When staying positive can become a negative

hospital-840135_1920

We live in a ‘think positive’ world, in which people are encouraged to hide or deny their vulnerability.

But this can come at a cost, as shown in research published this week by the charity Macmillan Cancer Support*. The research showed that this ‘think positive’ attitude among people with cancer, espcially those with a terminal diagnosis, was preventing honest conversations about end-of-life care.

More than a quarter of people surveyed said they found it hard to talk honestly about their feelings around cancer and a similar number said they felt guilty if they could not remain positive or portray themselves as a ‘fighter’. Health and social care professionals were generally reluctant to bring up the subject of end-of-life care with patients, the survey found.

The result of this was that many people with cancer were not having vital conversations until far too late and were dying in hospital against their wishes.

I believe this research has wider significance and shows the down side of an excessive focus on ‘thinking positive’ or being a ‘fighter’.  There is an important place for these qualities in life, but when taken too far it can become denial and a way of avoiding vulnerability.

When we adopt a think positive attitude too rigidly, we can easily slip into viewing ‘negative’ emotions such as vulnerability, fear, sadness and anger as somehow wrong or things to be battled against.

Miriam Greenspan talks about this in her book, Healing through the dark emotions. By ‘dark’ emotions she she doesn’t mean they are bad but rather that as a culture we have kept these emotions in the dark.

“In the throes of grief, fear, or despair, we generally believe that giving feelings like these too much space in our psyches is a sign of emotional weakness or breakdown,” says Greenspan.

She describes this attitude as ‘emotion phobia’ and says that while we can push these feelings away for much of the time, sooner or later we experience a major loss, shock or trauma and our habit of pushing away dififcult feelings no longer works.

In my work as a psychotherapist I often have clients who have got the message, usually from childhood, that their feelings (and particularly their ‘difficult’ feelings like sadness, vulnerability, fear or anger) are not okay.

These are the clients who want me to make such feelings ‘go away’. Instead I encourage them to try and name the feelings they are struggling with, to locate where in their bodies these feelings live, to see if they can allow these feelings to be present and to trust that there is a purpose in these feelings.

My experience is that there is always a reason for particular feelings in our life. If we can shift our perspective away from judging the feeling (and ourselves for having it) to being willing to experience it we can begin a different kind of ‘conversation’ with the feeling.

We can then begin to explore what this feeling is trying to draw our attention to in our life, or pehaps to  something in our distant past that needs to be given a place.

* https://www.macmillan.org.uk/aboutus/news/latest_news/fighting-talk-can-leave-cancer-patients-unable-to-talk-about-death-and-dying.aspx

Advertisements

The Distancer-Pursuer Dynamic

You may have noticed, in your own relationship, that often one partner really wants something from the other partner and becomes extremely frustrated when they don’t get it.

I have had many couple clients who bring this kind of problem and I have seen it at work in my own relationship – and it can be very painful!

The way it works is one partner pushes for something and the other partner won’t give it, or won’t give it in the way that the first partner wants it. This is called the distancer-pursuer dynamic.

The pursuer is the one wanting something and the distancer is the partner who is not giving it. Usually both partners end up feeling that they are being unfairly treated.

Here are some common things that people caught in the distancer-pursuer ‘dance’ may say:

Him (pursuer): “Most of the time, when I want sex, she knocks me back.”

Her (distancer): “He’s always wanting sex – it makes me feel pressured and even less in the mood.”

Or:

Her (pursuer): “Whenever I try to have an intimate conversation, he seems more interested in watching TV or checking his phone.”

Him (distancer): “She’s always trying to have deep conversations – I feel like I don’t have time to just chill out.”

The more the pursuer makes demands or vents his or her frustration, the more the distancer feels under pressure and even less likely to give the pursuer what they want.

The object of the pursuer can be one of many things – sex, attention, affection, emotional intimacy, appreciation. But the actual thing being pursued is less important than the dynamic that is being played out.

The important point to realise is that the distance between the two partners always remains the same in this behaviour pattern, so as the pursuer tries to get closer the distancer moves away. Uncomfortable as it is, in my experience it is often the case that both partners unconsciously make sure that they stay stuck in the pattern.

But why would the couple make sure they stay in this painful pattern, even on an unconscious level?

Basically, it is because the distancer-pursuer dynamic enables both partners to avoid some of the challenges of intimacy, while blaming each other.

