

“Right.  It’s the Kid inside you that’s getting triggered.  The one who came out of childhood convinced that your parents’ unhappiness and anger meant there was something wrong with him.”

“Huh,” he says.  “So I’m confusing my son with my parents?”

“Your Kid is, yes.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“Yes and no,” I say.  “Sure, it feels upside down.  But it’s not uncommon.  Parents with unfinished business with their parents often transfer that stuff to their kids.  If you were scared of your parents’ anger you’ll feel scared when your kids get mad at you.  If you felt unloved by your parents you’ll worry that your kids will stop loving you.”

“But I know my son loves me,” he frowns.

“Sure, your Adult self knows that,” I say.  “Your Kid still worries that he’s defective and unloveable.”

“Yeah,” he sighs.

He looks relieved.

“Does this shit ever entirely go away?” he asks.

“Not entirely,” I say.  “We carry a Kid inside until we die.  But we can learn how to listen and understand and take better care of him.  And when we do that he doesn’t get triggered nearly as often.  And eventually he settles down and lives in a quieter place.”

 

 

Special sauce

x
Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.  ~ Erich Fromm

x

After a year of dating they’re still not on the same page.

Shelly wants a commitment.  Stan’s circling the field.

Both have histories.  Shelly was married to a narcissist who abused her and their kids and who has fought paying child support even since the divorce.  Stan was engaged for six years to a woman who bossed and belittled and ultimately cheated on him.

Both had emotionally unavailable parents.

Both find it hard to trust anyone.

“Jesus,” I say.  “How the hell have you stayed together this long?”

“Together?” Shelly says.  “I’m not sure we are.”  She looks at Stan.  “Are we?”

“I don’t know,” he says.  “We hang out.  We have sex.  We play with the kids.  We have fun.  Sometimes I think we love each other.  But there’s this feeling hanging over us, this…”

“Tension?” I say.

“Yes.  This tension that never goes away.”

Shelly nods agreement.

“Any idea what it’s about?”

Stan shrugs.  “It’s how I always feel in relationships.”

“I know where my tension comes from,” Shelly says.  “Feeling alone.  Like Stan’s not all there.”

“How so?” I ask.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in a lake, and he’s standing on the dock watching, trying to decide whether to jump in and save me.”  She looks at Stan.  “It’s like he’s…doing the math.”

Stan winces.

“I do my best,” he says.  “I care about Shelly.  I want to be there for her.  But her life is so complicated.  She’s got this sociopathic ex, and these two kids who I love but who can be demanding, and this difficult mother, and this annoying sister, and all the time she worries about money…”

“And you’re scared that if you jump into all that you’ll drown too.”

He nods sadly.

“You’d take the risk if you loved me,” Shelly says angrily.

Stan opens his mouth.

“Wait,” I interrupt.  “You could both use some help with empathy.  Shelly, be fair.  It’s really not his lake.”

She sighs and nods.

“And Stan, ever felt like you were drowning?  Remember how scary that was?”

He nods.

“Okay,” I say. “Beyond that, here’s what I think:

“I think you guys are missing something important.

“It’s something I suspect neither of you has ever experienced before with anyone.

“You may never have even seen it in action.

“It’s a kind of special sauce for relationships, and it makes everything easier.

“I call it mutuality.

“Mutuality is the feeling that what’s good for you is good for me, and vice versa.

“More than a feeling, actually.  A kind of deep belief, a faith.  Something you just know.

“It’s what allows partners to move beyond their personal feelings and points of view and make room for each other in their lives.

“Without it you’re each stuck in your limited perspective, and the relationship feels tight and constricting.  It doesn’t feel like a partnership or a collaboration, but like a competition — like only one of you can get your way.  And like you have to play defense, analyze, calculate, do the math, or you risk losing something or getting taken advantage of.”

“That’s just how it feels,” Stan says.

“Mutuality changes all that.  It’s a kind of emotional lubricant that removes the tension, reduces conflict and lets you feel safe.  You can relax and feel like you’re in this together.

“I want to feel that way,” Stan says.  He turns to Shelly.  “I would love to feel that way.”

She reaches for his hand.

“Can we learn it?” Shelly asks me.

“You can,” I say.  “The easiest way is to see it in action.  But even if your parents didn’t model it and you never experienced it in prior relationships you can still work at creating it yourself.”

“How?”

 “There are three steps.

“Step One is deciding if you want it.  I mean really want it, enough to suffer some discomfort — risk new behaviors, for example.”

“Step Two is committing to each other to make it a priority.”

“And Step Three is practice.”

“What kind of practice?” asks Shelly.

“You act as if.  You start behaving if you already believe that what’s good for your partner will be good for you.  You stop defending your own preferences and extend yourself for each other.  And you see how that feels.

“Isn’t that codependency?” Shelly asks.

“No,” I say.  “Codependency comes from fear.  Codependents compulsively please or appease others because they’re scared of what will happen if they don’t — they won’t be loved, they’ll be rejected, whatever.   But acting as if is neither compulsive or manipulative; it’s conscious and it’s choiceful.  A kind of gift.  And it comes from love, not anxiety.

“Not just love for your partner, either.  You do this for yourself — because you want to learn a new way of being with someone else.  Because you want to grow in your ability to give, to love, and to trust.”

“Trust is hard for both of us,” Stan says, and Shelly nods.

“I know,” I say.  “But do you know where the phrase act as if comes from?”

“No.”

“Me either,” I say.  “But I like to think it comes from the saying, Act as if you have faith, and faith will be given to you.”

 

 

(Noted with pleasure:) Growing up spiritually

.

Whether we are hooked on food, alcohol, drugs, sex, money, work, or fame, the impulse to lose ourselves in these things can be seen as a spiritual impulse.

By spiritual impulse I mean a desire to experience a lightness of being, and transcendence that does not take us away from our everyday experience but exists within it.

For surely, what we long for is not a world beyond this one (which for most of us would mean death), but to find some happiness within the perplexing conundrum of our everyday lives.  We have only to read the works of people recovering from addictions to see that behind the trappings of disease lies a mystical yearning that is as authentic and urgent as that of any pilgrim.

Somewhere underneath bingeing, starving, exercising, drinking, hallucinating, climaxing, and purchasing, we are desperately seeking a way home to our self.  The longer we have been in exile from this true self, the more desperate the yearning and, often, the more desperate the means of attaining pleasure.

For many the motivation to begin, sustain, or deepen a spiritual practice comes in the mindset of grappling with an inner ordering process.  As we sift through our life experience we may notice that we consistently allow the urgent to override the important.  We may realize that we have a deeply ingrained habit of giving the most time, energy, and commitment to things that ultimately are not very important and that leave us at the end of the day with little enduring satisfaction.  We may feel as if we are working for a demanding unknown boss and that we have yet to receive a real paycheck….

When we realize that the entity that we call our “self” is the clearinghouse for everything that will happen to us, we may wake up to the realization that attending to the inner hygiene of this self is the most important thing we could possibly do in this lifetime.

Now we are ready to settle in for the long haul.

We’ve decided we are ready to grow up, and we have reached the sobering realization that it is our life and that there is only one person who can do the work.

~ From Bringing yoga to life: The everyday practice of enlightened living by Donna Farhi (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).

 

Ice on the road

“So the relationship’s been going really really well,” she tells me.  “He’s attentive and sweet, and we like the same food and music, and he accepts my feelings and even tries to share his own.”

“Okay,” I say.

“And then he had to go out of town on business for a week, and even that feels pretty okay at first.  He stays in touch — texts me, sends me pictures of where he is and what he’s doing, tells me he misses me, that sort of thing.  Like I said, sweet.”

“Okay,” I say again.  Waiting for the other shoe.

“Then two nights ago he goes to a party with his coworkers and meets the daughter of a state senator.  And he sends me a picture someone took of them laughing together, and she’s blonde and beautiful, and then he texts me about how interesting and funny she is, and I freak.”

“Freak how?”

