What do you see? A cute puppy with floppy ears? Or two cats with a hear hovering between them? Or both? And what might predict which image you see first? Growing up with dogs? Owning a cat? To me as a therapist one of the most useful things about optical illusions is to show us that we can't necessarily trust our perceptions. Remember the blue versus brown dress controversy? I would have sworn on my life that dress was a golden color and had not a hint of blue in it. The actual statistics on what people saw are that 1,401 people were asked what color they thought the dress was and 57 percent described the dress as blue/black, 30 percent described it as white/gold, 11 percent as blue/brown and 2 percent as something else. So who's right?
The reality is that no two human brains are identical. Just as we all see colors slightly (or sometimes vastly!) different, and just as one person loves spicy food and another shuns it, so too do we interpret the outside world quite differently. Most of the time this goes unnoticed as long as no one is feeling threatened emotionally or physically. But when a disagreement arises our differences in perception can become battering rams against the person we are engaged with. We cry out "you've got it wrong! I never said that!" or "you say you aren't mad but I can tell that you are!". Sometimes the disagreements are even more subtle. We walk into a room and see our partner sitting on the couch looking at a magazine. We think to ourselves "oh gosh, isn't she cute?" and our partner looks up and thinks "he's wondering why I haven't done the dishes yet. Why is he always on my case?"
What can account for these vastly different ideas? Part of it of course is just wiring. Our brains really are all unique in some aspects. But part of it is also our histories. If I grew up in a household where my value in the family was based on being helpful then I am likely to be prone to thinking that my partner is wondering why I haven't done my chores yet. If I grew up in a home where I "couldn't do anything right", I am prone to thinking that my partner is disappointed in me if their toast is a little too dark. Believe me, this kind of stuff can cause HUGE disruptions in your relationships. And everyone does it.
How do you know if what is going on in the present moment is being infected by the past? There is a pithy saying in the recovery community "If it's HYSTERICAL, it's HISTORICAL". Or, as we say in psychology, if the response (in the present moment) is out of proportion to the event, there is probably something in that person's history coming up.
What can you do about it? The #1 rule when you think your partner is coming from the past is DO NOT try to defend, argue, convince, counter-attack or analyze what the other person has said. While on some level this seems like the BEST thing to do (I mean, after all, this poor person has lost their grip on reality, right?) I can tell you with 100% assurance that the other person is going to get more entrenched, defended and frankly pissed-off. It is going to quickly widen the gap between the two of you and you will have even less of a chance coming to any kind of detente or mutual understanding.
So suck it up (yes, I know, this is going to be HARD!) and do this instead:
Yep. I know, it sounds crazy. It's like telling the person who thinks the FBI has implanted a micro-chip in their nose that they are right. Seems like a bad idea. But in this case you validate the feelings, not the details of the particular accusation. So it looks something like this:
Person A SAYS: "I can't believe that you were late again! You know how much I hate waiting on you! You are completely unreliable!"
Person B THINKS: "Oh my gosh you have got to be kidding me! I was 5 minutes late! How can 5 minutes matter? Plus I told you there was a roll-over accident on the freeway? How can I control that?!!!"
Person B SAYS: "Wow I am so sorry. I can see how upset you are. I know it is frustrating to have to wait on someone and I know that you in particular really hate that. I also know that it would feel really crappy to feel like you can't depend on someone who is important to you. I mean, if you can't depend on me (your best friend/partner/whatever) then it must feel like the whole world is full of unreliable people. That would be terrible. I am so sorry that my being late lead to all of those painful feelings. I will try harder in the future to be on time."
Yes. No kidding. That is what you say. Now, if you are like me, you have an inner 2-year old screaming THIS IS NOT FAIR!! I DID NOTHING WRONG!! S/HE IS A CRAZY PERSON!!!
However, I 100% guarantee you (I literally do this, I tell clients if they try this and it doesn't work I will give them a free session, and in 20 years I have never had to do it!) that this approach will work. Let's see what is likely to happen:
Person A FEELS: "Phew. Finally someone who understands me! Sometimes it does feel like the whole world is full of unreliable jerks who just don't care about upsetting me. Thank goodness this person is so thoughtful and kind. I am so glad that they are in my life."
Person A SAYS: "Thanks. It means a lot to me. I know that maybe 5 minutes is not a lot to you but for some reason it just really throws me off. Maybe next time if you are running late you can text me and I can go grab a coffee or something. I am not trying to be unreasonable but it really does bother me. So thanks for seeing that."
So what is "really" going on here? Person A probably has a history of being disappointed, let down or otherwise hurt by parents or other significant people in their childhood who were not attuned to their needs and feelings. They may have also been left waiting on caregivers who were busy taking care of themselves rather than attuning to the child. Your partner is responding from this history and assuming you are going to be the same way. That is coloring their interpretation of the Present because of input from the Past. We all do this. We all try to anticipate what is going to happen moment to moment based on past experience. We have to because otherwise we could not "automate" things and we would never be able to get out of the house. If I don't have an idea of what will happen when I step on the gas in my car and have to re-learn that every time I get behind the wheel I am not going to be very fluid in getting to work every day. I base my anticipated present experience of pressing on the gas against my past experiences with this. Which allows me to automate a certain percentage of that, which frees up my brain to think about other things like whether or not I should take the expressway this morning because I heard there was a wreck on the central artery. We all do this. I repeat, we all do this. Our brains are set up to. But just like screaming at the top of your lungs at your 16 year old while they are behind the wheel in heavy traffic is probably going to cause an accident (they will be so startled and freaked out by you yelling at them to slam on the breaks they may lose control of the car), you will also freak out and amp-up your partner if you try to disagree with them when they are bringing the past into the present.
Your best shot is to remain calm, not take it personally (did I mention that we all do this?) and de-escalate the person by attuning to their feelings and validating them. Once they have re-oriented themselves to reality (whatever that is, because really we construct it moment-to-moment and all have a different experience of it) we can have a discussion about what both of us experienced in that moment.
If you find yourself feeling resentful about the thought of doing this ("it's not fair!") I would encourage you to think about whether or not in your own history your parents or other significant caregivers showed you that your feelings mattered or made you cater to their needs an unreasonable amount. If not then you may have some work to do in order to feel ready to extend that to others.
Wishing you happiness and growth in your connections to others,
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Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.