She feels unloved, she tells me.
It’s an old problem. She’s felt unloved since she was a child.
Her solution is to demand love from her husband.
Daily, sometimes hourly, she demands he give her more attention, acceptance, approval and affection.
It’s not working, though. And she doesn’t understand why.
What she doesn’t understand is that love is a gift, or it isn’t love.
That it can be received, but not demanded.
Given, but not coerced.
That when love is coerced, it becomes something else.
It becomes a lie.
I’ve just told her that I think she’s clinically depressed.
“Don’t label me,” she says.
“I’m not. I’m diagnosing you,” I say.
“It’s the same thing.”
No, it’s not.
We label people. We diagnose problems.
Labels are judgments, inaccurate and hurtful because they tend to oversimplify and stigmatize.
A diagnosis, though, is an explanation. It explicates something that needs correction or repair.
And when it’s accurate, it points us in the right direction.
Discarding diagnosis because we confuse it with labeling is like ignoring the road map we need to get where we want to go.
Bump into a narcissist
in the morning,
bumped into a narcissist.
Bump into narcissists
all day long,
you’re the narcissist.
Most people are anxious when they first join a therapy group.
Some take a long time to get over their anxiety. A few never do.
Usually they don’t understand why.
It’s because on some level they expect to be treated in group as they were treated in their family of origin.
If they were abused or neglected as kids, they expect the group to abuse or neglect them. If they were controlled or criticized or rejected or shamed, they expect the same treatment again.
For this reason even the idea of group is terrifying to some.
But it’s also what makes group such a powerful therapeutic tool.
Because when an emotionally wounded person joins group and nothing bad happens — when instead they receive the attention, acceptance and caring their family couldn’t provide — they have what’s called a corrective emotional experience:
Some deep part of them starts to realize they’re not kids anymore, and that not everyone is like the people who disappointed or hurt them when they were.
It’s a realization I’ve seen change lives.
A man she’d just met asked her out for coffee. “I really wanted to say No,” she tells me. “So I said Yes.”
“Things are going so badly for me lately that I’ve decided to do the opposite of what I normally do.”
“How’d the date go?” I ask.
She grins. “Best date of my life.”
She’s stumbled onto the Costanza Method.
Seinfeld viewers know the episode where inveterate loser George Costanza dramatically improves his fortunes by doing the opposite of everything he would normally do.
Funny, and psychologically true.
I often encourage clients to do the same.
If you’d normally say No, try saying Yes.
If you’d normally say Yes, try saying No.
If you’d normally bite your tongue, this time say something.
If you’d normally say something, this time shut up.
If you’d normally avoid an experience, try jumping into it with both feet.
We’re anxious creatures. One way we try to control our anxiety is by limiting our experience to the known, the familiar.
So easy to fall into ruts. So easy to stay there.
But if you want to practice surrendering control — or just to grow in flexibility, creativity and courage — there are worse ways than the Costanza Method.
I read somewhere it takes a decade to become a confident therapist.
It actually took me longer than that.
I started out bright but clueless, enthusiastic but blundering, well-intentioned but insensitive to both my clients and myself.
I spent years misreading, misunderstanding, making mistakes, stubbing my toes and occasionally hurting others in the process.
Then I needed to learn how to forgive myself for all that sloppy learning.
Eventually, though, I reached the point where, most of the time, I could care for other people and still enjoy being who I am.
Come to think of it, that’s not a bad way to summarize the process of becoming a grownup.
down the rabbit hole: a metaphor for adventure into the unknown. ~ Wikipedia
So here we are, at the edge of the rabbit hole.
She’s not saying so, but she thinks her therapist is crazy.
I’m her therapist, and I’ve just suggested she try giving up control.
For a control addict the idea is unthinkable. It’s like I’m suggesting she let go of the life preserver that keeps her afloat.
Forget that controlling has never really worked for her.
Forget that the more she tries to control stuff the more anxious and desperate she feels.
Control, she’s convinced, is the solution, not the problem.
It takes most clients months, even years to move away from that idea.
But I’m undaunted, because I have an ally in this:
Reality will teach her (if she lets it) what I already know: that
the more control you need, the less in control you tend to feel;
the more you try to control other people, the more you force them to control you back;
getting control in one place usually requires you to give it up in another.
Living a life based on these truths can be unnerving at first.
To do it takes courage, lots of trust in your therapist, and no small amount of trust in yourself.
