Blog by Miriam

Easter: Bringing Dead Relationships Back to Life

“I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems; I’ve got to open my eyes to everything. Without a thought, without a voice, without a soul; Don’t let me die here. There must be something more. Bring me to life.”

                                                                        Evanescence lyrics “Bring Me to Life”

 

Easter is a time of year when Christians begin to think about atonement—the idea of a kind of reconciliation between themselves and God. In my work as a marriage and family counselor, I tend to think of the concept in terms of husbands and wives, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, etc. What is it that reconciles two people together who have either grown apart or who are so angry at each other that compromise or making peace seems impossible? Does it have to do with some kind of “cleansing” of “sins” as Christians celebrate at Easter? How are dead or dying relationships brought back to life?

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If you have a look at most religions, you’ll find this idea of atonement or reconciliation via cleansing is at their heart. It’s the idea that community or union or connection comes through a cleaning out, a detoxifying, a letting go…a death of sorts. A death that leads to new life.

In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes described it as the “life/death/life nature of love.” She wrote that in order for people to live and love in a “way that is most wise, most preserving, and most feeling, one has to go up against the very thing one fears most. There is no way around it…”

She tells the story of Skeleton Woman which she describes as “a hunting story about love.” In this story “love does not mean a flirtation or a pursuit for simple ego-pleasure,” but rather “a union which prevails through bounty and austerity, through the most complicated and most simple days and nights.”

It starts with a girl, living in the frozen north, who “had done something of which her father disapproved,” and although no one could remember what she had done, her father “had dragged her to the cliffs and thrown her over and into the sea.” It was there, in the bottom of the ocean, being turned and tossed about, that her flesh was worn and picked away, and she was turned into Skeleton Woman.

Eventually caught by a fisherman who’d lost his way, she became helplessly entangled with him and with her own bones. Just when he thought he was free of her he realized she was as entwined with him as ever. But something happened to him in the dark night, once on land and back in his bungalow. Something softened toward the whole mess of her, and he began to tenderly untangle her twisted bones. His work done, he rested. As he dreamed, a tear dripped from his eye. Untangled and watching, she moved toward him and drank, and she found the single tear “was like a river and she drank and drank and drank until her many-years-long thirst was slaked.”

By the end of the night together Skeleton Woman had sung her flesh into being. Pinkola Estes writes that the woman “sang for hair and good eyes and nice fat hands. She sang the divide between her legs, and breasts long enough to wrap for warmth, and all the things a woman needs.” And the fisherman and the woman were tangled together again, “in another way now, a good and lasting way.”

I find this story deeply satisfying. It speaks to the importance of untangling the emotional mess that human life and relationships can become. It speaks to the importance of tears and of their potential to nourish. And it speaks to what can happen in a person’s life when they can attend to and soothe their own emotions and existential dilemmas.

You may have thought of this story as a prescription for marriage. As something that can or should happen between spouses…that one should tenderly untangle the other and then feed her with tears of love. The story could certainly be interpreted as a primer for spouses to heal one another, but I think it’s much more interesting (and effective) when thought of as an emotional process one does with oneself, with spouse alongside.

But how do you soothe your own emotions, ones that may be as deep and painful as to have hollowed you out over the years like for Skeleton Woman? How does one “drink a river of tears” as to have one’s thirst be slaked? It’s an ongoing process, one that I believe we continue unto our dying breath.

Attending to our painful emotions is just one aspect of the process, but it is a critical one. Our emotions can lead us toward our core values or away from them. They can lead us deeper into ourselves to be lost forever in a sea of moodiness, anxiety or depression, and they can lead us deeper into communion with others. Self-soothing is key to living a happy life. Here are a few principles or tips to help you along the way.

5 Tips to Dealing with Strong Emotion

  1. You can’t let go of or be “cleansed” of something you don’t know you’re dealing with. In order to become aware you’ll have to create the space…the time…the quiet. Even if you’ve done this work before and if you’re stuck, chances are there’s some emotion that needs tending. It’s different for everyone, but one method to get the emotions flowing is watching sad movies that in some way tell your story. Other ways to get things flowing are meditation, reading, and journaling. Try to get past anger as the only emotion you deal with. Usually with anger, there are other more vulnerable emotions lurking in the background like sorrow, grief, despair, and fear.
  2. Once you are able to feel some feelings, the next step has to do with naming them. This can be harder than it sounds, especially for emotions that have been lurking around for years or even decades. The hard part for people seems to be in the naming of an actual feeling like scared, helpless, sad, etc. Most of the time people want to say something like: “I feel like he doesn’t love me…” Try to stick to actual feeling words. I remember in my training as a therapist 20 years ago our professors would hand us sheets of paper covered in emoting faces as a way to train us in identifying our own feelings.