The dynamic regulates the emotional closeness within the relationship. While we all may say we want a close relationship with our partner, in reality we move between a desire for closeness/relationship and a desire to autonomy or independence. This is one of the fundamental challenges of being in a relationship.

In their book Sex, Love and the Dangers of Intimacy, Nick Duffell and Helena Lovendal argue that the distancer-pursuer dynamic is a way for the couple to try and manage the conflict between closeness and autonomy.

They say: “We can establish lifelong patterns of one wanting more and the other less, one wanting closeness and the other space. We can play these games till we die and many couples do.”

The dynamic may go both ways, so that in certain areas one partner is the distancer while in a different area it is the other partner. A common pattern is for men to be the pursuer when it comes to sex and women when it concerns emotional intimacy.

John Welwood in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships,  highlights how the dynamic reveals the early wounding we may have experienced with parents. One partner may have experienced an intrusive parent and thus fears engulfment in adult relationships, while another may have had a parent who was distant and so felt abandoned.

He says: “Many people suffer from some of each, resulting in a ‘push-pull’ relationship, where one partner pursues when the other is pulling away, but then retreats when the other comes forward.”

In a future post I will go into this dynamic in more details and talk about how we can respond, when we find ourselves caught in it.

The truth about family holidays

I’ve noticed  that two of my busiest periods for new clients contacting me – both individuals and couples –  is the end of the summer and the beginning of the year. Both of these are times when people have spent significant periods with their families and/or partners, without the usual distractions of work, school, etc.

In this post I’d like to focus on the family holiday and the ambivalent attitude many of us have towards it.

A bit like having a new child, having a holiday with our family or partner is something most of us look forward to and we project lots of positive expectations onto it. But, also like having a child, we can often fail to anticipate the downside – the stresses it can place on relationships.

We tell ourselves the holiday will be relaxing, it will give us a chance to bond with children or re-connect with partners, it will be a break from work and the humdrum. All this may actually be true but it is also the case that holidays can bring to the surface tensions within the couple or family relationship. And unlike most of the year, there is little escape from these stresses when you’re spending nearly all your time with these people.

Balancing needs

My own experience gives me an insight into why so many new clients seem to contact me at the end of the holiday season.  I nearly always look forward to a family holiday and it is usually a  genuine break from work and I return feeling refreshed. But at the same time I sometimes struggle with balancing my own needs and wants with those of other members of the family.

At home it is easier for achieve this balance because I have time away from my partner and children, I have other activities such as work or other social contacts. On holiday we are all thrown together for a week or two and that can be challenging.

I find it helpful looking at this through the perspective of the inner child. The inner child is a metaphor for the part of us that can sometimes feel vulnerable, afraid, angry and is very sensitive. It is also the part of us that can be playful and joyful. Being aware of, and acknowledging the needs and wants of this inner child is very important, but we must not let it rule our lives.

I have an internal ‘little boy’ who can sometimes feel overlooked or unwanted.

Neglecting our own needs and wants

On holiday much of the focus is on what my children need or want, or my partner, and the danger is that I neglect my own needs and wants. This leads to my inner child feeling neglected and I begin to feel irritable and run down. This is all made worse because we tell ourselves that on holiday we are “supposed” to be enjoying ourselves and so if we’re not we can feel we’ve failed in some way.

On the other side of all this, of course, is that family holidays do also help me feel more connected with my partner and children because I get to spend more time with them and can share that time without the usual distractions of work and routine.

I don’t believe the tensions or arguments that surface on holidays are necessarily a bad thing because I see them as inviting us to look at elements of our family or couple relationships that may need attention. In that sense, tensions on holiday can play a positive longer-term role in our relationships.

It can also be helpful to adjust our expectations of holidays and to begin them with our eyes wide open. If we remind ourselves that some tensions are likely and have an idea where these tensions may emerge, we can prepare ourselves for them.

What does our psyche want now?

I recently attended a talk by the American depth psychologist and author James Hollis, whose books I had long admired.

James Hollis

James Hollis

“I often ask my new clients if they they think they have a soul and what it may be asking of them,” he said. That made me think. Hollis did not mean soul in the Christian sense, but rather the part of us that is separate from our ego, that is part of our unconscious and that has a connection to something larger than ourselves.