“You know how.  All my insecurities rise up and strangle me.  I start thinking things like I can’t compete with that and Why would he bother with me if he can hang out with a state senator’s daughter and look at that hair.  That kind of crap.”

“And you’ve been doing this to yourself since then.”

“Yes,”she says bleakly.  “Make it stop.”

I laugh.

“Well, I can’t make it stop, but maybe you can.”

“How?”

I think for a minute.

“Ever go on a road trip?” I ask.  “A long one?”

“Sure.”

“Good.  Imagine you’re on a 100-mile road trip, heading north in winter.  And along the way there are patches of ice, so every few miles the car skids sideways and you get nervous.  You’re able to drive through each skid and get back on dry pavement, but it keeps happening.”

“Okay.”

“So what you have to decide is if the trip is worth the skids.  Whether you want to get where you’re headed enough to tolerate some skidding — some losses of control — and whether you can do it without panicking or blaming yourself or worrying that there’s something wrong with the car.  There’s nothing wrong.  There’s just ice on the road.”

She frowns.

“The road is the relationship,” she says.

I nod.

“And I have to accept not feeling in total control of it.”

“Yup.”

“And not turn into a big baby each time the car skids.”

“Yes.  And that includes not blaming or insulting yourself.  You’re not a baby.  It’s okay to feel unsure.  But you get through it by remembering that all roads get icy, all drivers skid, and no road trip goes as planned.”

She sighs.   “And that all that is okay.”

I shrug.

“It’s the cost of ever going anywhere in the first place.”

Somebody else’s kitchen

.

Like many of my clients, Millie overworks.

She’s a teacher who gets up at four each morning for the two-hour commute to the school where she’s been a Special Ed teacher at for thirteen years.  She is good at what she does, and basks in the appreciation she receives from parents and coworkers.

I’ve also never seen her not looking tired.

She is chronically sleep-deprived and battles an endless series of colds, infections, backaches and muscle strains, panic attacks and depressions.

“I hate how I feel, believe me,” she says.  “But I’m ten years from retirement.”

“If you live that long.”

She nods grimly.  “I know.  But I see no way out of it.  It’s my one shot at financial security.”

“Uh huh,” I say.  “Thought experiment.  You’ve just won the lottery.  You have all the money you’ll ever need.  What do you do now?”

“What do I do?” she repeats.

“Yes.  Quit your job?”

“Uh, no.  I’d probably stay on for, oh, another year.”

“Why?”

She looks at me.  “I don’t know.”

“So it’s not about financial security, because I just solved that problem for you.”

“I guess not.”

“Okay.  Another question.  Has it ever occurred to you that created this imbalance in your life on purpose?  That you’ve chosen this way of  living for some unconscious reason?”

She looks confused.  “No.”

I know Millie’s history.  I know her mom is an anxious divorcee who pushed Millie to enter teaching so she wouldn’t have to depend on a man.  I know her mom’s mom was an Irish immigrant who raised four kids alone and insisted her daughter enter teaching for the very same reason.

So I tell her the roasting pan story.

A family gathers for Thanksgiving and everybody’s there, all the generations.  And Daughter’s in the kitchen helping Mom prepare the turkey.  And she notices that mom hacks off the front end the turkey with a carving knife.  “Mom, you’ve always done that to our turkey.  Why?”   “I don’t really know,” Mom replies.  “It’s how my mom always did it.”  “Let’s ask her,” says Daughter.  So they go to Grandma.  “Grandma, why did you always cut off the front end of a turkey?”   “I don’t know,” says Grandma, “but it’s how my mother always did it.”  So they go to Great Grandma.  “Nana,” shouts Daughter, “why did you always cut the front end off the turkey?”  “Because,” Nana shouts back, “my roasting pan was too damned small.”

Millie laughs.  Then stops and looks startled.

“I think that’s why you live as you do.  I think your current life reflects lessons you inherited from your mom and your grandma and internalized without realizing it.  The world’s dangerous.  Never depend on a man.  Seek financial security above all.  Work till you drop.  Ignore feelings and other messages from your body.  I think those were probably appropriate lessons for grandma to learn.  I’m less sure about Mom.  I suspect she absorbed them unconsciously and then passed them down to you.

“But I do know you’re not Grandma, and you’re not your mother.

“And I know the right life for each of us grows out of our lessons, our experiences and feelings.  Nobody else’s.

“And I think the main reason you’re here with me now is because you’ve been trying to live a life that was cooked up in somebody else’s kitchen.” 

Plan B people

x

I ask Rachel how she made out with her new nurse practitioner.

“I fired her,” she grunts.

“Why?”

“She was a Plan A person.”

We’ve developed a verbal shorthand over the years, so I know what she means.

“You could tell?” I ask.

She sighs.  “From the moment we met.  She kept me waiting twenty-five minutes, and when I finally got in I was frustrated.  She saw it and her back went up.  That was strike one.”

I nod.

“Then I asked if she’d gotten the note you faxed over about my diagnosis and treatment.  ‘Yes, I think I saw something like that,’ she said, ‘but I tossed it.’ “

“Gee.”

“Yeah.  Strike two.  Then about thirty minutes into the meeting I was asking why she was recommending one med over another, and she was evasive — you know, handling me like a patient.  So I questioned her harder.  Guess what she said?”

“No idea.”

“She said, ‘Are you getting short with me, Rachel?'”

“No.”

“Yup.”

“What did you say?”

“I stood up and said, ‘I’m sorry, but you won’t do,’ and I left.”

I laugh.  “Rachel, I think I love you.”

Bernie Siegel writes,

The thing you see in survivors is that they express feelings.  I won’t say some of the things they tell their doctors, when doctors tell them they’re going to die in six months. Boy, do they let the doctor know how they feel about that statement.

Siegel is a surgeon who noticed a correlation between cancer and codependency — burying feelings, people-pleasing, avoiding conflict, deferring to authority.  He also noticed that the patients most likely to survive cancer were those who learned to replace their codependent coping with honesty, assertiveness and authentic expression.  He created support groups designed to teach them these life-saving skills, and called the people who attended them “exceptional patients.”

I call them Plan B people.

Plan B people are those who outgrow the Plan A we all learn as children.  Plan A is control addiction, a fear of rejection that leads t0 self-doubt, emotional constipation, image management, and compulsive attempts to get other people to react to us in the way we want.

It’s Plan A that lies behind our tendency to take others’ feelings personally, wall off instead of opening up, and defend instead of communicating — the things Rachel noticed in the nurse practitioner.

She spotted it because she’d done it herself for years.

And she fired the nurse because she’d learned, through her own struggles with anxiety and depression, that Plan A is bad news.

That addiction to control can’t coexist with emotional or physical health.

That it’s not just ineffective, it makes you sick.

And that it’s the opposite of loving and taking care of yourself.

Or as Bernie Siegel puts it,

One’s attitude towards oneself is the single most important factor in healing and staying well.

 

 

(Noted with pleasure: ) When you are stuck

I came to know that blocks are the price of avoiding surrender, and that surrender is not defeat but rather the key to opening out into a world of delight and nonstop creation.

One of the great traps at times of blockage is that we may accuse ourselves of a deficit of concentration and focus, a deficit of discipline.  We then take a paternal or militaristic attitude toward ourselves.  We will force ourselves to work, we will go on a schedule, we will take vows.  The most dangerous trap is to get into a contest of strength between “will power” and “won’t power.”  Discipline is crucial, but we do not attain it by stiffening up.  We attain it by sitting still and penetrating the emptiness within, making of that emptiness a friend rather than an adversary or bogeyman.

 When you are stuck, meditate, free associate, do automatic writing, talk to yourself and answer yourself.  Play with the blocks.  Stay in the temenos of the workplace.  Relax, surrender to the bafflement; don’t leave the temenos, and the solution will come.  Persevere gently….

Like the rules of the universe, the whole matter of personal creativity is baffling and paradoxical.  To try to control yourself, to try to create, to try to break free of the knots you yourself have tied is to set yourself up at a distance from that which you already are.  It is like looking around this way and that for your own head.

