Think of feelings as energy.
Hold them inside, and they build in intensity.
Hold them in long enough, and eventually they reach a sort of critical mass.
At that point two things can happen.
One is explosion – an unregulated discharge in the form of yelling, or crying, or violence.
Explosion relieves the pressure, but tends to leave you feeling out of control, embarrassed, even frightened. (It’s also frightening to people around you.) Which leads to a new round of holding-in, buildup, and explosion.
Not a great solution.
The other option is implosion. Successfully contained emotional energy turns against the container. The result is discomfort, both emotional (irritability, anxiety, moodiness, depression) and physical (fatigue, indigestion, headaches, muscular tension, and vulnerability to a host of physical ailments).
The more successfully you avoid feelings, the more likely you’ll develop symptoms that have no apparent cause.
Think of these symptoms as a message from your body:
Because feelings will stay bottled up for just so long.
One reader writes,
Thirty years I worked in the business my dad left me, building it up for my son. Now I want to retire and my son wants to do something else. What the hell have I been working for? He’s also engaged to a girl I don’t like. Whatever happened to family values?
I don’t know you or your son. But I work with lots of families, and this sort of question comes up often. So I’ll answer from that context and you decide if my answer is relevant.
I think a healthy family is one in which all members can get their needs met — not always, maybe, but most of the time.
I think any family that requires a member to sacrifice himself or herself to the needs of the family is unhealthy.
I think some families (they’re called narcissistic families) are set up unconsciously to meet the needs of the parents, even at the expense of the children. And if one comes from such a family, that arrangement seems normal. Parents just expect kids to put their feelings and needs aside for Mom or Dad’s sake. It may even seem like love, or duty, or “family values.”
Personally and professionally, I see it as something else.
So I suspect you need to decide if that’s the sort of family you came from and are trying to recreate now. Sounds like that’s at least a possibility.
I should add that I think the parent’s job — like that of the teacher, doctor, or therapist — is to put himself out of a job. To raise a kid strong and healthy enough to separate, take care of himself, and not stay tied to the parent indefinitely.
If you stayed tied to your father until he died, you may see it differently.
But there’s a big difference between staying connected to your parent by choice and staying connected because the parent refuses to let you go.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
~ Kahlil Gibran
Jack slaps Jen.
Jen ends relationship.
“I can’t live this way,” she tells me.
Jen forgives him.
“I really do love him,” she tells me.
Jack slaps Jen.
Jen ends relationship….
Black and white thinking is that habit of classifying things as either all one thing or all the other.
Kids learn it in dysfunctional families, where dangerous unpredictability prevails.
They learn to protect themselves by formulating rules to keep them out of trouble. Since they’re kids, the rules tend towards oversimplification. Never talk to dad when he’s drinking. Always leave the room when mom and dad fight. Never fail Math, because failure always earns you a beating. Like that.
Thus on Monday and Wednesday Jen’s relationship seems all bad to her, and on Tuesday it seems all good.
For kids this sort of classification (it’s not really thinking) may actually be functional, since it provides a rough road map through difficult situations.
But people who carry it into adulthood tend to find themselves handcuffed, psychologically and emotionally.
Unable to make thoughtful choices based on a variety of considerations — including their own needs, experience and instincts — they end up replaying old scenarios endlessly, swinging like a pendulum between two partial truths.
* * *
She’s a new client, and clearly involuntary. She doesn’t want to be here, and doesn’t trust me, and it’s making me nervous.
“So,” she says. “What’s your job? As a therapist, I mean.”
No one’s ever asked me this before.
I know this, I think.
But no answer comes.
I feel like an idiot.
Then into my mind pops an image: of all things, the David. (Thank you, unconscious.) And suddenly I have my answer.
”It’s something like how Michelangelo described his job,” I said. ”He said the job of the sculptor was to free the statue from the stone. That’s kind of what therapists do. Try to scrape away everything that isn’t the real person — fears, and defenses, and the lies we’re all taught — so the real person can come out. Something like that.”
Why do we worry (endlessly, most of us) about stuff that never happens?
Because fear and anxiety are different things.
They feel the same, but they’re not.
Fear’s a reaction to real danger. Anxiety’s a reaction to danger we imagine.
Say you walk into a forest. A bear rushes out from the trees and growls at you.
What you’re feeling is fear.
He’s a real bear, and he could take a real bite out of you.
Now say you walk into a forest, and you look at the trees and think, “Wow, there could be bears in there.”
There speaks anxiety.
It’s a voice that issues from your big, oversized brain. The one that can’t stop remembering and anticipating and analyzing and scaring the shit out of you.
Such brains explain why we’re a race of endlessly, needlessly frightened creatures.
Good thing to remember.
Because there’s a big difference between fighting real bears and fighting those that lurk only in the forest of your mind.
* * *
“Background music: Control and anxiety”
So this former client moves to Florida, and one day, for the thrill of it, decides to go swimming in the dramatic heavy surf following Hurricane Wilma.
