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.”