While driving down the highway in the fast lane, the person in front of you appears to have no idea what the fast lane means. After running all over town with the kids, you arrive home. They know they have rooms yet insist that the entire house is their closet and drop things wherever they please. It’s your birthday and your best friend gets you just what you needed, nothing. It seems that in these instances, the first reaction is to take things personally. As if what was done was intentional, a personal attack.
As odd as it sounds, we often think that there are many forces against us and we are innocent bystanders. I don’t agree. While there are some truly random events, much of what happens is our own doing. How we feel and react to the things going on around us will largely determine what happens to us. In the preceding examples, what makes us think that the things that happen to us are directed at us? Instead of reacting with a “How dare you!” we often react with a “How dare you do this to me!” The truth of the matter is that each person is really more concerned about themselves than they are others. It’s survival of the fittest. The person driving slow in front of me in traffic is more concerned about having a wide open lane ahead of them than they are with me getting past.
A lot of our life is spent worrying about what others may think or feel about us. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, we wouldn’t worry near as much about what others thought about us if we knew how seldom they did. When we are emotionally reactive to things in life, we give up our power to choose. If we take things personally, whether intended personally or not, our reaction intensifies. All of the sudden we have to defend ourselves, though many times a response is not warranted. Instead it would be better if we could learn the art of self-soothing. To be able to calm ourselves in the midst of emotional reactions opens a whole new range of responses.
We all have this ability. We are born with it. Just the other day, my 2 year old was climbing up on a toy in the house for the first time. As I watched her, she had a moment of pause just before she stood up tall and proud. In that moment of pause, she gathered herself and found the internal courage to stand. We do the same thing just before we honestly speak our mind, or address an issue with our spouse or kids. Self-soothing can be enhanced and used in all situations. And doing so gives you much more power over life’s circumstances.
To put this another way; you teach people how to treat you. If you feel that many people treat you wrong or take advantage of you, it only happens because you let them. Learning how to self-sooth, then stand up will produce a different outcome. This in turn will change the way others treat you. If you demand respect, trust, love, honor, comfort, or whatever, accept nothing less. Whenever you receive less than you expect, rather than taking it personally and reacting as such, calm yourself and address the issue. Either put yourself in their shoes and see it from their perspective or stand up and be honest, or both. If this honesty comes from both your mind and heart, it carries much more weight than just emotional reactivity.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Fights are never what they seem to be. She may be saying she’s angry because you never help with the laundry. She may BELIEVE she’s angry because you never help with the laundry. But the laundry is a placeholder. It could really be anything. What she really wants is to be taken care of. It’s what we all want.
Over and over, couples come to therapy because one person feels alone, neglected, or unwanted. The person that feels this pain picks a fight, hoping to get through to their partner. The belief, often unconscious, goes something like this. “If I can make him/her feel as bad as I do, he/she will understand and do better.”
Instead, the original pain is lost to a chain reaction. The partner who is supposed to learn from being punished instead gets defensive. “Oh yeah, well you never help with the dishes!” (or bills, or diapers or whatever). And when the fight takes over, no one wins. Over time, these interactions erode trust, love and security.
If your partner is complaining or punishing you, it can really help to take a step back and ask yourself, what security need is not being met? There are only three to choose from, safety, soothing, and specialness.
Safety: Does my partner feel I’ve put them down, dismissed their needs, punished them or left them to fend for themselves? Can my partner talk to me about difficult things. Do I hear his/her emotional distress and respond with kindness?
Soothing: Has my partner had a rough day? Is he/she stressed? Is he/she not feeling well? Am I listening with my full attention. Am I being affectionate? Am I reassuring him/her that no matter what happens, I will always be here, I will always love him/her?
Specialness: Does my partner feel like he/she is special to me? Have I been spending time with him/her? Have I told him/her how important he/she is to me? Have I done anything recently to show him/her that he/she is the only one who makes me feel this good?
These may be the last things on your mind when your partner seems to be attacking you. Which is why I’m writing this. It might not feel natural to behave in a loving way with someone who is angry. The key is to see that the anger is a defensive way of communicating distress. If your partner could, he/she would tell you, “Honey, I’ve had the hardest day, and I really need you to hold me and tell me everything will be okay.”
You may be thinking, well that’s his/her responsibility, isn’t it? Why should I have to interpret what’s going on under the defenses? The answer is this. YOUR happiness and security depends on it. Would you rather spend the rest of the evening fighting or getting the silent treatment? OR would you like to have the power to defuse your partner’s anger and create more kindness and love?
