Letting go of blame can free you to see new ways to create a better relationship with yourself and those you love. It’s also a big step in reaching across the political divide to find common ground.
For many of us, the morning of November 9, 2016 brought an unexpected surprise. We woke up and saw the reports of who our nation had elected as its next president and waves of emotions washed over us.
Some of us were elated that the candidate we had chosen unexpectedly won. For that lucky constituency, this is your time to feel good — but also, I highly recommend, to proceed with a willingness to evaluate the actual outcomes of the new President’s influence and actions.
For those of us who are disappointed and shocked, the experience was different. Many emotions wash over us. They swell up when you read something or when someone threw their own anxieties into your pond. They come in waves: surprise, shock, dismay, anger, hopelessness, escape.
These are all normal responses. We had a dream — a hope that we invested in, perhaps more than we realized — and it has been dashed. After such a loss, grief is natural. Because our culture doesn’t do a very good job of teaching us how to recognize, acknowledge, and accept grief, the energy of a loss, even the loss of a dream, can drive lots of nasty or self-defeating feelings and behavior.
Here’s some steps that can help you work through the waves of dashed dreams:
1. Honor the dream.
Remember the future you hoped for. Recognize that it is a good dream. Recognize the feelings and worries that come up and acknowledge that your feelings are a real experience. They hurt.
Be brave: face your feelings. Both the wisdom of meditation masters and modern research indicates that emotions are fleeting. If you recognize that they exist, they will also pass. But if you push negative feelings aside or minimize they will linger in your half-conscious mind, casting a negative fog over your world.
It’s okay to find nondestructive ways to express negative feelings: write in a journal, bitch to an understanding friend, find something nobody cares about to smash, go somewhere isolated and scream, or attend a vigil.
2. Find hope.
Remember times in your own life when you’ve weathered adversity. Tell yourself you learned to be strong from that experience. List all the friends and contacts you have that will support you or give you emotional strength. List every strength you have and everything you’re grateful for. Review a few items from those lists every night before going to sleep.
3. Maintain contact with the dream.
Don’t give up on the dream. Dreams give us a guiding light that help us navigate toward a better life. Sure it hurts to think about a dream that seems to have been torn away, but as you practice hope, you can turn that pain into energy to get you moving again.
4. Take practical action.
If you accept your painful feelings, stave off despair, and keep the dream in sight you can harness your anger towards taking some constructive action. Review your finances, housing, and employement. Join a professional or personal development group. Become more involved in your local politics. Join a political group and speak up for your dream.
Be Kind and Seek to Understand
Throughout this, I encourage you to consider what your primary values are. For most of us, compassion and kindness are high on the list. Keep this in mind when you’re taking action: vilifying people that disagree with you will not, in the long run, make our world a better place, it will just widen the divide. Look for ways to understand their fears and dreams and make common cause.
Alan Barclay, LMFTA
Individual and Couples Counseling
Seattle and Federal Way
A nineteenth century mindfulness guru called Gurdjieff once made a commitment to himself to be aware of everything he did for the next twenty-four hours. In the first hour of his practice, he went out to visit a shop. Along the way he watched each step and each thought and feeling. But somewhere on his trip, he lost track of paying attention. Only days later did he suddenly remembered that he had intended to be mindful. This guy eventually became a guru in the early 20th century history of meditation and mindfulness, but he couldn’t do it all the time.
Often when we realize we want to change something about our automatic emotional responses or thoughts, we set out to change by constant vigilance. We might read books on mindfulness practices and try to apply them to the problem. Then, as so often happens in the course of living our lives, we miss an incident of the thing we wanted to change and beat ourselves up about it. We failed to be aware and make a better choice. And, worse, we failed to maintain our mindfulness.
If you are trying to be more mindful, trying to act differently at work or at home, or just trying to watch what you eat, here are three thoughts to keep in mind:
1. It’s okay to fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not approaching the edge of your compitence or your comfort. Growth happens at the edge of your comfort zone. Boredom sets in if you spend too much time deep inside that zone. Growth, creation, and relationship are all most alive in the turbulence near the edge.