The final three tips have to do with soothing the emotions that come up. It’s so important to not stop at having one’s feelings but to also grow skilled at soothing them. Keep in mind this is not self-love. This is self-soothing.

  1. One important way to soothe emotion is simply self-care. Maybe it looks like rest or nourishment, but it can also look like time with a long time friend or an important family member or maybe it looks like a weekend away alone. It can also look like quieting your mind when you find you are over-thinking or over-analyzing your problems. Self-care can mean finding a way to stop banging your head against a wall.
  2. Artistic expression is another powerful way to express and soothe emotion. Get your guitar out and learn the chords to a song that has particular meaning to you. Then play it loud along with the band. Or get your canvas and paints, and sit outside in this beautiful Spring weather. Write some fiction. Write an autobiographic short story. Chanel the emotions into something important to you.
  3. The next and most important tool in your self-soothing tool kit is finding out what is important about your emotions. How are they a reflection of you and your core values? I had a client who suffered a terrible loss about 4 years ago; his wife left him after 35 years of marriage. After 3 years he was still not “over it.” He was very upset with himself for this. Among other things he worked on forgiving himself for his mistakes, but even this didn’t soothe him fully. When he started accepting his grief and sorrow (rather than being upset with himself for having it for so long) he began to see that his grief and sorrow had something to do with a core value of his: family. When he realized this he began putting much more effort into his familial relationships…with his 97 year old mother…with his 3 children…with a couple of cousins he’d lost contact with…with his little sister. And slowly, with acceptance and persistence, he found meaning in his life again.

If you’re in a dead or dying relationship there is a way back to life. It often begins with tuning into your emotions, but more importantly with learning to soothe them meaningfully. Is it time to untangle Skeleton Woman?

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Yule Tide Boundaries

The holidays are over, I know. And, yes, for the first time since I started the blog, I missed my holiday post. But when I got my friend’s Christmas letter mid January, I thought, Is it ever really too late to talk about the holidays…and…the in-laws? I mean, I know we just had Valentine’s Day, and some of you are recovering from THAT, but some of us are still recovering from December. Ahem… And then there are those who are already setting up for next year.

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And of course, these issues don’t go away magically after the Christmas tree is down, the menorah packed away, and the solstice sacrificial chicken blood all cleaned up. No, just like cellulite, these problems are here to stay.

On a more serious note, the pain we feel about our in-laws can be completely overwhelming. Rejection on both sides is plentiful, like when you know your mother-in-law has never really approved of you or when your daughter-in-law isn’t terribly excited about you taking care of the grandkids. To borrow a phrase from my 14-year-old daughter… it pretty much sucks. Perhaps a deeper understanding and a broader view would be helpful.

A Conventional View: Feelings then Boundaries

Feelings

A conventional view of the problem encourages people to first and foremost feel their feelings about the situation. The feelings formula goes something like: when you do/say __________, I feel _________. This can be a very important first step (to do on your own or with a friend or therapist) especially if you’re unaware of your feelings or if they’re so strong that your perspective is entirely colored by them.

But I find that for folks who’ve been “identifying and feeling their feelings” for a long time, it can be helpful to add another piece to the process: putting feelings in perspective, which doesn’t mean not feeling them. On the contrary, it’s often essential to know what your feelings are and to create space in your life to feel them, but it’s also best to eventually work toward developing some knowledge, some perspective on them.

One useful tool to put feelings into perspective is to think of our emotions as having the size and force of an elephant. Massive, beautiful, exciting, interesting, and something you might not want to get in front of if it were on the run. Our intellectual system might be like a rider on top of the elephant. If the elephant gets spooked, then the man or woman on top is along for the ride…meaning there’s not much thinking or reasoning they can do to slow the beast down once it gets going. And if they try to slow the great beast down, it is likely to end in a sense of fatigue or futility or even injury.

Suffice it to say that when we feel hurt by our in-laws (or anyone for that matter), the elephant tends to be in charge. In calmer times we can grow in awareness of our elephant-al nature and the ways it takes over, but when feelings like hurt or fear or rejection are up, best to feel them, value them, embrace them, journal about them, share them with a trusted friend, and cry them out without putting too much effort into “thinking them through” or analyzing them. Chances are if you try, your intellectual system is going to be wrangled into submission by the great, beautiful, terrible beast. In your pain, you’ll start diagnosing your in-laws as “narcissists” or “evil,” and you’ll start to believe that there is no other way to see them.