Imagine what it would be like if you always knew the right thing to say to bring any argument to an end and feel loving and close. Isn’t that a win? And if it’s not a win, what defenses or demons in you are stopping you from being a secure base for your partner? Does gentleness or tenderness mean you’re a wimp? Does it feel shameful to feel or see someone else feeling vulnerable?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Have you ever found yourself in the middle of an argument and wondered, “how did I get here?” Have you ever wondered, “How do I get out of here?”
Couples that fight are invariably couples that are locked in a shame cycle. One of both of you learned that having needs meant you were weak, needy or somehow not okay. This may have been explicit or implicit. So instead of asking for help, support or understanding directly, you say or do something indirect. Instead of saying, I’m tired and I need help with the dishes, you leave them in the sink or say something like, “why is it always my job to do the dishes?” which puts your partner on the defensive.
When I counsel couples to speak from a more direct place, they often squirm. Saying, “Honey, I don’t feel like doing dishes, would you do them?” in a soft and gentle voice feels like a huge risk.
“He’s just going to say no, or tell me I’m being ridiculous.” I hear.
“Let’s try it,” I say, “and if his response is mean or defensive, maybe we can help him out.
“It doesn’t matter what I say. I’ve tried it every which way, and she always ends up pissed at me.” He says.
This is a very discouraged, tired and lonely couple, and their feelings are contagious. I can feel myself wanting to tell them both to just shut the f up and do what I say. Not particularly therapeutic. But I know that the feelings I’m having are not mine. I know that I am resonating with their experience, feeling what they are feeling.
“I wonder if either of you is wishing the other person would just shut up and listen to you?”
“Yes!” They both say in unison. And we finally have some common ground!
“So each of you is feeling the same thing!?” I ask, though it’s more observation than question.
“I guess,” one or the other offers tentatively.
“Where do you feel this wish in your body?” I ask the one who guesses.
“In my arms,” he says, pushing the air in front of him.
“And you?” I ask the other.
“Same,” she says, pushing the air too.
“Wow, so you are both feeling the same thing and your bodies are holding it in the same way. There is so much resonance between you!” They don’t respond. They are not ready to feel what they share.
“What are you pushing away?” I ask him.
If it stops there, she is left feeling like the bad guy. But I know he doesn’t want to push her away. They’ve been fighting like this for 15 years. If either wanted it to end, it would have ended by now.
“Yes, and what aspect of her are you pushing away.”
“Her not hearing me.”
“Yes, and what else?”
“Her not caring about me.”
“Yes, and what else?”
“Her not seeing that I’m a good guy.”
His voice has a little tremor, a little emotion in it. I look at her, and she is not seeing the vulnerability. She is lost in feeling criticized. I stay with him, but keep an eye on her.
“Stay with this experience, pushing away her not hearing, not caring, not seeing you. Where else have you felt this in your life?” I encourage.
“My father.” He says.
“Tell me about your father.”
“He always assumed the worst about me. When there was a mess in the house, he always came to me first and made me clean it up – even if it wasn’t my mess.”
“What did he look like when he made you clean up?”
“Mean, angry, fed up with me.”
“What did you want him to feel about you?”
“I wanted him to love me, to know that I loved him. I wanted his approval more than anything. I wanted him to be proud of me.” He is tearing up. His wife’s expression has softened.
“What are you seeing in her eyes now?” I ask, nudging him to look up at her.
His face stays downcast and he says, “She doesn’t care.” And in this moment, he could easily drive away the compassion she is feeling for him.
“That’s not what I’m seeing.” I say to him, but hoping that my words will help keep her from hardening again. “What I see is more like tenderness, (her face softens again) and I think it might be important for you to see that.”
He looks up, searching. She has heard me, and stays soft to him. “She looks… like she cares?” He says, surprised.
“Do you?” I ask her.
“Yes I care! I never saw him like this before. I mean, I knew his dad could be an ass, but he always seemed like he just rolled with it.”
“Like he was tough?” I ask.
“Yeah. He’s very tough.”
“How did you learn to be tough?” I ask him.
“I figured out pretty young that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted from him, so I just stopped caring.”
“What about you?” I turn to her, “How did you learn to be tough?” since she is too.
“For me, it was growing up with brothers. If I didn’t act tough, they would call me baby, tease me, pinch me, that kind of thing.”
