It should be no surprise with the rapid advances in genetics these days that they have identified a gene that may help to explain what a lot of folks call the Highly Sensitive Person. A researcher at the University of California Berkeley, Dr. Levenson, postulates that a variation of the serotonin transporter gene on chromosome 17 may may account for people who feel their emotions very acutely. This serotonin transport gene can have two common variations-- the "short allele" or the "long allele" version. It's the short allele version that seems to be responsible for some people feeling things more intensely. This gene variation also seems to be correlated to higher rates of depression, anxiety and ADHD. Which bolsters what clinicians who work with those populations have noticed for decades-- that if you have anxiety, depression or ADHD, you are likely to have not just one of those but two or even all 3. And that if you have some of those difficulties you are also likely to see those same problems in blood relatives, hinting that there is a genetic linkage.
Dr. Levenson posted a fantastic youtube video that explains his research in a very understandable and fun format (he even uses emojis!). If you resonate with the idea that you tend to feel things more deeply than others you may want to look at other sources of information about this trait such as the wonderful website The Highly Sensitive Person which has books, videos, research links, self-tests and more.
So if you are a highly sensitive person what can be done about it? Well, years ago I encountered a theory in psychology that seemed so completely WRONG to my therapist's ear-- that the goal of therapy should not be to change people but teach people who they already are and how to live the in the world given who they are.
Anyone who reads my blog or does therapy with me knows that I am a huge fan of splitting the difference, finding the middle path or blending opposing ideas. So while at first I balked at what sounded like a completely hopeless perspective-- that we should not try to help people even try to change-- I came to realize that there is room for some of this perspective in my view of personal growth. Whether you are a Highly Sensitive Person, someone with ADHD (you can be both of course), an extrovert or on the spectrum, all of which are known to be highly genetically determined, or have some other genetically linked trait, you CAN make some changes to how you operate in the world. And, at the same time, there WILL be things you cannot change and, as the old 12-step saying goes, it's learning "the wisdom to tell the difference" that is the key to really thriving. So if the idea of a highly sensitive person resonates with you I encourage you to learn more about it and educate those that are close to you so that your behaviors do not get misinterpreted. Then set about learning how you can navigate the world with a little more comfort.
A few examples of HSP that I have known or worked with-- one woman notices that too much noise is very overwhelming for her, so she has skin-colored ear plugs that she wears if she is going out in public (like the mall, a noisy restaurant, etc). They dampen the ambient sound but she can still hear the people she is talking to just fine. If this idea appeals to you I suggest trying the off-the-rack cheap kind first and if you really love them you can order ones that are more high-end or even have them custom made by shops that cater to musicians.
Another HSP I know gets a lot of anxiety when entering into social situations because of the increased complexity of interactions. The combination of more voices, conversations bouncing around, more eye contact, etc. just jangles her nerves and she used to find herself making excuses and not joining into groups. Once she learned that she was an HSP she experimented with different methods of entering into groups that reduced her feeling of exposure to the increased input. She found that when she enters a room, house, venue, etc. if she can wait a minute (she can pretend to check her cell phone, go find a restroom, etc.) her nervous system has time to acclimate to the new environment. Once she has done that if she is still feeling a bit overwhelmed she can stand sideways to the group (this does not have to be too noticeable, the main thing is the have your torso perpendicular to the group but your head can be facing them). This has an interesting impact on the mammalian nervous system. Mammals are most physically vulnerable when their guts are literally exposed. So when one mammal faces another mammal if their torso is exposed the mammalian brain notices this and there is a deep evolutionary alarm that can sound and may feel like anxiety. This is especially likely if the group includes people you don't know or if you are in an environment you have never been in before (a new restaurant, a new friends house, etc). But by simply turning your torso 90 degrees, like you would if you were fencing, your mammalian brain is more likely to ratchet down the threat level and you will relax more.
For this particular person she even had a third level of "defense" for her nervous system if the first two things did not help enough-- she to develop particular imagery that was settling to her nervous system (if you are not familiar with the amazing power of guided imagery I recommend taking a look into it!). For this person imagining standing behind a huge one-way mirror when she was entering a new group was helpful. In the mental image she could see others but they could not see her. This deactivated her fight-flight response that was predicated on the idea of being seen. Again --to go back to how we are just large bipedal animals dressed in clothing-- being seen is the first step to being eaten. So for some HSP just being looked at can trigger a lot of anxiety. Because the brain, while in some ways is extremely sophisticated, in other ways it is very dumb. Sometimes the brain does not always know the difference between a very well rehearsed imagery and reality (just try thinking about biting into a lemon and see what your salivary glands do). So once this person had locked-in to that image as one that reduced her anxiety and she had rehearsed it numerous times she could call it up when under stress in social situations and it would reduce her feelings of being overwhelmed.
Again I am not suggesting that a HSP can turn themselves into a non-HSP. On some level we are who we are. But learning strategies to help modulate one's innate responses can give us more flexibility in our lives and lead to less stress and anxiety.
If you feel you are an HSP therapy can be a wonderful way to learn about yourself and get some help managing your beautiful but slightly tricky nervous system. Our office offers FREE 30-minute consultations so you can see if any of our therapists would be a good "fit" for you. And if you are an HSP in a relationship couples therapy can be a wonderful way not only to learn about yourself but to have your partner also learn about you in ways that can deepen the intimacy and de-personalize some of the problematic things that can crop up with a HSP in partnerships.
As always I wish you well in all of your endeavors and explorations in life, whether you are an HSP or not. The world has room for all of us and we all contribute in meaningful ways to create the rich diversity of the human condition.
PS If you have found this blog to be helpful PLEASE help us reach more people! "Like" it on Facebook or "tweet" about it on Twitter. Or share it in whatever other social media aps you use! And thanks for helping us get more mental health information out to the public!
VICTIM. RESCUER. PERSECUTOR. That about covers it sometimes, right? Ever feel like you are in some weird play where there are always the same three characters? One person is getting screwed, one person is the hero trying to rescue that person and one person is the villain who is always seen as the bad guy. Which one do you most often get cast as? And how can you get out of that dynamic?
That dynamic is called Karpman's (Drama) Triangle. I would love to say that I invented this dandy little concept. But it's actually been around for a long time. Since 1968 actually. It was invented by Stephen Karpman, a student of transactional analysis, and was called Karpman's Triangle or the "drama triangle". As anyone who has ever been in this dynamic can attest, it is definitely drama-producing! None of the roles are actually healthy and the goal if you find yourself in this situation is to move as much to the middle as possible, not aligning yourself with any of the positions.
Despite what they might say about how they feel in the moment, be aware that the Victim role is not actually a person who is being harmed, it's a person who is emotionally invested in looking like they are being harmed. It is also a person who does not want to have to take responsibility for helping themselves out at all. They want everyone else to come and rescue them. They often complain to others that they are being abused, oppressed or victimized and that they cannot do anything about it. They are likely to block any suggestions that they can change their circumstances by saying things like "that won't work" or "I can't do that because _______". In reality they are invested in not acting as agents of change for themselves. These roles are usually learned in childhood by having them modeled by a parent, so if your mom played the victim role, you may find yourself repeating that pattern. Interestingly people who tend towards the Victim role will seek out Perpetrators if they don't have one in their life currently. Unconsciously they don't feel comfortable not being in that position so they have to create it. Sometimes what is at the bottom of this is a history of having been rewarded for being helpless and small and dependent as a child. This creates a conflict where they feel that in order to get their needs met they cannot actually do things for themselves or "grow up" and act as mature adults. They have to find ways to get a Rescuer to save them from a Perpetrator because they were trained never to "rescue" (or take care of) themselves. Remember that all of this is happening unconsciously so no one is actually "asking" to be victimized while being aware that is what is going on. The Victim thinks that they are just in a bad spot and can't seem to find a way out until they find the magic Rescuer who rushes in to save the day. I am not in any way saying that we cannot be compassionate about someone whose life is not going the way they want it. I am also not saying that whatever is done to someone in the victim role is acceptable. I am not victim-blaming. I am, however, saying that everyone has some power to make some changes in their lives and that victims often have a hard time seeing this.
Rescuers are compulsive helpers. This is the classic Martyr role. Rescuers are so inclined to rescue that if they see a person in need and don't rush to their aid they feel terrible. They feel compelled to help others and don't see that this can deprive the Victim of learning to do for themselves. It also allows the Rescuer to focus on other people, which tends to be much more comfortable for them. They derive a lot of status and satisfaction from taking care of others and they don't have to face any of their own issues. Al-anon was originally developed for Rescuers and one of their mottos is "keep the focus on yourself (not the Victim!)". However just like the Victim, Rescuers are usually totally unaware that their role serves to keep them from dealing with their issues since it is entirely unconscious. They just tend to think of themselves as "good" people in a world where a lot of folks need a lot of help! They were often raised in families with a Victim and they learned early on to care for the Victim, which made them feel better about the situation of the family.
The Persecutor tends to come from families in which one or both parents were bullies. They have seen this behavior modeled and follow along, blaming others, trying to control them, being critical, rigid, angry and often acting (or at least feeling) superior. The Persecutor thinks of themselves as "realistic" and "hard-nosed" but typically not malicious. They feel that the Victim and the Rescuer are naive and don't realize that it's a cold world out there and people are going to take what they can. It's kill or be killed and they plan to be on top. They view Victims as people from whom things can be extracted-- work, love, sex, money, status-- but not in a mutual way that cares for both people. When they have gotten what they need from others they may discard them. This can come in the guise of "realizing it just wasn't working out" because they have detected a "fatal flaw"in the person. As parents they tend to want to "toughen-up" their kids and may make kids feel like no matter what they do it's not good enough. Or they may blow up and rage at the kid(s) and then blame the kid(s) for causing them to get angry. They may have unreasonable rules that must be followed and refuse to allow kids (or partners) to negotiate on their own behalf.
