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,
At it's most severe form it is when a person who has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is exposed to something that reminds them of their trauma and their nervous system has a big reaction. For example if I was trapped in a burning house as a child I may be triggered by getting too close to an open bonfire. My body might react by a racing heart, feelings of panic, difficulty breathing or other symptoms of sympathetic arousal of my nervous system. A less intense but much more common form of being "triggered" is when someone does or says something that touches an emotional "nerve" you have, such as someone questioning your competence when all of your life people treated you as though you were incompetent. We tend to have the biggest reactions to things that have been sore spots for us emotionally, especially from our childhoods.
So what is happening in the brain when we are triggered? Effectively we lose IQ points. We lose cognitive flexibility, we lose problem-solving skills, we lose the ability to see things from another person's point of view. We become more self-centered, protective and defensive. Sound familiar? Anyone who has been in a non-productive argument (yes, there are such things as productive arguments, read my blog on anger...) knows this feeling or has seen in in the person you are arguing with. The logic has gone out the window and the person is just trying to "win" the argument at any cost.
Where "triggering" happens in the brain is in the amygdala. It's a tiny almond-shaped structure inside of the limbic system, which is part of our mid-brain. This part of the brain has been around for a LONG time and was designed, in part, to keep us safe from saber-tooth tigers and other long-ago predators. Unfortunately the limbic system is sorely in need of an upgrade (or more accurately about a dozen upgrades!). Clearly we don't hunt wooly-mamoths anymore but our brain is still using that same operating system. Seems like a recipe for disaster, right?
I found a great article by Diane Musho Hamilton on the Harvard Bussines Review. I have posted it below for your edification, I hope you find it helpful in understanding how this tiny little part of our brain can really run the show at times, and in a not-so-helpful way.
Calming Your Brain During Conflict
"Conflict wreaks havoc on our brains. We are groomed by evolution to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat. In our modern context, we don’t fight like a badger with a coyote, or run away like a rabbit from a fox. But our basic impulse to protect ourselves is automatic and unconscious.
We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.
When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.” We notice immediate changes like an increased heart rate or sweaty palms. Our breathing becomes more shallow and rapid as we take in more oxygen, preparing to bolt if we have to.
The flood of stress hormones create other sensations like a quivering in our solar plexus, limbs, or our voice. We may notice heat flush our face, our throat constrict, or the back of our neck tighten and jaw set. We are in the grip of a highly efficient, but prehistoric set of physiological responses. These sensations are not exactly pleasant — they’re not meant for relaxation. They’re designed to move us to action.
The active amygdala also immediately shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex so we can become disoriented in a heated conversation. Complex decision-making disappears, as does our access to multiple perspectives. As our attention narrows, we find ourselves trapped in the one perspective that makes us feel the most safe: “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even though we ordinarily see more perspectives.
And if that wasn’t enough, our memory becomes untrustworthy. Have you ever been in a fight with your partner or friend, and you literally can’t remember a positive thing about them? It’s as though the brain drops the memory function altogether in an effort to survive the threat. When our memory is compromised like this, we can’t recall something from the past that might help us calm down. In fact, we can’t remember much of anything. Instead, we’re simply filled with the flashing red light of the amygdala indicating “Danger, react. Danger, protect. Danger, attack.”In the throes of amygdala hijack, we can’t choose how we want to react because the old protective mechanism in the nervous system does it for us — even before we glimpse that there could be a choice. It is ridiculous.
Practicing Mindfulness in Conflict
Mindfulness is the perfect awareness technique to employ when a conflict arises — whether it’s at work or home. It allows us to override the conditioned nervous system with conscious awareness. Instead of attacking or recoiling, and later justifying our reactions, we can learn to stay present, participate in regulating our own nervous system, and eventually, develop new, more free and helpful ways of interacting.
Practicing mindfulness in the middle of a conflict demands a willingness to stay present, to feel intensely, to override our negative thoughts, and to engage our breath to maintain presence with the body. Like any skill, it takes practice.
