Real Relating  —  I Wasn’t Going to do This

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Real Relat­ing

Real Relating  —  I Wasn’t Going to Do This

On Real Relat­ing - I Was­n’t Going to Do This  —  learn­ing to work through emo­tions with­out turn­ing them into issues is a rela­tion­ship must

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I was­n’t going to do this.” A most fas­ci­nat­ing “client line,” one I heard in exact­ly the same con­text through­out my 32 year coun­selling career.

The line was always spo­ken pre­cise­ly 3 sec­onds after the first tear coursed down the clien­t’s cheek. The tear, com­bined with a rue­ful smile and a sti­fled sob, was the mark­er of a client that had gone a step deep­er into their SELF.

This, as opposed to all the “gim­micks” clients brought with them to avoid doing any real work. Usu­al­ly, this resis­tance has every­thing to do with the refusal to sur­ren­der into the pain of the real work  —  refusal to con­sid­er chang­ing  —  refusal to show “weak­ness” by giv­ing up the illu­sion of control.

There is, of course, a perverse logic to this resistance.

A per­son, for exam­ple, in rela­tion­ship with some­one into con­trol, pow­er, abuse, vio­lence, has to learn to pro­tect him / her­self. This typ­i­cal­ly means that the per­son learns to hide their emo­tions  —  to erect walls  —  in an attempt to keep stuff out while keep­ing stuff in.

This is an ardu­ous, painful process. Always, it’s accom­pa­nied by a hard­ness of the body  —  the mus­cles are tight­ened to pro­tect and suppress.

Once learned, this way of deal­ing with rela­tion­al stress, while com­plete­ly inflex­i­ble, becomes a source of per­son­al pride  —  “LOOK at me! Look at what I did!”  —  Thus the para­dox: it’s what is nec­es­sary for peo­ple to sur­vive abu­sive sit­u­a­tions, but the price is that the per­son is shut down and locked in.

The question is: will this stance simply be used as an “escape” tool, or will it become a life-long way of being? If the latter, how does a tool go so very, very awry?

To under­stand the way this defense mech­a­nism goes awry, we want to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between acute and chron­ic stres­sors. A sto­ry, of course!

I went to an excel­lent inner city tech­ni­cal school in Buf­fa­lo, New York. In 1964–1968, it was the only High School in Buf­fa­lo with a com­put­er, and I was into that in a big way.

It was also in a scary part of town.

Those of you that receive Buf­fa­lo TV will snick­er  —  prac­ti­cal­ly every night, the lead for Buf­falo’s ABC net­work is, “Fire in Tonawan­da, news at 6.” Or, “Mur­der on Chippe­wa, update at 11.” My school was 3 blocks from Chippe­wa Street.

Being young and short, I walked down Chippe­wa at top speed, look­ing nei­ther right nor left. I’d breathe shal­low­ly, tense my mus­cles (flight or fight reac­tion) and I’d have a pock­et-knife in one fist, a set of keys extend­ing between my fin­gers of the other.

Many were the nights that I’d get home from play rehearsals and find out a mur­der hap­pened in an alley I’d passed at around the time of the murder.

I sur­vived, obviously.

I went off to Chica­go, or specif­i­cal­ly Elmhurst, 20 miles West. The keys went away, and I got com­fort­able in a small town.

Then, I came to Cana­da. My first evening in down­town Toron­to, cir­ca 1976, I found myself tight, breath­ing shal­low­ly and clutch­ing my knife and keys.

I then did an interesting thing, which I highly recommend.

I stopped. I opened my eyes, my ears and my sens­es. I asked myself, “Do I sense a real threat, or am I over-react­ing to my mem­o­ry and imagination?”

Part of me, the part that had sur­vived the mean streets of Buf­fa­lo, was scared and angry. The rest of me noticed that there was absolute­ly no real threat at that moment, in Toronto.

  • Acute “any­thing” is spe­cif­ic. In my above exam­ple, acute dan­ger was each time I walked down Chippe­wa Street at 9 PM, head­ing for a bus, at age 16.
  • Chron­ic “any­thing” is an ever-present, non-spe­cif­ic feel­ing. It’s remain­ing in a state of acute anx­i­ety or fear while sit­ting alone in a church pew, so to speak.

