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

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Some Thoughts on Comfort, Self Knowledge and Change (and Therapy too)

Difficult to follow a post on sex. But I am thinking about comfort. Which often times does follow sex, because good sex can be, among other things, very comforting. So maybe I am on the right track.

Lots of times we therapists and psychoanalysts spend a lot of time listening, as well we should, for patterns in peoples lives. For things that people do that repeat, unconscousiosly, situations, feelings, circumstances. When someone is stuck or suffering, we listen for things that usually don't serve them well, or well anymore. And we listen for the resistances, for those things both concrete (like a traffic jam) and emotional (like fear or love, or assumptions or ideas), and we look for actions (like coming late or talking about the weather too much) that are both communications about what someone needs and a clue to what is in the way of getting it. We study what is in the way of us learning more about who we are, and what we need and want. We stay curious about how to get it. We listen for obstacles to progress, obstacles to being able to talk more, listen more and know more. We ask, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly to ourselves, so that we may study it, "what is in the way of you getting or having or keeping what you need/want?"

And we sometimes wonder "What would happen if you knew more about yourself? And what is blocking you from finding out? Or wanting to find out?"

The answer, in its simplest form, I think, may be fear. Fear of having to change, if we are not really ready. Fear of not being, or feeling safe. Fear of being judged, criticized, put down or minimized. Fear of being too uncomfortable. Fear that the process won't be worth it. Fear that what we might gain won't really be better than what we already have. Sometimes, underneath resistance is fear. Underneath unwillingness or hesitation is fear.

But the idea is that if we can figure out whats going on, and why, we can help folks create new paths. If they want to. If the want is just slightly bigger than the fear. We do accept the fact that we are shaped by our experiences in life, as well as our biology. And that lots of times, the road to better is not only bumpy, but its not all that compelling. Sometimes we are comfortable in our same ole same old. Its what we know. And that's fine.

The important thing, I think, in therapy and in life, when seeking to comfort, is to go gently. Sometimes it is beneficial to tell someone what we see, or what we think we see, in their communications. But while we are doing this, we also just need to listen simply. To just offer and provide comfort. And to know that providing comfort is a tricky thing as well. Especially when someone is in real emotional pain, or has suffered a trauma. (next post on trauma).

Sometimes its hard to know what exactly will be comforting to someone and how best to go about it. What is comforting to one, may not be comforting to another. But universally, I think, being understood is very comforting to most of us. That and having a very human connection. Sometimes comfort can create an intimate feeling, too intimate on occasion, so we therapists tread carefully here. But we tread.
It is comforting for some folks to learn more about their patterns and fears, how they protect themselves and from what. Sometimes, self knowledge is very comforting. And when someone has hurt us deeply, it can be comforting to understand what fears and motivations that person operates under. We may not be able to know exactly, but we might guess, if that helps us along.

A few years ago a good friend of mine suffered an emotional trauma at the hands of a business partner. David, we can call him, had come up with an idea that he thought would make a good business. He did not want to go it alone, and so took the idea to his friend Sam (not his name, of course). The two of them set off together on a path of mutual benefit. They worked side by side for many months to create and build the enterprise, investing heart, soul and money.

One day, Sam decided he wanted to go it alone, and told David that the partnership was off. David was devastated. David could not believe that Sam would do such a thing, they were close friends, partners,. But Sam was certain, and David was gone. When someone is clear, they are clear.

For many months after the split, David could not sleep. He could not eat. He was invaded by thoughts of his failed partnership, his lost friendship. He went over and over again his own mistakes, or possible contributions to the breakup. He went over the flaws in Sam's personality that made it so difficult to get along at times. And he went over the flaws in his own. But still he could find no comfort. He suffered financial loss, sure, but that was the least of it. He felt betrayed in the deepest sense of the word.

David called me one day, a few months after the split to tell me his tale. He was sullen and tearful, self depreciating and angry all at the same time. He told me his wife, my good friend, had had enough, she wanted his mood restored. She wanted him to get on with his life and create something new and good, she knew he could. And she wanted him to get my help.

We were too close for to me to work with him professionally, but comfort I could provide. That's always available. It wasn't complicated. I listened. I listened attentively and soothingly. I asked good questions about his pain, and his choices. I wondered with him how he has survived hurt and heartbreak in the past. And which feelings were the most painful (the anger and betrayal, he said. And his own possible mistakes and oversights). I asked him what he wanted to do with his pain, to hold on to it for a bit, or to let it go someday. He was not sure. We acknowledged that sometimes pain needs to linger until its done. He did not feel quite willing just yet, to let it go. Even if he could. And then I wondered with him whether he may like to talk to someone who was less close to him and to his family. Someone who might offer him comfort and analysis. Someone who might listen to the pain behind the pain.
David told me that he thought a duck was a duck. That what happened to him happened because of Sam, and his oddities and unreasonable personality. I asked if he was sure that was all there was to the story (after all, he did tell me he had made some mistakes along the way too. Could they have contributed to the problem?). I asked if it were possible that getting relief, comfort, whenever he should want it, might necessitate a look inside as well, a little deeper. Maybe a look at how he got into such a bad deal, or how he put so much faith in someone who turned on him. Or what fears of his own may have been gurgling beneath the surface, and added to the turmoil, to his reactions, and even to those of his partner.

He was open to this. To studying the situation. Even this amount of talking seemed to bring hope and the prospect of relief. And we both agreed that any efforts to unpack the problems, or look deeper had to be padded with comfort. We do have endure painful thoughts and feelings sometimes, in order to let them pass, in order to get to know deeply, our own resiliency and passions, and our own resistances and character. But we don't have to go at it hard or head on all the time. In fact, David's tendency toward urgency and intensity may have contributed to his problems with Sam.