~ From Free play: Improvisation in life and art by Stephen Nachmanovitch (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1990).

 

 

(Noted with pleasure:) Our strange ideas about vulnerability

.

We have the strange idea, unsupported by any evidence, that we are loved and admired only for our superb strength, our far-reaching powers, and our all-knowing competency.  Yet in the real world, no matter how many relationships may have been initiated by strength and power, no marriage or friendship has ever been deepened by these qualities.  After a short, erotic honeymoon, power and omnipotence expose their shadow underbellies and threaten real intimacy, which is based on mutual vulnerability.  After the bows have been made to the brass god of power, we find in the privacy of relationship that same god suddenly immobile and inimicable to conversation.  As brass gods ourselves, we wonder why we are no longer loved in the same way we were at our first appearance.  Our partners have begun to find our infallibility boring and, after long months or years, to find us false, frightening, and imprisoning….

We have an even stranger idea: that we will finally fall in love with ourselves only when we have become the totally efficient organized organism we have always wanted to be and left all of our bumbling ineptness behind.  Yet in exactly the way we come to find love and intimacy with others through vulnerability, we come to those same qualities in ourselves through living out the awkwardness of not knowing, of not being in charge.

~ From Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity

by David Whyte (Riverhead Books, 2001).

(Noted with pleasure:) I guess he’s the one

x

Bert and I do a lot of reading, and we often come across ideas or writing too good not to share.  So we’ve decided to do that, in a series called Noted With Pleasure

Here’s the first entry, from a novel my wife is reading.  A mom and daughter are talking about marriage.

 

“I don’t think I’ll find anyone better than Mark.  If I’m going to get married, I guess he’s the one.  But all of a sudden, it feels so…I don’t know.  Arbitrary.  Dangerous.  I don’t see how anyone can ever feel completely convinced that marrying someone is the right thing to do, I don’t see how anyone can not be consumed by doubt.  Did you feel absolutely sure about marrying Pops?”

Dorothy has felt absolutely sure about being pregnant, that’s what she had felt.  But Hilly doesn’t know that.  So she says, “Course I wasn’t sure.  I was full of doubt, too.  I think almost everyone is.  You have to be.  Who can possibly subscribe to the notion that there’s only one person in the world for you?  No.  But you find someone you care for, that you think you might be able to build a life with, and then you just go for it.”

“And then you get divorced,” Hilly says bitterly.

Dorothy speaks more carefully now.  “No, now, Hilly, you know that’s not true.  Some people have very happy marriages.  I think the biggest problem is people’s expectations are so high.  And so wrong.  People think marriage is going to be so romantic and fulfilling.  They think the other person is going to complete them.  But that’s not what happens.  In a good marriage you complete yourself while sharing a bathroom.  You go through life with company, rather than alone, and humans seem to need company.  And…  You remember in Carousel, when the doctor tells the high school graduating class not to worry about others liking them, that they should just try to like others?”

“I love Carousel,” Hilly says, sighing.  “I still love it.  Everybody makes fun of me, but I still love it.  We used to watch it and eat caramel corn and dill pickles.”

“I know,” Dorothy says.  “But do you remember that part?”

“Of course.”

“Well, that’s it.  That’s what you need to do in your marriage.  You need to give what you want.  And don’t expect so much.  That only sets you up for disappointment.  If you expect anything, expect that marriage will be hard, that it will be work.  And expect that the pleasures will be erratic and often small, but they’ll turn out to mean more than you know.”

~ From The Last Time I Saw You

by Elizabeth Berg (Ballantine, 2010).

x

 

The most stubborn addiction

The most stubborn addiction is one everyone shares,

and of which most human animals stay unaware,

one behind everything we think, do and say,

and from which no one gets entirely away,

one we usually notice most when it’s gone,

one rooted in fears birthed the moment we’re born,

one beneath and behind most of our sorrows,

that keeps us trapped in our yesterdays and tomorrows,

one you see in me before you see it in you,

and to which we both cling until our brain cells turn blue.

We’re addicted to a thought, a wish, an idea,

an assumption we almost never see clear:

that life can and should belong to us,

that we should be drivers and reality the bus,

that relationships, like suits, should be altered to fit,

and that fears, tears and pain should be treated like shit,

like nasty waste that is best flushed away

instead of messages about who and where we are today.

I suppose what we really want is to be God.

It’s the most human of all fantasies, and one that dies hard.

But as long as it lives inside us we’re hooked,

jonesing for control wherever we look,

unable to rest, trust, surrender or play,

Or be who we are in what we feel, do and say,

and fated to find that, finally, no control can relieve

the ache of hands too grabby to receive.

 .

~ Steve Hauptman

Want updates?

hi guys,

Just a note to let you know I’m about done with my second book.

Titled Monkeytraps in Everyday Life, it describes 51 ways we unconsciously control our way into trouble in both our heads and our relationships.

I’ll publish it this summer.

If you’d like to receive updates about this and other Monkeytraps projects — like several new ebook releases and my new newsletter, MONKEYNOTES — please click here:

.

.

Of course I’ll never share your information with anyone.  (It’s a control thing.)

Talk soon,

~ Steve

.

PS: Bert says hi.

 

Holes.

It’s supposed to go like this:

We’re supposed to grow up in a good-enough family, one strong and healthy and nurturing enough to provide adequate supplies of the 4 A’s: attention, acceptance, approval and affection.

The 4 A’s are the components of love.

If we get enough of these components, we fill up in childhood, just like kids fill up with good food.

And we enter adulthood feeling reasonably solid, reasonably valuable and lovable and confident in our dealing with others.

But if we grow up in a not-good-enough family — one burdened by abuse, or addiction, or mental illness, or parents who dislike each other or their children —  several things happen:

~ We enter adulthood emotionally hungry, with unmet needs that appear as holes in our confidence and self-esteem.

~ This hunger is so painful that it forces us to try and fill those holes by getting our needs met by others.

~ For the most part we do this unconsciously, unaware of why we feel how we feel or do what we do.

~ We also do it covertly, hiding our true motives from ourselves and others, trying to control and manipulate other people into feeding us what we didn’t get as kids.

~ Others may sense our hidden agenda — even if they don’t understand it — and respond defensively by rejecting us or distancing themselves.

~ The rejection and distancing increases our hunger, triggering another round of unconscious controlling and manipulation, often followed by more distancing and rejection.

~ All this tends to continue until we see what we’re doing and learn better ways of getting our needs met.

I’ve known many, many people like this.

I’ve been one myself.

There’s no shame in it.  Emotional hunger is more common than anyone realizes.

But if I’ve learned anything about this whole business, it’s this:

We cannot get fed until we identify our hunger and understand how we keep ourselves hungry.

Three commandments

.

In group, and she looks exhausted, pinched and pale. 

She’s talking about how hard she’s been working, and all the people she worries about and takes care of. 

And I’m getting angry.

“I have feedback,” I tell her. 

She looks surprised.  Feedback is a statement of personal feelings, and I don’t usually give those.

“Here goes,” I say.  “When you (A) talk about all these people you care about and take care of,  I (B) get mad, because (C) you’re breaking my Three Commandments.” 

She looks puzzled.

“I know,” I say.  “I didn’t know I had Three Commandments either.  But apparently I do, because I find myself mad at you for breaking them.”

She smiles.  “What are they?”

“What I usually talk about,” I say.  “And everything we work on in group:

1. You must respect your feelings.

2. You must listen to your body.

3. You must collect relationships that feed you, not deplete you.”

“Yes,” she sighs. “Sounds familiar.”

“She’s breaking all three, right?” another member asks.

“I think so.  She certainly looks like someone who is.”

“What do I look like?” she asks.

“Like someone to whom self-care is an alien concept.  Who’s so caught up in trying to control people, places and things that she’s running on empty.  And doesn’t realize it.  And needs people who love her to tell her to stop.”

“Stop,” says another member.

“Please,” says another.

She smiles sadly.  “I’m not sure I know how.”

“That’s okay,” I say.  “We’ll help.  The most important thing now is wanting to stop.

