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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There is a saying that expectations are resentments waiting to happen. I have to say that personally every time I find myself sitting with a resentment it has boiled down to that. I had expected that a person would do something (or not do something) and they did not act as I had expected. find myself feeling perturbed or sometimes downright angry about it. It's that kind of self-righteous indignation that can feel so powerful and intoxicating. It has real lasting power. So what is at the root of this strong emotion?
The word resentment comes from the French "re" and "sentir", meaning to re-feel. Which is such a great insight into the experience, because when we hold on to a resentment we are literally re-feeling the original upset. Which I find a useful thing to contemplate. If I was so unhappy with the experience the first time, why on earth would I keep deliberately re-feeling it? The entomology points out the futility of the situation. If you are resentful that, for example, your spouse forgot your anniversary, then by holding on to that resentment you continue to re-feel that original hurt. Ouch.
I find that people who have trouble with letting go of resentments are often very sensitive. If I am the sort of person who gets their feelings hurt easily (which, by the way, is NOT a bad quality, it's just a personality trait like being extroverted), then if I let myself forget that you hurt me I won't keep you at a distance. And then if I am not keeping you at a distance you have a chance to hurt me again. If I am a very sensitive person (sometimes called a Highly Sensitive Person), then it takes me longer to process my hurt feelings and they tend to run very deep. So it makes sense for me to really hold on to my hurts so that I don't forget about people who have hurt me. I can keep them at arms length by holding on to the resentment, or re-feeling the original hurt on a regular basis. That keeps me holding them at bay and not letting them close to me. Which reduces the chances that they will hurt me again. It's a good strategy if your primary goal is not getting burned twice.
Let's just say that most therapist are highly sensitive people so I *may* know a thing or two about resentments. Enough to know that while they protect you from further hurt in one way they also rob you of the opportunity to deepen intimacy in other ways. If we don't let people matter to us, if we don't let them in to our hearts, then we also cannot feel all of those wonderful feelings of intimacy, love, acceptance, joy, humor, delight and other things that people can revel in together.
The Recovery Podcast has a great episode on resentment. That is where I learned about the origin of the word. For people who are using 12-step programs there is a teaching that resentments are going to interfere with you successfully "working your program", which is to say getting past your character defects and becoming a better person. Some alcoholics I know (ones in recovery) have said that resentments and shame are two of the biggest risks for relapse. I would argue that shame can actually be tied to resentments we hold against ourselves. If I had an expectation that I was going to be the best mother in the world and then once I had my kids I realized that sometimes I come unglued and yell at them, I may feel shame. Underneath that feeling, I would argue, is (1) my expectation that I "should" have done better and (2) my continuing to re-feel my disappointment in myself. Which sounds a lot like holding a resentment against myself. A part of me may feel that by continuing to re-feel my anger and disappointment towards myself I can force myself to not make that mistake again. However in my experience what usually happens is that we walk around feeling so crappy about ourselves that we don't have a lot of emotional resources to actually learn to do better.
A better strategy may be acceptance. In this situation acceptance of one's own shortcomings and failings to live up to one's standards can be a pathway to letting go of shame (aka self-resentment). It's also a powerful exercise to ask oneself now and again what expectations one is holding. Good places to check for hidden expectations are towards yourself, towards your significant other, towards your children if you have them, towards your boss, or your career, or your friends. Really anything that matters to you. If you find expectations, think about challenging yourself to let go of them. Ask yourself if you can imagine accepting the person or situation however it is on an moment-to-moment basis. See what kind of freedom that can bring.
A note of reality here-- just as with my blog on acceptance I am NOT saying that one should never have basic expectations of safety, decency and the like. I think it's perfectly OK to expect that the person in the grocery store line is not going to spontaneously turn around and clock you for no reason. There are some basic expectations that I think we all have that allow us to leave our house and move around in the world without feeling terrified.
Likewise I am not saying to settle for mediocrity in all areas of life and have no aspirations. I personally think that aspirations are different from expectations. If I aspire to make six figures and instead I end up making half of that I can still be happy. It was a goal but not an expectation. To me an expectation is the belief that something SHOULD happen. As in, I am entitled to it. If it does not happen that's not "fair". The word stems from Latin meaning "an awaiting". We don't wait for things that we are not sure will happen. We wait when we feel confident that they will/should happen. So if the thing we are waiting on does not happen, we feel surprised and let down. That is different from having a goal, which one understands is potentially going to happen but also may not. I fully believe in setting goals but not expecting any particular outcome and, most importantly, having the mental flexibility to accept whatever outcome does occur.
