Evan was a hard worker. Ever since he was young Evan never settled for less than excellence in whatever he did. When he did not feel he could be excellent in something he would often lose interest in it or disengage. This strategy for life served Evan very well in many respects. After all, people respond well in our society to excellence. However, Evan's emotional state was a fragile one. He was terrified of feeling he was underperforming but also simultaneously over burdened. He struggled to allow himself to relax. In fact it seemed the only way he could feel good was by achieving something or doing something or by totally numbing out (an act that left his wife and friends feeling ignored).
Brian was a good manager, his people liked him, felt supported by him and trusted him in times of conflict. Brian gave everything to his employees; always willing to take calls at any time, going above and beyond with praise and incentives and rewards. On the flip side though, Brian constantly felt like he had to be, "on". A racing pace or a totally off pace were the only modes he knew. At times Brian could even feel resentful towards his team, like they didn't appreciate him enough and could take him for granted. He especially hated it when he felt someone on his team disappointed or saw them under performing and he knew he'd have to confront them. In normal language Brian would say he was a "pleaser" and that was what kept him always scanning people and places to make sure others were okay. This, he said, helped him feel good about himself. Brian has a strategy for relating that would fall in the anxious/pre-occupied attachment style. He leads from a place of serving others to the detriment of his own independence and needs.
Normally Jill didn’t have any problems with her grades’. Lately though, something had shifted and Jill was struggling. In talking to her, one on one, it was easy enough to discover that Jill felt the normal pressures of adolescence (grades, extra curricular activities, friends, parents, etc.) and that these pressures had grown significantly with her junior year. What seemed a little less obvious were the themes that subtly showed up in Jill’s sharing. Themes of insecurity and not feeling understood quietly wove through much of her stories. Now if you’ve ever been a teenager or been around one for five minutes you’ll recognize that these themes feel almost universal to being a teen. Likewise, people like Dr. Dan Siegel would tell us that these feelings are increased in adolescence while the brain is going through a major overhaul. So the themes were not odd or even problematic. What did seem to be problematic was how Jill felt when she was in conversation with her parents about everything.
How do you choose a mental health professional? There are so many names, waiting lists, initials and varying approaches. Especially without a referral choosing a mental health professional can feel like a shot in the dark at best! While this post cannot choose someone for you hopefully it can atlas inform you a little more on what you're looking at. Listed in parenthesis are some common initials that people list to signify their education and licensure.
We all want our kids to be happy and healthy but what does this mean? A seductive answer is, our kids are well behaved. I say seductive because well behaved kids are much easier and more pleasant to be with so we often want to say that good behavior is the barometer for good parenting. While controlled behavior can be a sign of strong psychological health in a child it can also be a mask for a child who is needing help on the inside but has gotten the message that their feelings are not welcomed (spoiler alert: this does not equal happy and healthy).
It can actually feel terrible to have our buttons pushed by our kids. We can end saying and doing things we never intended to including: screaming, rashly reacting, walking out dramatically, crying, etc. Kids seem to have a knack for needing us in the places we are least equipped to give. This is no surprise. Kids are really hard (especially sensitive and strong willed ones!) and adults often get overwhelmed by their behavior. When this happens they react in ways to shut down the behavior in an effort to stop the overwhelming. While this helps the parent rebalance (an important element) it also shuts down important and developmentally appropriate needs that are being communicated in really difficult ways. Then when that child grows up and has children of their own the pattern often repeats.
Two quick suggestions for thought:
This is a process I've developed based on Ekman's and other's research on emotions. Taming triggers begins with reflecting on triggered moments.
Step One: What triggered you?
It's important to reflect on the particular moment of flipping your lid and losing control. What pushed you over the edge? Was it a look, a tone, a movement, a phrase, something physical like getting pushed or touched. Or was it an environment, a situation that you didn't expect.
Ekman's research shows there are six factors in play when it comes to how strong a trigger is and consequently how hard it will be to tame or reduce it. Triggers are these moments in life where we experience an echo from a past emotionally charged experience (that has not been processed fully) in a present day situation and our brains react as if what is happening right now is the same as back then. It is what happens when we blow up suddenly. Ekman also mentions something called a refractory time. This is the amount of time it takes us to cool off and come back to our rational brain.
In his book, "Emotions Revealed", Paul Ekman talks about unlearned emotions, learned variations and triggers.
Unlearned Emotional Themes: These are the themes we come hardwired to react a certain way to (like when we experience feeling block or thwarted from our goals we are hardwired to become angry and aggressive in order to be able to have a better chance at achieving our goals). Ekman proposes that these themes are products of our evolution (i.e. They've stuck around because they've helped us survive and thrive. Like if we needed to get the limited food source there was and we were being beaten out by another person getting angry would help us have a better chance at getting to the food first and therefore surviving). Ekman has observed seven groups of themes across all cultures (meaning there are seven groups of emotional themes that everyone is hardwired to percieve and react to with set emotions). Each group is connected to a primary emotion: sad/anguish, disgust/contempt, excitement/joy/other positive feelings, anger, surprise/fear.