2. It’s okay to fail. The point of mindfulness is the practice not the perfection. As with Zen meditation, a great deal of the benefit comes from those moments when you consciously see what just happened and bring your attention back on focus. It feels hard because you are strengthening pathways in your brain. And this new strength will benefit you, not just in being mindful, but in being better able to focus and concentrate your attention in everyday life.
3. It’s okay to fail. You are a precious human being even after you broke that dish. You are fundamentally good and worthy of love and health and joy even if you snapped at your spouse again. You are enough — even when you feel you haven’t done enough — you, yourself, are more than your last achievement. It’s okay, really.
Compassion for yourself is the best companion for mindfulness and change. The safer you feel in yourself, the easier it will be to face those things that seem hard to change.
Would your group like inspiration for their lives and their relationships?
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Male Silence: How Society Still Teaches Men to Suck It Up and What We Can Do About It.
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I’m offering these topics and others either as talks and short workshops. A talk is about 30 minutes, including a 20 minute overview of the topic and 10 minutes question and answer afterwards. A workshop lasts 60 to 90 minutes and includes an introduction to the topic as well as self-assessment and skill-building activities. I can shorten or lengthen a presentation to meet your needs.
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Do you beat yourself up when you make a mistake? Feel horrible when you’ve asserted yourself?
The truth I’ve learned is that I am often a lot harder on myself than I really deserve. In some cases, I might not have made any mistakes, just taken a risk–like speaking up in class–that is outside my normal comfort zone. In other cases, I might believe I have imposed on or hurt someone’s feelings, but end up feeling bad to a degree out of proportion with what actually happened. While shame and guilt are useful for guiding us, when they take control of our lives they tend to impair our ability to live better.
For a long time, the accepted way of counteracting excessive feelings of shame or inadequacy has been self-esteem building affirmations and exercises. Recently, however, research on self-compassion mediation is showing that forgiving ourselves and sending goodwill towards ourselves is actually more effective than self-esteem building. This takes practice, like so many meditative and mindful activities, so I recommend guided audio such as those created by Rick Hanson.
Be brave. Be safe. Be seen.
Social change in the Twentieth Century knocked the old American models of relationship out of their orbits. What men and women were supposed to do collided, shattered, and came back together in new combinations. The old models of relationship are still common, but we have a bunch of new ones we are still trying to understand. Modern sitcoms, like The Big Bang Theory, look at how we can come to terms with new combinations, especially if we are in one.
If you watch the show, you know Penny and Leonard, Bernadette and Howard, Amy and Sheldon, and, as of Season 8, Raj and Emily. Despite the exaggeration that sitcom writing brings to their stories, I have seen their core themes show up in the therapy room.
For the rest of this post, let’s focus on Penny and Leonard. If the practical, commitment-averse partner was called Patrick and the clingy one was Laura, we might be watching a sitcom from the 50’s—but they aren’t and we’re not. A clingy man and a distancing woman swap the expectations we have even now, and this creates a large part of the humor in their show.
However, fifty years ago, Leonard would be dismissed as a wimp and Penny as a woman who doesn’t know her place (or worse–tradition is not kind to assertive women). Today our attitudes have changed to the point where these two characters can earn the loyal compassion of millions of Americans. This reflects, I think, the fact that swaps in stereotypical gender roles are becoming more common in the real world.
Leonard’s mother. There. I said it. Did you hear him finding an excuse to leave the room? One of the greatest paths to compassion is to imagine someone else’s emotional experience, especially when you’re looking at defining personality traits or emotional challenges. Leonard’s mother, Beverly, had a huge impact on his experience of affection and acceptance.
Leonard makes pained jokes about how his mother used the giving and withholding of affection as a reward and punishment to condition his behavior. Beverly lives her life from the cold perspective of scientific behaviorism, an approach that ignores internal processes. We can speculate that she was attracted to this branch of psychology because she feels uncomfortable with emotions.
We can imagine four-year-old Leonard seeking a hug from his mother, only to be held away and told he must first pick up his toys. Leonard would feel rejected and naturally want to fix the rejection. Keep in mind that we are all hard-wired to seek connection, particularly children. Even when Beverly did not intentional withhold emotion, her ability to tune into Leonard’s needs would be erratic and he would sense that.