“Toughness really protected both of you,” I say. And they both nod. “But now, you’re paying a price for that protection.” I continue, and they nod some more, each still looking in the other one’s eyes. “What do you really want to experience together?” I ask.
“Tenderness,” he says.
“Yeah. That would be good,” she says.
“And if you felt tenderness when you didn’t want to do the dishes, what would that sound like?” I ask.
“Babe, I’m wiped, could you do the dishes?” she says, looking tenderly at him.
“I’m wiped too. Maybe we could do them together?” he offers.
“How does this feel?” I ask.
“Better,” he says.
“Much better,” she agrees.
There are so many tiny moments when an argument can either spiral downward or upward. When we grow up shamed, we tend to look away right at the moment when our partner is offering a look of care or concern. Or we see the care and dismiss it, focusing on what feels more familiar – criticism, anger, detachment. If you fight a lot, I have a challenge for you. Can you find a moment of care or tenderness in your partner? If it’s hard to find there, can you offer a moment of care or tenderness and stay with it until he/she is able to see it and take it in? While it’s not easy (maybe not even possible) during a fight, could each of you commit to looking for these moments as often as possible when you’re not fighting? IfRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Yesterday I sat with a couple who were so angry with each other and so hurt, they could barely speak. I know them well enough to know that they love each other deeply – so seeing them in this much pain was hard. Sitting with them, I felt my own heart tightening in my chest in response to the stuckness they each felt. When we are hurt, we naturally want to retreat or retaliate – it’s just a normal part of being human. But in our couple relationships, neither of these strategies leads to resolution. What we really need, is to soften, to find more understanding and compassion for ourselves and each other. But often, that’s the last thing we want to do.
I also know that they come from families where the adults had all the power and control. Their parents used anger and shame to intimidate them into “behaving.” When we grow up in families where there is anger – especially scary anger – and shame was used to control our behavior, we are more likely to dig in to the retreat/retaliate strategy. It’s what lets us feels safe. Revealing the hurt under the anger feels too vulnerable, weak or helpless. We feel like we are in a power struggle, and if we show softness, we will lose.
Yet, at the same time, digging in doesn’t feel good. It’s safer, yes. But it’s lonely. We don’t like feeling disconnected from our partner – our primary source of love, nurturing and care. When this happens we’re in a terrible bind. We can’t get the closeness we want, because it doesn’t feel safe. That’s where my clients were when they came to see me yesterday. Ouch.
So the goal of therapy, in my mind was to begin building little bridges between safety and closeness. I know that safety has to come first. So I started with the partner who seemed to be the least triggered/traumatized, in this case, the husband. We spent a long time just exploring the feelings and sensations he was noticing in his body, while his partner watched and listened.
He identified tension in his shoulders and neck, tightness in his jaw. These are the places where we naturally feel our anger. Our jaw muscles tense, at the ready to growl and bite. Our shoulders store energy in case we need to hit or punch. It’s our biology. I asked him to stay with the process of noticing. He became aware that his stomach was tight, usually a sign of anxiety/fear. He also felt a heaviness in his chest, a sign of sadness/hurt/longing.
As his awareness moved from the sensations of anger/protection to the more vulnerable sensations of fear and sadness, I checked in with his wife. “What are you noticing in your body, as you listen to him?” I asked. “All the same things,” she answered, describing similar sensations in her own body.
I knew this was a bridge, and I pointed it out to them. “Wow. So you guys have so much resonance with each other, even when you’re upset, you are feeling each other.” They agreed, making eye contact for the first time in the session (maybe the first time in days).
Each of their faces softened just a little. In their eyes was more of the hope and longing, and a little less of the stony coldness they had at the start of the session. I pointed that out too. “What are you seeing in his face now?” I asked.
“He looks a little sad, a little… less angry.”
“What is that like?” I asked, “to see him less angry?”
“It makes me less angry.”
I turned to him. “What is that like – to know that when you soften, she softens too?”
And so we began to move into an upward spiral. As they expressed more of their vulnerable feelings, what they saw was that they didn’t “lose” as they would have in childhood. When one partner saw the sadness, pain and fear in the other, he or she was moved to compassion. At the end of the session, they were holding each other and passing the tissues back and forth.
“But we won’t be able to do this at home!” They both shared, near the end of our time.
“That’s okay. I said.” Some little part of you knows that you have this in you, even if it’s not accessible right away. You’re building muscle. No one expects you to get it on the first try, or even the tenth try. Be patient with yourselves. Know that in the heat of the moment, you won’t be thinking straight. But after a fight, when you’ve calmed down a little, you may feel an urge to say to each other, I was feeling really hurt (or misunderstood, or criticized…) when we were fighting, and I didn’t know how to tell you. It’s always okay to repair the rift later on. In time, you’ll get better at doing repair sooner and sooner.”