There are different approaches to working with a provoked nervous system and intense emotions, but they all have some elements in common. Here are four simple steps (which I also describe in my book, Everything is Workable) that I try to use when I find myself with an overloaded nervous system and a body racing with a fight or flight impulse.
Step 1: Stay present.
The first step in practicing mindfulness when triggered is to notice we are provoked. We may notice a change in our tone of voice, gripping sensations in the belly, or a sudden desire to withdraw. Each of us has particular bodily and behavioral cues that alert us to the reality that we feel threatened, and are therefore running on automatic pilot.
We have to decide to stay put and present, to be curious and explore our experience. For me, it helps to remind myself to relax. I have a visual cue that I use that involves my son. When I’m worked up, he has the habit of looking at me, raising and lowering his hands in a calming fashion, and saying “Easy Windmill.” I try to reflect on this and it helps me calm down because he’s so charming when he does it.
Step 2: Let go of the story.
This might be the most difficult part of the practice. We need to completely let go of the thinking and judging mind. This is a very challenging step because when we feel threatened, the mind immediately fills with all kinds of difficult thoughts and stories about what’s happening. But we must be willing to forget the story, just for a minute, because there is a feedback loop between our thoughts and our body. If the negative thoughts persist, so do the stressful hormones. It isn’t that we’re wrong, but we will be more far more clear in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed.
Step 3: Focus on the body.
Now simply focus on feeling and exploring whatever sensations arise in the body. We feel them naturally, just as they are, not trying to control or change them. We allow the mind to be as open as possible, noticing the different places in the body where sensations occur, what is tight, shaky, rushing, or hurts. We pay attention to the different qualities and textures of the sensations, and the way things change and shift. We can also notice how biased we are against unpleasant or more intense sensations.
Step 4: Finally, breathe.
Everybody knows that it helps to breathe. There are many different qualities of the breath, but we only need to learn about two: Rhythm and smoothness. As Alan Watkins explains in his book Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership, if we focus on these two dimensions, even for a few short minutes, the production of the cortisol and adrenaline will stop.
To breath rhythmically means that the in-breath and out-breath occur repeatedly at the same intervals. So if we inhale, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, then inhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then exhale again, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6; this establishes rhythm.
At the same time, we should invite the breath to be even or smooth, meaning that the volume of the breath stays consistent as it moves in and out, like sipping liquid through a narrow straw. If we manage those two qualities for just a few minutes, the breath assists us in remaining present, making it possible to stay with intense sensation in the body.
Paying attention to our body re-establishes equilibrium faster, restoring our ability to think, to listen, and relate. This takes practice, but eventually, we retrain ourselves to respond rather than to react. Anger becomes clarity and resolve, sadness leads to compassion, jealousy becomes fuel for change.
There will also be certain moments when we fail. Becoming more intimate with our body’s response to a hijacked nervous system is challenging, to say the least. This is because the sensations are very uncomfortable, our emotions are volatile, and our mind is usually filling with unsupportive thoughts like “Get me outta here,” or “How can they be saying that?” or “This is a waste of my time.”
Each time we succeed in being mindful of our body in moments of distress, we develop our capacity. Even more, we may observe something new when it occurs. A moment of pause, an unexpected question when it appears or a laugh that erupts. When anything new happens, taking note of it helps to free us of the pattern to our old way of doing things. Before we know it, our old habit of fight or flight is changing, and the world is a safer place."
I hope you have found this information helpful. While we are not born with an "owner's manual" for this amazing brain that we have we can, through self-study and experience, learn how to better use our hardware and software to achieve the kind of life we want. Despite our triggers. Remember that if you have had a difficult or stressful childhood you may have certain "buttons" pre-installed and that you may need help getting under control. Therapy can help.
Wishing you health and happiness,
PS Please remember that if you found this information helpful to "like" this blog post on Facebook and/or to tweet it on Twitter. Or post it on any other form of social media you have (I am sure at this point I don't know them all!). And if you post a comment or question I will respond. Also if you want to get these blogs delivered directly to you please fill out the form below.
In a nod to the Irish, who have been noted to have "a tear in the eye and a song in the heart", I decided to revive a former blog on crying today. People often remark that they "need a good cry" and feel better afterwards. I've been curious about the underlying mechanisms involved in crying and just why it seems to help us feel better.