While we often learn one of these roles more deeply than the others in our families of origin we can also switch roles at any given time. A Victim may see an opportunity to retaliate against someone who has been a Perpetrator and take it, often in a passive-aggressive way that is not easy to detect. In this way they temporarily enjoy being a Perpetrator while maintaining the image of the Victim. A Rescuer may get tired of taking care of others and experiment once in a while with throwing up their hands and acting like a Victim. A Perpetrator may find that by occasionally acting like a Victim they can avoid taking responsibility for bullying others. However if we do this "drama triangle" regularly we do tend to gravitate towards one position based on our early experiences.
Again the goal of emotional health is to not enter into any of these roles. Each of us has the capacity to be passive and dependent and wish that some fairy God mother/father would come along and take care of everything for us. And each of us has the fantasy of being the knight in shining armor riding in to save someone. And yes, even if we often don't like to admit it, we can also all be the kill-or-be-killed person who steps on others to get ahead and gets a thrill out of winning, even at any cost.
If you suspect that you came from a dysfunctional family you may want to spend some time honestly asking yourself whether or not your parents show up in this triangle. If they do then you can ask yourself do YOU show up? And where? And what work do you need to do in order to move more to the middle? Victims need to learn to do for themselves and to feel pride and competence by growing up and owning their own power rather than wanting others to fix things. Rescuers need to ask themselves how they are avoiding their own pain, anxiety, sadness, grief, etc. by focusing on others all the time. And Perpetrators need to learn to be vulnerable and realize and express their own desires to be dependent sometimes rather than to only feel safe when they are lording themselves over others.
Therapy can be a great way to learn about the Karpman triangle and other dysfunctional dynamics. It is also one of the best ways to change those dynamics. You don't have to stay stuck in the Drama Triangle forever.
Wishing you health, happiness and balance in all of your roles in life,
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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Ever wish when you were staring down a big decision that you could consult with thousands of people who have successfully navigated those waters before? Well one smart fellow did just that when preparing to pledge himself to another person for the rest of his life. Mark Manson has a website and used it to crowd source his very own guide to a happy marriage. He solicited people who had been happily married for at least 10 years to give their best perspective on what made their marriages work so well. Below are some of the things people said. You can view the full list at MarkManson.net.
"By itself, love is never enough to sustain a relationship." I tell this to my clients ALL THE TIME. And believe me, as a hopeless romantic, I am not crazy about having to admit it. But it's true. Love is not enough. There must also be trust, respect, compassion, compromise, humility, tenacity and sometimes a bit of insanity to just keep trying even when things are looking pretty bleak. I will admit that I don't recommend marriage (or a long-term committed partnership) without love, but I hope you have a lot more than that going for you when you take the plunge.
Mr. Manson's readers also agreed that it was important to "Have realistic expectations about relationships and romance." This follows love not being enough in my opinion. A reader named Paula went on to say that " You are absolutely not going to be absolutely gaga over each other every single day for the rest of your lives, and all this 'happily ever after' [stuff] is just setting people up for failure. They go into relationship with these unrealistic expectations. Then, the instant they realize they aren’t 'gaga' anymore, they think the relationship is broken and over, and they need to get out. No! There will be days, or weeks, or maybe even longer, when you aren’t all mushy-gushy in-love. You’re even going to wake up some morning and think, 'Ugh, you’re still here….' That’s normal! And more importantly, sticking it out is totally worth it, because that, too, will change. In a day, or a week, or maybe even longer, you’ll look at that person and a giant wave of love will inundate you, and you’ll love them so much you think your heart can’t possibly hold it all and is going to burst. Because a love that’s alive is also constantly evolving. It expands and contracts and mellows and deepens. It’s not going to be the way it used to be, or the way it will be, and it shouldn’t be. I think if more couples understood that, they’d be less inclined to panic and rush to break up or divorce."
Paula's comments remind me of a friend in graduate school whose mom told her "there will be days...weeks...months....well, sometimes years....where you really don't like the person that you married. But then it gets better!". I recall hearing this and not knowing whether to feel relieved since marriage sounded so much more do-able given this caveat or whether I should go join a convent and just give up. Now that I have been married for 19 years (and counting) I think it is very sage advice. Setting the expectation that you may not really enjoy the person you are with all of the time and that in and of itself is not a problem leaves you free to continue to enjoy the rest of your life (your work, your friends, your kids, your hobbies) while you wait things and and eventually start liking your spouse again. This is NOT a reason to be mean to your spouse or give up on the marriage. Just to realize that sometimes our partners go through things that we don't fully understand and that sometimes this requires us to give them a wide berth. I am thankful that in my own marriage I have never gone more than weeks not enjoying my husband's company, but I am prepared for longer stints if necessary.
Manson echoed the work of Helen Fisher in saying that "Love is [like a drug, it]... makes us highly irrational... It’s nature’s way of tricking us into doing insane and irrational things to procreate with another person—probably because if we stopped to think about the repercussions of having kids, and being with the same person forever and ever, no one would ever do it...Romantic love is a trap designed to get two people to overlook each other’s faults long enough to get some babymaking done. It generally only lasts for a few years at most. That dizzying high you get staring into your lover’s eyes as if they are the stars that make up the heavens—yeah, that mostly goes away. It does for everybody. So, once it’s gone, you need to know that you’ve buckled yourself down with a human being you genuinely respect and enjoy being with, otherwise things are going to get rocky. True love—that is, deep, abiding love that is impervious to emotional whims or fancy—is a choice. It’s a constant commitment to a person regardless of the present circumstances. It’s a commitment to a person who you understand isn’t going to always make you happy—nor should they!—and a person who will need to rely on you at times, just as you will rely on them."
Manson elaborates "That form of love is much harder. Primarily because it often doesn’t feel very good. It’s unglamorous. It’s lots of early morning doctor’s visits. It’s cleaning up bodily fluids you’d rather not be cleaning up. It’s dealing with another person’s insecurities and fears and ideas, even when you don’t want to.But this form of love is also far more satisfying and meaningful. And, at the end of the day, it brings true happiness, not just another series of highs."
His reader Tara writes "Happily Ever After doesn’t exist. Every day you wake up and decide to love your partner and your life—the good, the bad and the ugly. Some days it’s a struggle and some days you feel like the luckiest person in the world."
Another thing that Manson's readers agreed upon was that "The most important factor in a relationship is not communication, but respect." His reader Laurie said "What I can tell you is the #1 thing, most important above all else is respect. It’s not sexual attraction, looks, shared goals, religion or lack of, nor is it love. There are times when you won’t feel love for your partner. That is the truth. But you never want to lose respect for your partner. Once you lose respect you will never get it back."
Now, as a couples therapist I can say that I don't believe that it's always as black-and-white as Laurie reports. I have seen couples lose respect for each other, such as during the throws of an addiction or affair. And I have seen those same couples rebuild respect. I think what makes the difference is if the respect was there in the first place and how hard the partner who has lost the respect is willing to work to get it back.
Manson noticed another interesting trend. He said that "People who had been through divorces and/or had only been with their partners for 10-15 years almost always talked about communication being the most important part of making things work. Talk frequently. Talk openly. Talk about everything, even if it hurts...But..people with marriages going on 20, 30, or even 40 years talked... most [about]respect." He goes on to say that he feels that these long-termers "through sheer quantity of experience, have learned that communication, no matter how open, transparent and disciplined, will always break down at some point. Conflicts are ultimately unavoidable, and feelings will always be hurt." I could not agree more. Research has shown us that all couples, happy and unhappy, fight. And that the amount of fighting is not predictive of marital satisfaction or divorce. The ability to recover from a fight is predictive. Another astonishing thing is that about 2/3 of your conflicts will have no permanent resolution. My husband hates that I clutter up the house with piles of stuff-- work papers, laundry that has not been folded yet, magazines I plan to read. He is a neat freak. He has lived, begrudgingly on some level I am sure, with my piles for 19 years. I have tried to reform myself (really I have!) but I am just as messy now as I was as a teenager. This is not going to be resolved unless we agree to live in separate houses (which neither of us are interested in). Does this mean we can't be happy? I certainly hope not.
Manson's readers went on to tell him that "the only thing that can save you and your partner, that can cushion you both to the hard landing of human fallibility, is an unerring respect for one another, the fact that you hold each other in high esteem, believe in one another—often more than you each believe in yourselves—and trust that your partner is doing his/her best with what they’ve got. Without that bedrock of respect underneath you, you will doubt each other’s intentions. You will judge their choices and encroach on their independence. You will feel the need to hide things from one another for fear of criticism. And this is when the cracks in the edifice begin to appear."
His reader Nicole offered "My husband and I have been together 15 years this winter. I’ve thought a lot about what seems to be keeping us together, while marriages around us crumble (seriously, it’s everywhere… we seem to be at that age). The one word that I keep coming back to is 'respect.' Of course, this means showing respect, but that is too superficial. Just showing it isn’t enough. You have to feel it deep within you. I deeply and genuinely respect him for his work ethic, his patience, his creativity, his intelligence, and his core values. From this respect comes everything else—trust, patience, perseverance (because sometimes life is really hard and you both just have to persevere). I want to hear what he has to say (even if I don’t agree with him) because I respect his opinion. I want to enable him to have some free time within our insanely busy lives because I respect his choices of how he spends his time and who he spends time with. And, really, what this mutual respect means is that we feel safe sharing our deepest, most intimate selves with each other."
