Whether working with an individual or couple, (or observing myself!) I frequently work with people stuck in their relationships. We want people to come near to us, to love us, to be close to us. “This should be easy” is an often refrain, paired with the belief that most everyone else obviously gets what they need. We often end up thinking “there must be something wrong with me”.
Here’s the sequence:
Sam longs for connection, but fears that Kate will find out that he is actually a failure, weak, and undesirable. So, when he sees that Kate is asking for space (like going for a walk or going out alone), he takes this as Kate wanting to get away from him. Instead of honoring her need for space, he pushes closer, driven by his fear of the worst. As he pushes closer, he asks for reassurance, communicating his fear and worry. Kate stifles her frustration, because she cares and is affected by Sam’s distress. So, she comes closer, not out of love, but out of obligation and compassion. However, this compassion has a bitter tone, because it feels compelled instead of chosen, forced instead of given. Sam feels reassured and his worries go away…for the moment.
Underneath, a sinister reality unfolds - Sam teaches his brain that the only way to soothe his fears is by compelling Kate with his painful emotion. As a result, when his brain catches the scent of this pattern again, it stirs up fear in preparation, starting the whole process over again. Kate’s need for space remains uncared for, and her frustration builds, eventually leading to angry demands for space, which serve to confirm Sam’s original fears, that she doesn’t really care for him. She discovered he is a failure, weak, and undesirable.
The sad reality - Sam’s inability to give space passively caused the result he so feared.
Striving for Good Enough.
This reminds me of the first time I cared for a plant. In my longing and desire to have a healthy, thriving plant, I let my fear of its death drive me to refuse it proper space. So, instead of watering the plant in a “good enough” fashion, I watered it daily. In several weeks, the leaves began to yellow. “It needs more water” I thought - so I watered it more. To my great sadness, I began to realize that I was killing the plant! I finally came to my senses and left it alone for longer stints. The plant survived, but would never be the same - a gangly, straggly shadow of its former self.
(Caveat - if your relationship is like the gangly plant I just mentioned - don’t expect things to go as smoothly as I’m about to describe! I’ll write in the future about how to recover from these entrenched patters - for now I want to speak of the goal).
Back to the original sequence:
Instead of pushing toward Kate in fear, Sam courageously stays put when Kate asks for space. He reminds himself that things are going to be okay, that Kate has returned before and he can trust her. He does NOT feel better while he waits - he wrestles with his fears of inadequacy and vulnerability. But now, something new can happen. He discovers, after the passage of time, that Kate returns to him OF HER OWN VOLITION - an expression of love free of passive coercion. Sam learns that he is loved by someone who chooses to love him. His fears are challenged by the cold, hard facts that he experiences. This results in subtle, slow brain structure changes. By facing his fears, he learns competence to manage them and that he is genuinely loved.
As with plants, we humans need time and consistent, “good enough” care to grow. This healthy sequence likely needs repeated hundreds of times over. Each time we subtly grow in our courage to face our fears, and we experience the truth about how the other person feels about us. Each time, those around us experience our willingness to allow them the space in ways they need it, inviting them to return to us in love.
“It must be hard for you, hearing and dealing with all this pain and sadness every day.”
I get this question, and many like it, on a weekly basis from my patients. They courageously dig in to the work of therapy, allowing me to join with them on their journey through their pain and suffering. I gather that they feel like therapy is a sort of dumping, that I’m a trash bin to gather and contain their “junk”.
The reality is, your pain is so much more valuable.
No, I am no sadist. I do not enjoy the pain that my patients walk through. However, as they do, I witness them discovering deeply important truths: that they are worth loving, that they are valuable human beings, that they can do difficult things. Their pain points them to these realities.
When we take a look at our emotional pain, instead of trying to numb it, ignore it, or distract from it, we are wise to take a close look and see why we are in pain. In examining our pain, we find that something is wrong. There is hope here, because if something is wrong, then something is right.
That sounds philosophical and confusing. So here’s an example. Say you feel pain after injuring your foot. Instead of cramming pain pills, you are wise to follow the pain and figure out the problem. The foot hurts to get your attention. When you find something wrong, say your ankle is broken, you set about fixing it. You fix it because a broken ankle isn’t right. A set ankle that allows you to walk, that is right.
Here’s another example. Say you feel worthless because of the constant criticism you got from your mother or father. As a result, your mind can create a million ways that other people dislike you, crushing you under the weight of shame, humiliation, and doubt based on little more than glances, unspoken words, or Facebook posts. You are constantly on the lookout to avoid this pain. But this pain can also point your attention. It is trying to tell you something. The feeling of worthlessness can guide you to discover something about you – that there is little to no truth in that ringing critical voice. What is true is something else, something you are wise to seek to discover.
So, when my patients ask me the “how do you do this” question, I usually respond by sharing with them that I find it a privilege to do this work. They shrug and sometimes roll their eyes, believing me to be lying to them. The truth is, I find it an honor to walk with my patients through their pain - what they discover moves my soul.
Every day I get to witness patients discovering the truth about themselves. In their discoveries I am deeply impacted. Witnessing their acts of courage not only inspires me, but reminds me of the truths they discover.
Next time you are in pain, instead of pounding your fists at the universe, or hating the pain, ask yourself this question: “why am I in pain?” Take some time to care for it, to understand it. Go on your own journey of discovering what might be true about you.
The journal entries that follow represent my attempts to share with you some of the “nuggets of gold” that I have witnessed my patients discovering. I invite you to benefit from the work of others; I hope you’ll be inspired to get about doing your own work.
I am a licensed psychologist practicing in Denver, CO.