Couples therapy isn’t just a place to air grievances and get advice. It can also be a sandbox where you get to try new things, notice more about yourself and your partner, and develop new ways of thinking and being with each other. If you get locked into anger with your partner, and you don’t know how to get out, if fights fizzle out but don’t lead to resolution and more understanding, if each fight erodes more and more trust and love, then it may feel really good to try therapy – especially with a therapist who understands the biology of attachment and the fundamental foundation of safety in relationships.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is ask for help. When we ask, we run the risk of being told, “no,” having our needs dismissed or invalidated. As a result, we may become fiercely independent, determined to do it all ourselves. Or we may become bossy and demanding, hiding our vulnerability by voicing our needs as demands. Either way, if it doesn’t feel safe to ask for what we need, we can’t be close to our partners, and ultimately, that’s what we really want.
If you find yourself in one of these two roles, it may be time to try something new – something like, “Sweetheart, I’m feeling overwhelmed (or tired or unmotivated…), and I need your help with something.” If this approach feels scary, it may be useful to sit with a therapist who can help you get the words out and help your partner practice listening so that it really IS safe to ask for what you need.
It may also help to preface the conversation, preparing your partner that you’re about to do something hard, and need him/her to be kind. Maybe even showing him/her this posting as a way of introducing the topic. Though it may be uncomfortable for both of you at first, knowing that you can ask for what you need and that your partner will listen without judgment can make you both feel closer and more connected.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Women seem to have a reputation for being “catty” and competitive with other women, unlike how men behave with other men. This is a curious notion, especially since women are actually less competitive than men out in the world and less comfortable being competitive.
How can we make sense of this paradox?
Healthy competition and confidence are encouraged in boys but often seen as undesirable traits in girls. Team spirit and friendship provide the glue that strengthens and bonds men when competition prevails. Not surprisingly, men are typically comfortable with competition and see winning as an essential part of the game, rarely feeling bad for others after a victory, and maintaining camaraderie with their buddies.
Because women learn that they are not supposed to be competitive and win at others’ expense, their natural competitive spirit cannot be shared openly, happily, or even jokingly with other women. In such situations, when aggression cannot be channeled into a healthy, positive edge, it becomes inhibited and goes underground. What could have been healthy competition becomes a secret feeling of envy and desire for the other to fail – laced with guilt and shame.
Thus, what looks like hostile competition between women may instead mask feelings of insecurity, fear of success, and healthy aggression. Women, often experts at being tuned in and sensitive to others’ feelings, may easily overidentify with other women’s insecurities, projecting how they would feel in the other’s shoes and then feeling bad about their own success. Women learn to feel guilty for feeling happy and successful – and with their female friends who may not be having such luck, they may experience their own success as hurtful to their friend. This can make it uncomfortable for a woman to share and enjoy her accomplishments with her female friends.
In a common example, women may feel uncomfortable or self-conscious discussing their dieting success or weight loss with certain friends. They may even eat high-calorie foods they don’t desire when with a friend who is struggling with her own weight but having trouble being disciplined with food. In such situations, women may succumb to what they experience as an instinctive pressure to protect their friend in this way, sabotaging themselves but insulated from becoming the object of envy and resentment.
Interestingly, in friendships with men, where men and women are often competing in different arenas, these issues of competition usually do not come into play. Women don’t perceive men to be as vulnerable and sensitive as women, or threatened by success, and are therefore freed up from worrying about their feelings in this way. Further, women seek approval from men and often rely on them to validate their desirability, creating an interpersonal context in which success and confidence are rewarded. (Note that this “safer” dynamic with men applies to platonic friendships but is more complicated in romantic relationships, where women may diminish themselves with their partners as they do with other women.)
Women often rely on the approval of others to feel good about themselves.
Women often take care of people emotionally and rely on the approval of others to feel good about themselves. Women’s fear of triumph over others may lead to keeping themselves down and even (conscious or unconscious) subversion. Dependency on other people to maintain self-esteem creates a double bind, impeding women from embracing and using their own edge to achieve success. Constrained by internal conflict and over-focus on others’ reactions, many women endure the frustration of being unable to fulfill their true potential in terms of aggression, sexuality, and power.