Since humans are pretty messy, imperfect creatures it's not a bad habit to check and ask ourselves are we actually creating expectations that are setting us up for future disappointments and resentments? And are we willing to let go of those? Consider the possibilities that choosing acceptance over resentment and expectation can bring in to your life. Dream big but know that nothing is promised. Accept the imperfections in yourself and others. Stay open even when things don't go the way you wanted. Live bravely.
Wishing you health and healing,
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"They knew that there was a power and a beauty deep inside me, but that I was afraid of this and I was in fragments. Men and women alike, old and new at teaching, were like aunties or grandparent in their firm patience with me, in their conviction of my worth. They had a divine curiosity about me-- "Hey, who's in there? Are you willing to talk straight and find who you actually are, if I keep you company? Do you want to make friends with your heart? Here-- start with this poem.
This is who I want to be in the world. This is who I think we are supposed to be, people who help call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness."
Indeed. I agree. I believe in the inter-connectedness of all beings and in the interdependence of people as an essential part of the human condition. We are now learning that loneliness is a greater risk factor than smoking for disease and death. I believe it is not only a capability but a responsibility of all of us to reach out to each other. To be that curious person who will keep company and share poems and generally help our fellow humans. To quote John Lennon, "imagine" how the world could be if we all took on that job.
And I can't bear not to share just one more excerpt from this book:
"When we agree to (or get tricked into) being part of something bigger than our own weird, fixated minds, we are saved. When we search for something larger than our own selves to hook into, we can come through whatever life throws at us."
Again the research on social isolation and altruism comes to mind. How we can help ourselves by literally helping others. I think it's not a coincidence that many 12-step programs tell folks to do "service work", literally to go serve others, as a way to save themselves from their destructive habits and addictions. Sometimes spending too much time navel-gazing can drive a person crazy. Sometimes you just need to get out of yourself and realize that other people are struggling and you can probably do something to help them.
So Stitches is about pain, it's about how life can knock the wind out of you and then kick you while you are down. And that while you are down there you just may realize that there is some beautiful little insect crawling around on a blade of grass that you would have never seen had you not been face down in the lawn gasping for breath. It's about how just when you need it someone can come along and offer you a hand, and you may find yourself helping them in kind. About how somehow we keep finding ways to mend and darn and pull the threads together to keep this sometimes fragile thing we call life from fully unraveling.
It's a mercifully short book given how busy we all are these days. The writing is beautiful. It may make you feel better about being human and messy and confused a lot of the time. I loved it and I am looking forward to delving in to another one of her works soon.
Wishing you health and happiness, and feel free to recommend books for me to read and review!
"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up."
~ Anne Lamott
"Hope contains within it the powerful notion of potential. Although we cannot yet see the towering majesty of the oak tree, we see in the acorn our hope for it. Just so with relationships: We intuit a connection and begin to imagine the future we've always hoped for. But how can we nurture our hope amid a sea of doubt, cynicism and pessimism?" This question, posed on Dr. Katehakis's site centerforhealthysex.com, brought to mind something said to me in graduate school. That the job of a therapist is to hold the hope for a client when they have not yet been able to have it. But some people are fearful of hope. Those with histories of trauma can feel that hope has been cruel. That time and time again as children they may have dared to hope that things would improve, only to have them worsen. Some people need to be shown how to not dash hope, how to not kick it right in the teeth when it starts to show up.
