I know what you’re thinking – “Sounds like the name of a great new rock band!” Well, sadly, not yet. Maybe they will emerge from a Portland garage some day, but, for now we’ll have to content ourselves with discussing The Timeless Internal Tension as a universal psychological experience. It was beautifully described by one of the early masters of family therapy, Murray Bowen, as the tension between the two basic, and competing, drives we all possess – toward connection and togetherness, on the one hand, and autonomy, on the other. Both are vital for our sense of well-being. Too much of the first results in our losing ourselves in a need to merge with others. Too much of the latter results in our utter isolation. This is also reflected in the basic Attachment Styles described in an earlier post. Perhaps a more appropriate image would be a person on a tight-rope, because the key to managing this tension is balance. When we feel the forces of merger rising within us so that our sense of separate identity and integrity in the world is threatened, we need to re-calibrate. Similarly, when our drive to be separate finds us erecting personal boundaries that become impregnable to contact from others, so that our sense of connection with others dissolves, we need to re-calibrate. Those of us who tend toward an avoidant (or adult dismissive) attachment style may have difficulty summoning up the internal resources to make that re-calibration. “I hear that my partner wants something more from me but I don’t know what she means or how to satisfy her,” is the desperate and frustrated plea from the person whose psychic energy throughout life has tended toward the drive for autonomy. “I mean nothing to my partner. I am more alone in this relationship than if I were truly alone – and it makes my furious,” is the, often excruciating, cry from the person whose psychic energy throughout life has tended toward the drive to find a safe and secure connection. Those of us who were blessed by temperament and early parenting to have a basically secure attachment style (about 70% according to most researchers) are able to say on that tightrope, hands firmly – but not too tightly – gripping the pole for balance. For the remaining 30%, or so, that balancing pole is as insubstantial as a drinking straw. Whether the tendency is toward a dismissive attachment style of separation or the anxious attachment style of merger, there seems to be a common thread of discomfort – and even shame – around this life position. For quite understandable reasons, these two different approaches to being with another in an intimate relationship will find themselves frequently joined in an intimate relationship. The person who tends to separate will trigger their partner, who experiences disconnection as cruelly wounding, causing an almost desperate drive to stave off isolation and to join, while the other, who tends to merger, will cause their partner to feel easily overwhelmed – triggering further withdrawal. Thus, one’s drive to cut through protective walls for connection will be experienced by the other as a profound and threatening violation of personal boundaries. At the same time, the other’s drive to erect protective walls to protect their own sense of integrity and separateness in the world will bring an often soul-shattering experience of isolation and dread to their partner. This is the cycle which is so well described by Sue Johnson and the Emotionally Focused Therapy Community. With the compassionate support of a couples therapist, each person can engage in the process of slowing down their part of the cycle and re-establishing (or establishing for the first time) the sense of safety they seek. “You are not alone.” “You are safe.”
My first therapy experiences occurred in the 1970’s, when Gestalt Therapy and dramatic breakthroughs were all the rage. Connecting with one’s inner child and going toe to toe with the oppressive, internalized parental figure was the common and popular approach. Part of my training was with a descendant of Bob and Mary Goulding, the developers of a powerful mashup of Gestalt and Transactional Analysis which they called Redecision Therapy. I also experienced Lifespring, which was a “kinder, gentler” cousin of the notorious Erhard Seminar Training, a very intense process that would blast through people’s defenses, with the support and (I believe) coercion of their many peers, sitting in the big conference room with them. I had dear friends who went through Lifespring and came out with heightened energy and focus. They would repeat to me a mantra of “reasons or results” which dismissed rationalizations for not pursuing your given life path. If people possessed the ego-strength to deal with the rapid dismantling of their carefully constructed and long-held psychological defenses, they might benefit from this dramatic epiphany counseling. I have colleagues today who endorse dramatic approaches such as this, but I remain skeptical, myself. It has been my observation (and experience) that dramatic “breakthroughs,” when facilitated (or engineered) by a therapist have a continued risk of falling back into previous modes of thought and behavior, unless reinforced thereafter. It seems to me another example of the tendency to find a single “magic bullet” which will cure distress, without the investment of time and care which accompanies the incremental change that is more organic and less sudden.