“Everyone who comes into therapy needs to learn these commandments,” I say.  “It’s hard at first, because most of us were trained to believe exactly the opposite: Disrespect your feelings, ignore your body, and Lose yourself in relationships.

“But those who learn them, and can obey them at least some of the time, always end up feeling better.”

“Always?” she asks.

“Always,” I say.  “It’s as close to a guarantee as you’ll get in therapy.”

This will be awful.

“I have a job interview,” she tells me.

“That’s good,” I say.

“I’m scared shitless.”

“That’s not.”

She’s never had a job interview that didn’t make her sick beforehand.  The interviews themselves go fine.  But the days and hours leading up to them are torture.

“I imagine everything that could go wrong, every mistake I could make, every question I can’t answer.  I imagine the person will think I’m stupid or unattractive or unqualified.  I play it over and over and over in my head.  I usually can’t sleep the night before, and I go in there looking like death on a cracker.”

“But the interview usually goes okay?”

“It does,” she sighs.

“Okay,” I say.  “I think I can help.  When’s the interview?

“Friday.”

“Good.  Today’s Monday.  Go buy yourself a small notebook and carry it with you.  I want you to listen to yourself, catch yourself projecting, and write each projection down.”

“What’s projecting again?” she frowns.

“Inventing scary stories,” I say.  “There are two types.  One produces stories about the future — I’m going to screw up the interview, I’m going to get fired, My blind date will be a disaster, and so on.  I call that fortunetelling.”

“That’s what I’m doing now.”

“Correct.  The other type involves stories about the contents of other people’s heads — She’s mad at me, He thinks I’m fat, They’re laughing at me behind my back, Nobody will think I’m qualified for this job — that sort of thingI call that mindreading.”

“I do that all the time too,” she muses.

“I know you do,” I say.  “And there are two things to remember about projections.

“First, they feel absolutely real, the way a nightmare does.  You just know bad things are happening or going to happen, right?”

“Absolutely.”

“Second, they rarely come true.  That’s because projections grow out of anxiety — our very worst fears — not any accurate reading of reality.  For example, despite how you feel before interviewing, you usually end up getting the job, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Yes.  The thing is, when our worst fears don’t come true, we don’t learn our lesson.  We don’t stop and think Wow, I just scared myself unnecessarily.  We just roll on to the next projection.

“That’s where the notebook comes in.  Between now and Friday you’ll list every negative projection, every moment of fortunetelling or mindreading, however small or silly.  And at the end of each day you’ll look at your list and see how many of your awful projections came true.”

“I think I know what I’ll find,” she smiles sheepishly.

“Me too.  Do it anyway.”

*

I got an email from her today.

Hey Steve.  I bought the notebook and did what you said.  The first two days I filled eight pages.  I had no idea what I was doing to myself.  But on the third day I began to calm down (half a page only), and by Friday I was almost relaxed.  (Almost.)  Anyway, I got the job.  Thanks.  🙂  See you Monday.  

 

Hammered.

 x

“I feel like crap,” he tells me.

“Why?”

“I’m a failure.”

“How so?”

“In every way.  My wife says I’m insensitive, so I feel like a bad husband.  My son’s failing Math and my daughter has social anxiety, so I feel like a lousy dad.  I don’t make enough money, so I feel like a bad provider.  I don’t have time or energy to fix what needs fixing around the house, so I feel lazy and irresponsible.  I’m overweight, so I feel like a physical mess.  And you tell me I’m out of touch with my feelings, so I’m even flunking fucking therapy.”

“Wait a minute,” I say.  “Let’s do this right.”

I reach under my chair and bring out my hammer.

It’s an old hand sledge, five pounds of rusted metal.

“Here,” I say, handing it to him.

“What this for?”

“Give yourself a good whack on the knuckles.”

“Are you crazy?  That would break my hand.”

“Probably,” I say.  “But the pain would go away, and the hand would heal in about six weeks.

“What you’re doing to yourself now — calling yourself a failure and collecting evidence to back it up — that causes permanent damage.  And the pain it creates is endless.”

For anyone who find this parable too metaphoric, let’s be clear:

Beating yourself up should not be mistaken for honesty, or courage, or discipline, or high standards, or determination, or toughness, or personal growth.

It is simple self-abuse.

It consumes energy, kills hope, warps awareness and destroys the spirit.

And those who indulge in it rarely grow into the people they are meant to be.

The dangling man

For months she has been miserable in a relationship with a man she describes as needy, smothering and manipulative.

“I feel like I’m his mother,” she tells me.

“So end it,” I say.

“I can’t,” she frowns.  “He says if I do he’ll kill himself.”

“You believe him?”

“I’m scared to take the risk,” she shrugs helplessly.  “He cries and begs and I feel like a heartless person.” 

She looks at me.  “Am I?  Heartless?”

I answer by telling her, as best as I can remember it, the story of the dangling man.

A guy’s walking across a bridge one night and hears a faint cry for help.  He looks over the railing and finds a man dangling from a rope. 

“Help me,” the dangling man gasps. 

The guy reaches over and grabs the rope, which comes free in his hands.  Now he’s the only thing keeping the man from falling. 

“Save me,” the man begs. 

The guy tries to pull the man up, but cannot. 

“You’re too heavy,” he says.  “You’ll have to climb.” 

“Don’t let go,” the man begs. 

“Okay, but I can’t hold on forever,” the guy says.  “Start climbing.” 

“Just don’t let go,” the man says again. 

The guy looks around for help, but he is alone on the bridge.  He looks for somewhere to tie off the rope, but finds nothing. 

He feels his hands weakening.

“I’m getting tired,” he tells the man.  “What do you want me to do?”

“Help me,” the man repeats.  “Save me.”

“But I can’t,” the guy says. 

“Just hang on,” the man says.  “If you let go, I die.  I’m your responsibility.”

Time passes.  The guy feels his hands weakening, the strength slowly draining from his body, and the impossibility of his situation.

Finally he takes a deep breath. 

“Listen carefully,” he tells the man, “because I mean what I’m about to say.  I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself.  So I’ll hold on, but only if you start climbing.  I’ll even help by pulling up from my end.  But if you don’t start climbing, I’m going to let go.”

“You can’t mean that,” says the dangling man.  “How could you be so selfish?  How could you live with yourself afterwards?  I need you.  I’m your responsibility.”

“No,” says the guy, “I don’t accept that.  I’m responsible for me, and you’re responsible for you.   I’m willing to help, but the final choice here is yours.”

“Don’t do this to me,” the man begs. 

The guy waits.  Nothing happens.  There is no movement, no change in the rope’s tension. 

“I accept your choice,” he says, and frees his hands.

_______________________________
* Adapted from Friedman’s Fables by Edwin H. Friedman (New York: Guilford Press, 1990).

 

A cold shower

 

I tell my friend about my broken water heater and how for a week I’ve been bathing in the sink. 

“Why don’t you take a cold shower?” he asks. 

I smile, thinking

Because I’m not batshit crazy.

Later, though, when I recall the conversation, I realize that a more honest answer to his suggestion would have been

Because I’m a big fat baby

As I age I notice I get more and more attached to comfort.  It becomes harder to exercise, harder to diet, harder to skip meals or sit down on a cold toilet seat. 

Sure, I still slip occasionally into workaholic overdrive (like ten-hour writing sessions).  But mostly I seek out the easy way, the path of least resistance. 

After five decades of chronic guilt and codependent self-criticism, I kind of like this way of doing life.

And I kind of don’t. 

The reason I don’t is that I have a theory about why we do things that sees a craving for comfort as problematic.  The theory holds that we’re all addicted to control, that this addiction causes most (maybe all) of our emotional problems, and that all our controlling is driven by wanting to control how we feel. 

Which means, in practice, that the less discomfort I am able to tolerate, the more compulsively controlling I become.

I’m writing a book about this now.  It’s about how we hate discomfort, how in avoiding it we walk into emotional traps, and how one way to escape is to develop more tolerance for discomfort, which I call an emotional shock absorber .