I have a not so flattering story about crushing hope when it arrives. Years ago when I was still young in my marriage I came home one day to see my beloved planting rose bushes in our front yard. He smiled proudly and announced that he decided that instead of giving me roses for Valentine's Day ( a few days away) that he would plant me rose bushes instead! He waxed on about how he knew how much I loved flowers but of course cut flowers die, and how he planted the bushes along our front walk so that every day as I walked out the door I would see the evidence of his love and every day as I came home I would see it again. And completely uncharacteristic of my discrete, shy, introverted partner, he even went so far as to say that he wanted all of our neighbors to know how much he loved me and so he planted them in the front yard! Any normal person would have jumped for joy, accosted him with kisses and praise and swooned from the overflowing romance and sentiment. Not yours truly. Being one of those people who, as Dr. Stan Tatkin says, is "allergic to hope", I stood there silent. After a tense minute I said, I kid you not, "do they smell? Because I really only like roses that smell." I watched the blood drain out of his face. And yet I pressed on, driven by deeply embedded memories of being disappointed as a small child. "I mean, a lot of roses these days, they don't smell. They breed the smell right out of them, which I really don't understand because that is what a rose is supposed to do! Smell!" I had a classically exasperated look on my face, standing hand on hip. Every time I recount this story I assure you I cringe. But back then I simply had no idea that I was a hope assassin. Highly trained in the art of killing any small green shoots of hope that might dare to peak out from the desert of my soul. My husband, in his final rally, tried again regain his ground. "I, I..I researched them to make sure that they were drought tolerant (we live in Texas) and disease resistant and all of that". I stood silent, unmoved by his pleas. Like any real person, he snapped. "Nevermind!" he said. He grabbed the remaining plants and threw them in the back of his truck. "I'll pull the rest out tomorrow! You are impossible!"
I tell this story not to make myself look bad (although undoubtedly it will have that effect), but to show how it can look when someone has become so afraid of hope, so afraid of being truly loved, that they will literally fight against it. That they will crush the hope offered to them and grind it into the ground, all the while bemoaning how no one cares about them. I see this when clients tell me "I know you say you care, but you are paid to care." They need to find a way to reject what is being offered, which is compassion, connection and genuine affection. My pithy reply is that you can pay me to keep this seat warm for an hour but you cannot pay me to actually care. The caring is not for sale. Which is true.
Dr. Katehakis noted that "According to the Ancient Greeks, the gods punished humankind by stowing all evils in a box for curious Pandora to open, as they knew she would, and thereby unleash those miseries upon the world. After the evils took wing, all that remained in the box was hope. But how can mere hope defeat everything that boiled over from that unholy box?" Indeed. How can hope undo all that we have experienced?
We test. I often tell my new clients in their first weeks of therapy "you will spend the next year testing me because relationships have, in the past, been unsafe. And that is OK. We need to allow the most deeply hurt parts of yourself to look for the cracks in the foundation of this new relationship. Since I know that you and I are not perfect there will be cracks. But we will assess them together and acknowledge them together and I will hold the hope for you that this relationship will be different. You will not need to ignore the cracks, walking around them pretending you don't see them. You don't need to worry that if you point out the cracks I will fly into a rage or shame you for showing them to me. We will notice the cracks together and acknowledge the difficulty of creating relationships between two human beings. We will work together to decide what to do about those cracks. And you will begin to have hope that relationships can support you and that you can truly be yourself in them.
Many clients test me, just as I tested my poor husband many years ago (and by the way he stuck it out, thank goodness, and is still here putting up with me. And I hope I have learned to be more gracious about his shows of love!) My hope is that through a process of them testing me, and seeing that they are not being rejected, they can begin to nurture that small flicker of hope. And over time that it can grow stronger and stronger.
As Dr. Katehakis describes, "relationships require the tremendous resilience born of hope. When we stay unconditionally willing to remain teachable despite prior trauma, we're using hope as a healthy tool to sow the seeds of happiness... When we stop fearing change and instead embrace it, we grow mentally, physically, spiritually...just as we had hoped".
Indeed. Not a journey that is easily taken, and certainly not a journey that is devoid of fear. But in my experience of nearly a quarter of a century, a journey that ends with more riches than people ever dreamed possible.
Wishing you hope in all that you strive for,
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Contrary to what many of us thought growing up expressing anger is not the same as yelling, breaking things or slamming doors. In fact if the person you are interacting with is doing things that trigger your fight or flight system (make you sweat, shake, want to retreat, raise your blood pressure and/or heart beat, etc.) then you are not witnessing someone's anger, you are in the presence of abuse. Yep, that's right! And the normal human response to being abused is to want to hurt the other person back. So we yell, stomp our feet, throw things or say mean hurtful stuff back. Now WE are being abusive as well.