Now you can see the dif­fi­cul­ty some peo­ple cre­ate for them­selves. All “stuck­ness” comes from allow­ing an acute expe­ri­ence become a chron­ic state. You’ll know you’re in one if you think you are “enti­tled” to feel some­thing, due to “cir­cum­stances.”

Let’s unpack. Being in a sit­u­a­tion that I gen­er­ate a fight or flight response over is, by def­i­n­i­tion, an acute sit­u­a­tion. It is acute because, short of dying dur­ing the expe­ri­ence, all expe­ri­ences end, and any expe­ri­ence can be exited.

How­ev­er, many peo­ple “choose” to stay in a dys­func­tion­al rela­tion­ship or sit­u­a­tion  —  either because they fear being alone, or don’t feel pow­er­ful enough, or have been trained to “fix things.”

They then create all kinds of stories about how the situation is going to get better “some day.”

As soon as they do this, what is acute becomes chron­ic. The think­ing moves from “This is a sit­u­a­tion I am in,” to “This is who I am.”

So, that’s one type of stuck­ness, and clients used to tell me how they “have no choice, no options” when they were in this place. Many had been in ther­a­py for years and learned noth­ing. Of course they had­n’t  —  you can’t learn some­thing new if you think it is irrel­e­vant to your self-imposed rigidity.

The oth­er type of stuck­ness comes from final­ly find­ing the pow­er to exit the sit­u­a­tion with­out explor­ing the acute-chron­ic dichotomy.

Here, the per­son finds the inter­nal pow­er and a way to exit the painful sit­u­a­tion. How­ev­er, and it’s a big how­ev­er, they don’t exit the inter­nal dynam­ic.

Exam­ple: “I was a vic­tim of abuse in my last rela­tion­ship. I final­ly learned to stand up for myself and I got out of the rela­tion­ship. Now, for the rest of my life, I am going to be pow­er­ful, wary, closed and defen­sive. That way, I’ll nev­er be a vic­tim again.”

There’s a problem here. Big problem. What’s happening is that the person is moving from a specific (acute) relationship with a specific person to a generalization (chronic).

One client had exit­ed an emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive rela­tion­ship 9 years ear­li­er. She came for ther­a­py to resolve issues with her kids. We came up with a strat­e­gy. We spent 2 more ses­sions togeth­er; all she would do was gen­er­al­ize about what she’d learned about good com­mu­ni­ca­tion, how to stay focussed and her “spir­i­tu­al development.”

From my side of the room, it was like I was bump­ing up against a smil­ing wall.

Her affect was gen­tle and car­ing and artic­u­late. The feel­ing i felt was hard and cold and stony and closed. So, I asked, “How and where are you in all of this?” Instant tears, and “I was­n’t going to do this.”

She then began to talk about not trust­ing men, about how if you let down your guard some­one pulls the rug out from under you, how if you show tears (which she equates with weak­ness), “Men rush in and try to take care of you. And they want stuff in return.”

She let me know she was afraid to ever let her guard down; it was even scary to talk about it. It was her last session.

Anoth­er client was a nurse. She came in because she had been diag­nosed as “depressed.” The “depres­sion” had exist­ed off and on for 10 years. Drugs were no longer work­ing. She’d also had a ses­sion with anoth­er ther­a­pist the day before. This bright light, when told of her depres­sion, offered a one-line cure: “Every­one knows that it’s impos­si­ble to have a brisk walk every morn­ing and be depressed.” Ouch.)

I lis­tened, I heard the short sto­ry of her life, and said, “Hmm. You spend your work life deal­ing with hurt­ing peo­ple. You’re sur­round­ed by sick­ness and death. Then, you rush home to look after your fam­i­ly. You’re on call to “fix” your friends. Who are you and where are you in all of this? Afraid your life is pass­ing you by and you’re too busy to get a hold of yourself?”

She sighed. “I was­n’t going to do this.” Tears. And she dug in, and learned to look after herself.

This week, you might won­der, “Who are you and where are you in all of this?” What have you clamped down onto, like a dog wor­ry­ing a bone, fear­ful of giv­ing up?

What acute sit­u­a­tion have you declared to be chron­ic? What lies beneath your tough, hard, unyield­ing sur­face? What will hap­pen if you open, just a bit?

What will hap­pen if you sur­ren­der your need to be spe­cial, stuck inside the tow­er of your chron­ic inabil­i­ty to choose vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty? Where are you???

I wasn’t going to do this.”

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