While therapy that works will often find a person experiencing a moment (or moments) of epiphany, these, alone are not enough. More importantly, if the groundwork isn’t laid, if we don’t carefully approach the molten material laying inside, the hoped for healing will be pushed beyond our current grasp. I have worked with some gifted, resourceful and wise therapists over the years. Those who supported me while I moved through my changes, at my speed and with the inner resources I then possessed, were among the greatest gifts of my life. People can only do….well, what they can do. Working with anyone in pain who is seeking relief will always entail a delicate and rich dance. A therapist has many tasks and they include support and protection of the wounded heart that sits within us as well as the gentle prod which over the course of the work facilitates change. I worked for two years when I first arrived in the Northwest with a blessedly wonderful woman, Peg Blackstone who, I grieve to say, died some years ago. Peg taught me this lesson and I thank her in my mind and heart repeatedly. Change is organic. It is incremental and very personal. Much of what we do that now causes us distress is almost always a useful strategy we devised long ago to protect ourselves. So much energy went into this protective effort, which for so long was so vital, that when the threat receded, we were left with a strongly held suit of protective armor. That armor separates us from the love and connection – the peace – we crave, but to simply step out of this suit will leave us naked and vulnerable. We need to grow a new protective skin – which isn’t quite so thick. Watch your skin next time you cut or scrape yourself. Your body tells you – healing is incremental.
I’m writing a book.
Actually, I’m well into the process and expect for it to be available in August. I have titled it Divorce (or Not): A Guide, and its 300+ pages will cover much of what I have pondered, and learned, professionally over the past 40 years. Each step in the process of conceiving, creating and honing this book has been rich with the gems I have uncovered about both how to approach such a project and, well, my own darned self. For anyone who has felt they wanted to write a book, but has not put fingertip to keyboard, here is a brief description of my experience.
1. Conception: Many of us have at least one book marinating inside our heads. If you have ever said, “I’d like to write a book,” then you’ve got one resting comfortably inside your cranium. That is step one.
2. Blurting: I finally goosed myself into writing when I sat down in April, 2014 and prepared a Table of Contents, which was a good outline for what I wanted to say. Then, I just blurted. I spent about five months simply getting it out of my head and into my computer. I knew it did not matter how it sounded because nobody was going to see it but me.
3. First Refinement Phase(s): Once out there, I started to laboriously review, reorganize and clean up what I had written. Again, this was for my eyes only.
4. First Feedback Phase: Once I felt okay with it, I sent my work product out to a handful of dear, and smart, friends for feedback. I was initially nervous about this step, but had recently bought a great book Thanks for the Feedback – The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well and it helped gird my loins for external comment on my baby. People were generous and spot-on with a number of their comments. In response, I put the book through a massive re-organization and re-write. I shared the new approach with a smaller group of people because, to be honest, I was afraid of burning people out. After all, it is quite the gift of time and energy to read someone else’s work and give thoughtful, cogent feedback. After positive comment, I was ready to find an editor.
5. Working With an Editor: Thus, the title of this blog post. A web search brought me to the site of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild, and after a fairly thorough vetting process I chose my current favorite person in the entire world (FPITEW) other than my wife and daughter (FPITEWOTMWAD), Jennifer D. Munro. Last week, I finished reviewing her comments and I don’t think a day went by that I failed to send her an ardent appreciative email. A good editor projects such care onto your creation. The process of improving the work product while maintaining the writer’s voice is challenging and if you are lucky, you will find that combination of skill and kindness. (It didn’t hurt that Jennifer liked my sense of humor.) I believe I am an excellent writer. I enjoy the process and for years have received uniformly positive feedback. I believe this affirmation gave me the confidence to embark on the project in the first place. Yet, I have learned a great deal about writing and the places I can improve, markedly, through Jennifer’s kind and rapier-sharp feedback. There were many places throughout my review of her “track changes” comments that I thought, “This comment is appropriate and helpful. I can imagine it having been made by someone with a harsher hand and instead of learning an important lesson I can use in the future, I would have been chagrined, embarrassed, defensive and dispirited. I’d had enough of that kind of treatment in my first year in law school many years ago.”
So here’s to you Jennifer Munro. Every cent I pay you for your service is the best money I ever spent.
When we baby boomers get together, I find that the conversation often migrates over to talk consistent with our age and stage in life. Our bodies are no longer taken for granted, as they are with my daughter and other young people we are blessed to know (all in their 20’s and 30’s). High on the list of topics is the frightening specter of Alzheimer’s, which can slowly rob us of our identity. No other organ can fail and strip us of our sense of self like our brains. In a brilliantly written, deeply felt and penetrating piece in the 5/17/15 New York Times Magazine, Robin Marantz Henig tracks the degeneration of Sandy Bem, a woman of unfathomable life force who was diagnosed at the age of 65. Upon presentation with the unalterable diag – and prog-nosis, she made the decision that when she had deteriorated to the point of being completely dependent and unable to “be myself,” she would voluntarily end her own life.