Boundaries

In the conventional approach, once a person has identified and felt his feelings, the next step is often called “setting boundaries.” It’s an approach that encourages people to get clear about what they are responsible for and what someone else is responsible for. Sounds reasonable, right? Tell it to the elephant.

I get it. Therapists know that people will do better when they are taking responsibility for their own part in relationship problems, so they try to get folks to see their own part in things. But can we force a sense of responsibility on a scared, sad, or hurt elephant?

I mean what if your pain is still on the raw side, and in your desire for relief you jump ahead to “take responsibility” for your part with your in-laws? You’ve been encouraged by your therapist or a book you read, and so you work to wrangle your elephant into submission, get it to take responsibility for freaking out, tell it to calm the heck down. I mean if you’re not part of the problem, you’re not part of the solution. That sounds so darn reasonable, what reasonable person would argue with that?!

So, maybe if your rider on your elephant could get a rope and somehow get it around your elephant’s neck and pull back. Or maybe the rider could squeeze its thighs together to let the elephant know it should slow down. Maybe the rider could just start screaming at the elephant to wake it up and set it straight. Or maybe, just maybe after we’ve bumped along and struggled and gotten good and sore or seriously injured, we decide screw this! I’ve done my part! They haven’t done THEIRS! It’s time to set the ultimate boundary; it’s time we simply part ways. Problem solved!

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Rather than realizing we can’t wrangle elephants. And that all the wrangling has led us to the very place we started: focused on someone else, in pain, and not terribly aware of self or the systems in which we live.

Developing a Self vs. Building a Wall

No matter how good you may be at wrangling your emotions into submission, eventually they will take you down and possibly those around you as well. The more we resist them, the more power they seem to have in the long run. Giving our emotions either too little or too much credit will lead to dysfunctional elephants and riders, which is where developing a self comes in.

Developing a self doesn’t happen in our heads or in earnest attempts to “be better” (elephant wrangling). Nor does it happen when you think that trusting your gut implicitly is the ultimate reality. It happens when we put ourselves into relationship. Not loosey goosey, like stepping in front of a train. But with knowledge of self (having the elephant in perspective for what it is, what it can add, and what it can get in the way of) and strategy (having gained broad knowledge and perspective on how relationship systems work).

Kevin

Take Kevin, for example, a 38-year-old man, with a history of depression. He would describe himself as a very hard worker, harder than most. He is an older brother and someone who took a lot of “shrapnel” from both his parents to protect his younger brother. Both of his parents have passed away, but his wife’s mother reminds him eerily of his own mother, someone who he spent his life avoiding if he could because of her negativity and neediness. Kevin is an elephant wrangler extraordinaire. Less feeling his feelings, more making himself good and busy and acting like they’re not there.

Through his therapy, he learned that for the sake of his marriage and his own depressed state, it was important to become more aware of his emotions and how they were sending subtle and not so subtle messages of expectations to his wife. He worked to identify them, and he worked to connect them to his own family history. Kevin even went back a few generations in his journey to discover where his people had come from and what struggles they may have had. It all went to a greater understanding and ownership of his emotions and life dilemmas.

While things improved in the marriage, he began to realize that his reactivity toward and avoidance of his mother-in-law was putting a lot of pressure on his wife. She was caught in the middle, frustrated with her mother but feeling defensive of her at the same time. Instead of “setting a boundary,” Kevin decided that while his feelings were important, he could set them aside for an hour or two for the family’s Sunday dinner together. He had skipped it any chance he’d gotten for the past few years.

When he showed up at her front door one particular Sunday, pecan pie in hand, he could tell his mother-in-law was surprised. She came out with one of her snarky comments, covered in goo so as not to be recognized as an insult. But Kevin was ready for it. Instead of his normal withdrawn silence, he stepped forward and hugged her hello and made himself useful in the kitchen.

One of the things Kevin didn’t like about his mother-in-law and one of the reasons he avoided her so much was because she would talk negatively about her daughter to him. But Kevin was ready this time. He knew it was coming. Instead of defending his wife and then stomping away, Kevin stated sincerely that he thought she and his wife would find a way to work through their difficulties. With this strategy, Kevin was able to remove himself from what belonged between his wife and mother-in-law while still being in relationship with both of them. He wasn’t taking any shrapnel, and he wasn’t dishing any out either. Kevin felt relieved and he felt a growing sense of confidence in himself.

Of course, this wasn’t a once and done kind of strategy. Kevin had to do it another couple times before his mother-in-law stopped talking to him about his wife.

Conclusion

There are no easy solutions or quick fixes here. Lots of hard work, but not too hard. When working to build a self starts to feel like it’s too hard, you might be wrangling the elephant instead. See if you can take a step back, take some deep breaths, and give yourself a break.

