Bert’s taking a break from writing this week. But he did provide the illustrations for this post.
I used my lollipop analogy today. First time I’ve used it in years. It’s one of my favorites.
Yvonne is a woman who dislikes herself. She doesn’t know this, exactly. She just knows she’s lonely, and discouraged, and pretty much of a doormat in all her relationships. The sort of person who says Yes when she wants to say No and always has, without knowing why.
She’d just finished telling me about her eight-year marriage to a man who drank, cheated, abused her emotionally, and then left her.
“Ever licked a lollipop,” I asked, “and then stuck it in your pocket?”
“Sure,” she said uncertainly. I didn’t believe her. I was pretty sure she was humoring me, just to move things along.
“What happened to it?” I asked.
She shrugged. “It got…fuzzy.”
“Right,” I said. “It got fuzzy. And the longer it stayed in your pocket the fuzzier it got. It kept collecting fuzz until after a while it didn’t even look like a lollipop anymore. More like a fuzzball on a stick. Right?”
“You’re like that lollipop,” I told her.
“We all are. When we’re kids we have these experiences which seem to defines us. Yours was having a mother who couldn’t love you the way you needed to be loved.’
She nodded again. We’d been over this.
“It left you feeling unlovable,” I said. “But the problem didn’t end there. Because you went on and collected more experiences like that one.”
“I know I did,” she said. “But why?”
“Because confusion is painful for us,” I said. “We can’t stand to not understand. It makes us feel out of control.”
She nodded again. We’d talked about her need for control, too.
“So we look for answers that seem to explain stuff in our life. And we hang onto those answers even when they’re wrong, and even when they hurt. Because having no answer is even more painful. Follow?”
“I think so.”
“You found your answer early on. You decided that mom didn’t love you because you were unlovable. It was a lousy answer, because, A, it wasn’t true – she couldn’t love you because she was an alcoholic – and, B, it hurt. But it was better than having no answer at all.”
She was quiet, listening.
“So you carried that answer out into the world and into every relationship. And whenever there was a disappointment or conflict or someone treated you badly, you turned back to that old answer to explain what was happening. ‘See?” you told yourself. ‘Mom was right. I am unlovable.’’
“And that’s why you’re like a fuzzy lollipop. Because by now you’ve collected so many of those experiences you’re no longer recognizable as yourself.”
She looked at her hands in her lap. Then she looked up.
“Well, shit,” she said.
An encouraging response.
“What do I do about it?” she asked.
I made two suggestions.
The first was to remember our conversation the next time she got into relationship trouble. “Question how you usually explain problems,” I suggested. “If you get confused, talk to me about it. But stop automatically collecting fuzz.”
“Okay,” Yvonne nodded.
The second suggestion was to seek out corrective emotional experiences. “This one’s harder,” I warned her. “You have to risk being yourself with people. Especially new people, like at Al-Anon or in a therapy group. That’s where you have the best chance of redefining yourself.
“Practice coming out of hiding. Tell a bit more of the truth than you’re used to telling. Show a bit more of your feelings. Just a bit. See what happens.
“Of course, this will mean giving up some control. So it will probably feel scary at first. But I think you’ll find it’s less risky than it feels.”
She shook her head.
“Living this way? That’s what’s risky.”
Questions for you, dear reader:
(1) Are you a fuzzy lollipop?
(Hint: Most everyone is.)
(2) What early experience seemed to define you?
(Hint: Probably a painful one.)
(3) Are you aware of how you use that old experience to explain your current problems?
(Hint: How you do it may not be entirely conscious. Dig a little.)
(4) Are you ready to stop?
Lollipops of the world, unite.
You have nothing to lose but your fuzz.