Since life is full of discomforts, a life without this shock absorber would be essentially unlivable.  You’d be horribly vulnerable to everything from an empty belly to a full bladder, from traffic jams to heat waves to crying babies — never mind big stuff like abuse, illness, disability, unemployment or loss of a loved one.  You’d simply go mad.*

This vulnerability is what I don’t like about my craving for comfort.

So I decide to take a cold shower. 

*

I approach it in stages.

Stage 1:  Like any good codependent, I start by seeking support for my decision. 

I pray to the Great God Google.

Are cold showers healthy? I type.

God answers my prayer with a cluster of articles, one of which informs me that there are multiple health benefits to cold showers —  strengthened circulation, immunity, metabolism, breathing and mood.  Who knew?

But this is what sells me: 

Big goals require discomfort to achieve.  The difference between making a good impression, standing your ground, and being successful could be altered by getting used to discomfort….

Conditioning your brain to accept, survive, and embrace discomfort is one of the practices that can greatly impact the rest of your life.  It isn’t about the cold water.  It’s about the discomfort associated with cold showers, which you can overcome every day towards greater goal in life.*

Thanks, God.

Stage 2:  I meditate.  Well, it’s not really meditating, because all I can think about is the shower I plan.  I picture it in my mind: undressing, crouching in the tub with my hand on the faucet, turning the faucet, the water hitting my back, counting one two three before shutting off the tap.  I picture this over and over, hoping to fan my tiny ember of courage into a flame.

Finally I’m ready.  I go to the bathroom, trying hard to think of nothing at all.

I follow the procedure I rehearsed.  I strip, crouch, turn, wait. 

Holy Mother of Christ Jesus.  

*

Afterwards I feel wonderful.  Not just strangely proud of myself (though there’s that) but physically exhilarated, as if the cold water triggered some chemical change in my body, some delicious flood of endorphines or dopamine or something.

It feels almost spiritual.

(Thanks, God.)

I go to work and babble happily to my therapy group about my cold shower.  They look at me oddly. 

I don’t care.  I feel childlike, giggly. 

Happy.

PS:

That was three days ago. 

I’ve showered coldly each day since then. 

I can count up to ten now.

______________________

* Monkeytraps in Everyday Life: 51 Ways We Self-Sabotage, due in 2017.

 ** “7 reasons to take colder showers and 1 that really matters,” by Mansal Denton, writing for The Hacked Mind (http://www.thehackedmind.com/7-reasons-to-take-cold-showers-and-1-that-really-matters/)

Lawyers

 

The greatest stumbling block in true communication is the tendency to play lawyer. 

~ Muriel Schiffman

 

Last week I talked to two lawyers.

One was an actual attorney, the other an amateur.

Both struggle with relationships for the same reason:

They want it their way, and they’re pretty determined.

The first (actual) lawyer tells me she’s mad at her new boyfriend because he adopted a puppy without consulting her.  “I’m a cat person,” she explains.  “He knows this.  And if we end up living together I’m going to be very unhappy.”

The second (amateur) lawyer tells me everything’s been going great with his girlfriend of six months: they like the same food and music, they laugh a lot together, and the sex is terrific.  “Still, there are red flags,” he frowns.  “She’s bad with money.  She spends too much time on Facebook.  And I don’t like her mother.”

I ask each of them two questions. 

“Have you talked to your partner about this stuff?” is the first.

Both answer No.  They’re upset, but neither wants to rock the boat.

“How do you feel when you’re with this person?” is the second question.

Both smile and answer, “Happy.”

“Okay,” I say to them.  “I hear three problems here. 

“The first is a boundary problem.  Yours are fuzzy.  You’re not clear on what is your business and what isn’t.

“The second is a communication problem.  You need to share your feelings with your partner.  Not as a complaint or a demand, but as information.  They need to know what you like and don’t like, what pushes your buttons.  How can you communicate and reach agreement with someone who doesn’t know what’s going on inside you?

“The biggest problem, though, is a control problem.  You’re looking for a level of control you can’t have. 

“I understand why.  You’ve been hurt in past relationships.  You don’t want to get hurt again.

“But you can’t indemnify yourself against hurt or disappointment or frustration with some sort of emotional contract.  You can’t list your demands and expect your partner to sign the dotted line.  That’s unrealistic and frankly, disrespectful.  How’d you feel if someone made you sign such a contract?”

“Anyway, it’s just bad for relationships.  A relationship is a living thing.  We can’t control it; we have to care for it, the way you care for a flower.  You water it with attention, you feed it with communication and patience, and you let it grow in its own way and at its own pace.

“Trying to edit it according to your expectations is like cutting it and putting it in a vase.

“Sure, a cut flower is pretty.  But you know what happens to it.”

The three curses

He’s twenty-six, and every night after work he goes home and locks himself in his room. 

“It’s the only place I feel safe,” he tells me. 

“How long have you felt this way?” I ask.

“Since I was little.  Dad would drink and start yelling, and mom would yell back, and one of them would kick something or throw a plate, and I’d go to my room and shut the door and try not to hear it.”

“Scary,” I say.

“Sure.  But I’m a man now, and dad’s dead six years, and mom and I get along fine.  And I’m still hiding out.  What the hell is wrong with me?”

“You’re cursed,” I say.

“Cursed?” he says.  “Like by…”

“A witch?” I say.  “No, not like that.  Your curse is a false belief you absorbed in childhood, and have carried unconsciously ever since.”

“False belief.”

“Yes.  There are three main curses.  Kids tend to grow up believing that…

The world is a dangerous place, or 

People are not to be trusted, or 

There’s something wrong with me.

He frowns.  “I believe all three.  What causes it?”

“Childhood experience,” I say.  “Grow up in a family like yours, where you never feel safe, it’s pretty hard to believe the world outside is any safer.  So the whole world comes to feel dangerous.

“And if your parents are violent or unpredictable or abusive, if they reject or criticize or abandon you — and these are the people who are supposed to love and protect you — well, how do you trust anyone after that?  So all people come to feel untrustworthy.”

“Finally, if your family treats you badly — or even if bad things happen that have nothing to do with you, like divorce or money problems or someone dying — you tend to conclude that the bad stuff was your fault, that there’s something wrong with you.”

“But why?”   

“Because that’s how kids think.  Bad stuff makes them feel helpless, and helplessness is terrifying.  So they convince themselves they caused the bad stuff.  They trade helpless for guilty.  And they usually grow up to be adults with what’s called free-floating guilt.  Whenever anything bad happens in their vicinity they feel somehow responsible.”

“That sounds like me too,” he says glumly.  He is quiet.  Then he looks at me.

“So I’m fucked?” he asks.

“No,” I say.  “All this is pretty common.   Most of my clients are cursed.  Actually, so are most of the people I know.   Me too.”

“Yes?” he smiles.  “What do you do about about it?”

“Well, I went to therapy, and my therapist taught me to trust her, and that helped break the can’t-trust-anybody curse.  And she helped me to see how the bad stuff that happened to me was mostly beyond my control, and that helped with the something-wrong-with-me curse.  And the first curse…”

“Dangerous world?”

“Right.  That one I’m still working on.”

“How?”

“Oh, mainly by taking risks — new places, new people, stuff I’m scared to do — and finding out that almost everything I’m scared of is imaginary.”

“That sounds hard,” he says.

“Sometimes,” I agree.  “Still better than living cursed.”

Seven kinds of personal power

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you love an addict, or live with one, or depend on one in some way, you are probably in, as the old saying goes, nine kinds of pain.

And I’m guessing that, whether or not you realize it, the very worst of these pains comes from being confused about the difference between power and control.

No, they’re not the same.

In some ways they are opposites.

One difference: power is possible, but control is usually an illusion.

Another: seeking power can set you free, while seeking control can make you crazy.

Let me explain.

Control, as I define it, means the ability to dictate reality. To make reality what we want it to be.  To get life itself — people, places and things — to meet our expectations.

Power, on the other hand, means being able to get your needs met. To take care of yourself. To not just survive, but to heal, and grow, and be happy.