5 Tips for How to Achieve Your New Year’s Resolutions

Yes, Drill Sergeant!

The Huffington Post recently posted 10 Tips to Achieving Your New Year’s Resolutions.” Tip number one is for folks to adopt “all or nothing” kind of thinking, suggesting that one has to be intensely motivated and unwavering. The Huffington Post article suggests you anticipate that you may have to SUFFER, and they recommend you have a look at your self-talk to check for NEGATIVITY. Yes, Drill Sergeant! I have to say, there was a time when I was younger when this kind of driving motivational forcefulness would really work, and I’m sure it works for a time for lots of folks. Not so much anymore for me. And I’m guessing that for those of you who’ve lived a little—and struggled a little—and failed a little (like me) all the hype seems, well, a little hyper.

One thing I know for sure: there will be no 5 AM boot camp for this soldier! Who are these people RUNNING at 5 AM? Well…they’re probably a lot younger than me.

When we’re in our 40’s and 50’s on up and trying to do something like lose weight or eat better or have better relationships, and when we fail because we can’t force ourselves to struggle and strain like we could (if we could) when we were younger, we start thinking something might be wrong with us, or maybe we start to feel depressed or hopeless. We never consider that something might be wrong with a forceful kind of approach—whether it’s a boot camp kind of forcefulness or a constant flow of thinking and obsessing and banging one’s head against the wall. Perhaps trying to force one’s self to change is along the lines of trying to force one’s spouse to change. It can’t be done. So, we might consider a different approach. Maybe. I mean, if you REALLY want to.

Recognizing Our Eusociality

Within the microscope of conventional psychology we find theories and hypotheses and tools and tricks and techniques that locate the problem or challenge as well as the solution for that problem or challenge within the individual human brain. It’s all in your head, so the thinking goes.

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But is it? Maybe we just need our computers to work properly. Can you feel me?

Certainly some popular techniques like brain entrainment (brain.fm), neurofeedback training, cognitive behavioral therapy, and meditation make a difference in people’s lives. And I recommend learning about any of these useful tools and more. But the reality is none of us live in a vacuum, and none of our brains do either. The permeability between brains is astounding sometimes, frustrating at others, and yet glorious at still others. What do I mean by permeability between brains and what does it have to do with New Year’s Resolutions?

Have you ever finished your husband’s sentence for him? Or have you ever known what your wife was about to say before she said it? Or what about this scenario: My daughter and I were riding in the car recently on our way to Starbucks. We were listening to music. She was texting. I looked over at her at one point and said, “You know when we get there you can’t have an icy drink, right?”

“Oh my god!” she said. “I was literally just thinking in that moment that you weren’t going to let me have an icy drink and that you were going to tell me that!” We both had a chuckle at the “synchronicity” of having the same thoughts at the same time. (If you must know about the icy-drink-in-winter thing, google it.) And before you say this was just a coincidence, I have to tell you: It happens all the time in families!

So, brain permeability? Yeah. It’s a thing. (It’s my thing, by the way. Just made it up. The phrase that is.) But seriously, we are a highly connected species, and what one of us does (or doesn’t do) impacts others in automatic and often times invisible ways. It’s like a centripetal force is working on us, constantly pulling on us, making it difficult to separate and do our own thing. Kind of like an ant colony with its clear but too-small-to-see-with-the-naked-eye lines of communication that seem to direct or control every action of every ant, keeping every individual in line and keeping the colony in good working order. Interdependence at its most efficient.

As a matter of fact, biologist Ed Wilson, two time Pulitzer prize winner, identified nineteen species that he considered so interdependent, that each family or colony or hive could be considered a single, complex organism. He called them eusocial. As a direct result of their extraordinary interdependence, all nineteen of these species dominate the planet in number and/or weight. Most of the species are various kinds of ants, a few wasps, termites, and yes, humans.

Our lives are intricately interconnected with the members of our colonies…I mean families…both nuclear and extended—whether we are speaking to them or not—and perhaps so is our success or failure when it comes to New Year’s resolutions and goal setting (and achieving) in general. As you read Jennifer’s story below, consider the ant colony in all its complex communications and patterns that keep them all moving together.

Jennifer Tries to Lose Weight, 2014 New Year’s Resolution

Jennifer had been married to Jason for 13 years. They had 3 kids who were then 12, 10, and 7. Jennifer is the older sister of a brother, Jason the younger brother of a sister. Neither talks to their extended families very often. They are “a lot of trouble,” so Jennifer and Jason look to each other for most of their day-to-day moral support.