Women’s trepidation and ambivalence in the face of their own strength and power often underlies their mistrust of the power of other women. Discomfort with their own power can make women alternate between inhibiting themselves to protect a female friend, and feeling mistrustful and helpless in the face of another woman’s perceived destructive power. A good example of this is when women whose husbands have had an affair blame the other woman more than they blame their spouse, holding the other woman more accountable – and seeing men as helpless in the grips of a desirable woman.
Autonomy cannot be achieved when actions are based on fear, and without the self-protective capacity to experience anger and aggression, which are part of drive. Being able to experience and utilize these states adaptively is different from acting them out in hurtful ways. If women are frightened of aggression in themselves or others, and threatened by success, their experience of themselves will be muted, leading to depression. How can women feel comfortable with their own (and other women’s) drive and power, without feeling threatened or worrying that their own success will hurt others?
Inspirational Tips for Women
• Women who feel more confident within themselves are less vulnerable to feeling threatened by, or threatening to, their female friends in the face of success.
• Good fortune, happiness and success can be used to help others and as a source of inspiration.
• Women can allow themselves to be separate and autonomous and still maintain close connections. An example of this is giving oneself permission to be happy (or unhappy) even if someone else is not.
• Feeling confident and whole involves allowing one self to know, accept and hold onto one’s own inner experience without being reactive to the anticipated, imagined or perceived feelings of others.
• Taking responsibility for a friend’s feelings is different from being caring and empathic. Being over-protective at the expense of one self weakens relationships by leading to an insidious sense of burden and resentment, passive aggressive behavior, or withdrawal.
• Competition does not have to be dangerous or hurtful but can be motivating and allow for healthy sublimation of aggression. Sports works well for this.
• A healthy balance of competition and compassion means allowing oneself to do well and embrace a positive feeling of empowerment and strength while at the same time caring about friends’ feelings and supporting them in their own growth.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
“I’m afraid if I ever let go and just really feel it, I’ll blow up the whole world!” That comment is often made by persons along the way on the journey to wholeness. We fear the enormity of repressed emotions caged up inside of us for what seems like centuries now. We fear that we could do harm if we were allowed to just let it rip.
In fact, some do. Anger management classes are operating right this moment all over the Western world, classes that teach us how to “walk away,” “count to ten,” and other like techniques meant to keep us from behaving on our rage. But anger, on all of its levels from mild irritation all the way up to rage is more than behavior. Yet behavior is what we fear. In fact I’ve heard adolescent boys struggling with rage say, “I didn’t get mad—I know because I didn’t throw anything or hit anyone.” They were totally equating anger only with behavior.
Irritation, frustration, anger, rage: these are all forms of anger. And they are feelings first. But when a person’s rage becomes behavior even before thought has a chance to plug in, it is usually because of one of two reasons: 1) it’s been repressed for a long time, and when someone drops the proverbial straw, it explodes; 2) it works for manipulative purposes.
Either way it has something to do with maturity. I said at the end of the last blog that I’d talk about maturity, and so I am. Maturity is the result of having faced and overcome obstacles by gathering deeper and deeper aspects of self. In other words, when faced with a challenge we don’t repeat a rote behavior, or do what someone else taught us to do, or just do what we’ve always done. Rather, we dig deeper into ourselves to create something original as a solution to the problem or to overcome the obstacle. In the process we learn something about ourselves and/or about life in general.
What has come to be called “uncontrollable rage” comes about as a result of not having developed maturity. We can see this clearly in the example of frustration. When some little thing goes wrong, say a key won’t work in a lock, we generally get frustrated. We feel blocked. What we do at this point is going to make a difference as to whether or not we take a step forward in our psychological growth. Of course, we may have to fail a few times before we can figure out how our frustration can be a catalyst for creativity. But ultimately if we can learn to feel the frustration, hold the tension between the feeling and the act, and then push on just a little further, we find that we can create a solution or even something wholly new out of that frustrating moment.
When we continuously fail to step forward in this way, we do not grow emotionally, and thus we do not mature. And so it is that some will learn that rage works to manipulate or scare someone else into overcoming the frustration for them. Or, they learn that unloading their rage just makes them temporarily feel better—in a similar fashion to the way that using substances can make us forget our challenges in a haze of feeling better—so that we no longer feel motivated to solve the problem or become creative in response to a life challenge.
What most people don’t know is that we have a choice. Feeling our feelings and using them for a springboard for creativity is an option that is always available to us, but one which we can decide not to take. And the more frequently we choose to forgo that option, the less likely we are to mature through the process.