To a child, rejection by a parent is alarming—the parent is their protector and provider, and they may die without them. If Beverly was using affection as a tool to condition her son, he would have had this experience again and again. And the tasks his mother sets him would seem arbitrary—his four-year-old mind just can’t anticipate everything she might see as worthy or reward or punishment. With all this shaping his psyche, is it any wonder that Leonard has deep-seated anxiety to please and wants more consistent and committed intimacy?
Meanwhile, Penny has some of the traits of a traditional male, particularly her ambiguity about commitment. We know less about her formative years, but she has said that her father, Wyatt, raised her as if she were a boy. In an episode of season 4, we meet Wyatt and see him act as a strict but loving dad in the traditional mold. When we see them together, it’s obvious Penny respects and trusts him. If he raised Penny as a boy and she admired him, she might well have absorbed some of his attitudes about emotion and relationship–messages like “be close but not too close” and “don’t be a girl about it.”
In the episode, we see hints at what it might have been like growing up with Wyatt. In a climactic scene, Wyatt is angry because he has learned thatPenny kept her breakup from Leonard a secret. He scolds her for lying and sends her to her room. Normally outspoken and assertive Penny submits immediately and leaves the living room. When Wyatt turns on Leonard, Leonard cringes, expecting to be chewed out. Instead Wyatt falls on his knees and begs Leonard not to give up on his daughter. It’s clear he cares deeply about her, but can’t show her that directly.
This scene shows us a number of things that, if Penny experienced them throughout her childhood, could easily have made deep impressions. On the one hand we see the love and fear produced by Wyatt’s strict parenting. Penny’s gut level experience of a relationship with a man is both attraction and fear. Likewise, while he may have tried to keep a manly facade, Penny must have seen Wyatt push aside his tender feelings many times–and perhaps seen him be ambigious about feelings even with her mother. So in addition to have a subconscious ambiguity around relationships with men, she has an important parent modeling the dismissing of tender feelings.
Finally, Penny probably suffers from a kind of perfectionism because of her role among her siblings. What we know that she is the “good one” and that could set her up for panics when she feels she can’t live up to expectations. We’ve seen this in the early seasons when she felt insecure about her lack of academic development in the face of Leonard’s PhD and in-depth nerd knowledge. Imagine the panic of not being good enough combining with discomfort about being close and vulnerable!
With Leonard and Penny, as in most couples’ cases, we find the couple’s problems comes from a kind of reflexive ping-pong. Leonard’s history of conditional love and Penny’s fear of closeness and uncertainty about her worthiness are wounds that run deep. Both feel discomfort and even pain when those wounds are touched. Leonard’s drive for intimacy pushes directly at Penny’s discomfort with being close and that causes her to push back for distance, which just makes Leonard more crazy.
Keep in mind that neither is to blame. The game of ping-pong can start with either side serving. The path to a better relationship starts when one or both partners start to gain some awareness of their own behavior and the wounds that drive it; as they come to terms with their contribution to the game, they can help de-escalate it. We’ve seen Leonard and Penny go through this, one realizing he’s lovable just for who he is and the other realizing safety of closeness and the worthiness of the gifts she brings.
The truth is this pattern is old; only the gender of the players has changed. As I said earlier, our society is changing: it’s becoming okay for men to have feelings and be followers. It’s becoming okay for women to be assertive and ambitious. It’s becoming okay—it isn’t yet. We’re still all working it out. That’s why The Big Bang Theory is funny — we see both the truth and the pain of redefining ourselves and our relationships.
Of course, real world couples don’t have sitcom writers to help them work out their story. That’s something a couples’ therapist can help with.
My name is Alan. I am very proud to announce that my counseling practice is now open in Seattle! I am excited to hear from everyone and I am looking forward to questions and comments. I plan to make a few posts every month on subjects that I hope will interest you.
In the meantime, welcome to my brand new site! Check out my page at www.facebook.com/liberationtherapy too!