Almost immediately she finds herself sucked out to sea by the riptide. And she panics, and starts to swim harder towards the shore. And very quickly gets exhausted.
This is the end, she thinks.
Then another swimmer nearby calls to her: “Stop struggling. Just float.”
So she just floats.
Her strength returns. Eventually she’s able to make her way back to the blessed beach.
We live in a compulsive, can-do, must-do culture which encourages us to believe we should be in control constantly.
It also teaches us to think of surrender as a species of defeat, failure or weakness.
But sometimes surrender is the only intelligent response to life’s riptide.
Sometimes, surrender is the only way to save yourself.
* * *
People see therapists for the same reason they visit dentists.
Their pain has gotten too bad to ignore.
Many leave after they get the relief they came for.
Some stay to learn something besides.
The lucky ones are changed by what they learn.
* * *
People who see pain as the enemy, I have noted, instinctively respond with vengeance or bitterness — Why me? I don’t deserve this! It’s not fair! – which has the vicious-circle effect of making their pain even worse.
“Think of pain as a speech your body is delivering about a subject of vital importance to you,” I tell my patients.
“From the very first twinge, pause and listen to the pain and, yes, try to be grateful.
“The body is using the language of pain because that’s the most effective way to get your attention.”
I call this approach “befriending” pain: to take what is ordinarily seen as an enemy and to disarm and then welcome it.
~ Paul Brand & Phillip Yancey, The gift of pain: Why we hurt and what we can do about it (1997).
James Joyce has a memorable line: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
And the way to awake from it is not to be afraid, and to recognize that all of this, as it is, is a manifestation of the horrendous power that is of all creation.
The ends of things are always painful.
But pain is part of there being a world at all.
~ Joseph Campbell, The power of myth (1988).
* * *
In the neurotic person we find invariably that he has not given up the narcissistic interpretation of reality.
He insists that reality must conform to his ideas, and when he recognizes that this is not so, he reacts either with the impulses to force reality to correspond to his wishes (that is, to do the impossible) or with a feeling of powerlessness because he cannot perform the impossible.
~ Erich Fromm, Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis (1960).
* * *
[I]n order to manipulate others we become control-mad, power-mad — using all kinds of tricks. I gave you a few examples already — playing helpless, playing stupid, playing the tough guy, and so on.
And the most interesting thing about the control-mad people is that they always end up being controlled.
They build up, for instance, a time schedule that then takes over control, and they have to be at every place at a specific time from then on.
So the control-mad person is the first one to lose his freedom.
Instead of being in control, he has to strain and push all the time.
~ Frederick S. Perls, Gestalt therapy verbatim (1969).
* * *
When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.
~ Abraham Maslow
If I’ve learned anything here
it’s that the minute I say You to my wife
it’s Game Over.
Craig belonged to one of my therapy groups, where I spend lots of time encouraging members to avoid You-statements.
You know what a You-statement is. You just read one. (Two, actually.)
It’s a statement someone makes to you about you.
They’re very popular.
We use them all the time. Especially in the heat of battle. As in “You’re wrong” or “You suck.”
But whenever we use them, they tend to be destructive.
They destroy honesty, trust and connection.
In an interpersonal relationship, reliance on You statements – or Yousage, for short – creates a subtle wall between us.
One reason is that to the listener, You feels like an intrusion or an attack. At yet at the same time it’s so common we barely notice it, even when it’s making us uncomfortable.
The biggest problem with Yousage, though, is that it’s inherently defensive.
That’s because when I talk about You I’m not talking about me. I’m directing our conversational attention away from my thoughts, my feelings, what I want. Yousage allows me to stay hidden. And hidden feels safer.
That’s why it’s so much easier to say “You jerk” than “I’m angry at you.” Or “You look terrific” instead of “I’m attracted to you.” Or “You gave an interesting talk” instead of “I had no fucking idea what you were talking about.”
Less vulnerable. Less honest.
Much Yousage occurs at the level of what Fritz Perls called chickenshit — clichéd small talk that avoids emotional contact (How are you?). But it can also be employed at the level of both bullshit (intentional dishonesty or manipulation) and elephantshit (verbal pretentiousness). See “Three types of shit,” below.
So. Say you decide you’d like to grow beyond Yousage. What’s the alternative?
Well, in group I teach one called feedback. It’s a form of communication that relies on I-statements — I think, I feel, I want. The most complete feedback follows the ABC format: When you (A), I feel (B), because (C). That covers all bases. But the one essential is the I-statement at its heart.
Which means it takes courage.
But the results can be startling. When people stop saying You and start saying I in the group room, the atmosphere changes noticeably. The energy level jumps. Suddenly everyone’s there, emotionally speaking, in a way people rarely are with each other. And then real therapy can happen.
But you don’t need a group to practice this. Just a desire to improve your communication with people to whom you’d like to feel closer.
First, try noticing how often you say You.
Then, try saying it less.
Try I instead.
