Sculpture: Matteo Pugliese
Why do so many go through so much disruption in their middle years? Why then? Why do we consider it to be a crisis? What is the meaning of such an experience?
The midlife crisis, which I prefer to call the Middle Passage, presents us with an opportunity to reexamine our lives and to ask the sometimes frightening, always liberating question: “Who am I apart from my history and the roles I have played?”
When we discover that we have been living what constitutes a false self, that we have been enacting a provisional adulthood, driven by unrealistic expectations, then we open the possibility for the second adulthood, our true personhood.
The Middle Passage is an occasion for redefining and reorienting the personality, a rite of passage between the extended adolescence of first adulthood and our inevitable appointment with old age and mortality.
Those who travel the passage consciously render their lives more meaningful. Those who do not, remain prisoners of childhood, however successful they may appear in outer life….
Many of us treat life as if it were a novel. We pass from page to page passively, assuming the author will tell us on the last page what it was all about. As Hemingway once said, if the hero does not die, the author just did not finish the story. So, on the last page we die, with or without illumination.
The invitation of the Middle Passage is to become conscious, accept responsibility for the rest of the pages and risk the largeness of life to which we are summoned. Wherever the reader may be in his or her life, the summons to us is the same as to Tennyson’s Ulysses:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.*
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After two decades of codependent relationships she’s testing out a new approach with her new boyfriend, Carl.
We call it “letting Carl lead.” Instead of straining constantly to control the relationship — fretting, plotting and trying to sculpt it into what she wants it to be — she’s trying to relax, and breathe, and take her cues from him. If he texts her, fine. If he doesn’t, fine. That sort of thing.
It seems to be working. Thus far Carl has been adequately respectful, attentive and affectionate. And she feels less nervous and more cared for than she has in years.
But she has a question.
“You say I should listen to my feelings,” she says. “That they’re like radar, feeding me important information about what’s happening here and now.”
“That’s right,” I say.
“But sometimes feelings lie. Sometimes I get scared when Carl says or does something that reminds me of Bobby.” Bobby is her alcoholic ex-husband. “And I know I’m confusing the two but I’m still scared.”
“Transference,” I nod.
“Right, transference. Then other times I worry that something bad is happening, like Carl’s secretly judging at me, or is going to happen, like we’ll have a fight.”
“Projection,” I say.
“Yes. And then sometimes I get angry at one person, like my boss, and find myself taking it out on another, like my kids.”
“That’s called displacement.”
“Yes, I remember. But here’s my question. These feelings aren’t telling me the truth about what’s happening here and now. Carl isn’t Bobby, we’re not fighting, and I’m mad at my boss, not my kids. So how can I tell the difference between radar signals and the feelings that lie?”
Nobody’s asked that before.
“Wow,” I say. “That’s a really really good question.”
“Okay, let’s see. First, it helps to think of the misleading feelings not as lies, but as memories — leftover reactions to stuff in the past. Like PTSD flashbacks that get triggered when something here and now reminds you of that old something.”
“Like little nightmares,” she says.
“Exactly,” I say. “Because they feel absolutely real. You’re convinced Carl’s secretly judging you, for example.”
“I sure am.”
“So what you need to figure out is whether you’re being triggered.”
“How do I do that?”
“With three questions,” I say.
“The first question is What am I trying to control right now? Here you step back from your reaction to see if you’ve slipped into a old codependent pattern. And if the answer is painfully familiar — like “I’m trying to control how someone feels about me” or “I’m trying to avoid rejection or abuse” — that can signal that you’re caught in a nightmare. And then you take a breath and tell yourself Oh, there I go again.”
“Okay,” she says. “That’s good.”
“The second question is What’s the evidence? Here you step out of your subjectivity and look for what’s objectively true. What’s the hard evidence of how Carl feels about you? Has he actually said or done stuff controlling or judgmental or abusive? Is he acting like Bobby did, or are you just scared that he might?”
“He never does,” she says thoughtfully.
“Right. And the third question is What do you think? This one you ask someone else.”
“Anyone safe, whose judgment you trust. Someone who has an unbiased perspective, not contaminated by your personal history or associations or triggers. You may need to ask it several times of several different people.”
“How does that help?”
“It’s another way of gathering evidence, of discovering whether your feeling comes from radar or nightmare. Granted, nobody else is you, and in the end you have to reach your own conclusion. But other people’s feedback can help. For example, imagine Carl says or does something that reminds you of Bobby’s anger.”
“Now imagine you describe what he said or did to ten people, and ask What do you think? And all ten of them say things like ‘No, that doesn’t sound angry to me’ or ‘No, he just sounds stressed’ or ‘Were you still stressed from that fight you had with your boss?’ How do you think you’d react?”
“I think,” she smiles,” it might help me wake the hell up.”
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One stormy night during supper there was a crash of thunder and the house was plunged into total blackness. When the lights came on a few seconds later, the children seemed frightened. I thought the best way to handle it was to make light of their fears. I nearly tossed off, “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” but my husband Ted spoke first. He said, “Hey, that was pretty scary.” The children stared at him.
It sounded nice, his saying that. I caught his spirit. “It’s funny,” I said, “when a light is on in a room, everything feels so friendly and familiar. But take that same room with the same things inn it and put it in darkness and suddenly it becomes scary. I don’t know why. It just does.”