Dr. Judith Orloff, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, has done some research on this very subject. She explains that we actually produce three different kinds of tears that are made up of different chemicals and reflect different needs of the body. Reflex tears help us clear out irritating particles in our eyes such as pollens, dust or dirt. Continuous tears are produced on a regular basis to keep our eyes lubricated. This is what goes wrong when someone suffers "dry eye syndrome". Our eyes need to stay moist even in the absence of irritants and so continuos tears perform this function. They contain a chemical called "lysozyme" which also is an anti-bacterial and helps the eyes avoid infection.
Emotional tears have unique qualities as well. "Tear expert” Dr. William Frey at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis investigated the chemical differences in tears and discovered that reflex tears are made up of 98% water, whereas emotional tears actually have stress hormones in them. This is the bodies way of getting rid of these potentially damaging hormones and other toxins after a stressful event. Crying also causes our body to produce endorphins, which are natural pain relievers. Since the brain processes physical and emotional pain in the same areas it makes sense that the same chemical that the body produces on the battlefield to help and injured soldier survive is produced in the midst of a painful breakup or other significant stressor. In addition to riding our body of noxious chemicals produced from intense emotional states crying also slows our breathing and heart rate, creating a calmer physiological and emotional state.
Certainly evolution has helped us to develop a mechanism whereby our bodies can help us recover from intense emotional duress. Regardless of the origins of this wonderful mechanism we can all be grateful that we can cry and use that gift to help heal us from deep emotional pain. Far from the ideas that crying belies weakness, a good cry might just be the smartest and most adaptive thing you can do when the emotions get overwhelming.
I occasionally meet people who tell me that they cannot cry. Often this pattern has been in existence for a long time, such as a person who says "I haven't cried since my mother's funeral when I was 8". It is often associated with some adult encouraging the poor kid not to cry, such as "she would want you to be strong, son". Other times a person may have been raised in a family where they were warned "I'll give you something to cry about" if they began to tear up. These kinds of experiences when we are young can lead to feeling blocked when it comes to crying as adults. Interestingly I have known clients who suffered from sinus pain or headaches from this difficulty in doing what Mother Nature intended us to do when distressed-- fall apart and have a good cry.
If you are lucky enough to let the water-works flow when watching Terms of Endearment, A.I. or Bambi consider yourself lucky and let the crying begin. If you are feeling stuck and wishing you could get passed feeling blocked you may want to check out some of these movies. Or pick up a copy of Watership Down, Old Yeller or The Fault in Our Stars. Still not sobbing? Consider a consultation with a good therapist to take a look at what might be keeping you from Mother Nature's natural stress-buster.
Wishing you happiness, health and the occasional good cry,
As always if this blog has been helpful please consider "liking" it on Facebook or "tweeting" it on Twitter to help spread the word about mental health information and resources. Thanks!
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,
As always if you have found this blog post helpful please "like" it on Facebook or "tweet" the link on Twitter. Or share on any other social media platform! And feel free to leave a Comment, I always respond. Thanks!
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,
As always if you find this blog helpful PLEASE "like" it on Facebook or "tweet" it on Twitter. Or share on any other social media you use! And feel free to leave a Comment, I do respond to all of them! Thanks.
"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!
By now you may have heard some of the buzz. Scientists first started experimenting in rats and are now doing human studies which seem to show that by introducing certain strains of bacteria into the gut symptoms like depression and anxiety can be altered. Very exciting indeed! I am imagining in 20 years instead of taking Prozac or Xanax we will be eating carefully cultivated symptom-specific yoghurts or kefirs. A much more elegant solution to mood disorders with little to no side effects.
I recently read a study (Steenbergen, Sellaro, van Hemert, Bosh & Colzato, 2015) in which the researchers gave a combination of Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium lactis, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus brevis, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus salivarius and Lactococcus lactis to a group of depressed patients. The participants took the supplement for 4 weeks and showed a significant decrease in symptoms of negative thinking, including negative thoughts directed towards the self. Anyone who has experienced a depressive episode can attest to the painful cycle of rumination on negative thoughts and events as well as the painful self-recrimination and self-attack that occur so often in depressions.