I think this is a very important distinction to make. Anger is actually NOT a damaging emotion. Abuse is damaging treatment. I repeat, anger and abuse are NOT the same. I can sit down calmly and tell you that I am angry because you borrowed my car and ran it out of gas. If you feel embarrassed, guilty, sad or contrite but NOT fearful, nervous, threatened or like you need to yell at me then I have NOT been abusive. I have just been angry. Anger is an indication that our boundaries have been violated. I don't like it when people do not show appropriate respect for my things and so if you use my car and don't put gas in it I am going to be angry. But that's OK. By conveying that I am upset it shows you that you have crossed a boundary and so you will try not to do that in the future.
Many of us who grew up in dysfunctional homes confuse anger and abuse. We think that if someone is red-faced, yelling, shaking mad, throwing things or hurling awful accusations at us they are "angry". I would argue it is much more useful to see this as abuse. That way both people can see how unhelpful and inappropriate this behavior is. Abuse never leads to anything good. Anger, when expressed without turning in to abuse, should ALWAYS lead to something good. It is a communication about what you need to feel respected, cared for and even loved. It is essential for you to communicate this so that you are taking care of yourself and protecting the bond you have with that person. It is important for them to hear this message clearly and take corrective action. That is the purpose of anger. The purpose of abuse is to discharge physical energy and to hurt the other person. That is not anger. The expression of anger is about trying to identify and solve a problem. Venting, which many people mistake for the expression of anger, is about hurting the other person in an effort to make yourself feel better without any regard for the other.
One of the most well-known authors on anger is Harriet Learner, who wrote The Dance of Anger. In an interview on the Relationship Alive podcast Ms. Learner suggested that the worst time to communicate your anger is when you are angry. She recommends calming down first and then discussing your anger. What? Yes! Talk about your anger when you are NOT angry. I know, mind-blowing. It makes me think of when a toddler has a temper tantrum and we tell them to go calm down. Then we ask them to use their words to talk about why they were upset. The same applies to us. When you are activated and angry you need to NOT talk but rather step away briefly and do some deep breathing or other things to get your nervous system regulated. Then you can engage the person who made you angry and explain what they did that was so offensive.
In thinking about positive expressions of anger that are clearly not abuse think about the sit-ins of the civil rights movement in the US. There was plenty of anger on the parts of the protestors who saw the racial oppression and abuses going on. However the play-book of those sit-ins was literally that "not a hair on the head of [the oppressors] would be disturbed". The protestors wanted to convey their anger appropriately and NOT allow it to turn into abuse, which would have spurred an abusive reaction on the part of the authorities. Abuse begets abuse. Anger, if expressed appropriately and without abuse, should beget positive results and heightened mutual understanding.
Anger can teach us things about ourselves and reveal things about our partners or other loved ones. If the anger seems out of proportion to the event (you bring my car back with no gas and I calmly tell you we can no longer be friends) then there is likely some "unfinished business" being triggered from the past. In this example perhaps I had parents who used my property, resources or accomplishments for their own selfish purposes and I felt used and mistreated. I am, therefore, naturally sensitive to feeling that others don't care how they treat me and are going to take advantage of me. So my anger in this situation, if I can see that it is out of proportion, will direct me to look at areas of my past where maybe I have some unresolved wounds. That in turn provides an opportunity for healing.
Understanding the purpose of anger can help us to not suppress or deny it. Understanding the difference between anger and abuse can help us learn to express anger in an appropriate way that can lead to increased knowledge, understanding and harmony for ourselves and in our relationships.
If you find yourself confused about or uncomfortable with anger I encourage you to think about tackling that problem. Anger turned inward/suppressed can lead to depression, loss of motivation, difficulties in achievement, addictions, poor self-care and even self-attack or self-abuse. Anger expressed as abuse can lead to shame, loss of relationships and/or jobs and even legal problems. Therapy can be an excellent tool for learning more about anger and how to comfortably express as well as witness it, as can the 12-step group Adult Children Anonymous (which focuses on people from any type of dysfunctional childhood) or books such as The Dance of Anger. Regular exercise and/or mindfulness mediation can help stabilize the nervous system so that when you feel angry you are better able to prevent it from veering into abuse. Proper sleep and not over-using stimulants like caffeine and energy drinks can also be helpful in keeping one's nervous system stable. Classes on anger management can help you learn the physiological signs of anger and how to manage the feeling when it arises and stay grounded when you see it in others. There are many options for working on this problem and I hope you consider trying some of them.