Manson also offered that "Respect for your partner and respect for yourself are intertwined." One of his readers, Olov, stated, “Respect yourself and your [partner]. Never talk badly to or about [him/] her. If you don’t respect your [partner], you don’t respect yourself. You chose [him/] her—live up to that choice.” This sounds a lot like what Stan Tatkin teaches about having your partner's back and never throwing them under the bus, in public or in private. Manson says " NEVER talk [badly] about your partner or complain about them to your friends. If you have a problem with your partner, you should be having that conversation with them, not with your friends. Talking bad about them will erode your respect for them and make you feel worse about being with them, not better. Respect that they have different hobbies, interests, and perspectives from you. Just because you would spend your time and energy differently, doesn’t mean it’s better/worse. Respect that they have an equal say in the relationship, that you are a team, and if one person on the team is not happy, then the team is not succeeding."
Echoing the work of Stan Tatkin again Manson also cautions "No secrets. If you’re really in this together and you respect one another, everything should be fair game. Have a crush on someone else? Discuss it. Laugh about it. Had a weird sexual fantasy that sounds ridiculous? Be open about it. Nothing should be off-limits." Partners need to tell each other everything and be the go-to people for each other.
Manson elaborates "Respect goes hand-in-hand with trust. And trust is the lifeblood of any relationship (romantic or otherwise). Without trust, there can be no sense of intimacy or comfort. Without trust, your partner will become a liability in your mind, something to be avoided and analyzed, not a protective homebase for your heart and your mind." Your relationship, I tell my couples, should be where you go home and "plug-in" at the end of your day to get charged up and refueled. Where you heal the wounds from slaying dragons all day. If you can't trust your partner, and feel the need to keep things from them, then how can you let down you guard and really fall into their arms for comfort?
Of course this will require that, as Manson's readers advise, you "Talk openly about everything, especially the stuff that hurts." One of his readers Ronnie says that he and his beloved "always talk about what’s bothering us with each other, not anyone else! We have so many friends who are in marriages that are not working well and they tell me all about what is wrong. I can’t help them, they need to be talking to their spouse about this, that’s the only person who can help them figure it out. If you can figure out a way to be able to always talk with your spouse about what’s bugging you then you can work on the issue.
Manson says that he has always advised his readers that "If something bothers you in the relationship, you must be willing to say it. Saying it builds trust and trust builds intimacy. It may hurt, but you still need to do it. No one else can fix your relationship for you. Nor should anyone else. Just as causing pain to your muscles allows them to grow back stronger, often introducing some pain into your relationship through vulnerability is the only way to make the relationship stronger."
Manson points out that trust in the context of a decades long relationship can get into some very deep and possibly life-or-death places. "If you ended up with cancer tomorrow, would you trust your partner to stick with you and take care of you? Would you trust your partner to care for your child for a week by themselves? Do you trust them to handle your money or make sound decisions under pressure? Do you trust them to not turn on you or blame you when you make mistakes?" He makes a great point that "Trust at the beginning of a relationship is easy." We don't know the other person yet and so don't have much to lose. We haven't invested years of our life, created children with this person, come to rely on them when we are sick or infirm.
He says that "the deeper the commitment, the more intertwined your lives become, and the more you will have to trust your partner to act in your interest in your absence."
Manson's readers told him that "The key to fostering and maintaining trust in the relationship is for both partners to be completely transparent and vulnerable: If something is bothering you, say something. This is important not only for addressing issues as they arise, but it proves to your partner that you have nothing to hide. Those icky, insecure things you hate sharing with people? Share them with your partner. Not only is it healing, but you and your partner need to have a good understanding of each other’s insecurities and the way you each choose to compensate for them. Make promises and then stick to them. The only way to truly rebuild trust after it’s been broken is through a proven track record over time. You cannot build that track record until you own up to previous mistakes and set about correcting them."
Another great point offered by Manson's readers was that the person you marry is not going to be the same person you are with 20, 30, 50 years from now. Humans have an interesting habit of changing and evolving. One of his readers "commented that at her wedding, an elderly family member told her, 'One day many years from now, you will wake up and your spouse will be a different person, make sure you fall in love with that person too.'" That reminds me of a friend whose father told him "Your mother has changed many times over the course of our marriage and I have fallen in love with each new version of her". What a lovely way to go through life, having numerous love affairs with numerous versions of the same person you committed yourself to all those years ago.
A man named Michael wrote to Manson " When you commit to someone, you don’t actually know who you’re committing to. You know who they are today, but you have no idea who this person is going to be in five years, ten years, and so on. You have to be prepared for the unexpected, and truly ask yourself if you admire this person regardless of the superficial (or not-so-superficial) details, because I promise almost all of them at some point are going to either change or go away."
Another one of his readers, Kevin, offered "Two years ago, I suddenly began resenting my wife for any number of reasons. I felt as if we were floating along, doing a great job of co-existing and co-parenting, but not sustaining a real connection. It deteriorated to the point that I considered separating from her; however, whenever I gave the matter intense thought, I could not pinpoint a single issue that was a deal breaker. I knew her to be an amazing person, mother, and friend. I bit my tongue a lot and held out hope that the malaise would pass as suddenly as it had arrived. Fortunately, it did and I love her more than ever. So the final bit of wisdom is to afford your spouse the benefit of the doubt. If you have been happy for such a long period, that is the case for good reason. Be patient and focus on the many aspects of her that still exist that caused you to fall in love in the first place." So again, even if our partner does not change we may go through periods where our feelings do. Don't jump to conclusions and call the divorce attorney. Ride it out and assume that they are still lovable you are just having a hard time finding the connection.
Manson's readers also agreed on the idea of fighting productively and fairly. As Ryan Saplan stated "The relationship is a living, breathing thing. Much like the body and muscles, it cannot get stronger without stress and challenge. You have to fight. You have to hash things out. Obstacles make the marriage." Personally I would love to do without the arguments but in my opinion they are just inevitable. You have two totally separate brains, nervous systems, histories, preferences, triggers, personalities, temperaments and all of that. How on earth would you never disagree, even passionately so? So whether you feel like the arguments increase the depth and strength of the marriage or you regard them as an unavoidable part of being human you still have to figure out how to get through them as gracefully as possible.
Manson goes on to talk about some of John Gottman's research. He summarizes that Gottman "spent over 30 years analyzing married couples and looking for keys to why they stick together and why they break up....Successful couples, like unsuccessful couples, he found, fight consistently. And some of them fight furiously. [Gottman] has been able to narrow down four characteristics of a couple that tend to lead to divorces (or breakups). He called these “the four horsemen” of the relationship apocalypse in his books. They are
Manson said that many of the 1500 respondents to his invitation to opine on marriage agreed with Gottman that these 4 habits were very destructive to relationships. They cautioned "Never insult or name-call your partner. Put another way: hate the sin, love the sinner." Manson went on to make the point that" Gottman’s research found that 'contempt'—belittling and demeaning your partner—is the number one predictor of divorce." He added "Do not bring previous fights/arguments into current ones. This solves nothing and just makes the fight twice as bad as it was before. Yeah, you forgot to pick up groceries on the way home, but what does him being rude to your mother last Thanksgiving have to do with anything?" I assure you this both harder and more important than it sounds. I work very hard with couples to learn to fight clean, resolve fully and then leave the past in the past. Too often, however, fights are done dirty and not fully resolved, and then the past cannot help but to intrude in a very ugly way into the current conversation.
Manson suggested that "If things get too heated, take a breather. Remove yourself from the situation and come back once emotions have cooled off a bit." This is a big one for me personally—sometimes when things get intense with my wife, I get overwhelmed and just leave for a while. I usually walk around the block two or three times and let myself seethe for about 15 minutes. Then I come back and we’re both a bit calmer and we can resume the discussion with a much more conciliatory tone." I agree but would also add that if you are going to walk away from your partner in the midst of a fight you still need to let them know that 1) you still love them and 2) that you are going to go calm down and come back in ___ minutes (and make sure you keep track of time and come back when you said you would). This helps to reduce feelings of abandonment in case your partner is sensitive to that.
Manson also offers to "Remember that being 'right' is not as important as both people feeling respected and heard. You may be right, but if you are right in such a way that makes your partner feel unloved, then there’s no real winner." Or as some people say, it's better to be close than to be right.
Of course if you are being honest, telling each other everything and not avoiding fights, then there will be some forgiving that might have to happen. Manson's readers covered this as well. A fellow named Brian wrote that "When you end up being right about something—shut up. You can be right and be quiet at the same time. Your partner will already know you’re right and will feel loved knowing that you didn’t wield it like a battle sword." That one is going up on my refrigerator. Seriously. And then there was Bill, who concisely reminded us that " In marriage, there’s no such thing as winning an argument." Agreed.
Manson opined "When an argument is over, it’s over... When you’re done fighting, it doesn’t matter who was right and who was wrong, it doesn’t matter if someone was mean and someone was nice. It’s over. It’s in the past. And you both agree to leave it there, not bring it up every month for the next three years. There’s no scoreboard...When your partner screws up, you separate the intentions from the behavior. You recognize the things you love and admire in your partner and understand that he/she was simply doing the best that they could, yet messed up out of ignorance. Not because they’re a bad person. Not because they secretly hate you and want to divorce you. Not because there’s somebody else in the background pulling them away from you. They are a good person. That’s why you are with them. If you ever lose your faith in that, then you will begin to erode your faith in yourself."