Here’s an example of the difference:

Imagine your rich uncle dies and leaves you control of his multinational corporation. So you wake up one morning the CEO of Big Bux, Inc. You go to your new job. You sit behind a huge desk. Four secretaries line up to do your bidding. You have tons of control. You can hire and fire people, buy things and sell things, build plants or close them, approve product lines and advertising campaigns, manage investments, bribe congressmen, you name it.

How do you feel?

If you’re anything like me, you feel crippled by anxiety. Bewildered and overwhelmed by your new responsibilities. Disoriented. Panicked.
Anything but in control.

Interesting, no?

There are two other interesting differences between control and power.

~ Control looks outward, mainly at other people, places and things. Power looks inward, to your own feelings and needs. So control-seeking pulls you away from yourself, away from self-awareness and self-care.

~ Control operates paradoxically. The paradox goes like this: The more control you need, the less in control you feel. Which means if you depend on getting control to feel safe and happy, you don’t feel safe or happy most of the time. Chasing control is a lot like chasing a train you can never catch. Power, though — rooted in healthy, intelligent self-care — is a real possibility.

Want to become more powerful? Here are seven ways to do it:

(1) Detach.

Let go of what you can’t control anyway. That may be a situation, or a person, or that person’s behavior. If it’s a person you love, you can detach with love, as they say in Al-Anon. Detaching doesn’t mean you stop caring. It just means you acknowledge your limitations. And when you do that, an enormous relief often follows.

(2) Refocus.

Start by shifting your focus from outside — people, places and things — to inside — your own needs, thoughts and feelings. Happiness is an inside job, and most of the answers you need are there.

(3) Take care of yourself.

Stop overcontrolling yourself, and learn to listen to your body instead. Hungry? Eat. Tired? Sit. Rest. Maybe take a nap. (Naps are great.) Lonely? Seek out safe people. (More on this below.) Angry? Scream (into a pillow, maybe, so you don’t scare the neighbors). Sad? Let yourself cry. It’s how the body naturally relieves tension, and it helps.

(4) Educate yourself.

You’re not crazy; your pain means something. Your job is to find out what it’s trying to tell you. Education can take many forms, from Googling alcoholic family or codependency to reading self-help books (start with Janet Woititz’s Adult Children of Alcoholics or Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More), or listening to tapes (try the library), or talking to a friend, or attending a self-help meeting, or finding yourself a good therapist. After his first Al-Anon meeting one of my clients told me, “It was like a light coming on in a dark room, and suddenly I could see all the furniture I’ve been tripping over.” Hey, why live in the dark if you don’t have to?

(5) Get support.

No one gets through life alone. (Even if you could, why would you want to?) Seriously consider checking out a self-help program, like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or CODA. You’re probably scared of that first meeting. That’s okay; everyone is. Go anyway. It won’t kill you, and you can’t know beforehand what you’ll hear. A good meeting can save your life and your sanity.

(6) Listen to feelings.

This is a big one. Living with an addict usually requires hiding your feelings, sometimes even from yourself. But feelings are essential. You need to get them back again. Hang out with people who are trying to reclaim their feelings, and who can keep you company while you’re trying to reclaim yours.

(7) Have faith.

Develop your spiritual life. No, you don’t need a church. You don’t even need to believe in God. You do need to believe in something bigger than you, something you trust even when you don’t understand it. Call it Nature. Call it The Force. Al-Anon calls it Higher Power, but you can call it what you like. I used to reject the idea of God, but I always believed in psychology. Then I heard Scott Peck suggest that it’s not unreasonable to replace the word God with the word unconscious. That permanently reframed the idea of God for me. I realized there was some intelligence inside I could listen for, and which would guide me if I let it. (I might doubt the existence of God, but who can doubt the existence of that voice? That part that Knows Better?) So that gave me something to trust. Hey, we all need some invisible support.

Dog

I’d like to introduce you to my dog.

Please look down.  You’ll find him attached to my ankle.

That’s where he lives, more or less. 

Sometimes he draws blood.  But mostly he just hangs on, drooling and chewing occasionally, slowing my progress through life from a stroll to a worried limp.

Of course this is a metaphorical dog I’m describing.  It represents a part of the human personality we each carry inside us, an internal voice named variously by different psychologies. 

Freudians described it as the punitive superego.  

Others named it the Inner Critic.  

Gestalt therapists call it the Top Dog.

I first read about this guy many years ago, in Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. 

The topdog usually is righteous and authoritarian: he knows best.  He is sometimes right, but always righteous.  The topdog is a bully, and works with “You should” and “You should not.”  The topdog manipulates with demands ands threats of catastrophe, such as, “If you don’t, then — you won’t be loved, you won’t get to heaven, you will die,” and so on. 

I remember reading that and wondering how Fritz had managed to overhear my darkest thoughts.

As a recovering control addict I’ve spent many hours (years, actually) listening to this voice.  

I’ve come to know Dog pretty well. 

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Dog means well.  He really thinks he’s protecting me by pointing out my flaws, reminding me of my failures, and anticipating all the awful judgments others might render.  Expect the worst, that’s his motto.  But his warnings don’t make me feel safer.  What they do is keep me scared shitless.    

Dog’s scared to death.  That’s why he scares me.  Dog himself operates out of pure fear.  (Can you imagine scarier words to live by than expect the worst?)  So every word out of him comes from that defensive position.  Which explains why the more I listen to him, the scareder I get. 

Dog is unpleaseable.  No matter how hard I try, he’s never satisfied.  In fact trying harder seems to only make him stronger.  It took me years to realize that he thrives on attention.  So trying to please Dog is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.  

Dog lies.   He sounds reasonable, since there’s usually some truth in what he says.  But listening to Dog is like looking at myself in a fun house mirror.  By focusing on weakness and failures only he presents a terribly distorted view of me.  And if I mistake it for an accurate one, I’m basically sunk.  

Dog refuses to die.  That’s why I can’t satisfy him.  He exists to warn and to worry.  It’s his reason for being.  Should he ever concede that I’m okay as I am, or that everything will probably work out fine, he’d be killing himself off.

So.  What to do with a dog like this?

Well, it helps me to remember what I’ve learned about him.  That Dog isn’t me, just the scared worried part.  That he’s unappeasable, and that he lies, and that he’ll say or do anything to survive.  

All this gives me some distance from his voice.  It means when he starts growling I can say “Oh, you again.  Shut up,”  instead of taking him too seriously.

And you?  Why should you care about any of this?

Well, check out your own ankle.  

Just the world.

 

We do so wish to believe in a logical universe.

~ Margaret Atwood

*

Annie is crying on my sofa.  We’re talking about her marriage to an emotionally abusive man. 

She looks at me through her tears and asks,  “What did I do to deserve this?”

Not a rhetorical question.  She wants an answer.

Aha, I said to myself.  There speaks the Just World Hypothesis.

I ask if she’s heard of it.

“The what?” she says.

“The Just World Hypothesis,” I say.  “Most people believe in some form of it.”

The Just World Hypothesis (or Theory, or Fallacy) amounts to the belief that the universe is arranged so that people get what they deserve.

Good things happen to good people, in other words, and  bad things happen to bad.  

Most people believe this, even if they’re not aware of it. 

Which explains why people tend to feel guilty when bad things happen to them. 

It’s common among religious people, raised on the idea of sin.  But belief in God is no prerequisite to belief in a Just World.  I once worked with an atheist who argued endlessly against the existence of God but never doubted, when confronting personal misfortune, that he himself  had  somehow caused it.

Why do we cling to this bias?

Control.  Or the illusion thereof.   

“Because it’s far too frightening for many to accept that bad things can happen to good people — and therefore that they themselves have no control over whether bad things might happen to them someday — they will instead search for ways to differentiate themselves from victims of ill fortune,” writes Renée Grinnell.  “For example, outsiders might deride people whose houses were destroyed by a tornado, blaming them for choosing to live in a disaster-prone area or for not building a stronger house.”

