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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: October 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

If He Loved Me, He Would Move His Shoes (What in the world is Resistance and Why am I Suffering from It?)

"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." ~Albert Einstein

"Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will." ~James Stephens, The Crock of Gold

Sometimes I just can't decide. I admit to often being well caught in my own ambivalence at times. So I've brought you both quotes. And as often happens with me, more than one title. Sometimes more is more. Especially during this stunning season here in the north east where everything is colored so brightly and there is no need to choose between enjoying a drive around to see the foliage or taking a long walk through the woods, you can do both. A good resolution to indecision. Do both.

And now for how this applies to relationships. Because lately I have been hearing a lot from folks about how to manage so many difficult feelings in one relationship. Is it possible to hold both love and frustration, anger and desire, fear and hope all in the same space? And along these lines, comes the discussion about how to decide when to overcome the urge to fly off the handle emotionally and when to stay calm. When to push ahead to work with your partner, and when to just give in and melt down. How hard are we suppose to work to make relationships flow and soar? Even when we know how, what if we just don't want to? What if we would just rather let things unravel. What if we have some idea of what would help, but we just won't or don't do it? And what if we are stuck in the same old patterns in some small way because we want to be?

Resistance is alive and well. It is, in part, the refusal, conscious or un, (usually un, by the way) to doing something, or saying something that might result in a change or new direction. Or might bring up feelings that seem too uncomfortable or difficult to bear, but that may lead to progress. In many instances, resistances keeps us safe, or at least it appear to.

So when we are struggling in our relationships, well, that's a time to be curious. If the same old same old is still happening, or we are not making choices that may lead to progress, we can stop to study the situation, and see what may be going on.
A simple example, the entirely fictional, but very common tale of Jon and Jane:

Jon and Jane love each other. They recognize each other's strengths and weakness and they feel familiar with each other. They have been married for six years and have one child. They each work full time and though they are far from rich, they are not struggling. Not with money anyway. They have not had good sex in over a year. Nor have they spent much time together. Weekends are taken up doing household chores and taking care of their daughter. And they are fighting about lots of little things. Like who should take the initiative in making plans for the weekend, and who should do the shopping. And whether or not to buy a new front door.

And two bigger little ones: cleaning up after each other and cooking dinner. Jon leaves his work boots in the middle of the floor. And Jane trips over them every single night. And Jane does not ever cook. She will sometimes pick up take out, but even though she gets home an hour earlier than Jon, she is not interested in cooking dinner.
When they come in to talk to me, Jon is thinking about leaving. He does not know if I should help him stay in the relationship or help him to leave. Jane is clear. She wants me to help Jon stay. And move his boots.

Jane thinks: If he loved me he would move his shoes. He would know what I need. He would know what to say. I should not have to tell him. And when I do have to tell him he should only have to hear it once, and then he should know, if he loved me. And he would make dinner without a grudge because he knows how hard I work, and he would plan a great evening out for us once and while.

Jon thinks: I can't seem to please her. I must be missing something. I am tired of her being on my case all the time. I think it may be time to get out. I can't figure out why she wants to make this work if she is so unhappy. And why can't she make dinner? Wives should make dinner. I don't mind pitching in once and a while, but she gets home first, she should cook.

Time to be curious. Why so much resistance? Why doesn't Jon move his boots if it means so much to Jane. And why doesn't' Jane cook dinner at least a few times a week if means so much to Jon. And if Jane really wants Jon to stay, why doesn't' she just ignore the boots and produce a meal or two? And if Jon wants Jane to give him positive vibes, why doesn't he surprise her with a night out?
And why are both Jon and Jane not sure what to do? And why are they hesitant to find out? It took a year of no sex to get them to come to therapy, and they come at least ten minutes late for each session. More resistance.

And why isn't Jane willing to reward Jon with lots of good words, some attention and appreciation for all the things he does right. And Jon too. There are many good things that each could acknowledge about the other and highlight.

We are willing to teach and reinforce children, and reward them with prizes and assurances. Good parenting these days surely tips toward reward and reinforcement more than punishment and blame. Why not good partnership?