A reader named Fred wrote that he has "Been happily married 40+ years. One piece of advice that comes to mind: choose your battles. Some things matter, worth getting upset about. Most do not. Argue over the little things and you’ll find yourself arguing endlessly; little things pop up all day long, it takes a toll over time. Like Chinese water torture: minor in the short term, corrosive over time. Consider: is this a little thing or a big thing? Is it worth the cost of arguing?" I often ask my couples-- in 10 years, will this matter? What about in 20?
Readers also wrote that it is important to stay connected through every day things. Brian advised that partners "meet for lunch, go for a walk or go out to dinner and a movie with some regularity....Staying connected through life’s ups and downs is critical. Eventually your kids grow up, your...parents will die. When that happens, guess who’s left?...You don’t want to wake up 20 years later and be staring at a stranger because life broke the bonds you formed before the [drama] started. You and your partner need to be the eye of the hurricane.
Mason added that "This seems to become particularly important once kids enter the picture. The big message I heard hundreds of times about kids: put the marriage first." One of his readers, Susan, said that "Children are worshipped in our culture these days. Parents are expected to sacrifice everything for them. But the best way to raise healthy and happy kids is to maintain a healthy and happy marriage. Good kids don’t make a good marriage. A good marriage makes good kids. So keep your marriage the top priority." Dr. Stan Tatkin teaches the same. Dr. Tatkin advises that partners keep each other in a "couple bubble" and that all other entities, whether they are kids, careers, hobbies, parents, etc., be lower status than the relationship with your spouse. I have seen this advice save many marriages that were strained nearly beyond repair by kids, step-kids, ex-spouses, ailing parents and demanding careers. Keeping each other as the first priority is essential to a happy partnership.
Manson's readers also agreed that "Sex matters… a LOT". Readers said that when the relationship was ailing the sex lagged. And that it was important to make time for it, even if there are kids, jobs, chores and whatnot imposing on your time. His readers echoed what Helen Fisher cites in her research, that sex bonds people. "That when things are a bit frigid between them or that they have some problems going on, a lot of stress, or other issues (i.e., kids), they even go so far as to schedule sexy time for themselves. They say it’s important. And it’s worth it.
A few people even said that when things start to feel stale in the relationship, they agree to have sex every day for a week. Then, as if by magic, by the next week, they feel great again."
And again Manson and Stan Tatkin agree that creating rules or agreements in the relationship is essential. One of Manson's readers, Liz, stated that "There is no 50/50 in housecleaning, child rearing, vacation planning, dishwasher emptying, gift buying, dinner making, money making, etc. The sooner everyone accepts that, the happier everyone is. We all have things we like to do and hate to do; we all have things we are good at and not so good at. TALK to your partner about those things when it comes to dividing and conquering all the [stuff] that has to get done in life."
Manson talks about "The fact is relationships are imperfect, messy affairs. And it’s for the simple reason that they’re comprised of imperfect, messy people—people who want different things at different times in different ways...The common theme of the advice here was “Be pragmatic.” If the wife is a lawyer and spends 50 hours at the office every week, and the husband is an artist and can work from home most days, it makes more sense for him to handle most of the day-to-day parenting duties. If the wife’s standard of cleanliness looks like a Home & Garden catalog, and the husband has gone six months without even noticing the light fixture hanging from the ceiling, then it makes sense that the wife handles more of the home cleaning duties. It’s economics 101: division of labor makes everyone better off. Figure out what you are each good at, what you each love/hate doing, and then arrange accordingly. My wife loves cleaning (no, seriously), but she hates smelly stuff. So guess who gets dishes and garbage duty? Me. Because I don’t [care]. I’ll eat off the same plate seven times in a row. I couldn’t smell a dead rat even if it was sleeping under my pillow. I’ll toss garbage around all day. Here honey, let me get that for you." I often tell couples that their differences are a net strength for the relationship. One person is great with finances, the other can work a crowd and schmooze the new neighbors. Together they can benefit from the things the other person is better at.
And finally Mason offered the advice of a sage reader named Margo "You can work through anything as long as you are not destroying yourself or each other. That means emotionally, physically, financially, or spiritually. Make nothing off limits to discuss. Never shame or mock each other for the things you do that make you happy. Write down why you fell in love and read it every year on your anniversary (or more often). Write love letters to each other often. Make each other first. When kids arrive, it will be easy to fall into a frenzy of making them the only focus of your life…do not forget the love that produced them. You must keep that love alive and strong to feed them love. Spouse comes first. Each of you will continue to grow. Bring the other one with you. Be the one that welcomes that growth. Don’t think that the other one will hold the relationship together. Both of you should assume it’s up to you so that you are both working on it. Be passionate about cleaning house, preparing meals, and taking care of your home. This is required of everyone daily, make it fun and happy and do it together. Do not complain about your partner to anyone. Love them for who they are. Make love even when you are not in the mood. Trust each other. Give each other the benefit of the doubt always. Be transparent. Have nothing to hide. Be proud of each other. Have a life outside of each other, but share it through conversation. Pamper and adore each other. Go to counseling now before you need it so that you are both open to working on the relationship together. Disagree with respect to each other’s feelings. Be open to change and accepting of differences. Print this and refer to it daily."
Thanks, Margo, I think I will. Because even couple's therapists need reminders from time to time.
Wishing you health and happiness in your connections to others,
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I have written about shame before but wanted to expand on my earlier blog with some new information on how exactly we learn to be shame prone.
James Harper has written about this subject and explains that families that promote shame lack certain fundamental qualities that protect against shame. These qualities are accountability, intimacy and dependency. If these qualities are present in sufficient amounts in a family system children can grown up without undue amounts of shame. To break these
Again if these qualities are not present enough kids will end up feeling toxic amounts of shame. When kids experience shame a lot they naturally begin to internalize it. That emotional state gains preference in the nervous system and is more easily accessed. I compare this to driving down a dirt road every day for several week. Over time you will notice grooves getting established in the dirt so that it gets harder to deviate from the path you have been taking each time. This is similar to the way our brains respond-- the more we feel something (or think something, or do something) the more that pathway is reinforced and becomes easier for the brain to find the next time. So numerous experiences with shame as a child make is "shame prone" in adulthood.
“Children are especially vulnerable to shame." commented Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW in this article in Huffington Post. "Self-centered and dependent, young humans will easily translate, “You did something bad,” into, “You ARE bad.” We need to be aware and careful about the messages we send.
One potent quote I heard about shame was this --
Shame is a lie someone told you about yourself
(that you believed).
Whether it is intentional or not we need to be careful about the messages that we transmit to kids. That they are frustrating, that they are "too much", too needy, too demanding, incompetent, embarrassing or not measuring up to our standards. They may believe these falsities many, many years into the future.
Perhaps one of the reasons that shame is such a persisting emotion and so hard to "un-learn" is that it is tied to our very survival. Shame is centered in the autonomic nervous system. Unfortunately the human brain, in some ways, is pretty dumb. It cannot distinguish between physical threat and emotional threat, just like on a brain level it does not distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain (see my earlier blog on this). When the brain perceives any kind of threat it responds by booting up "crisis mode"-- the autonomic nervous system. This is the response of the brain to shame, probably because shame implies a threat to important relationships. Especially in childhood our relationships with caregivers are life and death matters. If we are being shamed by our caregivers we respond as if our survival has been threatened-- because it has. Just like being attacked by a bear we have the urge to hide or flee. If that does not work we resort to attack. Shame is hard-wired in to these deep areas of the brain (the ANS) that are designed to protect us from actual annihilation. So once these areas have been reprogrammed to feel shame it can be very hard to root out.
Shame proneness in kids is sadly predictive of numerous problems in adulthood, including alcohol abuse, high risk sexual behavior, legal problems, suicide attempts and social isolation. Shame proneness, while not associated with age or socioeconomic level, is also associated with low self-esteem and PTSD as well as the problems mentioned above (Ashby et al. 2006, Crossley & Rockett 2005, Feiring & Taska 2005, Stuewig & McCloskey 2005). Shame-proneness assessed in the fifth grade predicted later risky driving behavior, earlier initiation of drug and alcohol use, and a lower likelihood of practicing safe sex (Tangney & Dearing 2002). Similarly, proneness to problematic feelings of shame has been positively linked to substance use and abuse in adulthood (Dearing et al. 2005, Meehan et al. 1996, O’Connor et al. 1994, Tangney et al. 2006). For people who are HIV positive, having persistent feelings of shame predicted t-cell decline, showing compromised immune function (Weitzman et al. 2004).
Shame-prone people also engage in aggressive acts more than those who are not shame-prone. For example they tend to verbally attack, blame and externalize as well as the more passive-aggressive option of simply talking badly about someone behind their back. Shame-prone folks are also more aggressive physically, either interpersonally or by attacking objects/possessions important to the person they are angry at (think keying someone's car). Sadly the shame-prone person may also harm themselves or simply ruminate in their unexpressed anger. Interestingly these individuals admit that their anger gets them into trouble and is destructive of relationships but they seem to have trouble not being triggered into these negative behaviors.
Brene Brown has written and talked extensively about shame and how to become less shame-prone. She suggests the following steps to help recover from a shame-prone upbringing:
For more help with shame I recommend Brene Brown's Ted Talk or her book on shame. She also has other resources available on her website.
Therapy can also be a wonderful tool to work on deep feelings of shame or surviving a shaming childhood. People can heal from toxic shame and learn to more fully love themselves and live the lives they truly deserve.
Wishing you happiness and peace,
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One of the first things I try to establish with people who have been deeply hurt is that there is no "right" answer to forgiveness. Each person and each situation is different and no one can know what ultimately is going to be right for you. There are different types of forgiveness and sometimes it can help to learn the distinctions. What follows is a summary of a wonderful 3-minute video on the topic, along with some of my own ideas.