While all of us experience a sad mood from time to time some of us begin to slide down the slippery slope, ending up in a clinical depression. Much of the time mental health providers attribute this vulnerability to genetics, and it very well may be just that. However our ability to influence our genetics at this point is extremely limited. Better to impact the sad mood before it gains momentum and turns into an insidious depressive episode that can span months and debilitate a person.
So how is the magic happening? The mechanisms are still being worked out but our gut actually produces an abundance of chemicals that interact with the brain. Some, like tryptophan, reach the brain through the endocrine system. Others impact the immune system which in turn impacts the brain in areas linked to mood. Research so far seem to indicate that gut microbiota communicates with the nervous system via neural, endocrine and immune pathways. Microbiota also seem to be involved in the regulation of the stress response (e.g. hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis). So having the optimal gut bacteria may actually help us shut down the stress response or even avoid engaging it. The gut is also involved in the inflammatory response and inflammation has been shown to be related to depression (as well as other problems like cardiovascular disease).
So far human studies are limited (I have reviewed 4 to date) but ALL have shown improvement in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Unfortunately the studies don't all use the same bacterium so it's not yet clear which ones are the most powerful. This most recent study utilized a combination of 7 and that seems to be a good way to "hedge your bets". Lactobacillus casei has been used in 3 of the 4 studies I have reviewed so that might be one to look for. As always consult your medical professional if you are going to make changes to your diet including any supplementation. And keep a lookout for more studies to be rolling in. The way to improve your head may just be through your gut!
Wishing you health and happiness,
"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,
Remember that if you enjoyed this blog post PLEASE "like" it on Facebook or tweet it! And you can also sign up to have these blog posts sent right to your inbox! I will only send the blogs, nothing more. They will come anywhere from 1-3/month. And I never share your information.
Dr. Tatkin wrote a great blog post on how betrayal actually impacts the brain and nervous system the same as trauma would, say for instance a bad car accident or witnessing a shooting.
I wanted to copy it here so that readers of my blog can hear what he has to say. Dr. Tatkin has his own blog in which he addresses issues of couples and relationships and if you have not already visited it I strongly encourage you to do so.
Betrayal Causes Trauma
by Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT
In matters of betrayal—lying, cheating, stealing—the breach of the attachment system is acute and often long lasting and can be understood neurologically as a trauma-related problem.
Franklin and Zeynep, a couple in their early 40s with two young children, came to therapy because of a discovered set of sexual affairs. Franklin, an American-born academician, was found to have an affair with one of his students. Zeynep, a Turkish-born emergency room nurse, discovered the affair after accidentally viewing Franklin’s phone text messages. The texts were explicitly sexual and contained incontrovertible evidence of Franklin’s deceptions and betrayals. Although Franklin was contrite and desperately wanted to be let back into the relationship, he had great difficulty dealing with Zeynep’s unrelenting preoccupation with his affair. She wanted to know details. Fearful of making matters worse, he refused to give details. Zeynep would wake up in the middle of the night crying, and suddenly burst into a rage while they drove to dinner. She did not want Franklin to touch her. He was not to sleep in their marital bed. Franklin’s patience was at an end. He began to believe that Zeynep was purposely punishing him and was invested in making his life a living hell. Neither partner wanted the relationship to end, but neither could escape the strong wake of the betrayal itself.
PACT therapists will recognize that betrayal by a primary attachment figure is likely to be processed as trauma. Betrayals in adult romantic partnerships most commonly revolve around sex and/or finances, but central to all betrayals is the matter of deception. Partners who feel deceived by their loved ones suffer a particular kind of loss that can affect the historical memory of that relationship. Deceived partners will review the entire relationship in an attempt to reorganize their experiences of self and other. This review reorients the memory toward doubt, fear, and rage. In Zeynep’s case, we see that she could not stop thinking about Franklin’s betrayal and demanding details. Even though he did not provide details, her brain filled in its own details, which fed her doubt and fear. Flooded by these emotions, she would alternately withdraw from him and rage at him.