I cannot count the times I have heard friends and comrades in my generation utter with complete assurance that if they were diagnosed with a degenerative dementia, they would choose to end their lives before they reached a certain point of cognitive deterioration. I have known people in my parents’ generation who said the same thing, and who invariably failed to do so. Such a statement is like the thoughts that ease the pain of depression – “I could kill myself.” Yet such thoughts, which promise relief from the pounding, dominating inner pain, are not, in themselves, a plan to suicide. Similar is the, “If I get Alzheimer’s, I’ll…..” statement. Sandy Bem, however, followed through in a thoughtful and very focused manner. The story is one of fortitude, grief, and devotion.
I have never read, in so short a space, a clearer portrait of the unrelenting loss of person-hood. As her time for action on her commitment approached, her husband (from whom she had been separated, but never divorced) was her constant companion. Her adult daughter resisted the decision and wanted one more year – one more month – whatever she could get – for her mother to spend time with her baby. I have a good friend, Don Desonier, who has transitioned from a family lawyer and mediator to a caregiver/coach and family mediator for families struggling with this dark and painful challenge. He was a long-time caregiver for his wife, Nancy, who died two years ago after her losing battle with dementia.
There are many changes that our society will experience in the coming decades. My daughter’s whip-smart boyfriend said over dinner this weekend that the political landscape will be completely different in 20 years. As we have come to accept – actually embrace – same sex unions, I believe we will accept – even embrace – conscious dying, as we struggle as a culture to address the new challenges wrought by longevity and medicine’s maintenance of the physical body. The New York Times essay, together with the most affecting piece I have ever read (in which Katy Butler describes the mental deterioration of her brilliant father who had been a professor at Wesleyan University) are but two of a growing number of personal reflections which wrestle with one of the great personal, familial and cultural challenges of our age.
You may have heard. The Seahawks lost. They didn’t just lose – they tore out the heart of a region with a poorly called or poorly executed or poorly blessed play at the end of the Super Bowl. If you haven’t heard, then you’re not reading this and are probably foraging for breakfast on your deserted island. As for the rest of us….wow! Wow wow wow wow. On Monday after the game, I processed this hardly imaginable disaster with a few friends and none of them had slept on Sunday night. My wife, who doesn’t give a hoot for sports, recovered about five seconds after Butler’s interception. I usually pity her for not being able to get excited about the drama of good sports contests, but this week I envied her. Seriously, this was a visceral blow to those of us who were all engaged with this scintillating drama.
Then again, it wasn’t Ebola. It wasn’t a suicide bomb detonating at our place of worship. Tanks aren’t rolling down our street to crush dissent. My family is healthy and secure. Really, in the big picture, it IS a game and three days later, I’m just glad I’m not one of the team members. Now, they must be having a real hard time right now. Still, their families are safe and they will be able to cash their checks. This all got me to thinking about people in therapy who have suffered emotionally in their lives and who dismiss their pain by saying, often glibly, “What right have I to complain? I’m not blind. I’m not a starving child in Africa.” Well, that’s true. Our distress can often be easily dismissed as “First World Problems,” but to do this matter-of-factly really misses what I think is a very important point.