In this video by UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Marmer delineates 3 different types of forgiveness. These are:
1) Exoneration-- what we typically think of as forgiveness. Wiping the slate clean as though the hurt never happened. This restores the relationship to the state of innocence that existed prior to the injury. This is appropriate in the following instances:
Dr. Marmer goes so far as to say that in these situations if you are not able to offer forgiveness it may suggest that there is more wrong with you than the person who harmed you. I tend to be a more "case by case basis" person rather than make such a sweeping proclamation. But I can see his point. If your 5 year old accidentally breaks your favorite vase and falls into tears and apologizes there might be something very wrong with you if you cannot forgive him or her.
2) Forbearance-- this is when the offender:
Dr. Marmer goes on to say that even if you have no responsibility in how you were harmed you should practice forbearance if the relationship really matters. He goes on to say that you should
(I would say you "may want to consider", I am not a fan of the word "SHOULD"):
Dr. Marmer states that forbearance allows us to maintain ties to people that are important to us but are far from perfect. I would argue that many of our families of origin may fit into this category. In this case establishing healthy boundaries that can keep us from being further injured while still maintaining some connection can be a good compromise. He goes on to state, and I agree, that after a sufficient period of "good behavior" forbearance can rise to exoneration. I would say that this is probably a reasonable idea to try the first few times someone is not able to offer a sincere apology. But if the trend continues, or if the injury is simply too grievous, you may not ever want to drop your guard with this sort of person. Again, it's probably best dealt with on a case by case basis.
But what do you do if the person who has harmed you never acknowledges that they have done anything wrong or gives an obviously insincere apology making no effort towards reparations whatsoever? Dr. Marmer gives examples of adult survivors of child abuse, business people who have been cheated by their partners or family members who have betrayed one another.
This is where Dr. Marmer offers an third option:
3) Release -- this does NOT exonerate the offender, nor does it require forbearance. It also does not demand that you continue the relationship. He suggests that what is required for release is to stop defining yourself by the hurts that have been done to you and release bad feelings and preoccupations with the negative things that have happened to you. He contests that if you do not release the pain and anger from old hurts and betrayals you will, in effect, allow the people who hurt you to continue to influence you on a daily basis. He asserts that you are allowing these people to "live rent free in your mind" while you suffer from their occupancy.
What Dr. Marmer implies but does not talk about is something that I refer to as a "trauma bond". The original use of this term was for Stockholm Syndrome, or feeling positively towards one's captors. I use it a little differently. To me a trauma bond does not have to feel positive. You don't need to idolize your abusive partner or join the militia that captured you and held you prisoner. To me it can represent the broader idea of a tie to a person with whom you share emotional pain. Many times the trauma bond is from a victim to a perpetrator, or from the "harmer" to the "harmee". I think broadening the construct to include any tie, positive or negative, to a person you have been in pain over, is perhaps more applicable to most people's lives. Most of us have never been prisoners of war or help captive by a psychopath. More commonly we have histories of being emotionally neglected or abused in childhood by our own parents. Even if we have decided not to ever talk to them again and have completely cut them out of our lives, that bond remains unless certain steps are taken to "release" it. This release is NOT done to repair the relationship or restore it in any way. It is done to cut the psychic tethers that keep us anchored to that person and that old pain. Releasing a trauma bond is for the person who has been hurt. It is a gift one gives oneself. It is not an absolution of the wrongness of the act or actions. It is not an absolving of the person who has done it. It comes closest to how I once heard Maya Angelou describe forgiveness. She said forgiveness to her was saying to herself "I am done with you" and moving on with her life. Breaking the trauma bond. Releasing ones own self from the pain of the past. There does not need to be any regard for what happens to the person(s) that hurt you. They may thrive or perish. It does not matter. The release is for you alone.
Recently I listened to a wonderful audio book by Harriet Lerner, Why Won't You Apologize? This is the woman who wrote a series of "The Dance of..." books starting in the 1980's. The most well-known of which is probably The Dance of Anger. This is one of the most well-read self-help books about anger and I find it entirely refreshing that the author of this book is NOT promoting forgiveness across the board. In fact she says that it is inappropriate and not at all helpful to think about forgiving someone who has NOT APOLOGIZED. As a therapist who often works with people who are from dysfunctional families in which the abusive, neglectful or inept parents still don't realize that they injured their now adult children I think this message is vital. Most of my clients actually never get apologies from their parents and often choose to not even talk to their parents about the hurts they sustained in childhood. And some of my clients decide not to work on forgiveness of those parents. And that does not impede their emotional progress one bit in my estimation. Our culture seems to be obsessed with forgiveness as if it is the only legitimate route to personal growth. I disagree. For those who want to forgive, for those who are reaching for it, I think it can be an amazing journey. However it is not the only way to grow as a person and I hardly think it is necessary. In my opinion there are things that, put simply, cannot be forgiven. However, I DO think that breaking a trauma bond and releasing oneself from the ties that have bound us to a person who has hurt us can be a very important experience and can free up emotional resources for other endeavors.
If you find yourself challenged with the prospect of forgiveness and are not sure how to move forward I encourage you to realize that there are many different options. Dr. Marmer has outlined the 3 options he finds useful. Dr. Lerner's book offers additional approaches. Maya Angelou has her method. Deepak Chopra has a process that he outlines here. Whatever route you take I hope you find a way to break any trauma bonds that you have and liberate yourself to focus on building the life you deserve.
Wishing you peace and release from past hurts,
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For anyone who has wondered how Dr. Tatkin came to develop his theories this is an old interview on Shrinkrap Radio from 2008 in which he talks at some length about his early training experiences. As always Dr. Tatkin is clear, coherent and incredibly articulate. He explains his circuitous route to becoming a relationship expert, starting as a professional musician (drummer!) and weaving through inpatient psychiatric hospitals with John Bradshaw where he learned Gestalt therapy and psychodrama, to working in addiction treatment, on to studying American Object Relations with Dr. James Masterson, to training in the Adult Attachment Interview with Drs. Mary Main and Erik Hesse and finally to studying infant brain development with Dr. Alan Schore. Once in private practice Dr. Tatkin realized a strong interest in working with some of the more severe personality disorders such as narcissism which lead to his epiphany that prevention was where he wanted to put his focus. This lead him into looking at infant attachment and eventually to adult attachment in romantic relationships. In working with couples we not only help the adult dyad we also increase the security of the system in which any children are reared. This pays forward in building more relational security in the children as well.
For anyone wanting a brief and very understandable explanation of the Avoidant attachment style he does so right around minute 40. And of course if you want to get the major download of all of Dr. Tatkin's wisdom I recommend Your Brain on Love, his audio program in which he explains to lay people how his theories explain why relationships go awry in the short and long term.
In this interview Dr. Tatkin also references a film about infant attachment called When the Bow Breaks which drew him in to the field of infant attachment and lead him to the work of Dr. Allan Schore. He also mentions several of Dr. Schore's books, including Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self if you want to get deeper into some of his "source" material. All in all it's a great 50-minute interview with someone who I feel is at the leading edge of relationship science.
Wishing you the best in your relationships and connections,
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I have written about shame before but wanted to expand on my earlier blog with some new information on how exactly we learn to be shame prone.
James Harper has written about this subject and explains that there are types of families that tend to be shaming. Harper, along with a colleague Hoopes (1990) says that healthy families all contain the following essential qualities to promote optimal emotional development in children-- "accountability"-- the sense that "family members feel and act responsibly towards each other and meet each other's basic emotional needs"; "intimacy"-- family members are "able to share physical touch, be nurturing to each other, and share emotional experiences" in a way that feels supportive and comforting; and "dependency"-- the "ability of family members to rely on each other emotionally for basic needs". This includes parents not being annoyed by the natural dependency of young children and being willing to continue "scaffolding" children well into adolescence as they learn to become more autonomous. Parents who fail to provide enough of these essential qualities inadvertently create shame experiences in children. If repeated often enough this can become part of the child's self-concept and identity. They feel that they are inconvenient to their parents, that their basic feelings are not acceptable, that their world is unpredictable. They learn to despise their natural needs to be dependent and also their normal failures and struggles as they grow and develop. They assume that if only they were "good enough" they would be loved and, therefor, their feeling unloved is somehow their own fault.
When kids experience shame a lot they naturally begin to internalize it. That emotional state gains preference in the nervous system and is more easily accessed. I compare this to driving down a dirt road every day for several week. Over time you will notice grooves getting established in the dirt so that it gets harder to deviate from the path you have been taking each time. This is similar to the way our brains respond-- the more we feel something (or think something, or do something) the more that pathway is reinforced and becomes easier for the brain to find the next time. So numerous experiences with shame as a child make is "shame prone" in adulthood. Research shows that people who are "shame prone" or have "trait shame" learn to expect to be shamed and they learn to hide their flaws from others. This impairs their ability to feel intimately connected with others and can even cause these people to lash out and shame others before they can be shamed themselves. According to studies people high in "trait" shame tend to also be more pessimistic, narcissistic, dependent, emotionally labile, feel victimized and be introverted. In an effort to cope with chronic shame people often turn to substance abuse, addictive behaviors (sex, gambling, eating, work, exercise) and/or chronic interpersonal conflict in an effort to ward off the collapsing into shame they so fear. Mills, Imm, Walling and Weiler (2008) found that children with higher shame experiences also had higher cortisol in their bloodstream, a sign of physiological stress. Remember that the brain does not distinguish emotional versus physical pain in where the information is processed or how the body responds. So shame provokes a stress response in the body that, over time, can lead to chronic stress-related illnesses including more trouble returning to physiological baseline after feeling shamed.