Once initiated, this review process cannot be interrupted because the brain must reorganize and adapt to the new information. As in PTSD, the brain and body must metabolize the trauma and cope with amygdalar hyperactivity as the amygdala responds to multiple internal and external triggers. However, different from PTSD, betrayal forces a hippocampal review and re-contextualization of the past with new information from the present. PTSD usually does not compel the brain to review past events; in fact, victims of PTSD commonly wish to avoid any review of the traumatic event, and their hippocampal function can be compromised by the traumatic event.
Betrayal, therefore, usually leads to a preoccupation with the new reality-shattering information. This presents an enormous challenge to the couple attempting to recover from it. Like Zeynep, the victim cannot stop being preoccupied with the past, present, and future, nor escape the emotional volatility that accompanies this process. The perpetrator therefore must tolerate the other partner’s perseveration and emotional volatility, as well as the constant questioning, grief, and anger that come with the healing process. In this case, Franklin had to learn patience for the couple to have any chance at rebuilding their relationship. Somewhat ironically, the perpetrator is in a unique position as not only the cause of the trauma but also its solution. This is not an easy task for the perpetrator to perform. Yet, the PACT therapist takes the position that the betraying partner must provide ongoing and sufficient support to regulate disturbing states related to the trauma whenever they arise.
Copyright © 2003-2014 Stan Tatkin, PsyD – all rights reserved
I get this question a lot. Usually framed as "you can't do that, CAN you?" I hear a strong wish underneath the prohibition. "PLEASE tell me I am allowed to ask my partner to change!!" Many of us have absorbed the popular culture myth that we should not ask our partner to be different from who they are. Which sounds very loving, very accepting and very... unrealistic in my book. What if how are partner is acting is hurtful to us? What if it's damaging our relationship? How do you make the distinction between things you can ask to have changed and things that are supposed to be off limits? Is anything off limits?
PACT teaches that the real issue here is not changing your partner. It's changing how your partner is WITH YOU. How your partner treats you (and vice-versa). If my partner is a shy, introverted type, I am not going to change that. Introversion is one of the most stable personality traits researched. So even if I wanted to change that, even if my partner wanted to change that about him/herself, it's not likely to happen. But if part of how I get my emotional needs met is to have friends over every few weeks my introverted, shy partner may need to learn how to support that for me to some degree. This does not mean that s/he necessarily enjoys these social situations. But s/he does learn to support this need I have to connect with others by inviting them over every so often. Likewise if I am a strongly extroverted person my partner is not going to change that about me. But s/he can expect that I am going to not bowl him/her over with my need to have people at the house every day of the week. S/He can expect that I will allow him/her some "alone time" to recharge at the end of a day where s/he has had to talk to a lot of people. And that I won't take that personally or shame him/her about it.
In this scenario no one is actually changing. I am still an extrovert. He or she is still an introvert. But we respect each other's needs enough to BEHAVE in ways that take care of each other. And yes, you can "ask" for this. I would argue if you don't ask for it you may not get it. And if your partner is not acting in ways that support your deepest needs then they are not doing their job and you are not getting the benefit of being partnered. And over time, this lack of support for your deepest needs may begin to erode the positive feelings towards your partner. The relationship will no longer feel like a place where you can get important needs met.
Where many of us go wrong is in confusing how we want our partner to ACT and who they ARE. We feel disappointed that our partner is not a certain way and forget that we can ask for behaviors that feel good to us, and that our partner can behave in those ways even if it's not their personal default. Of course we need to learn to ask in ways that are respectful and kind and still honor our partner's own needs and wiring.
For an excellent in-depth explanation of how your partner is wired and what is likely to come naturally to them (or not!) see Dr. Stan Tatkin's audio program Your Brain on Love or his book Wired for Love. Or for those of you who are not yet partnered see Dr. Tatkin's book Wired for Dating. Learning how your partner's brain is set up will help you appreciate why they do what they do (and don't do), how to ask for what you want and need and how to take excellent care of them in return.
Wishing you health and happiness in all of your connections,
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.