This means that the batterer is most likely to be an immature person whose rages are comparable to a toddler or adolescent temper tantrum. And the notion that batterers are just “out of control” is unfounded. The concept of being “out of control” is based in the notion of external locus of control—or the idea that if the external world cannot stop me, then I’m just beyond control. And it belies the fact that we always have a choice.
In fact, when we talk to people who are willing to really be honest about rage, what we learn is that before they behaved out of it, they were aware of other options for expression besides harming someone or breaking something.
On the other hand, rage as a simple feeling can be quite useful for informing us of where we need to place our boundaries, where someone else stops and we begin and vice versa. Holding the tension between the rageful feelings, for example about a previous abuse or betrayal, can inform us of how much we actually do care about our own well-being so that we can solidly declare “never again!” And the rage has just the right amount of energy to allow us to keep our promises to ourselves.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
No addiction is healthy. But when it comes to love, there is one addiction that is fatal. It is the obsessive addiction to being right. This mental knee-jerk mechanism stops listening and communication dead on the spot. Once you are attached to being right, you can no longer hear the truth or partial truth that the other person is saying, because your brain has just switched into a Neanderthal mode of right/wrong. Open-mindedness, which is necessary to deal with disagreements in a healthy way, no longer has a fighting chance. Saving your relationship depends on your willingness to let go of your attachment to being right.
The desire to be right is such a strong drive in humans that I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a little “wanting-to-be-right” control room in the brain that has been there since the dawn of civilization. It seems as primal as the fight-or-flight mechanism. It’s this fight-to-be-right syndrome that has contributed to wars abroad and battles at home.
Some of us have this mechanism more than others, but all of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves entrenched in a position, hanging on to an argument, or choosing to martyr ourselves in defense of an opinion. But if saving your relationship is a priority, you need to let go of your need to always be right.
Not only has this fight-to-be-right syndrome caused untold suffering in the world, it is the cause of many arguments between ourselves and those we love. That’s why this is such an important healthy relationship tip, and it can have a powerful impact on improving your love life!
Think back on a recent fight or argument you had with someone. Was there also a determination to win — perhaps at the cost of kindness? Were you willing to use harsh words or a tough tone of voice in defense of your position? Was being right more important than even the merits of the issue you were discussing? If saving your relationship is important to you, you know what you need to do. If you said “yes” to any of these questions, it is a good opportunity to examine your “fight-to-be-right” state of mind.
Here is a little snippet of a conversation between Susie and Mark that shows how easily the desire to be right can take over and blow loving feelings right out the window.
Susie pulls her wet hands out of a sink full of greasy dishes and calls to her husband, who is watching the ball game. “Mark, honey, the sink is stopped up again…”"Again!” his voice bellows from the living room. “What did you do? You poured hamburger grease down the drain again, didn’t you?”
Susie marches into the living room, her voice fighting with the TV. “You didn’t fix it like I asked you to! I bet you just used a plunger. You didn’t really clear the pipes like I asked….” Mark doesn’t wait for her to finish. The tone of her words tells his primitive brain: “Okay, this is a fight, which means I have to make sure I win!” Mark’s tone immediately matches hers, upping the volume to assert his alpha position. “I told you not to pour grease down the drain!” He follows her into the kitchen and surveys the scene. “Now you have a sink full of greasy dishes! Look at this mess!” “Well, if you had really fixed the drain instead of just using a plunger and being lazy… “
By now they are in a full-blown argument. Neither Susie nor Mark wants to admit that they are wrong. So they will fight to the death to prove that they are right. This argument would have never even begun if Susie could just have said: “You’re right, I forgot, and poured hamburger grease down the drain again. Would you please help me clear the drain?”
Or if Mark could have said: “You’re right. I thought just using the plunger would take care of it, and I hate using those chemicals.”
In the heat of the moment, the last thing we want to do is admit we might have made a mistake. But in the long run it is so much easier to just say so, and not engage in a do-or-die battle to be right.
Try a simple step the next time you see an argument beginning to heat up.
Ask yourself: Am I just wanting to be right in this situation? * Could I let go of the feeling of wanting to fight-to-be-right? * Could I simply admit my error, and then ask for what I need? * Could I choose to be happy instead of “dead-right?” You might find that peace and harmony feel even better than being right. The satisfaction of winning an argument is often short lived. If it wasn’t, why would we constantly be driven to repeat the process of proving ourselves right?