Relationally shame-prone partners tend to have insecure attachment styles (Karos, 2006; Wells & Hansen, 2003) and distressed romantic relationships (Greenberg, 2008). Their sex lives also tend to be problematic/unfulfilling. I am often fond of telling couples that anger and shame are two tried and true arousal killers. Shame-prone partners have trouble communicating in their relationships because they are so guarded and are constantly trying to defend themselves against having shameful parts of themselves discovered. They may perceive attempts to be close as intrusive and an attempt to uncover things that they feel shame about. They may also be aggressive and try to push others away, especially as that person is trying to get closer to them. Sadly in this way shame-prone people often create the situation they are fearing-- being seen as "bad" or "unlovable", which reinforces their feelings of shame.
While all of this is no doubt frustrating to those who are trying to love and be with a shame-prone person it is important to remember that shame-prone people, like all of us, have earned their scars and defenses. Research shows that people who are chronically struggling with shame tend to have histories of abuse, be it sexual (Feinauer, Hilton & Callahan, 2003), physical (Kim, Talbot & Cicchetti, 2009) or other traumas (Lee, Scragg & Turner, 2001). They also are more frequently abandoned by their spouses (Claesson & Sohlert 2002). So they have plenty of reasons to feel vulnerable, victimized and exposed. Empathy and emotional validation are keys to helping a shame-prone person feel more comfortable. Essentially acknowledging their shame and giving it words can be a great weight off of the shame-prone person's shoulders. Of course since those who are shame prone tend to see judgement at every turn it's important to phrase things carefully and let the person know that it makes sense that they feel shame based on their history. It can also be very powerful to share some of your own shame feelings in an effort to normalize their response.
Chronic shame can rob a person of adequate self-worth, goal achievement, fulfilling relationships and feelings of love, joy and satisfaction. If you or someone you love struggles with chronic or intense feelings of shame I recommend that you reach out to a mental health professional to discuss treatment. Psychotherapy, whether it is individual, in groups or as a couple can be a powerful way of healing this toxic emotion.
Wishing you health and happiness,
How do we find ourselves? If you have ever watched a "good" mother and baby pair, where you get that warm feeling in your chest as you watch them volley back and forth with expressions dancing across their faces, you have seen the formation of the authentic self. As babies we simply "are". We cry when upset, coo when happy, sleep when tired. And if our caregivers respond with love, admiration, attention and acceptance we thrive. We learn that we have a self inside of us and that it is valued. Later as toddlers we also learn that there are aspects of that self that come into conflict with our world, like the self that wants to use mom's lipstick to paint flowers on the wall or the self that wants cake for breakfast. If we are lucky and have adequate parents they set loving limits with us while also helping us feel accepted as a whole person even when individual behaviors are problematic.
However if you have ever witnessed a parent shaming a child by saying things like "you can do better than that" or "why aren't you more like _____?" or "girls (or boys) don't do that", etc., then you have also witnessed the destruction of the authentic self. Once the authentic self is under regular attack from parents who are unwilling to accept the child for who they naturally are a false self begins to form. It starts with the realization that they are not meeting their parent's standards and feelings of inadequacy and shame begin to spawn.
Over time children internalize the shame of feeling that they are a disappointment to these parents and create a "false self" that is more in line with what they think their parents want. However this self is not authentic and does not represent the true inner world of the child. The child has betrayed itself in order to maintain the attachment relationship, which sadly is the only option a child has in this situation due to their complete dependence on their caregivers.
As they grow up, however, these kids are plagued by feeling inauthentic and consequently don't establish relationships that contain true intimacy. They may also harbor deep feelings of rage at being asked to abandon themselves in order to please the other, even if in the current relationship this is not being asked of them. It's as if they have decided that this is the price of admission to relationships and they do it reflexively. Living life as a false-self also predisposes one to depression since you cannot experience true vitality and aliveness if you are not being authentic. This pain of being estranged from one's authentic self can often lead to acting out behaviors designed to "force" the self to feel something. Years ago a patient told me that she could only feel something when she was doing dangerous things. The rest of the time she felt deadened. She had sacrificed her authentic self as a young child to please overly perfectionistic parents who demanded straight A's and perfect manners. She became, as one could predict, an alternatingly depressed and angry adolescent who rebelled with drugs and high risk behaviors as a way to not only punish her parents for rejecting her authentic self but also as a means to feel alive.
Living as a false self can also lead one to make decisions that are ultimately not fulfilling, from choosing the wrong major in college to getting into the wrong relationship or taking the wrong job. One's true self is a compass and should steer you towards things that nourish your deepest soul. People living from the false self have no such compass and often drift, feeling confused, depressed and empty. They move through life "doing" things but find no fulfillment in them. I often see these folks in therapy and their refrain is "I have everything but I feel depressed/lonely/empty-- what's wrong with me?"
Thankfully therapy is a great place to discover one's authentic self. Through therapy a person can begin to explore what really matters, how one really feels and how one is essentially "wired". Therapists, because they are not invested in you turning out any particular way, can offer encouragement for the process of re-discovering your nascent true self and bringing it into your daily life.
There are several authors who have written quite poingnantly over the years about issues of the false self and the therapeutic process of repairing this type of damage, such as Alice Miller's
Prisoners of Childhood: The Drama of The Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self, Karen Horney's theory of personality, D.W. Winnicott's concept of "true" and "false" selves, or Tian Dayton's article in Huffington Post. All agree on the fact that personal happiness and well-being is only achievable through a re-claiming of the true/authentic self when a false self has come to be dominant.
If you have been struggling with issues that you suspect may be related to developing a false self consider seeking therapy. It's never too late to be the person you were meant to be.
Wishing you health and happiness,
First a note on semantics. The "Island" under consideration is a romantic partner who has what would, in research, be called an "avoidant" attachment style. Attachment research goes back many years (to the 1940's) and involves classifying people into different categories based on how they relate to their primary caregiver in early childhood. For more information on attachment see my earlier blog on the subject.
As some of you know when I work with couples I use the PACT model of therapy (the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy). The PACT model has re-labelled the attachment styles as follows: Islands (avoidant), Waves (resistant) and Anchors (secures). It would be too complicated to explain the model here but see earlier posts of mine on the classification system and how our attachment styles impact our romantic relationships. Dr. Stan Tatkin's audio program, "Your Brain on Love", provides a wonderful explanation of the theory and how to apply it to your relationship.
OK, now on to those islands. For those of you who love someone who is often island-ish it can be confusing to understand them if you are not one yourself. Now of course to be fair, island-ish people often don't understand non-island-ish people either!
However, human behavior is often predictable if you know what to look for. So if you know that your partner is "island-ish" then you can predict what is going to bug them and what will really make them purr. I am summarizing here points made by Dr. Stan Tatkin in his wonderful audio program Your Brain on Love. If you haven't listened to it I strongly suggest you give it a try! While I have provided a link via Amazon above you can also buy it on iTunes, Audible and soundstrue.com.
Now before proceeding I need to make something REALLY clear. What I am about to say may make you think "sheesh, why would I want to commit to an island if it will turn out this way?". So PLEASE understand something-- everyone, regardless of their style (Island, Wave or even Anchors) will get harder to handle after commitment. Dr. Tatkin refers to this as the "marriage monster". It's the unstoppable dynamic that gets activated when we pledge ourself to someone for all eternity. This just naturally turns up the heat and starts to show the cracks in our structure. So if you are wave-ish please realize that commitment also makes you more wave-ish and therefore harder to handle. It's not that island-ish people are worse than you. There is enough bad behavior to go around ;-)
OK so as long as you proceed without judgement, here are a few things that are predictable about people who are island-ish (or avoidantly attached):
Remember that all of the above is NOT personal, NOT conscious and NOT immediately under their control. Like any human being island-ish partners can learn about themselves and can learn new behaviors. But this often takes time and some professional coaching.
And one final tip on not triggering your island-ish partner--
I hope these tips have been helpful. Look for my upcoming blog on "The Care and Feeding of Your Wave". Remember, about half of us have "insecure" attachment styles (meaning we are not "anchors" or "secures"). So if you find yourself relating to the Island or Wave types don't feel bad. There are plenty of folks in your company. And if your partner is willing to learn your style they can take great care of you (and vice-versa!).
Dr. Stan Tatkin on Co-Dependency Versus Inter-Dependency (as well as other aspects of relationships)
What exactly is the difference between co-dependency and interdependency?
This is a question that comes up a lot for folks who are familiar with the idea of co-dependency. Many of us have an idea that we are supposed to "love ourselves before we can love others" and "be the source of our own happiness." We may feel that if this is not happening that we are being "dysfunctional" or "co-dependent." One of the interesting things to me about the re-focus on attachment research in the past decade of psychology has been the re-realization that humans are inherently dependent on others. We are born some of the most vulnerable babies of all species, requiring a full decade if not more of intensive parental involvement. Our brains do not actually finish maturing until halfway through our second decade of life. We have always, and continue to, live in groups or "packs". We use solitary confinement as the worst punishment for the worst humans. So how many of us got this idea that depending on others was bad or pathological seems curious indeed.
I recently encountered a podcast with Dr. Stan Tatkin, a prominent couples therapist and author who utilizes attachment theory as a foundation of his work. Among other things in this interview Dr. Tatkin shows how his model is representative of healthy interdependency versus the pathological idea of co-dependency. It would take several pages for me to summarize his theory on this point and he does a perfectly fine job on his own. So for those reasons rather than try to explain his viewpoint to you I suggest that you listen yourself:
He gets to the topic of codependency around 20 minutes in to the podcast. While you are there you may want to check out other topics in this podcast which specializes on relationships. The podcaster has many excellent guests on his shows and seems to cover a lot of important ground.