Belief in a Just World also leads to even more pernicious misinterpretations, like blaming the victim. 

Afterwards, they said that the 22-year-old woman was bound to attract attention. She was wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear. At knife-point, she was kidnapped from a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot by a Georgia drifter and raped twice. But a jury showed little sympathy for the victim. The accused rapist was acquitted. “We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed,” said the jury foreman.  (From “The Just World Theory” by Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez.)

The type of blaming I see most often is self-blame, where clients actually impede their own recovery by taking unrealistic and unfair responsibility for bad things that happen to them.

Abuse victims do this a lot, as do people who grew up in alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional families, those prone to unpredictability and emotional turmoil and to blaming kids for things that weren’t their fault.  This leaves them feeling vulnerable, vaguely guilty, and too quick to blame themselves.  

Annie grew up in such a home. 

I explain all this to her.

“So you don’t believe in a just world?” she asks me. 

“I believe in justice,” I say.  “But the Just World Hypothesis is bullshit.  Look around you.  Bad things happen to good people all the time.  Shit happens.”

“Shit happens,” she repeats.

“All the time,” I say.  “And we have to find some way to make peace with it.  With the world as it is.  It’s not a just world.  It’s  just the world, as is.  Unpredictable, messy, and mostly beyond our control.”

She’s stopped crying.  She wipes her eyes. 

“Shit happens,” she said.  “Interesting idea.”

A brief guide to unhappiness

New client this week. 

As always, I ask what she wants out of therapy.

“I just want to be happy” she says.

I smile encouragingly. 

Inside I groan.

Good luck with that, I think.

Most people aren’t happy, and they don’t even know why. 

So here’s a brief guide.

If you’re unhappy, it’s probably because:

1. You misdefine happiness.

You think it comes from getting what you want.  Actually, happiness is about getting what you need.

2. You don’t know what you need. 

You’ve been trained to chase the wrong stuff — like success or money or possessions or status or the approval of others — and that’s where you spend all your time and energy.

3. In chasing the wrong stuff, you hide who you are. 

For example, you bury your feelings, instead of listening to them for information about your real needs. 

4. You think instead of feel. 

That leaves you unconsciously dominated by monkeymind, which swings ceaselessly from thought to thought to thought, and dwells in the past and future instead of here and now.  Happiness can be found only in the here and now.

5. You try to control reality. 

And whenever we fight reality, guess what wins?

6. You never see how controlling you are. 

Look at it this way:

From moment to moment, each of us carries in our heads a picture of the reality we want.  And we’re constantly comparing that picture to the reality we have.  Every we do to bring those pictures closer together — whether we do it in public or in the privacy of our most secret thoughts — is what I mean by controlling. 

See it yet? 

Add this, then:

Discomfort of any sort — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, everything from agony to an itch — amounts to a signal that the two pictures don’t match.

And we respond to that signal automatically. 

So wherever there’s discomfort there’s controlling. 

And we all know how uncomfortable life can be. 

Controlling, in short, is as reflexive and inevitable a response as slapping a mosquito that’s biting you. 

See it now?*

______________________

*From Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries to control everything and how we can stop (Lioncrest, 2015).  Available at Amazon.com. 

Codependent suicide

She’s a college professor, 43, divorced once, reporting one broken engagement and a long string of unhappy relationships with men.

“What’s unhappy about them?” I ask.

“I work really hard at putting them first and making them happy, and they don’t return the favor.”

“How so?’

“They never show the same level of caring and concern.  I’m always deferring.  Always asking what they want for dinner, which movie they want to watch, where they want to go on vacation.  And then we end up always doing what they want to do, and I feel, I don’t know, neglected.”  

“And hurt and resentful.”

“Exactly.”

I ask where she got her idea of how to do relationship.

“From my parents.  Mom always put Dad first, and Dad always put Mom first, and they got along wonderfully.”

“I see,” I say.  “Any siblings?”

“One sister.”

“How is she with relationships?”

“Divorced twice,” she frowns.

“Okay.  Well, I think I see your problem.”

“Tell me.”

“You’ve been operating on a false assumption.  You assumed that what your parents were modeling was a healthy relationship.”

“It wasn’t?”

“Nope.  It may have worked for them.  It doesn’t for most people.”

“Why not?”

“It’s based on what I call a codependent suicide pact.  An unspoken agreement that sounds something like, You take responsibility for my happiness, and I’ll take responsibility for your happiness, and that way we’ll both end up happy.”

“Right,” she nods.  “What’s wrong with that?”

“It doesn’t work.  It sets up both partners for frustration and disappointment and resentment and compulsive controlling.  Isn’t that what happened with you?”

She thinks.  “Well, I was certainly frustrated and disappointed a lot of the time.”

“And resentful?”

“Yes, sure.”

“And what did you do with those feelings?”

“I tried harder.  Gave even more.”

“In hopes your partner would reciprocate.”

“Right.”

“Did it work?”

“I wouldn’t be here if it had,” she says.

“So eventually you’d give up trying and end the relationship.”

She nods.

“Why you think trying didn’t work?”

“They just didn’t care as much as I did.”

“Maybe,” I say.  “Or maybe they sensed you were trying to manipulate them into new behavior.  And people don’t like being manipulated.”

“But I was being nice to them,” she says.  “I was giving them what they wanted.”

“Yes,” I say, “on the surface.  But your giving was tactical.  It was designed to change their behavior, right?”

“Right.”

“So maybe they sensed your hidden agenda.  Think about it.  Has anyone ever done that to you?  Smothered you with flattery or favors you knew were meant to get you to do something they wanted you to do?”

“Sure.  Mom does that all the time.  Honey, you’re so good at math, it would be wonderful if you helped me with my checkbook.  That sort of thing.”

“And how does it make you feel?”

“Uncomfortable.  Angry,” she says thoughtfully.

I let her sit with it for a moment.

“So that’s what I do to boyfriends,” she muses.  She looks at me.  “But why do you call it codependent suicide?”

“It’s a way of losing yourself in relationships.  Hiding the real you, how you feel, what you want.”

“But don’t all relationships require that?  Doesn’t everyone have to compromise?”

“Sure,” I say.  “But by choice, not coercion.  Out of love, not fear.  

“Codependents are people who secretly believe they’re not okay as they are, and have to conceal who they are to get others to love them. 

“So they’re constantly scared, and hiding, and consciously or unconsciously manipulating their partners.

“And it never works.  Because even when they get others to like them, it’s not the real them that gets liked.

“So they end up feeling not validated or accepted or loved, but like hostages.

“They lose themselves and get nothing in return.

“And that’s why I call it suicide.”

Bad daughters

In group.  All women.

Alison: “Mom’s sick again, and she wants me to visit her, and I feel guilty because I don’t want to.  I feel like a bad daughter.”

Her mom is a active alcoholic who is often ill and lives five states away.

“And a good daughter would want to,” I say.

She nods.

“I see.”  I turn to the group.

“Any other bad daughters here?”

Barbara nods.  “I feel guilty because I’ve given up trying to repair our relationship.  All my mother does, ever, is complain.  Most of the time I can’t even stand to make eye contact with her.”

Cathy says, “I feel guilty because I don’t know how to be with my dad.   We can’t even have a normal conversation.  He barely speaks to me, and I have no idea what to say.”

Denise says, “I feel guilty because my dad sent a message through my cousin that he wants to talk to me.  I don’t want to.”

I feel the group stiffen a little.  Her father abused her emotionally and physically throughout her childhood, and is the main reason she’s in therapy.

“So,” I say, “to summarize:  If you were good daughters you would…

(to Alison) “put your job and family aside to go be with your sick mother, and”

(to Barbara) “listen patiently to your mother’s endless complaints, and”

(to Cathy) “just know how to talk with your nonverbal, emotionally unavailable father, and”

(to Denise) “reconnect with the dad who abused you for sixteen years?”

I look around the room.  “Is that right?”

They stare back at me glumly.

“So notice two things,” I say. 

