Submitted to The Practice Corner:
My wife’s mother was the glue that held their large family together, and after she died the members pretty much stopped communicating. The one I missed most was my wife’s nephew Sean, a young man with whom I spent hours at family gatherings, just talking. One day, eighteen months after his grandmother’s funeral, I surprised myself by calling him on the phone. “What’s wrong?” was his first question. It took five minutes to convince him I’d called just because I missed our conversations. Then we spent an hour catching up. He seemed as happy to reconnect as I was, and I got off the phone feeling proud of myself. This was not something I’d have done six months ago. I‘d have been too scared Sean would feel imposed upon, or just not interested. But reading and thinking about Steve’s alternatives to control – especially the ones he calls responsibility (listening to feelings) and intimacy (being myself with someone else) – changed that. I realize now how much I want and need to connect to the people in my life, and that I’m even willing to risk some discomfort to do it. Turns out I can create my own emotional glue.
~ Shared by J.R.S. (5/31/14)
Ninth in the series
Notes on recovery
Intimacy depends on the quality of communication.
And the first step to raising that quality is by not doing stuff we normally do.
Psychologist Thomas Gordon once famously identified twelve “roadblocks to communication” between parents and children. It’s a good list to memorize, since each item is essentially a controlling behavior able to destroy intimacy between anyone and anyone else:
1. Ordering or directing
2. Warning or threatening
3. Advising or suggesting
4. Arguing or persuading
5. Lecturing or moralizing
6. Criticizing, judging or blaming
7. Agreeing or praising*
8. Ridiculing or shaming
9. Analyzing or diagnosing
10. Reassuring or sympathizing*
11. Questioning or probing
12. Withdrawing, humoring or distracting
A client with whom I shared this list responded, “What’s left? Hand signals?”
I sympathize. We’re so used to these ways of unconsciously controlling each other that it’s hard to imagine doing without them.
But there are alternatives.
I-statements, for example. Ever notice how any sentence containing the word You tends to make the listener defensive? I-statements avoid this by focusing on me instead. I’m confused by what you’re saying, instead of You make no sense. I’m mad at you, instead of You suck. Like that. Which do you think leads to better communication?
Then there’s feedback, a skill I teach in therapy groups. Group requires a lot of emotional safety, so to forestall judgments or unsolicited advice members are asked to respond to what they hear by describing only what it made them think, feel or remember. (When you talk about your anger I remember all the times I lost my temper and how it felt.) These expanded I-statements not only make it safer for everyone to talk about sensitive issues, they help members get to know each other quickly, and to understand their own reactions and perceptions reactions on a deeper level.
Finally, monologuing is an exercise I teach couples who want to learn intimate communication. Each partner takes five minutes to list his/her resentments (I resent when you insult my mother) and appreciations (I appreciate when you make coffee so I don’t have to) while the other just listens. Then they switch roles. Monologuing’s not meant to settle disputes or solve problems; it’s used to keep the air clear, lines of communication open, and each partner in touch with where the other is emotionally. It also teaches them to make I-statements, identify feelings, listen without interrupting, and develop empathy. (I didn’t know you felt that way is a common reaction.) Couples who monologue regularly tell me it becomes a way they can talk safely about almost anything.
*Yes, items 7 and 10 tend to surprise people. See here for an explanation of why they inhibit parent/child communication.
Second in the series
Notes on Recovery
The goal of recovery is to become powerful.
Powerful, not controlling.
No, they’re not the same thing.
Control means being able to dictate reality. To force life itself — people, places and things — to meet our expectations.
But power means being able to take care of yourself. To get your needs met without losing yourself in the process. To not just survive, but to heal, grow and be happy.
They’re not just different, control and power. Sometimes they’re opposites.
~ Power is a real possibility, where control is often an illusion.
~ Power is healthy, where controlling tends to be pathological.
~ Power is rooted in self-acceptance and confidence, where controlling grows out of insecurity and fear.
~ Power makes you stronger, where controlling weakens you, can even make you sick.
~ Power attracts people to one another, where controlling tends to drive them apart.
But the most important difference between them is,
~ Power is something only an adult can develop, where controlling is the basic survival skill of a child.
Think about it. If I’m a kid, I can’t take care of myself. I need big people for that – to feed me, clothe me, protect me, love me. Without big people I die.