And if you are interested in learning more about healthy relationships, as always I also recommend Dr. Tatkin's audio program, Your Brain On Love, as well as his books, Wired For Love and Wired For Dating.
Wishing you happiness in your connections,
A thought occurred to me the other day in the midst of counseling a couple. One of them had recently adopted a dog from the animal shelter. She was talking about the history of the dog and why it had certain habits and fears. To all of us in the room it went without saying that since the dog had been mistreated by it's previous owners it came with "issues". I think many of us have had those experiences, like raising your hand to pet a dog and watching it flinch or cower. Our first thought in that situation is "oh dear, I bet this dog has been abused!". We generally don't get mad at the dog for misunderstanding us. Nor do we expect the dog to know that we are not the same person who previously hurt them. We are generally concerned and patient and understand it will take the dog time to trust us. We also would not be surprised if a dog trainer told us that there were some things we could do on our part to not create fear in the dog.
So while all of this is usually pretty obvious to humans in regards to dogs, the corollary to understanding our relationship partners is sadly not all that intuitive. We are often upset to find that our partners, who had previous "owners" (parents/caregivers) have baggage and a host of unconscious expectations that cause them to misunderstand us and sometimes act in ways that don't make sense. By the way, they are seeing the same behaviors in us! It's as if one dog from the pound (with their own history of having been neglected or hurt in the past) adopts another dog from the pound (with their own history also). You can imagine the problems that ensue.
If you have read my blog posts or website you may know that I practice a particular style of couples therapy-- PACT. In that style of therapy we find it useful to look for certain patterns of behavior that arise from particular histories of interactions with our early caregivers. These patterns are called "attachment styles". There are two basic styles that represent the majority of us who end up having relationship problems-- "Avoidant" (which Dr. Stan Tatkin calls "Islands") and "Resistant" (which Dr. Tatkin calls "Waves"). These two predominant patterns can be described in terms of types of dogs you may encounter at your local pound.
The "Avoidant" or "Island" type of partner is like the dog at the pound who, when you approach the cage smiling and holding out a treat, backs up and hopes you will go away. You may feel hurt or rejected, even annoyed. You may think to yourself "hey, I'm the good guy here!", "c'mon buddy, give me a chance!" If you are patient and give the dog a little space in time he or she will likely relax and may even show some interest. If you open the cage and again give the dog space it will, in it's own time, come out. But don't expect this type of dog to jump into your arms in the first few minutes! He or she will need to move past you and walk around a bit, making sure that you do not represent any danger or infringement on their free will. Once the dog has established that you are OK letting it walk about freely it will likely approach you, in it's own time, and perhaps make a gesture of interest. If you move too quickly or with too much enthusiasm this type of dog will back away and then you are back to square one for a bit.
If you try to imagine what kind of history this dog has it's not hard to conjure: This dog was neglected. It had the kind of owner who put out food and water but did not show the dog much affection. The dog is not used to being engaged or approached much. When this owner did approach the dog it was likely for the dog to do something for the owner rather than the owner doing something for the dog. Perhaps it was an older dog who was too tired to run much, but the only time the owner came to it was to drag it out for a run because that's what the owner wanted to do. The owner missed the cues from the poor dog that this was only fun for the human! The owner simply threw a leash on the dog and dragged it around the block, perhaps even chastising the dog for going to slow. Then upon returning home the dog is put back into it's corner and ignored again. This dog will come to see his owner as a task-master who is only really interested in him or herself. The dog will be mistrustful of approach because it only means that the dog is now expected to do something that the dog may have no interest in. The dog has learned that the owner is not sensitive to it's needs or wants and most of the time leaves it alone. So the dog learns to entertain itself and gets pretty good at this. It can stare out the window and watch birds or run around alone in the back yard chasing squirrels. But the dog does not expect the owner to partake of these activities or show any interest in what the dog is doing. In fact, the dog comes to prefer not being noticed by the owner because the owner is only interested in their own needs and the dog finds that unpleasant and unfair.
Notice that this dog is not necessarily abused. It's just emotionally neglected. Therefore when you show a lot of enthusiasm and rush forward to give it a big hug at the pound this dog is not comfortable with that. It will try to avoid that kind of effusive contact and get more space from you. In time, if you are patient, it may become more comfortable with you and the dog may even come to enjoy a certain amount of attention. But it may also never be the kind of dog that you can scoop up and hug and smooch all over. The dog has baggage.
Now compare that to a different kind of pound pooch. This dog has been intermittently abused and praised by its owner. Confusing, right? This owner was a bit moody and wrapped up in their own dramas. On a good day they would lavish the dog with treats and hugs and then on bad days might yell at the dog or even give it a kick. The dog was not able to know from day to day what was coming. So the dog also learns to be guarded. Only when you approach this dog at the pound they don't necessarily want you to go away. Part of them is thinking "well, this could be good...you may have a treat for me". But the other part of the poor dog is thinking "yeah, but this could be bad!". So the dog may approach but with ears back and a slightly open jaw, ready to bite if things turn ugly. When you see the dog approaching you in this way you might think "geez! Here I am trying to be nice and it looks as if you may bite me!" This type of dog may even approach you and growl, only to then lick your outstretched hand. Their behavior is likely to be a confusing mix of pleasure at your attention and fear and even anger at what they perceive is potential backlash. Even more confusing is that this dog, right after growling at you, will likely follow you into the next room. The dog does not seem to want to be alone, even though half the time when you try to engage it the dog may snarl or bark at you! And even more frustrating this dog may tear up your furniture in protest if you leave it alone for too long. This dog is certainly a confusing fellow! But, if treated with love and patience, this dog will eventually growl less and lick more. However it may always be quick to curl it's lip and look like it's about to bite. It's up to you to know how to help the dog feel safe and loved and to not take it too personally when the dog seems scared or testy. This dog would, if it were human, correspond to the attachment type of "Resistant" or in Tatkin's terms, a "Wave." This dog too has baggage.
When we meet our life partners they are not newly birthed puppies. They are middle-aged dogs with histories of having been, much of the time, mistreated in some way or another by someone in their formative years. It may not have been out and out abuse (although that is certainly possible), it may have been mild emotional neglect or moderate mis-attunement or confusion behaviors from distressed or overwhelmed parents. Whatever the case, they have baggage (as do we!). We need to come to expect this and not take it personally. We need to try to learn about our partner's histories and figure out how we can offer corrective experiences that will, over time and with patience, reduce their problematic behaviors. And we need to be reasonable about our expectations, knowing that while you can teach old dogs new tricks, you may have to use some pretty persuasive treats and even engage your friendly (PACT certified!) "dog trainer".
Wishing you the best in your loving connections (both human canine),
You hear a lot of talk about boundaries. These mysterious dividing lines between ourselves and others that somehow, if properly maintained, keep us and our relationships healthy. But what are boundaries really? And how can one measure them? How do you know when they are "right"?
There is a great little book that a former supervisor introduced me to many years ago as a young clinician. It's How to Be and Adult by David Richo. This slim volume, only 122 pages, tells the straight story of what interferes with our ability to mature into well-grounded and autonomous humans. The chapter on boundaries is particularly useful. Richo says "Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices". In other words, when you are not maintaining appropriate boundaries you start to lose who you truly are and your ability to feel that you have choices. This does not enhance relationships but instead breeds resentment as we feel ourselves losing ourselves and losing the sense of having options. We begin to feel manipulated by people and situations and naturally respond on some level, conscious or unconscious, with anger or despair.
It brings to mind the old adage "good fences make good neighbors". Any of you who have read my blogs or worked with me knows that I am passionate about connection. I am not the sort of person who feels that we need to learn to be alone. I truly believe that humans are designed to be interconnected. But that does not mean a lack of boundaries. In fact, not having good boundaries is putting your relationships at risk.
Conversely people who have good boundaries have a sense of mutuality that comes from appreciating that both people in the relationship have needs and that truly loving someone is honoring what is best from them while not sacrificing what is also best for yourself. As Richo says, they are able to "be in-touch and intact". When this process runs afoul you often see people trying to control or manipulate each other, or feeling that they must subjugate themselves to the needs of the other despite feeling over-run. When you "don't let go of what doesn't work" and it feels like "[you] can't let go of what could work" your boundaries are out of balance. "Co-dependency is unconditional love for someone else that has turned against the self". (Richo)
Rico's book contains a clever list of symptoms of good versus not-so-good boundaries. I am not going to quote all of them here but have selected a few that I think are especially salient:
Not Enough Boundaries Healthy Boundaries
You feel unclear about your preferences You feel clear on preferences and act on that
You are so focused on surviving that you You recognize when you are happy/unhappy
often don't know how you are feeling
You do more and more for less and less You do more when/if that gets you more
You are satisfied if you are coping/surviving You are only satisfied if you are thriving
You let other people's minimal improvement You are encouraged by sincere and ongoing improvement
maintain your stalemate
You act out of compliance and compromise You act out of agreement and negotiation
You are enmeshed in a drama and it feels like You are always aware of your choices and feel free to act
you have no control over how it unfolds based on them
Healthy boundaries, like most relationship skills, are passed down from parents to their children. Many of us did not get blessed with the lessons of good boundaries. We either over-restrict and fail to allow others into our inner lives, fearing their influence and potential loss of autonomy, or we have permeable boundaries that fail to keep our authentic self safe and are too yielding to the needs of others.
Therapy is a great way to work on boundaries and, like most skills in life (driving a car, baking a cake, etc.) they can be learned. If you notice that your boundaries could use some help I hope you consider therapy. I have seen it help many people lead happier, more comfortable and more fulfilled lives.