Being right is like an addictive drug. You always need more of it in order to feel satisfied. But the feeling of peace and harmony that comes from surrendering this primitive drive to be right can lead to a lifetime of joy in your personal relationships.
Choose happiness. And you’ll be happy. Asking yourself this simple question: “Would I rather be right or be happy?” is one of the most important healthy relationship tips I can offer you. This is the secret of saving your relationship.
Work on recognizing anger early, before it escalates. Point out when voices get louder, faster, more tense, or more demanding. Use unkind sarcasm or failure to follow through on commitments as a clue to anger. Once you recognize your anger, make a polite request. If it works, you don’t even need to express your anger. If it doesn’t work, use your anger to tactfully insist on negotiation, compromise, and problem solving. The anger will pass if you accept it and express it respectfully.
Help an angry or explosive man to express his feelings several times each day. This is an important first step in learning to use anger constructively. Anger often covers up feelings of hurt, insecurity, inadequacy, or fear. Use “I feel (an emotion) when (this happened)” statements, but not “I feel you …” or “I feel (an emotion) when you …” statements, which often lead to critical, blaming comments. Teach him to make polite requests and avoid blaming or verbally attacking you.
Use the next two techniques whenever either partner can’t maintain a calm, respectful tone of voice and carefully listen to the other. First, take a few deep breaths, relax the tension in your body (perhaps by stretching), and slowly count until you calm down, whether this takes 5 seconds, 20 seconds, or more. Imagine your parents and grandparents, a preacher or priest, a respected and well-loved teacher or boss, your counselor, or several policemen are watching how you respond. If you can’t use a calm tone of voice to respond tactfully and respectfully, start counting again and pretend the authority figures are watching.
If this doesn’t help, take a time out. Leave and do something else until you calm down. Be sure to avoid angry thinking when you count or leave to calm down. Repeatedly thinking about the conflict only prolongs the upset feelings. If you tend to blame other people or circumstances for your anger, read or repeat every day, “Nobody makes me angry. I make myself angry over certain situations and only I can change this.” If a man’s anger is intense or explosive, don’t bother with counting: he should leave the situation immediately. If he has ever been violent, he should use time out often, at least several times a week for practice and to develop the habit, even if he feels only mildly irritated and doesn’t really need to leave.
Avoid angry thinking during time out by getting things done or doing what you enjoy. You might work on a hobby, read a good book, or work on projects around the house. Practicing meditation or deep relaxation is an excellent way to calm down. Physical activities such as walking, jogging, exercising, or bicycling help by
eleasing tension. Don’t punish a loved one by leaving for much longer than an hour or two. Be very careful if you drive a car because angry people often drive dangerously. Don’t use alcohol or other drugs when you feel angry. If you return and can’t use a calm tone of voice to respond respectfully, despite pretending authority figures are watching, leave again and do something else. As you gradually improve in dealing with your anger, you should be able to reduce the time you need away from the situation to calm down. Whenever either of you feels angry, use the questions listed in the box to help you think more carefully and logically.
With all the violence in suburban schools, there has been increased curiosity about the sources of social ostracism among youth, painful facts of life about the healthiest and, we presume, happiest of our kids. The focus of this article is on teasing, an almost universal experience with implications far beyond the attention we generally give to it.
Most of us can sympathize with the child who complains miserably of being teased or bullied. Our advice is usually simplistic: “Try to ignore it,” on the theory that the teaser will get bored and drop it when the victim does not react. But this discounts the reactions of the other participants, the onlookers or the audience for whom the bully is performing and who reward the scene with their attention. Besides, none of us is good at ignoring our own feelings, and the feelings that can be triggered by teasing are more powerful and painful than we like to admit, perhaps because we feel powerless to protect our children from this kind of an attack, ubiquitous as it is. The two primary feelings involved are often topics of discussion in the therapy session: shame and anger, or in their extreme: humiliation and rage.
Looking back on it, it seems to me that the relationship between shame and rage should be obvious. When something or someone makes you feel powerless, terribly hopelessly powerless, the thing you crave most is something that will help you feel powerful, or at least safe. We don’t like to talk about these disturbing feelings. Shame is something we hide, or minimize, because exposing our shame only seems to make it worse. So the impact and consequences of teasing, shaming and excessive
criticism remain obscure for many of us. And the resulting rage catches us by surprise.
Many things can make us feel powerless. Whenever we experience animportant loss or disappointment, we feel powerless. When we are shamed, teased, criticized or bullied, we feel powerless. When we are ignored, we may feel powerless. When we are sick, tired, or hungry and as a result, confused, we may feel powerless.