Learned Variations: These are the emotional stories we've developed from our own personal experiences. They are linked to the universal themes but are nuanced by our subjective take on life. So, a person who experienced cruel teasing from their father growing up might store those experiences as, "I'm being bullied because I'm not worth much". This could be connected to several unlearned themes (themes of fear and anger and sad/anguish) but most readily it's experienced as the "I'm being mistreated because I'm not worth much" story or sensation.
Triggers : These are moments that have enough of an echo in them from an emotional theme (un-learned or learned) that it activates our automatic reaction to that theme. Ekman gives the example of a person who believes they are worthless (a learned theme) and because of this they are hyper vigilant to others abandoning them (a theme of sadness/anguish). Because of this they snap into sadness/anguish at the slightest sign of rejection from lovers.
Ekman says there are six factors to how strong a trigger will be (and consequently how hard it will be to soften it). That will be the next post. Then in the final post on triggers we will move onto an exercise of mine based on this and other research to help dampen and control triggers.
Continuing the series about Paul Ekman's book, "Emotions Revealed" this post will highlight his research conclusions of the nine ways emotions get turned on in a human. Ekman points out that most of the time we can't control or predict becoming emotional but that one of these nine are most likely to leave us feeling regret.
Often a couple will come in and talk about a fight they're having. The problem usually is, they are talking about the issue but they're also not talking about the issue. Our fights, I mean our repetitive deeply felt fights, are about more than what's one the surface (unloading the dishwasher, helping with the kids, making plans, cleaning the house, sex, in-laws, etc.). The surface issues are really houses for the core issues. They do matter, otherwise you wouldn't be triggered by them, however just talking about the surface issues will never solve the problem.
All of these styles are not good or bad, they are amoral and simply the ways that our young minds devised was the best way to get our needs met in our initial environments. Problem is, these schemas (attachment theory calls them, Inner Working Models), become outdated as we grow up and encounter new environments but because we operate out of them unconsciously we continue to react to our world as if it was the same as the one we grew up in (an act that tends to turn our current environments into our initial ones).
Trauma is a word that probably gets thrown around too much. When that happens words often lose their accuracy and impact. So what is trauma and what does it have to do with repetitive relational struggles?
Psychotherapy (a word which means “healing of the soul”) and psychoanalysis (a word which means “an examining of the soul”) are methods of talk therapy designed to help people identify feelings and thoughts and needs that they have hidden from themselves explicitly (often during session people remark that they now have words for what they have known only by feeling or gut). This is helpful because it allows people more freedom of choice in life. They are less prone to repeating patterns of relating that keep them feeling stuck, dissatisfied, depressed, anxious, etc.
Jenny came to see me because she was struggling in middle school. School had gone from a place where she was doing increasingly well to a place she hated to go. Jenny had begun to have panic attacks and weekly she came home crying. Jenny had become very depressed and her parents did not know what to do. As she and I and her family and I talked, it became clear that there was a part of her on the inside that had been hidden.
About three times a year I see couples therapy playfully mocked in a movie. My favorite might be the scene in “This is 40” where the couple is about to get in a fight and the husband says, “I don’t want to get into a nasty fight here. Can we please talk the way the therapist told us to?”. This leads to the couple using catch phrases and quasi active listening skills but really just laying into each other. “It hurts me inside, and triggers me, when you are so easy to trick into lying…”. While that’s a hilarious scene it also shows that often couples therapy is not really getting at the core issues and helping people. It should be more than people just being listened to and then prompted to respond. In the “literature” (a fancy word for the academic articles that are written around a certain topic) three main themes emerge when thinking about what’s important to get to in couples therapy.
Does this sound familiar? Your wife or your friends or family are telling you that you have anger management issues, that you’re a scary person! Often times, men come in and say they have an anger issue and often times by the end of the first session I respond by saying, “you don’t have an anger issue, you have an outdated strategy for dealing with emotions”. What the heck does that mean, right!? Let me explain…
While fighting is inevitable and can even be a healthy thing in a relationship, bitter or habitual fighting is indicative of something deeper, something older. We all have a past and that past impacts our present thoughts/feelings and behavior. If someone hurt us in the past it primes us to (before we think) quickly put on our fighting gloves or hide behind our protective walls when someone in the present does something that reminds us of that hurt. Often these ways of relating ("gloves on" or "retreating") become so ingrained that we don't even know the patterns that are there.
To talk about empathy and our ability to grow in empathy we have to first define it. Empathy is NOT sympathy, kindness, compassion or the like. Empathy is a neutral skill that can be used for good or bad or both. Heinz Kohut (the father of one of the major contemporary fields of psychoanalysis called, Self Psychology) put it simply when he said...
Our most repetitive experiences of fighting or conflict point to not just whatever it is we're fighting about but something else that's deeper, older and more important. Learn how to identify and meet those deeper needs in order to stop the repetitive, bitter fighting or deafening silence.