"Grief does not change you. It reveals you."
~ John Green
In my work as a therapist I can honestly say that it is never to late to grieve a loss. I have seen many people who start off thinking that "there's no point in getting into that, it was so long ago" or "I should be over this by now". But with support and encouragement these people have been able to do the important work of uncovering unprocessed grief that they have carried around for many years. And the results are remarkable. Letting go of grief can bring about profound changes in energy level, mood, openness to new relationships and even forgiveness of one's self and others.
If you are carrying around unresolved grief, no matter what kind or how old it is, I invite you to think about starting to process that loss.
The following post has been excerpt from a blog by Alexandra Katehakis & Tom Bliss. Many thanks for their words of wisdom on letting go.
No one knows the hurt of heartbreak until they've experienced it. The gnashing pain of saying "good-bye" to a lover--when we know the relationship isn't working, when we have to leave in order to grow into our potential, when we've been so terribly betrayed that we can't hold a vision for healing, or when someone dies--is beyond comprehension until we live through it. Loss is so devastating that many people hold onto pain, resentment, or anger as a perverse way to stay in relationship with the one we've said "good-bye" to. Sometimes it even feels righteous to stay in anger, hurt, or upset--almost as though we can right the wrong if we dig in our heels. Yet over time, this stance leaves us embittered and stuck, hanging on for dear life so as not to feel the awful feelings of sorrow. Worse, that mental clinging precludes our moving on.
Grief, on the other hand, is an essential step in our progress forward. Grieving requires the ego and the recriminations to get out of the way so that we can become vulnerable and fully feel the loss of what once was. Without the full-bodied sensation of our grief and loss, we can never get past them. Letting go and grieving is a cleansing and healing process for all: we tear open our emotional prison and energetically release ourselves, and our former beloved, to move on.
DAILY HEALTHY ACTS
· If you're holding on to an old wound and haven't let yourself feel the loss, take time today to write about what keeps
· Free yourself for a good cry over your primary losses.
· Have a small ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the loss of a loved one, whether it was a relational loss or literal loss. Light a candle in his or her name to free them, throw a rock into the ocean to symbolize an aspect of the relationship that needs to be let go, or plant some flowers so that your grief can blossom into something new.
By now many of us have heard about the idea of attachment in infancy. There is a strong movement for attachment-informed parenting which promotes consideration of attachment research in child-rearing practices. Since we now know that attachment style in infancy has long-reaching implications most psychologists advocate that parents familiarize themselves with this information as they shape their own parenting behaviors and family culture. And there is good reason to consider attachment! Securely attached infants are observed to be more resilient, tolerate stress better, explore their environment more, settle more easily and derive more comfort from their caregivers.
As they mature they tend to be preferred by peers and into adulthood suffer less psychological problems such as depression, substance abuse and even divorce. We now know that secure attachment in childhood provides a significant advantage in one's adult life. According to work by Feeney, Noller, & Callan (1994), securely attached adults are more satisfied in their relationships than insecurely attached folks. Their relationships have more trust, last longer, involve more mutual and satisfying interdependence, show more commitment and even involve using their partners more as companions in their exploration of the world (Fraley & Davis, 1997). Think of that lovely older couple who retires and travels the world together, exploring new and exciting cultures and growing together rather than apart.
Not only are securely attached adults more likely to get support from their partners when distressed, they are more likely to give support to their distressed partners (Simpson et al, 1992). Their relationships are truly reciprocal, fair and interdependent. And as if that's not enough reason to promote secure attachment for relationship health, these secure partners even view and interpret the behavior of their partners during and after conflict in ways that reduce negative feelings. For example, if my partner and I are arguing about where we will spend Christmas this year, when he brings up how uncomfortable he is around my chaotic family I would be more likely to hear this as a gentle reminder of previous years where we both were frustrated with my family dynamic rather than hearing "I hate your family and how insensitive you are to make suffer by forcing me to see them". Thus it's not only the behaviors that secure partners emit that make the relationship so secure, it's how the secure partner does not project negativity into their partner's statements even when the conversation gets heated. One can see how this generous style of interpreting communication, where the best rather than the worst is assumed, can smooth over many potentially combustible situations.
So what are our chances of reaching adulthood with secure attachment? Most research puts secure attachment rates at about 50% in infants/toddlers. Attachment systems are thought to be somewhat malleable until the age of 13 and can even change after that if a large enough stressor is applied (abuse/neglect, severe trauma, etc). Fortunately for those of us who did not achieve secure attachment in childhood there is still hope! The concept of earned security has been investigated over the past few decades and results indicate that even people who had insecure attachment in childhood can learn secure patterns by adulthood. According to Dan Siegel, MD, this "Earned secure/autonomous status is most often achieved through supportive personal or therapeutic relationships (for example, marriage or psychotherapy). The implication of these findings is that even with difficult past childhood experiences, the mind is capable of achieving an integrated perspective – one that is coherent and that permits parenting" (and I would argue partnering) "behavior to be sensitive and empathic. If integration is achieved, the trend toward transmission of insecure forms of attachment to the next generation can be prevented. Achieving coherence of mind thus becomes a central goal for creating emotional well-being in both oneself", one's marriage and "one’s offspring."
If you or your spouse had a difficult childhood or find it hard to maintain satisfying intimate relationships you may have an insecure attachment style. Therapy can help you to learn the skills necessary to model secure behaviors, thus allowing you to reap the benefits of security mentioned in the research above.
Thanks to our amazing brains we can overcome where we have come from. The rewards are tremendous and I encourage you to consider taking the journey.
What do we require of our mothers? Certainly not perfection. All mothers would fail at that. Dr. Donald Winnicott, a well-known psychoanalyst from decades past, used to say what we need from mothers is for them to be "good enough". What does "good enough" mean? Attachment researchers look for 3 qualities in "good enough" mothers: sensitivity -- being able to notice that an infant is distressed, responding quickly to the infant's signs of distress, and responding well enough that most of the time the infants get relief.
Keeping that in mind we could hardly find a worse type of mother than someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5the Edition (used by psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose mental illnesses) defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as:
A. Significant impairments in personality functioning manifest by:
1. Impairments in self functioning (a or b):
a. Identity: Excessive reference to others for self-definition and self-esteem regulation; exaggerated self-appraisal
may be inflated or deflated, or vacillate between extremes; emotional regulation mirrors fluctuations in self-esteem.
b. Self-direction: Goal-setting is based on gaining approval from others; personal standards are unreasonably high in
order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement; often unaware of own motivations.
2. Impairments in interpersonal functioning (a or b):
a. Empathy: Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others; excessively attuned to
reactions of others, but only if perceived as relevant to self; over- or underestimate of own effect on others.
b. Intimacy: Relationships largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutuality constrained by little
genuine interest in others‟ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain
B. Pathological personality traits in the following domain:
1. Antagonism, characterized by:
a. Grandiosity: Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert; self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is
better than others; condescending toward others.
b. Attention seeking: Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking.
C. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are relatively stable across time and consistent across situations.
D. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual‟s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.
E. The impairments in personality functioning and the individual‟s personality trait expression are not solely due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., severe head trauma).
**Please remember that this blog is not intended to diagnose anyone. If you have questions about diagnosis seek the counsel of a licensed mental health professional**
Now, given those criteria, you may be saying to yourself "wow, a lot of that sounds familiar!". Mothers who are highly narcissistic tend to see their children not as independent little people but rather as extensions of themselves. For this reason they are often very preoccupied with how the child looks, dresses, is seen by others, etc. Narcissistic mothers get upset if they feel that their child is in any way "reflecting badly" upon them, precisely because they do not differentiate between themselves and their children. They often use the talents, successes or qualities of their children for self-aggrandizement. Or sometimes the inverse-- they refuse to share the spotlight with their own child and will put them down or undermine them to ensure that they are the only "star" in the family.
Narcissists, underneath all of their inflation and grandiosity, are terribly insecure. If they ever feel devalued, belittled or exposed they may fly into a narcissistic rage, attacking anyone and everyone who does not support the version of themselves that the narcissist wants everyone to see.
Narcissistic mothers are incapable of helping children cultivate their authentic selves. If your authentic self loves playing in the mud your narcissistic mother may forbid you do do so but rather dress you in pretentious clothing and parade you around like a prize dog. If your authentic self wants to grow up and be a writer your narcissistic mother may chastise you and shame you into deciding you want to be a doctor or a lawyer (or whatever she thinks is appropriate). Children of narcissistic parents often have trouble finding their authentic selves even in adulthood because they learned long ago not to listen to what they really wanted or felt inside and rather learned to perform a role to keep their mother happy and engaged.
Narcissistic mothers may shun the less glamorous and more private aspects of parenting like bathing, cuddling, feeding or simply spending time with their children. They may use nannies, babysitters or other types of childcare so that they do not have to "waste their time" with these daily acts of devotion and nurturance. On the other hand the narcissistic mother may take extensive interest in things like dance classes, music lessons, athletic competitions or academic endeavors as they bring her a sense of self-aggrandizement by identification with the child's successes.
The important thing to know if you grew up with a narcissistic mother is that you CAN heal from this. Therapists are excellent at providing the type of attunement and nurturing that was missed by having this type of mother.
You may find this list of qualities of narcissistic mothers helpful:
21 signs of a narcissistic mother taken from Alexander Burgermeester's website
And now that you know what a healthy relationship looks like, you can evaluate for yourself how well these people are doing: http://valentine.thisamericanlife.org. This is a collection of short personal stories about love and heartbreak, things we can all relate to.
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.