People who struggle emotionally have a really heartbreaking paucity of self-compassion. There seems to be this either/or duality in our thinking, so that we think that the choice is (a) wring our hands and cry “woe is me,” collapsing into a mound of self-pitying protoplasm, or (b) dismiss our pain because we have two functioning legs (and others don’t) or two functioning eyes (and others don’t), etc. However, I do believe that many of us hold fear, shame, grief and other honest and very real feelings inside (and usually have for a long, long time). When we first experienced the violations or wounds that caused us to experience these, we also reasoned with our youthful brains that we could never show the world, or ourselves, the horrible pain or the belief that a powerful force outside ourselves (adult parental figures) were wrong or uncontrollable. That would be intolerably confusing and frightening. So we hold it inside and when we get older dismiss our deepest wounds with off-hand comments like, “What do I have to complain about…” In dealing with most of the world, that’s a smart decision. But in our closest relationships, or in therapy, by thinking these thoughts, we deny ourselves the care we have longed for and, at the same time, found so risky. I have sat in amazement and great sadness watching the determined energy with which people bat away truly caring statements from their partners in couples therapy – or me in individual work. We are so many things in our lives – filled with such an array of feelings. Many such feelings are safe to show to the world. Others, comprising an essential and intense core, are very risky. Chief among them is the grief we harbor for the love we needed and the anger, neglect and judgment we received in its stead. For many of us, it’s part of our personality and isn’t going to simply evaporate over time. We need to embrace it – embrace ourselves – and allow others to embrace us as well – to embrace our hearts while we are experiencing this grief. Yes, we have both eyes or both legs – and we also have weeping hearts that we shield from ourselves and others. If we can be able to say to ourselves, “It’s okay. That part of myself is there along with all the other parts. I can grieve for the embracing love I needed and didn’t receive” I think we can experience our world more fully and freely – more joyously. No one is a “victim” unless they choose to be – and that won’t ever get you anywhere. There’s a difference, though, between embracing our own hearts and letting ourselves be cared for, now, and being a victim. Self-compassion is one of the great gifts of personal therapy, actually. Even New England Patriot fans deserve that in their lives.
In 1975, I was a year out of law school and a pal asked if I wanted to drive up from L.A. to Santa Barbara to catch a Bruce Springsteen concert. I hadn’t heard of the guy. I went up on a “what the heck” ride. It remains the most rocking, outrageous concert experience of my life. What I remember now years later is that he had a band that was so tight, had practiced so much, that they acted as one instrument. The other thing I remember was the man’s energy. Jon Stewart once said that Springsteen empties the tank in his concerts and that is an apt description. When he was young, the guy would light up a city when he’d come through. He did 4 consecutive nights in L.A. in the late 70’s and everywhere you went for days afterward, people were in a daze – “Which night did you go?” “Did he play ‘It’s My Life’ (an old 60’s classic) at your concert?” “Can you believe it….3 encores!” Set aside his great melodies and poetic lyrics. The guy found the thing he knew he was 10+ on a scale of 10 and he did it. Every public pronouncement from him is admonition to us to do the same. Embrace the passion of being alive. It’s a hard road for so many of us and the only thing we can ever control is our belief in ourselves. Encouragement of that is one of therapy’s goals. Many of us learned who we were in this world through families that told us we weren’t much (or worse, were burdens and fundamentally bad). Perhaps more common was the encouragement of aspects of self that didn’t reflect what we somehow knew to be our essence. This would go hand-in-hand with discouragement or disregard for parts of our character that we knew were truly an expression of our true and best selves. One reason I think that Bruce Springsteen galvanized so many people to loyalty bordering on idolatry is that his work provided the constant message: “Life can be hard. You’ll be challenged – but you’re up to the task.” Seligman would add, “Learn and embrace your signature strengths (see my earlier post). They’re yours. Their expression in your life is where you’ll find meaning and happiness.” Right on, Marty! Right on, Bruce!
A few years ago Martin Seligman (former President of the American Psychological Association and developer of positive psychology, a significant force in the current mental health environment) and Christopher Peterson came up with this notion of Signature Strengths – those qualities we are naturally drawn to and which are considered to be positive (and have for millennia). There are 24 of these and it is possible to visit a web site and go through a 30 minute test that will give you a sense of your top signature strengths. You can access this test here (scroll down to the VIA Survey of Character Strengths). Seligman describes these different strengths so well in his book Authentic Happiness. In a more detailed discussion, Seligman and Peterson in their book Character Strengths and Virtues (a book I purchased out of an excess of enthusiasm only to decide that the tome was helpful, but did not merit it’s size or price) break the 24 strengths into Six Categories: Wisdom and Knowledge; Courage; Humanity; Justice; Temperance and Transcendence. What I particularly appreciated about this material is similar to the value I find in Myers-Briggs psychological type. Many of us struggle with the belief that there is something about our basic nature that is inadequate. We aren’t smart enough, or clever enough, or spiritual, empathic, mentally tough, athletic or social enough. These products of “programing” we received from parental figures who, themselves, struggled with their own sense of defect and want, leave us with an inflated sense of what is missing in our character and an altogether limited idea of our own personal assets. The most successful, content people in the world have holes in their character and the most confused have great, though unmined, character strengths. Recognizing, and playing to, those strengths is a key to life satisfaction, as Seligman teaches. He suggests that we seek out work that allows us to exercise these strengths and indulge in recreation that lets us express them. Great advice in my book. I invite you to take the test linked above and explore it’s benefits.