But the luckiest addicts — those who can muster that courage and trust — get to enter the rabbit hole of recovery, and the adventure of a life beyond chasing control.
Submitted to The Practice Corner:
After yoga class I like to walk at the park nearby. It’s one of my favorite times, when I feel clear-minded and enjoy being with myself. Not always easy to arrange.
Today I’m sitting on a bench lacing up my sneakers when a woman from the yoga class comes up to me.
“Oh,” she says brightly, “you’re walking? Want company?”
No, I scream inside.
But I also feel my heart drop into my stomach.
Such a familiar trap.
I’ve spent my life saying Yes to such requests, mainly because of what my mind does at such moments.
Be nice, it whispers. What’s the big deal? Don’t hurt her feelings. Don’t make her angry. You can walk alone tomorrow. Be nice.
I hate my mind sometimes. It usually wins these arguments.
But this time, this time I breathe, and take my tiny courage in my hands.
“Most people complain I walk too fast for them,” I say. “So, no, I guess not.”
“Okay,” she says, “Bye.” And goes away.
I pass her later, walking in the opposite direction. We nod at each other and smile.
Best walk I’ve had in months.
~ Shared by S.P. (9/14/14)
Archived in Tales of Responsibility
The Practice Corner is an occasional series of true (but cleverly disguised) stories told by readers working actively to free themselves from compulsive controlling. Read more here.
Divorce brings out the best and worst in parents.
In some it elicits restraint, courage, self-awareness and self-sacrifice.
In some it provokes denial, self-pity, rage and manipulation.
The best parents work to understand the suffering of their children. The worst become preoccupied with their own pain, anger and grief.
The best make softening the damage to kids their priority. The worst see divorce as war, and the kids as weapons.
Some divorcing spouses do and say awful things to each other, and get spiritually smaller day by day.
And some manage to come out of the divorce stronger, wiser, kinder, and better parents.
I also notice that, over time, a sort of simple justice tends to emerge.
It happens regardless of who gets custody, who has more money or goodies to offer, and despite all attempts to prevent it:
Kids gravitate away from the unhealthy parent, and towards the healthier one.
They don’t do this consciously. It’s not really a choice.
It’s more like a tropism – a spontaneous and involuntary reaction rooted deep in the instinctual part of the child. The part that knows what the kid needs, and where to find it.
Like how plants know to turn towards the sun.
Frogs tossed into boiling water will leap right out again.
But frogs placed in cool water raised gradually to a boil will remain until they are thoroughly cooked.
I know plenty of cooked frogs.
They’re people who stayed too long in bad jobs or unhealthy relationships.
They’re not stupid, and they’re not self-destructive.
They just didn’t pay attention.
They didn’t listen to their feelings, which exist to provide important information about what they were experiencing.
Like most of us, they thought of pain and discomfort as bad things, experiences to be avoided. So they found ways to ignore, numb or deny those bad feelings.
They forgot (if they ever knew) that pain is essential to survival.
That we need it to warn us of both obvious dangers and subtle threats.
That we ignore it — even the tiniest of twinges — at our peril.
And that to ignore it long enough is to risk ending up cooked.
Whenever a new member joins one of my therapy groups I ask all the current members to introduce themselves.
And in the course of doing so I ask each one to define what they’re working on in group.
identifying and expressing feelings,
not losing myself in relationships,
giving up compulsive controlling,
coming out of hiding in group
are some of the answers I get.
Occasionally a member can’t answer the question.
When that happens, I take it to mean somebody hasn’t done their job.
It might be me. It’s the therapist’s job to help clients define their work — their issues and what they must do to resolve them — and then help them stay focused on it.
Or it might be the client. Some clients come to therapy not to work, but to be comforted or rescued or parented. Some spend years avoiding the work they need to do.
One thing’s sure, though.
Unless and until the work gets defined, it can never get done.
Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
With unhappy marriages I find the opposite to be true.
Unhappy marriages tend to be stunningly similar, at least in the sources of their unhappiness.
The three most common are baggage, responsibility and communication:
~ Baggage. Each partner brings a history of unmet needs, unexpressed feelings and unhealed wounds to the marriage, which then collides with the baggage their partner brings.
~ Responsibility. Both partners have trouble either seeing or owning (or both) their own contribution to problems in the relationship. More often they slip into blaming their partner instead.
~ Communication. Neither partner knows how to talk about underlying feelings and where they come from, so the real issues eroding the relationship never get addressed.
All serious problems.
But usually not without an outsider’s help.