Thursday, 25 February 2016

Part III: Letting Go of Blame: Lightening Your Suitcase.

So, what is it that makes it so hard for us to take responsibility for our own stuff in relationship conflicts?  I think that the reason why we go through so much turmoil in trying to disentangle problems in our most important relationships is because it is so hard for us to look at our flaws. Having to admit to our own failings is accompanied by so much self blame and sense of failure that we would rather defend to the death before admitting that we have erred in some way.  When you think you have to be perfect, you can't admit your mistakes.  In the old school, parents were not even supposed to admit their mistakes to their children out of fear of being viewed as weak.  All this did is make children think that they needed to be without flaws like their parents, otherwise they did not measure up.  The truth of the matter is that the more confident you are, the easier it is to admit your failings.  When you know what suitcase is yours and what is in it, it is so much easier to listen to criticism, apologize and admit when you are wrong.  The irony is that the more perfect you think you need to be, the less likely you are to admit and acknowledge your own flaws to yourself, let alone anybody else.  It is hard for us to face ourselves honestly and embrace both the good and the bad. Many of us don't even know what our strengths and weaknesses are.  We have not unpacked our own suitcase.  A primary goal of therapy is to help clients become aware of their emotional triggers and understand as well as accept their vulnerabilities so that they can be less defensive and more responsible in their relationships.

Everybody has baggage.  Nobody is perfect.  When you accept yourself, you know what is in your suitcase and you can  take ownership of it. Interestingly, for many, it is easier to forgive and accept others than it is to forgive oneself.  Yes, what does this say of our arrogance?  It is O.K. and forgivable if somebody else makes that mistake but it's not O.K for me to err in that way?  I had a client once in therapy who was brutal with herself and so unforgiving that she could not even begin to own and make corrections in her life and she knew it!  I worked so hard as her therapist trying to help her to let go of the self hate that crippled her ability to move forward.  One day she caught me completely by surprise.  She walked into a session and said that she had finally had a breakthrough. She told me that she had been exploring her spirituality and realized that if whenever she erred, she could start by forgiving every body else in the world who had made that same mistake, then she could include herself in that group and forgive herself as well. The missing piece for most of us when we get stuck in defensiveness is the inability to have compassion for ourselves more than the difficulty having compassion for others.

How many of us are holding on to grievances against ourselves and others that just make our suitcases way heavier than they need to be?  Resentment makes for a heavy load and so does self blame.  In fact, both can be crippling.  I have a colleague who keeps a baseball bat in his therapy office.  When I asked him why that was the case, he said that he has a number of patients who beat themselves up and when they do, he hands them the baseball bat so that they can become aware of what they are doing.  The ironic truth is that the more you beat yourself up, the less likely you are to take responsibility for your own suitcase and the less likely you are to change.  It only makes sense. All that self abuse just ends up being so oppressive and your suitcase becomes such a burden that all you want to do is to off load it somewhere.  Similarly, if you hang on to resentments toward others, your suitcase gets heavier and heavier and weighs you down.  The major reason to forgive others is so that you can lighten your load and get on with your life.

Close relationships are fraught with power struggles.  It is inevitable and  part of their nature and evolution.  Children have as much trouble forgiving parents as parents have forgiving children. Power struggles are inherent to primary relationships and learning how to get through them is integral to learning to love.  Most couples come together because they want to feel good and are counting on the other to make it happen.  Power struggles often emerge because we want the other person to change so that we can feel better.  We hold one another to impossible, unnatural standards and then become disappointed, hurt and angry because we have bought into the belief they if they just loved us enough, they would do what we want so that we could be happy.  You can only invite someone to change.  You cannot pummel them into it.  Otherwise, the best of intentions result in feelings of entrapment and bondage.  With time, many learn that happiness is an inside job and that another cannot make us happy. Many relationship conflicts can be resolved by people letting go of blame, having the courage to take responsibility for their own quirks and expectations and being able to forgive themselves.  How does one go about doing this?

Letting go of blame and lightening your suitcase is no easy task.  There is no formula but the process looks something like this:  First, in the midst of a conflict when feelings are heated and thoughts are swirling, you need to stop and let the dust settle.  Thinking is often skewed at this time and acting impulsively is seldom constructive.  Second, you need to take a step back and allow yourself to acknowledge all the feelings that you have without judgement and without feeling swallowed up by them.  This requires being able to observe your feelings and thoughts without becoming over-identified with them.  In other words, know that your thoughts and feelings are only part of you, not all of you.  Third, you need to be able to let go of blame in order to do some soul searching so that you can take a look at what's in your suitcase that may be contributing to the relationship dilemma. This does not mean that the other person does not have issues.  What it means is that relationship conflict is a dance and the only control you have is over your side of whatever conflict has ensued. The more work you have done on yourself, the greater your awareness of what is in your suitcase. The hard part about looking at your stuff is feeling good enough about yourself so that you can be resilient and not get stuck in pride or shame.  In tough situations when you really feel snagged, it may help to go through your suitcase with somebody you feel safe with who you feel is non-judgmental. This could be a priest, parent, spouse or therapist. The challenge is to be able to look at those shadow parts and mistakes as portals to learning something new rather than opportunities to berate oneself. As one gets better at forgiving oneself and being able to show compassion for oneself, the ability to forgive others flows naturally.  There is no end to learning how to get better at doing this because understanding ourselves and learning to love are lifelong!


Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Part II: Taking Responsibility in Relationships: Unpacking Your Suitcase.

How do you disentangle blame when conflict erupts in a relationship?   You have had a brutal fight with your son, daughter, parent or good friend.  Ever since things erupted, you have been livid and in a state of high anxiety, wondering what to do next.  Have we not all been there? When embroiled in relationship turmoil, figuring out whose suitcase is whose and taking ownership of which stuff is yours often is no easy task.  Strong emotion, especially fear, can be blinding and you may find yourself rerunning over and over in your mind what happened, blaming the other person and trying to justify your own actions.  Or you might be doing quite the opposite, that is, putting your own behavior under the microscope and second guessing yourself about everything you said and did.  If you find yourself reacting with strong emotions, ruminating and not being able to let go of anger or hurt, guilt or blame, know that chances are, there's stuff that is yours.

Whenever people get snagged in a relationship or the relationship breaks down, inevitably, both parties have played a role.  It takes courage to look at your part in a relationship breakdown or conflict.  Most of us are familiar with the scenario where people have separated and though it may seem that one person is the victim and the other, the villain, wisdom and life experience tells us that each party must have contributed in some way to the relationship's demise.  In a relationship dispute, however, the tricky part is figuring out which suitcase is your suitcase and what you are carrying around in your suitcase that contributed to problems.  I had one woman recently who was extremely distraught following the failure of her marriage.  She blamed herself for just about everything and concluded that somehow she just was not attractive enough or lovable enough and had not tried hard enough to make things work.  Contrary to these conclusions, therapy uncovered that she had in fact worked very hard and sacrificed much to try to make the relationship work.  This was not her suitcase.  What deconstructing the marriage did reveal, however, was that she had seen red flags early in the relationship indicating that she did not love him but chose to override these warning signs. She had not married for the right reasons.  That was her suitcase.  Unpacking her suitcase led us to appreciate that she married the wrong person because she was getting older, feared ending up alone and was desperate to have a child before her biological clock gave out.

Relationship therapists know that if you find yourself stewing about a relationship problem, chances are that it's not just somebody else's suitcase, you've got a suitcase too.  If you are wanting to be responsible and accountable and your intention is to grow from your relationship life then it pays to try to figure out which suitcase is your suitcase and to unpack it.  It is easy to either take all the blame or none of the blame.  The challenge is to be able to filter and sort and take only that which is yours and to decipher what that is.  None of us see ourselves objectively when it comes to relationships. That is why it is often helpful to try to debrief with someone else in order to figure out why you continue to be in distress.  This does not mean gossiping with others in order to try to bring them on side.  Talking about it can be done with the genuine intention of trying to understand your role in what happened.  It can take some deep soul searching and hard work to decipher your role in a relationship conflict.  Oftentimes, it means looking at some part of yourself that you find unattractive and do not want to see.   Psychologists have referred to this as your "shadow self."  Everyone has one.

One woman that I worked with was horribly upset by the fact that her teenage daughter ended up having to go to summer school.  To add insult to injury, her daughter had exploded telling her that it was her fault that her summer now was in ruins. Why couldn't this woman see that her daughter was experiencing the natural consequences of her actions and that  this was her daughter's issue and not her own?  As we talked about it in therapy, it became evident that not only had this mother gone too far in rescuing her daughter whenever assignments had been overdue (sometimes referred to as the "helicopter parent") but that she also had way too much emotionally invested in whether or not her daughter pursued a professional career.  As it turned out, both of these suitcases, her need to rescue her daughter from distress and need to have her daughter live out her unrealized dream of having a professional career, needed to be picked up and unpacked in order for her to let go and find a place of peace and calm again.  This is one of the most important roles of good therapy...to help you figure out which suitcase is yours and to help you unpack it!

The word responsibility means just that: the ability to respond.  The assumption that underlies a value of taking personal responsibility in relationships is the belief that each of us is responsible for everything we do, everything we feel and everything we say.  We may not have any control over what somebody else does or says or some misfortune that comes our way but we do have control over how we choose to respond.  It is so easy to get hooked on wanting to control somebody else and to convince ourselves that our happiness depends on it!  If people were perfectly honest, many would admit that when they first went to see a therapist, their hope was that the therapist would side with them and tell them they were right and the person making them miserable was wrong!  They also would probably acknowledge that their hope was that the therapist would have some magic recipe that would reveal how to change their child, their husband, their wife or their friend who was causing them misery.  In actuality, what people find out when they come to a skilled and competent therapist is that therapy is about changing oneself, not somebody else and that in the end the only thing we have power over is the ability to change ourselves.  In fact, ultimately clients realize that trying to change somebody else is futile and only fuels helplessness whereas changing oneself, leads to a sense of empowerment.  Why then is it so hard for people to look at their role in relationship struggles and admit it when they may have made mistakes or when their behavior is not serving them?  It seems that our tendency is to be very hard on ourselves when we make mistakes and lack of sufficient compassion in facing failure has a lot to do with it.