Jennifer thrives on being a mother and on keeping things in order at home, but she has tended to neglect taking care of herself for the last several years. She has tried to lose weight repeatedly, but can’t seem to pull herself away from the kids and the house long enough to work out, etc. Being an oldest Jennifer is accustomed to taking on a little more responsibility than is really hers, and when she tries to back up a little and let others take the lead, no one seems to step in quickly enough. She feels that everything will fall apart if she were to really focus on herself. Jason and the kids are supportive of her efforts when she makes them, but it seems almost like an invisible force is at work that makes it difficult for Jennifer to take care of herself. She has tried the personal trainer and Weight Watchers and any number of diets. She feels she has no one to blame but herself…and man does she ever! But maybe there’s a larger picture to consider.

The Five Things that Helped Jennifer Achieve her Goal

Tip #1: Sought help from a neutral 3rd party

For Jennifer, it started with seeking help from a therapist. Over the course of therapy, she became more aware of the invisible and automatic forces at work in her family. For example, she became more aware of her automatic urge to protect and provide for her children. She began to see it as instinctual rather than thoughtful. As she became more thoughtful about her parenting, she became more sensitive to the older two’s resistance to all her doing-for-them…and the amount of energy their resistance was taking out of her. Little by little, she began to let them do a little more for themselves. Their relating became more peaceful. The centripetal force slightly smaller.

Tip #2: Broadened her definition of the problem

Jennifer’s problem wasn’t that she was over weight. Her weight and difficulty losing it were symptoms or net effects of a particular pattern of interacting. One that was automatic in nature as described above, based in instinct rather than thought and calm reflection. When Jennifer stepped back and looked at her little ant family from above—as if through a telescope from a long ways away, rather than her usual microscope—she noticed she felt a little calmer. A little more objective. (When I say “a little” I really do mean just a little. It’s the little bit that can begin to shift the tide of typical family interactions.)

Her definition of the problem went from one of “weight gain/loss” to one of a dynamic, constant, ongoing interaction pattern that had certain predictable results, namely one that made it too hard for her to take care of self. If the problem was about weight, the solution would be to go on a diet. If the problem was about an interaction or relationship pattern, the solution would have something to do with changing that pattern.

Tip #3: Began to calm herself

As she continued this process of stepping back, she began to observe her little ant family more and more rather than just react to its constant demands. Over time, the urgency to fix or protect grew slightly less powerful. She began to see patterns. She began to think longer term regarding her parenting. To borrow from Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Parenting, she began to take on the idea that she was not raising kids, but rather launching adults. She had to get them ready to be without her, and she wasn’t going to wait until they were 18 to start. While this was a significant goal that would take significant time and energy and thought, it gave her clarity and direction.

Tip #4: Visited home more regularly

Through her work with the therapist, Jennifer began to recognize the importance of expanding her social and familial network. She realized that staying disconnected from her extended family ended up putting too much pressure on too few. She and Jason were looking too much to each other, and even too much to the kids, to keep everything afloat. She recognized that her distance from her siblings and parents was increasing the centripetal force between Jason and her and the kids.

Since her parents were “such a pain,” she started with her siblings, but over time this expanded to include her mom and dad. She was surprised to discover it wasn’t as toxic as she’d expected. She was even more surprised to discover that the more relaxed and kind she was toward them, the less of a ruckus they stirred. Just like with her kids, Jennifer recognized that if she shifted her part of the pattern, the pattern would be forced to shift.

Tip #5: Focused on feeding herself

With a little less self-blame and a little more awareness of the forces at work within and around her, Jennifer started working on feeding herself. She put effort into cooking for herself, sitting still for meals, and not allowing herself to be distracted (even if that sometimes meant eating alone, without the children’s constant demanding-ness). Once she was able to feel satiated and relaxed during meals, she started a program with a nutritionist. After a few months, Jennifer started feeling (and looking) much better.

More Telescope, Less Microscope

In the absence of a more telescopic (or broad, systemic, and long range) view—one that considers context, as much as, if not more than, individual functioning—people generally end up with their heads so far up their…well…you know…that they can no longer see straight. I’m not being mean here. Just speaking from experience.

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When we locate too much of the responsibility for things going wrong (or right) on the individual we miss the context in which that individual lives. The emotional systems in which we live are not an excuse. They are part of the puzzle. A part that becomes much more intriguing—and workable—when we can observe from just a tiny bit more of a distance. Via telescope.

Jason’s New Year’s resolution for 2016? Figure out what in the heck happened to his wife! Jason had a little catching up to do…but maybe he would be up for the task, given the right context.

 

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