Sometimes partners need to hear things a few times before they get the hang of it. And some reward is needed to remind us to keep up a new behavior or positive change. There will be slippage when agree to do things differently. We need a lot of practice and reinforcement. That's human after all. And we all need to hear things in a way that does not sound like an attack or an accusation.
We are all Jon and Jane, I think, in small ways, in bigger ways, in our own relationships. We cannot catch each and every moment of uncertainty and indecision and understand at the ready what our hesitations are, or why we do or don't take the right course.

But we can find out. (yes, here it comes: talk, talk talk). But okay, not just talk. We can see to understand more about ourselves as we are trying to figure out our ambivalence and help ourselves and our partners toward better feelings.
Some questions for the stuck and curious:

-Is there fear here, somewhere? (not being loved, being good enough, important enough)

-Where do I get my ideas about communication from?

-What is stopping me from doing the things that will please him/her?
-What if I thanked him/her more often for the things s/he does that I like?

-What are my worst case scenarios if I give in and please him?

-What if I don't get back what I want? Why would that be so terrible?

-Where can I vent my anger and frustration safely and get new ideas?

-If I want to hurt this person, why?

-What beliefs do I have about what I am entitled too?

-What is my worst fear?

-How important is being right to me?

-How afraid am I of being too close?

-What do I need to get in order to do what is needed here?

-What is my objection to giving without getting for a while?

-What are my ideas about compromise?

-What are my ideas about love?

-Is there any benefit to how things are now? (do I like the fighting on some level, is familiar or interesting, or the only time I get attention or feel passionate?)

-What effect do we want to have? And Why? How will that help?

-What effect do we actually have? Why?

-Can I fess up to things that I am embarrassed or afraid of? At least to a good ear? So there can be some movement, insight and relief?

-How interested am I in getting to the deeper truth? What is keeping me from being interested and knowing more?
-If I don't want to know, why not? Could I guess?

Of course the answers may be buried deep in our unconscious, and in our history and patterns and past, but we can access them. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, if we are brave.
We can have more than one feeling at once. We can be frustrated and still say thank you. We can be afraid and still back off. We can feel justified and still give in. We can agree to talk in a safe place and sort things out. We can be curious about ourselves and our partners. Even when we are hurt or angry or frustrated or frightened. We can study the problem and learn.

Sometimes we can't have both the wondrous drive to look at the foliage and the walk in the woods. There are times where we do have to choose one direction or the other. It helps when we know a lot about ourselves. When we are willing to get past the fear of knowing and being known, we can make progress. I have abundant hope for Jon and Jane.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Trauma Tool Kit

How in the world do you define emotional trauma. It can be different for everyone. Unfortunately we have no shortage of examples of trauma today, emotional and other wise. Sometimes when people come in to talk to me, they come in because they have the (correct) idea that they can talk about anything and everything. That in my office their trauma is valid, even if somewhere in their mind they think that maybe its not, or that there are worse traumas in the world than theirs. Compare and despair. If you are suffering, than its valid. In my office I work with folks who have have survived various kinds of emotional wounding, physical attack, natural disaster and powerful events that have effected their functioning, outlook on life and emotional well being. The truth is that because everyone's make up and life circumstances are different, reaction to trauma varies greatly. In fact, what one considers traumatic can vary greatly.

A good friend of mine lost his wife more than a few years ago in a homicide bombing in Israel. After spending a few joyous weeks together in Israel, where she was finishing her teaching credentials, my friend returned to the states, where he was to await his wife's return in a few weeks. The day after he left she went for pizza and was standing directly behind the bomber in a crowded Jerusalem pizza restaurant when he detonated himself.

Tragedy, yes. Trauma? Certainly.