* * *
According to Fritz Perls (1893–1970), founder of the Gestalt school of psychology, there are three kinds of shit you are likely to run into while talking with people:
(1) Chicken-shit is clichéd small talk, devoid of actual information content, small talk that avoids emotional contact.
(2) Bull-shit refer to out-and-out lies. All lies are told for one of three reasons: to conceal the truth and wrong-doing, to protect someone, and/or in order to gain (money, prestige, sex, etc.).
(3) Elephant-shit refers to grandiose plans that avoid confronting reality and responsibility. For example, telling people what you’ll do when you when the lottery
Chicken-shitters are fearful of human contact and often harbour secrets. Bull-shitters are opportunists. Elephant-shitters are full of plans that have no hope of ever coming true.
~ From “The three types of shit,” at http://isthisshit.com/
We’re in group, and Jesse’s crying.
“It’s more than I can take,” she says.
“What is?” I ask.
She wipes her eyes. “The silence in my marriage.”
The other four women nod. No explanation necessary, apparently.
“My husband does it all the time,” one nods.
“Does what?” I ask.
“Mine too,” says another. “It’s how I know he’s angry about something.”
“Right?” says a third. “The angrier he is, the quieter he gets?”
Nods all around.
I ask my usual question: “How’s it make you feel?”
“Like divorcing him,” one mutters.
Another turns to me.
“Why is that? Why does it bother us so much?”
I’m considering my answer when an image flits across my mind.
“There’s a famous psychology experiment,” I say, “in which a mother is placed in front of her infant and told not to respond to the baby in any way. No talking, no smiling, no facial expression at all. Just a blank stare.
“So she does that. At first the kid seems puzzled. Then uneasy. Then anxious. Then it gets desperate and starts to cry. Then it gets hysterical. The whole thing takes about a minute.”
“Meaning what?” someone asks.
“It’s about the child’s need for connection and reassurance. The infant depends on mom for survival, and so he’s exquisitely sensitive to how she feels towards him moment to moment. When she stops acting like she loves him, he panics. It’s an emotional earthquake.”
“So,” Jesse frowns, “you’re saying I’m like an infant.”
“No. You need a sense of connection, like the infant does.” I look around the circle. “You all do. You need to feel connected to your partner. Why else be married?
“And when your husbands fall silent, the connection feels broken.
“And if they do it regularly, you can’t help but get scared, just like the infant.
“And if it continues over time, well, you know. It chews away at you.”
“Like you said,” Jesse says, almost to herself. “Why be married?”
* * * *
The Still Face experiment:
2. Rely on monkey mind. Remember that we’re all programmed to be control-seeking. We have these oversized brains that remember stuff, anticipate stuff, worry about stuff, and keep us scared most of the time. Buddhists call normal human consciousness monkey mind, and it’s your greatest ally in teaching your child they must control people, places and things in order to feel safe.
3. Rely on socialization. Remember too that society stands ready to help, mainly by forcing kids to adapt to their social environment. It does this by teaching them that being themselves is much less important than winning the acceptance and approval of others. This is called socialization, and as a result most kids learn early on to hide important parts of who they are (like what they really think and feel) in order to control how others perceive and respond to them. (The end result of which is called neurosis.)
4. Limit love. As a parent you can build on the foundation described in (1) and (2) by offering your child what’s called conditional love. Let them know you accept them when they meet your expectations, but that when they don’t, well, not so much. (Being a control addict yourself, you probably already do this some of the time.)
5. Judge feelings. Addicts are people who can’t handle feelings, so it’s essential to teach your kids how not to handle theirs. Let them know which feelings they can safely express in your presence and which make you uncomfortable. This can be done verbally or nonverbally. Verbal statements — “Don’t take that tone with me” or “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about” or “You’re too sensitive” — are usually effective. But nonverbal discouragements (like an annoyed expression or a refusal to listen) can be indelible.
6. Add dysfunction. Dysfunction means any experience that blocks a child from getting his or her emotional needs met. Exposing them repeatedly to substance abuse (say by a parent or grandparent) is especially effective. So is exposing them to any sort of abuse – emotional, verbal, physical, sexual. (Abuse is probably the surest and quickest way to create a control addict.) Chronic tension or conflict between parents works too. The basic goal here is to keep kids scared and/or worried, which encourages them to (a) keep scanning the environment for danger and to (b) try to protect themselves by controlling people/places/things.
7. Encourage codependency, which is just a fancy word to describe the compulsion to put other people first — i.e., focus on their needs and feelings, not one’s own. Say your child is invited to spend time with someone they dislike. You can encourage codependent choicemaking by asking “How will X feel if you say No?” or speculating about how X’s mom will react if your child declines. The key here is to keep kids focused outside themselves, so they ignore their own needs and instincts and compulsively seek cues from those around them.
All this sound too hard to remember? Not to worry. You can safely forget all of it and end up with a control addict anyway.
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, day and night, to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.
To have even a slight chance of winning, kids needs parents who see the battle as worth fighting.
Otherwise they just become like everybody else.