So David got me thinking about comfort and balance, about obstacles and accomplishments. And about the idea that taking a look at yourself can bring comfort, but it needs to be done gently. And about how very deeply we connect first to knowing we are human and that we make mistakes, and that we can tackle trauma even, when we know we not alone.

That in itself can be hopeful and comforting. And for those of you want a treat, on the subject of comfort, check out this interview with the wonderful and very human Anne Lamott, author and fellow traveler, about life, her many books, and on humanness, honestly and survival.

There is comfort in knowing that all humans make mistakes, act impulisivelyat times, have fear. That we can bear some discomfort in order to have more comfort, more grace, and better feelings. We can hurt. We can learn. We can heal. We can stay safe. Even when the trouble seems to linger or come from our own mind, there is comfort in telling our story and growing gently toward a better understanding of ourselves and our world.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Honey, I'm in the Mood

What in the world is the connection between sex initiation rituals with your partner and emotional pain? Well, this: giving and receiving pleasure nourishes both body and soul, and can glue relationships together in the most precious ways. And this: when it comes to sex, women want to be approached in a way that makes them feel loved, cherished, valued, appreciated, understood, sexy and uniquely important. Uniquely, uniquely, important. Men just want to be approached.

Okay. I know, it's a generalization. And may seem like a tall order. But bear with me on this one. Because I hear about this all the time. And we know how important good communication is, both for good sex and in general. And I know that the wrong approach can cause pain. And trouble can spiral from there.

Often just the act of initiation is enough to reassure a man, to turn him on, open him up and give him the good feeling or feelings he needs. But for women, the verbal warm up, or the emotional connect that leads up to sex is often vital to creating the right feeling, mood, interest or arousal.

Kissing is a great lead in for many women. But not just any kissing. Tender, passionate, well appointed, "I love you and want you" kind of kissing. Men are more willing to have sex without kissing, but most women say they wouldn't have sex without kissing. (from Psychology Today, August Issue, p.45). I think that women prefer kissing as a warm up to good sex because its attentive and women interpret kissing as a way to connect emotionally before sex. Emotional connection is a strong stimulant for women.

Most women in committed relationships accept the idea that they will not always be in the mood. They are fine, even glad sometimes to have sex when their partner needs or wants it, knowing that the right mood will come along again at some point. That there are many different kinds of sex, and it does not always have to be love making. And that for men, often times, sex is what stirs emotional closeness. But for some women, well, more than some, the desire to be made love to usually trumps the desire for sex. So when a man initiates sex more often than love making, the emotional message or communication can get scrambled and feelings may get hurt. If it seems like the message is, "I want sex," or "I'm horny," rather than "I want sex with you," or "I want you," then a woman may experience a feeling of sadness or loneliness, instead of desire or arousal.

While women cannot always expect their man to hit the right note, there are a few basics. And while women, especially in a new, or new-ish relationship will often accept approaches that they may otherwise not like long term, it does help the relationship reach new levels when partners are on the same page about how to start.
And sometimes, the approach can indicate a lurking, but undiscussed feeling or issue in the relationship, or and again, can create one. So what's the key? Well, you know me. Talk. Talk. Talk. Listen. Listen. Listen. To each other. Doesn't have to be in the moment, but at some point.

Consider this. Both partners are at work all day. Its late at night, both are tired. Man looks at woman and gives "the look." You know the look. Its his unique look, but its still "the look." And she, having had a long day, really does want to connect, but is in the mood for some love, not just some sex. Maybe she wants to talk first. Maybe she wants to be held, kissed, told she is beautiful. Nothing insincere, just some "we time" first. Then some passion. Emotional connection first, physical second. Yes, I know we've said this, but it bears repeating, that men feel the connection more often through being physical first, and women through the emotional, the verbal. We need lots of gentle reminders so that we can take good care of each other and minimize the risk of rejection and miscommunication.
In my office, it's not even so much the romance that women talk about with me, its the feeling. The feeling of "us-ness," and of being valued and connected and desired that is often experienced as missing and emotionally painful.
When it comes to initiating sex, some one liners can be emotional bombs. Like "Want to get naked?" Or "Look what I have for you." And while sexual joking, teasing and even raunchy rousing can have a solid place in a relationship, most women prefer this to be the exception, not the rule, and find it more okay once sex is happening, but not necessarily as a lead in or turn on.

What happens when an initiation attempt bombs is usually that the man feels rejected, dejected and sometimes even stupid. And sometimes angry, frustrated and confused. This can lead to more emotional distance. And if things really spiral, sex can become less frequent, awkward and less intimate. In committed relationships, sexual problems cause emotional pain.

Men can rarely go wrong initiating love; sex most likely will follow. But initiating sex may not lead to sex, or at least not the kind she wants. And when she gets the kind she wants, you both get the good feelings. And the relationship grows and grows.

Many couples find it tricky to talk about sex, and about how they would like to be approached. The objections to discussing things are many. We humans don't want to spoil the spontaneity, or have to teach or train a spouse, we would rather hold out for bad or awkward feelings to pass, tuck them away somewhere, pretend it's not such a big deal, or hold out for some miraculous understanding to wash over our partner. But closeness, emotional and physical, often requires words, and words that convey love, attention, attachment, interest and connection. Words that turn on, arouse and invite. Words that help lead to more appealing action. There are many good ways to ask for and explain what we would like without ruining a mood, or hurting a feeling. There are many good ways to bring a partner closer. (More on that someday soon.) We have to be willing to go there. Because where there are good kind words, there is always hope. And there is almost always better sex.