This past summer we joined friends on a rafting excursion down the Delaware River. As far as rivers go, the Delaware River is about as gentle as a grandma's arms holding a new babe. Really. Except that it is still a river. About halfway into our slow and drifty float, our dreamy reverie was interrupted by shrieks from behind us, about a quarter mile. The tube of our friend, which was carrying the father and a small boy of about four, snagged on some rocks and flipped over, sending the boy floating off. For about 5 seconds. Five very long, very frightening seconds. The father lost his grip and his glasses, but was, thank Gd, able to grab the boy's life vest before he was carried off down river. Gentle rivers still flow.

No tragedy. Trauma? Certainly. Especially for the mother who was watching from downstream.

Another angle. A couple, married 14 years, two kids. Contented days. Okay sex life, some money worries, but mostly life is good. She loves him. He loves her. They have the usual list of complaints and tolerances. But still they come together each night. Comfortable, familiar. Safe. (I know you see this coming). She one day finds, accidentally at first, (the real snooping will come later), a text from someone named Bunny.

At first, the wife is curious. Bunny? She actually forgets about it for a month (part of her just does not want to know, and part of her knows that in a million years he would never...). And besides, all the text said was "got your message." Probably a client.

Fast forward a few months to her walking in the door early from work one Saturday, through the back door, to overhear him on the phone saying, "I love you too, just give me some time. You are in my heart. "

Betrayal. Yup. Trauma. Yes. So what to do? Well, in each instance, and again, there are too many more, but I wanted to bring you the idea that symptoms of trauma, while they vary from person to person, can and do include: persistent intrusive thoughts, excessive thinking and ruminating, nightmares, recurrent dreams, loss of appetite, or excessive, difficulty concentrating, speaking, panic, confusion, excessive irritability, mood swings, fatigue, aches, pains, loneliness, feeling separate, frightened or guilty. And more. Of course, more.

Emotional trauma does not have to be the result of physical harm. Difficult break ups, loss, betrayal, can all cause emotional trauma. We don't choose to be traumatized, but we can choose to treat our trauma. We can use the trauma tool kit. We can aim to be Trauma Free. Its not so much about letting go, I think, as it is about moving forward.

Talk. To an understanding supportive ear. Talk. Talk. Talk.

Rest. Give your body and mind a break from the thinking. Tell yourself, its time for my rest.

Assure. Assure yourself that time and good care can and will bring healing and relief.

Understand. Grace yourself your reactions and learn about your own needs and processes.

Meaning. Keep an active list of the people and things, accomplishments that have meaning.

Accept. What happened happened. Trying to rearrange it in your mind will not undo it.

Forgive. This can be a long road. But forgive and live. Look for ways to let go of anger and resentment. Forgiveness brings a lot of relief with it. Keep yourself on the list of people to forgive.

Rely. On a power greater than yourself. Pray. You do not have to be religious to be spiritual.

Easy. Easy does it. Go gently with yourself and others.

Excel. Create. Do something new. Let yourself move forward. You may need to grieve for a while, but you can still create.

And please note: There is no hammer in the tool kit. Taking a look at your fears, your history, your place in events in your life is often very healing. But not with a hammer.

The guy who's wife was murdered created an organization dedicated to spreading kindness. The friend who's son almost went down river said a prayer for the victims of 9/11 whenever she started to think about the moment she saw her son almost lost. The wife who's husband was leaving created a website devoted to helping women repair their marriages or survive divorce.

You don't have to get big about it though. A neighbor of mine lost a business and a friendship a few years back. To her, it was a trauma. She suffered a long time from many of the above symptoms. But she is free now, she tells me. She says that she forgives herself for being so hurt, and so hurtable. She forgives her friend, for hurting her, and she has started therapy to learn more about how she can succeed and grow in new and creative ways.

Sometimes, trauma brings with it loss and grief. There are theories that say that the brain itself is deeply involved in how we absorb emotional blows and recover from grief. Check out my good friend Fran Schumer's article for the NY Times on the topic. On unending suffering and the brain.

Somewhere in our hurt psyches, we can tend to our brains, to our broken hearts, to our shocked minds. We can get help. We can. We can take a look at what our life has become if trauma and grief are ruling it. We can dive under the resistance to get help and take good care of ourselves.