Six eyes looked up at me with such relief, such gratitude, that I was overwhelmed. I had made a very simple statement about a very ordinary event, and yet it seemed to mean so much to them. They began to talk, all at once, fighting each other for a turn.
DAVID: Sometimes I think a robber is going to come and kidnap me.
ANDY: My rocking chair looks like a monster in the dark.
JILL: What scares me like anything is when the tree branches scrape against the window.
The words spilled out, each child saying aloud the fearful thoughts he had had when alone in his dark room. We both listened and nodded. They talked and talked. Finally, they were done.
In the silence that followed we all felt so loved and loving that I knew we must have touched the heart of a very powerful process. It was no small matter, this business of validating a child’s feelings. Did other people know about it?
I began to eavesdrop on conversations between parents and children. At the zoo I heard:
CHILD: (Crying.) My finger! My finger hurts!
FATHER: It couldn’t hurt. It’s only a little scratch.
At the supermarket I heard:
CHILD: I’m hot.
MOTHER: How can you feel hot? It’s cool in here.
In the toy store I heard:
CHILD: Mommy, look at this little duck. Isn’t he cute?
MOTHER: Oh, that’s for a little baby. You’re not interested in baby toys any more.
It was astonishing. These parents seemed unable to hear their children’s simplest emotions. Certainly they mean no harm by their responses. Yet in reality what they were telling their children, over and over, was:
You don’t mean what you say.
You don’t know what you know.
You don’t know what you feel.
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In group. Liz comes in fifteen minutes late.
“Sorry,” she says to everyone. “Traffic.”
Everyone nods, except Nancy.
“So glad you could make it,” Nancy mutters.
“Whoa,” someone says.
We look at Nancy. Nancy notices.
“What?” she says.
“You’re pissed,” someone says.
“No I’m not,” Nancy says, and bursts into tears.
I wait while someone passes her tissues.
“What’s up?” I ask.
She wipes her eyes and shrugs. “I’m all nervous and angry lately. I don’t know why.”
“Two, three days.”
“What happened three days ago?”
“Nothing.” She looks up. “Wait. My inlaws came to town.”
“Bingo,” someone says.
“Your alcoholic inlaws,” I say.
“Bingo bingo,” someone says. There are chuckles.
“What?” Nancy asks again.
“You’re a victim of gravity,” Liz smiles. “As in shit rolls downhill.“
“I don’t understand,” Nancy says.
“Old saying,” I say. “Shit rolls downhill. Boss yells at Dad, Dad yells at Mom, Mom yells at Sister, Sister yells at Brother, Brother kicks the dog.”
“Oh,” Nancy says.
“Nancy, how does your husband get along with his parents?” Liz asks.
“They make him crazy,” Nancy sniffles. “Nervous, frustrated, angry.”
“And how does he act with you?”
“Like I can’t do anything right,” she says glumly.
“And then how are you with the kids?”
“Controlling,” Nancy admits. “If they don’t do exactly what I say I just…lose it.”
She looks at me in surprise. “Shit does roll downhill.”
“Why does that happen?” someone asks me.
“There are several ways to explain it,” I say. “One is simple displacement. Shit rolls downhill because people take their anger out at the next person below them on the food chain.
“Another is boundary confusion. In alcoholic families the boundaries between members get impossibly blurred. We can’t tell where I end and you begin. Feelings leak from one person into another. Your bad day becomes my bad day. Your anger or anxiety become my problem.”
Nancy frowns. “So my husband catches his parents’ emotional problems, like the flu?”
“Maybe,” I say. “But there’s a third explanation. Being around his parents probably triggers old feelings in him, old pain and fear, helplessness and anger.”
“Like PTSD,” someone says.
“Yes,” Nancy says sadly. “I see that. He regresses.”
“So what should Nancy do?” someone asks.
I smile at Nancy. “She can start by apologizing to her kids.”
“Yes,” Nancy says.
“And tell them that she’s been in a bad mood lately, and it’s not their fault, and she’s working hard on getting out of it.”
“Then she should probably try to talk to her husband about how they can support each other for the next — Nancy, how long?”
“They’re staying a week.”
“The next week or so. For example, they could carve out debriefing time every night, and use it to vent to each other about whatever happens that bothers them.”
Nancy nods. “We can do that.”
“Finally, she can promise herself that for the next week she’ll lean on her support system to process whatever comes up for her. Bring it to group. Call you guys when she gets confused or angry or anxious.”
“Call me,” Liz says.
Nancy smiles. “I’m sorry about before.”
Liz shakes her head. “I went through this for years. Whenever his family visited my husband and I would fight like cats and dogs. Finally we got into therapy and learned to manage our temporary insanity — which is just what it felt like — without resorting to divorce or homicide.”
“And your inlaws still visit?”
“Yes,” Liz sighs. “But one thing that helps is a little ritual we created. The day before we see them I tell my husband, ‘I apologize in advance for the next five days,’ or however long Mom and Dad are in town. And he says the same thing to me. And we hug. And the hug is like a promise that we’ll stay connected, no matter how much shit rolls downhill.”
1 Comment | tags: alcoholic family, boundaries, codependency, displacement, dysfunctional family, family | posted in Adult child, control, controlling behavior, dysfunctional controlling,  MONKEYTRAPS FOR ADULT CHILDREN,  MONKEYTRAPS FOR COUPLES,  MONKEYTRAPS FOR THERAPISTS