Wishing you health and happiness,
I've heard it said that Freud's definition of the goal of therapy was this: to transform neurotic suffering into ordinary suffering. One might infer that his definition of mental health was the capacity to suffer "normally" rather than "neurotically". Freud is also purported to have said that mental health was the capacity to love and work. While I like both of those concepts I have a definition of mental health that I like even better: response flexibility. What exactly does that mean? To me, response flexibility means tht whatever situation you are in, you are able to respond in the best manner given the circumstances. Many of us actually respond to situations based on a surprisingly limited repertoire of alternatives. For instance, if you were raised in a family where conflict was avoided, when you encounter conflict I can predict you will try to avoid it if at all possible. But what if in that situation the best response is to actually engage in the conflict? What if the conflict is a conversation with your boss about why you, versus your co-worker, should be given the promotion? By avoiding conflict or discord you may sell yourself short of some important opportunities.
So in this example what can you do? If you have good mental health you would be able to respond assertively or move in to the conflictual conversation without being overly intimidated. This would predict you had either grown up in a pretty healthy family or you had worked hard to overcome your default response of avoiding conflict. In either situation if you can respond adaptively rather than reflexively you have good mental health.
Too many of us, however, don't have this kind of flexibility. We are on auto-pilot much of the time, running via default programs that we learned in our family of origin. I would argue that this is not "good" mental health! I believe all people can learn to un-do unhealthy or limiting patterns and enlarge their repertoire of behaviors. This does not mean giving up the old patterns but rather layering on new ones to allow for more flexibility in responses.
While that is my favorite definition of mental health (which incidentally also guides my work as a therapist) there are certainly others worth considering. For instance, in the Shedler Westen Assessment Procedure (SWAP–200; Shedler & Westen, 2007) mental health is defined in much more detailed terms:
● Is able to use his/her talents, abilities, and energy effectively and productively.
● Enjoys challenges; takes pleasure in accomplishing things.
● Finds meaning in belonging and contributing to a larger community (e.g., organization, church, neighborhood).
● Is able to find meaning and fulfillment in guiding, mentoring, or nurturing others.
● Is empathic; is sensitive and responsive to other people’s needs and feelings.
● Is able to assert him/herself effectively and appropriately when necessary.
● Appreciates and responds to humor.
● Is capable of hearing information that is emotionally threatening (i.e., that challenges cherished beliefs, perceptions, and self-perceptions) and can use and benefit from it.
● Appears to have come to terms with painful experiences from the past; has found meaning in and grown from such experiences.
● Is articulate; can express self well in words.
● Has an active and satisfying sex life.
● Appears comfortable and at ease in social situations.
● Generally finds contentment and happiness in life’s activities.
● Tends to express affect appropriate in quality and intensity to the situation at hand.
● Has the capacity to recognize alternative viewpoints, even in matters that stir up strong feelings.
● Has moral and ethical standards and strives to live up to them.
● Is creative; is able to see things or approach problems in novel ways.
● Tends to be conscientious and responsible.
● Tends to be energetic and outgoing.
● Is psychologically insightful; is able to understand self and others in subtle and sophisticated ways.
● Is able to find meaning and satisfaction in the pursuit of long-term goals and ambitions.
● Is capable of sustaining a meaningful love relationship characterized by genuine intimacy and caring.
● Is able to form close and lasting friendships characterized by mutual support and sharing of experiences.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as "as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community." They go on to elaborate that "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
The question of what defines good mental health is certainly worth entertaining. How do you know if you need to work on yourself if you don't know what the goal is? I encourage you to give some thought to what definition of mental health appeals most to you and then check yourself accordingly. Not to skewer yourself for failing that standard in some ways (after all that would not be very mentally healthy!) but rather to see areas where you may want to change and grow. None of us can be 100% mentally healthy all of the time, but all of us are capable of improving.