“First, your idea of what a good daughter would feel and do is at best unrealistic, at worst inhuman.  You know this because when you hear each other describe this imaginary person your reaction is something like Whaaaat?  Am I right?” 

Everyone nods.

“Second, you’re overlooking the main reason you all feel like bad daughters:

“Your parent is unhappy.

“Kids who grow up in dysfunctional families tend to feel responsible for their parents.  If mom or dad fight, or drink, or get depressed or anxious, or just have a bad day, the kid feels like she’s supposed to fix it somehow. 

“Part of this is normal in all families.  Parents set the emotional tone.  You’ve heard the saying, When mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy?  Kids like mama happy just because it makes life more pleasant for everyone.

“But in other families the problem runs deeper.  In a those families the boundaries between family members get blurred, and kids can’t tell where they end and others begin.  And they grow up feeling responsible for the happiness of other people.”

“But isn’t that how it should be?” asks Allison.

“No.  In a healthy relationship, I take responsibility for my happiness, and you take responsibility for yours.  We’re connected, we love each other, we support each other, but we’re responsible for ourselves.

“That goes for family too.  And if we choose to stay connected it’s not because of guilt or obligation or coercion, but because it makes us happier than being apart.”

“That’s not what my parents taught me,” say Barbara.

“Mine either,” says Cathy.

“Mine either,” says Denise.  “But I wish to hell they had.”

 


 

 

All the way up

woman-silhouette-200

“Can you give me a time frame for growing up?” she asks.

“Like how long it takes to get there?” I say.

“Right.”

“No,” I say.  “Because I’m not sure there’s a There there.”

“You don’t think people grow up?”

“Sure,” I say.  “Just not all the way.”

“Explain.” 

“Okay,” I say.  “I think there’s always a Kid part inside, and the Kid always needs parenting.   I think most of us spend our lives trying to get others to parent us — to understand, accept, support, protect and love us unconditionally.  I think we do it automatically and unconsciously and often manipulatively.  And I think that’s what keeps us feeling like kids inside. 

“On the other hand, when we accept responsibility for the Kid and learn to parent it adequately we grow up inside.  That’s probably as grownup as anybody gets. 

“Unfortunately. lots of people think growing up means you killing the Kid off.”

“I do,” she nods.  “I think of grownup as being totally self-sufficient.”

“And I think that’s a kind of emotional perfectionism.  It’s unrealistic and counterproductive and cruel.” 

“Cruel how?”

“In the way all pefectionism is,” I say.   “It’s self-abuse disguised as self-improvement.”

Love vs. need

"Give or take," Louise Bourgeois, 2002

Louise Bourgeois, “Give or take” (2002)

She is crying over a breakup. 

“I love him so much,” she sobs.

I try to look sympathetic.

Inside I’m thinking No, you don’t.

Why?

Because (a) she’s the one who ended the relationship.

And (b) she did so because he kept frustrating and disappointing her.

And (c) she has a long history of frustrating and disappointing relationships. 

And (d) I’ve known many people like her, people who confuse love with need.

It’s a common confusion.

Love and need are both intense emotional experiences that can overwhelm and consume.

Both feel like a matter of life or death.

Both reveal something essential about you.

But there are important differences too:

~ One feels like fullness, the other like emptiness.

~ One creates calm, the other anxiety.

~ One tolerates boundaries, the other keeps crossing them.

~ One expresses itself by giving, the other by demanding.

~ One expands a person’s perspective, the other shrinks it to that of a hungry child.

How does this confusion get started?  The three most common ways are:

~ You are raised by parents who don’t know the difference themselves.  “I love you,” they tell you, but the message behind it is Meet my expectations.  Make me happy.

~ You grow up in a family that can’t tolerate separateness or integrity.  Be what we need you to be, is the message, or we’ll reject you.

~ You are so emotionally hungry that anyone who feeds you emotionally feels like a sort of savior.

All of which Erich Fromm was probably thinking when he said,

Immature loves says, “I love you because I need you.”  Mature love says, “I need you because I love you.”

 

Coconut.

img_1733

On Valentine’s Day someone brings a box of filled chocolates to group, and we pass it around while we’re talking.

When it reaches Jane she sits with the box on her lap, frowning.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Oh,” she says, “I’m always afraid I’ll get coconut.”

“So?”

“I hate coconut.  So I’m trying not to find one.”

“Here’s a thought,” I say.  “If you get coconut, spit it out, and take another piece.”

She stares like I’ve just spoken Klingon. 

Then she looks to the woman sitting next to her.

“Sure,” the woman smiles.

“Why not?” the next woman shrugs.

The next woman is Marion, who is looking at me with her mouth open.

“I’m sixty-six years old,” she says slowly.  “And I never knew you could do that.”

There are, it has been said, two types of people: inner-directed and outer-directed.

Inner-directed people base their decisions on messages they receive from inside them, on their own thoughts and feelings, wishes and dreams, desires and preferences.

Outer-directed people base their decisions on messages they receive from outside — rules and instructions, orders and demands, the opinions and expectations of others.

Jane and Marion are outer-directed people.  Someone somewhere taught them waste not/want not, or don’t be greedy, or if you take two chocolates what will people think?, so they ended up convinced they must eat what they pick whether or not they want to.

I know many people like this. 

Some became lawyers because Dad was a lawyer.  Some vote Republican because their parents did.  Some stay in bad jobs or bad marriages or bad relationships because they fear someone will judge them if they don’t. 

Most raise kids who will grow up to do the same thing.

My job with outer-directed people is to turn them into inner-directed people.

Why?

Because we’re given just one life.

And it’s dumb to live somebody else’s idea of what that life should look like.

And it’s dumb to eat coconut when you hate coconut.

And because Patrick Dennis was right when he wrote, “Life is a banquet, and most poor bastards are starving to death.”

Needs and neediness

sad-face-mine

“My biggest fear is that people will think I’m needy,” she tells me.

“Why?” I ask.

“My mother’s needy,” she says.  “And her neediness drives people away.”

“Including you?”

“Including me,” she says grimly.  “And I feel guilty about it.”

“How are you defining needy?”  I ask.  “As different from just having needs?”

“I think so.  It’s like needing too much.  The needs are too big.”

“Excessive?  Inappropriate?  Annoying?”

“Something like that.”

“Okay,” I say.  “I think I know what you mean.  But I define needy differently.” 

“How?”

“To me the difference between having needs and being needy is that a needy person imposes them on others.”

 “Imposes.”

“Yes.  Needs are normal and inevitable.  We all have needs, often unmet needs, and we each have to figure out how to get them met.  But a needy person is one who tries to get others to meet their needs, and they do it in a manipulative way.”

She sniffs angrily.  “Sounds familiar.”

“How?”

“Mom uses guilt.  She’ll sigh, or look sad, or make a comment about lonely she is since Dad died, or how her life didn’t turn out the way she expected.  And I’ll feel bad, and start trying to cheer her up or offer to take her shopping or cook her dinner.”

“And end up hating her.”

“Oh yes.”

“Well, it’s not her needs that make you hate her,” I say.  “It’s the manipulation.” 

“The problem with needy people is that they never learned how to get their needs met like grownups.  That’s why they impose them on others.  They’re like kids looking for parenting.  Behind the manipulation is a kid’s demand: Take care of me.

“That’s how it feels, like a demand.” 

“Right.  And that’s why you’re angry.  She’s not saying, I’m lonely, could you keep me company? or I’m sad, can I tell you about it?  and giving you a choice.  She’s controlling you into giving her company or attention or sympathy.  And nobody likes to be controlled.”

“That’s right,” she says grimly.

“So if you don’t want people to see you as needy, practice handling needs like a grownup.  Practice asking directly for what you need.  How often do you do that?”

“Never.  I’m scared people will say No.”

“Sure.  But then you have to decide which scares you more, to hear No or be thought needy.”

She is quiet for a long moment.

“What are you thinking about?” I ask finally.

“Two things,” she says.  “One, I really don’t want to be like my mother.

“And two, I need to pee.   Mind if I go to the bathroom?”