When a young child craves power, there are only a few options. He can reach out for the loving protection of a comparatively powerful parent or caretaker. He can practice those few things that give him a child’s sense of mastery and control. He can exercise power over someone or something smaller or weaker. He can imagine fantasy scenarios of power, or revenge.
Babies are good at reaching out for protection. Though some may be fussier than others, most babies have a powerful way of making most adults feel nurturing and protective toward them.
A toddler is experimenting with a growing repertoire of
movement and communication skills that offer a sense of mastery and control over a small part of his universe. But if you speak sharply to a toddler, you will see the downcast eyes that represent the classic posture and facial expression of the primary affect of shame. Some anguished sobbing will usually follow, and it is not unusual for
the anguish to be followed by rage, as the toddler regroups and assaults you with the worst insult in his vocabulary.
The surge of aggression following the shame of defeat is part of our emotional evolutionary heritage. The two feelings are hard wired together, the sequence normal and unavoidable. But we do have some choice in what to think and how to act in response to the feelings, and these choices are learnable and therefore teachable.
The parent who finds a toddler’s tantrum cute and laughs at it, or the parent who finds it intolerable and punishes it, will see the child’s shame and rage reenacted immediately. With a few repetitions of this scene, the child soon develops a memory for the experience of helpless rage. Another alternative for the parent in this situation is to help the child release the shame and rage, and to begin to learn how that is done. By listening seriously, and labeling the feeling, the parent can accept the expression of emotion, while firmly limiting any dangerous or destructive behavior. Understanding, accepting, and labeling the shame and anger (and predicting that it will soon pass) reassures the child of continued respect and love; these responses help the child learn to get past the feelings of helplessness sooner, an important emotional skill to learn.
A five-year-old entering school is suddenly faced with a much larger world full of dangers and chances to feel powerless. What has he learned about this painful and confusing feeling and what to do about it? If he has not learned how to recover from shame and rage fairly quickly, he may be in for a crash course. Before long, he will encounter a disapproving adult or a competitive peer who will trigger feelings of shame and helplessness, followed by some feelings of aggression or rage. He will practice one or more strategies for dealing with this situation and choose one as his favorite. He may try to bury the rage by taking it out on himself in a damaging flurry of self-criticism. He may fantasize about revenge, and even plan and execute some form of retaliation. He may take his aggression out on someone else, seeking a way to restore status by teasing or harassing another, or by shifting blame. Or he may find a supportive listener with whom to work out this problem, though this requires skill and sensitive communication from the child and the listener. There are so many such episodes in his young life, that a preference for one of the strategies is soon established. It may work well enough in the short term to hide the helplessness and take the shame inside, or to gain back a sense of power. But often it may result in some unreleased shame or anger that grows into a chronic expectation of social danger.
The adolescent lives in a world in which the option of reaching out for protection from a loving adult becomes enormously more complicated and difficult. Even the need to seek understanding and help from an adult can be the source of embarrassment or shame when the primary psychological task is establishing independence. Competition for status within the all-important peer group often takes the form of teasing or hazing, where one youngster seeks to make himself the center of attention by making fun of another. It is a universal game, and within limits, can be a healthy kind of flexing of social muscles. But the limits are not well known, and therefore easy to cross. The young person who is the butt of the joke is in a poor position to define the rules of this game. Shame and hurt rule in silence, and the inevitable anger soon begins to grow. The young person may direct this anger at any of a number of targets. He may define himself as a loser and experience anger
at himself, eroding his self-esteem. He may become angry with the adults of the world for not protecting him, or with the “winners’ of the game for their cruelty or insensitivity. This anger is difficult to express, especially toward the teasers who provoked it. So it is more likely to be turned inward and become the stuff of self-hatred or angry fantasies of revenge. Fortunately, many kids find some way through this minefield without significant scars. But many others do not. Eating disorders, adolescent depression, and oppositional disorders all share a chronic expectation of criticism or shame, with chronic anger focused either on the self or the outside world or both. For some the anger fuels constant fantasies of getting even. Their angry demeanor subtly repels some of their peers, leaving them more isolated, and angrier. They find sympathy with angry lyrics in songs, angry images in movies, and a few angry friends, their fellow misfits. Academic and social failure and isolation add to the shame, and to the rage. Emotion “motivates” us to act. And rage motivates angry or violent behavior, toward oneself or the outside world.
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