Therapy is an amazing tool for growth, as are 12-step groups, meditation practices, support groups, spiritual practices and even yoga when the philosophical aspects are included. I encourage you to think about ways that you can assist yourself in growing towards more mental health.
If Quiet, a book by Susan Cain, gives praise to introverts. I happen to be an extrovert but there are many, many introverts who have been dear to me in my life. I actually find myself drawn to introverts-- they seem so mysterious and sophisticated! No surprise that I married one. Introversion can be defined many ways which can lead to confusion. For example some synonyms can be "shy" or "reserved", which I think does introverts a disservice. The definition I prefer is "people whose energy tends to expand through reflection and dwindle during interaction."(1)
I recommend this book to my introverted patients in part because our culture in the U.S. tends to favor extroversion. Introverts can sometimes feel that they aren't given their due. Carl Jung (a contemporary of Sigmund Freud's) actually viewed introversion and extroversion as two normal variations of personality and felt that one was not preferential to another. I agree with this although the potential liability of introverts is that they may not naturally cultivate a broad or extensive support network. However many introverts have a small but deep circle of confidants, which research shows is enough for emotional health. Contrary to what a quick trip to Facebook might lead you to think, you don't have to have 500 "friends" in order to be emotionally healthy!
Dr. Jon Allen from the Menninger clinic in Houston, Texas has written a very nice book review of Quiet that I am linking to here. The book is also also available on Audible if you prefer audio books. Whether you are the introvert or you have an introvert in your life I think it's a great book to help sing the praises of those who are not always the loudest people at the party.
If you are curious about whether you are an introvert, extrovert or ambivert (neither, or both depending on how you look at it!) there is a quiz here.
(1) Reference: Helgoe, Laurie (2008). "Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength". Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc
We've all heard that its hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But what about humans? How easy is it to change a person? We've all tried to make changes to ourselves, whether it's losing weight or stoping smoking...and sometimes we can do it and sometimes we fail. So clearly people can change, but clearly it's not an entirely easy process!
Psychotherapy is, at it's core, designed to change people. We do this through helping people have new experiences that are more in line with their goals of who they want to be and how they want to operate in the world. Our brain is shaped largely by experience. If you have the experience of practicing piano every day then the pathways of neurons (brain cells) that are used to play piano get stronger. Think of neurons like muscles-- the more you work them out, the stronger they get. So if you work out the same "set" of neurons (a "neural pathway") every day, say by practicing piano, then those get stronger and stronger and easier to activate. This is how we build proficiency in things, like playing baseball or practicing piano, or even being good at making small talk.
Some people grow up in families where they don't have certain experiences like being able to talk about their feelings, or being able to ask for what they need from others. When those experiences are missing in childhood those neurons that are associated with that behavior are weak and hard to activate. Psychotherapy aims to provide experiences that were missing in childhood (or adulthood) that are needed to build adaptive behaviors that help us lead happy and fulfilling lives. So for example a person who grew up in a house where it was not OK to talk about one's feelings gets to talk openly about how they feel in therapy. That in turn exercises those neurons and strengthens that neural pathway so that talking about one's feelings becomes easier and easier.
In a very real sense psychotherapy is like hiring a personal trainer at your gym-- a person who can learn about how you would like to be (versus where you are now), set up an "exercise routine" to work out those muscles (neurons) and take you through those steps so that you can develop the muscles (skills) that you want. If we were to take a "before" and "after" picture of your brain we could actually see those neuronal changes that are a result of psychotherapy. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that one impact of psychotherapy is that the connections between the frontal lobe (which involves planning, organizing, regulating emotions, understanding consequences, controlling impulses and lots of other things we associate with being mature and healthy) and the limbic system (which is associated with raw emotions that can be overwhelming and "messy" if not regulated) are strengthened. So in a very real way psychotherapy helps your brain use the "smart part" (frontal lobe) to regulate your more primitive emotional center. This give you more control over intense emotions that otherwise may derail you from staying balanced.
The bottom line here is that our brains do change. Even in adulthood. This is good news for those of us who would qualify as "old dogs"! So if there are things about yourself that you wish were different I would encourage you to consider psychotherapy. As one person put it, "it's never too late to have a happy life".
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.