And because I know this at the deepest level, I learn early on to stay on their good side. To please and appease them, avoid their anger, meet their expectations. To be what big people want me to be, instead of who I am.
This is inevitable. It’s also how control addicts are born.
Because control addicts keep feeling and functioning like kids instead of developing personal power. They keep pleasing and appeasing and manipulating the way children do. They never come out of hiding, never learn to be themselves out loud.
Externally they look like adults. Inside they still feel like kids who need support, approval or permission from big people.
Recovery is about reversing this.
Recovery is about growing up inside.
Alas, I am a slob.
I’m mostly in denial about it . But one night, can’t recall why, I asked my wife, “Do you think I’m a slob?” And she said, “Yes.”
And an Ouch bloomed in my guilty solar plexus.
Of course she’s right. The mess on my desk is three layers deep. Stacks of books climb skyward on my night table. Crabgrass has swallowed my lawn. My car’s gone unvacuumed since the Clinton presidency. And my garage? Don’t ask.
Then again, I know men whose businesses run like stopwatches but who can’t talk to their wives or children.
I know women whose houses are surgically clean but whose marriages are in the toilet.
I know families whose living rooms are always company-ready but who never hug or laugh or cry or play together.
And so on.
Can’t you have both? Seems you should. At least that’s what I always told myself.
Then again, maybe not.
For one of the paradoxes of control is that getting control in one part of your life means surrendering it in another.
I’m pretty happy with my marriage and my family relationships.
My desk’s a mess, but my life makes emotional sense.
So maybe it’s time to embrace my Inner Slob.
Or, maybe, think of myself less as a slob than as someone with other priorities.
A famous tv commercial once advised us: “Life is messy. Clean it up.”
Life is messy.
Get used to it.
Submitted to The Practice Corner:
I dreaded this visit, but my wife talked me into it. It’s his birthday, she said, and we’re his grandparents. I gave in, but I was still scared that what happened last time would happen again. We worry about my grandson, and can’t stop trying to help. “Maybe less junk food,” we tell his parents. “Maybe less tv, more fresh air.” But the help never helps. It always ends in anger and tension and tears. My wife ends up depressed and I end up overeating. I didn’t want that again. So we worked on it in therapy. I mean, we worked hard. I talked about it in my group, she talked about it in hers, and then we talked about it with Steve, who gave us stuff to read about alternatives to controlling. Then we talked with each other about surrender (a word my wife still hates) and responsibility and intimacy. We talked at home, and on the flight down, and then more in the hotel room. And when the time came we found we were actually able to not control things. We bit our lips instead of “helping.” Talked to each other about how we were feeling, instead of acting out with my son and his wife. We tried to accept everything and judge nothing. And it worked. No fights, no tension, no tears. My son and his wife relaxed around us. They talked to us more. We enjoyed our grandson and he enjoyed us. It was a wonderful visit. Then we came home and told Steve how it went and he asked, “So, which was easier – controlling or not controlling?” And we looked at each other and answered him in unison: “Not controlling.”
~ Shared by J.R.S. (5/10/14)
Tricky thing, victimization.
Do therapy with someone who’s been victimized but doesn’t know it, and you want them to see themselves as victimized.
You want them to see what isn’t their fault — that they didn’t cause all their problems and pain. Your job is to help them off the hook on which they’re hanging. Because self-blame doesn’t heal a damned thing.
But: work with people who already see themselves as victims, and what you want is to help them to stop.
Victimization starts with something external, something beyond our control, not our fault. But if we’re not careful — or we don’t get the right help in processing this painful experience — we may internalize it. We may see it as defining us, as part of our identity.
And then we carry the old pain around with us, like we’re in a trance. My parents didn’t love me, so I must be unlovable. I couldn’t stop bad things from happening at home, so I must be weak. My husband abused me, so I can’t trust any man, ever. Like that.
And that’s the trance of victimization: feeling stuck back in there/then, instead of realizing that you’re here/now.
How to break the trance?
Corrective emotional experience. The frightened must find safety. The voiceless must speak up and feel heard. The abused must find love and caring. The alienated must experience reconnection and trust.
Each such experience helps them wake up from the trance.
Collect enough such moments, and the waking becomes permanent.
And the label victim slides off into the past, where it belongs.