In the traditional religious meaning, soul is opposite to body, but in depth psychology soul refers to the Greek word psyche. Rather than being this ethereal, floaty thing that many of us imagine, in this sense soul is closely connected to our human experience, particularly our deep emotions, our longings, our joys, our mystery. This was an idea developed particularly by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman.

By ego, I mean the part of ourselves that we are aware of and which we think of as ‘us’, but which is only the tip of the iceberg and does not encompass our unconscious. It is our ego that tries to control our lives, and our environment, and which is constantly on the lookout for threats.

We need our ego to run the business of life, but if its needs dominate then our psyche/soul may need to make itself felt through neurosis and painful symptoms.

Writing in his book What Matters Most, Hollis says soul is a metaphor to describe our essence: “It is the energy that blows through us, that enters us at birth, animates our journey, and then departs, whither we know not, at our passing.”

Soul, by its nature, is actually impossible to fully define. While it lives in the unconscious it is constantly making itself felt in our conscious lives, through our emotions, dreams and imagination.

The reason Hollis asks his clients if they think they have a soul is because he is wanting to get away from the assumptions many people bring to therapy; that they have a ‘problem’ and that it is somehow the therapist’s job to get rid of this problem.

Depth work is not about solving the problem but about recovering the life we’ve somehow lost along the way, he says. Clients often come with a symptom, such as an addiction, a depression, an anger issue or a relationship problem, and they want the therapy to eradicate this symptom.

But depth therapy does not “cure” people or eradicate symptoms. “We don’t solve these problems, we outgrow them,” says Hollis. But to outgrow them may mean exploring what the meaning of the symptom is, what is our psyche trying to get us to pay attention to in our lives?

Mostly we are governed by our egos and we think we know what we want or what we need. But the psyche/soul may have a different idea of where we need to go. It is our ego that desperately wants to get rid of the symptom.

Some approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), try to get rid of the problem the client brings. CBT can help, and I use some CBT  approaches in my integrative therapy. But my experience is that often CBT can seemingly get rid of the symptom, only for it to re-appear in another form. If the underlying issues are not dealt with this is always a risk.

But how do we know what our psyche is asking of us? One way of exploring this is through therapy with a practitioner who has experience in working with the unconscious. Other ways in include noticing our dreams and what they may be telling us.

As palliative care doctor, and therapist, Michael Kearney says in his book Mortally Wounded: “My own personal and work experience has [shown me]…that soul is connected to depth, to death, to the imagination, and that it brings with it a sense of meaning.”

 

Further reading

By James Hollis:

Swamplands of the Soul, Inner City Books, 1996

What Matters Most, Gotham Books, 2010

By Michael Kearney:

Mortally Wounded, Morino Books, 1996

Why couple therapy won’t ‘fix’ your relationship in the way you expect

“Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then 9504443699_d6effb8b17_zgradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.”

  • Rainer Maria Rilke

The quote above, from the Austrian poet Rilke, says something about the couple therapy process and how changes in a relationship are often achieved not by applying a new technique but rather by a gradual shift in awareness and perspective.

Many couples who are struggling in their relationships come to therapy to be fixed. Or, more accurately, they come to get their partner ‘fixed’. They hope that the therapist will tell their partner what he or she needs to do differently or what techniques the couple needs to put into practice in order to solve the problem they come with.

While there is a place for techniques and tools in helping couples tackle their problems, it is naive to think that these alone will lead to sustained improvements.

In my experience couple therapy is more of a stuttering, unpredictable process than a linear improvement. Over time I would expect a couple’s relationship to improve but it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. There may be periods where nothing seems to be improving at all.

But if the couple is able to stick with the process and hold a little less tightly their desire for a solution to their problem, something different can emerge.

Often that something different comes from each partner being willing to feel their pain, and sometimes to share it, without immediately blaming the other person.

Frequently one of the things that needs to happen in couple therapy is for each person to understand how they have contributed to the stuck place the couple finds itself in. Once we begin to recognise our own responsibility we can then stop pointing the finger so quickly at our partner. This takes the pressure off them a little, which can open up a space for something new to enter the relationship.

In my own relationship I’ve found that, when I’m unhappy about something, the simple act of being heard by my partner can make a difference. It often means that the thing that was annoying me so much doesn’t seem quite so difficult any more.

As couples we can sometimes get stuck in an “I win, you lose”  mentality, in which power struggles take over and we feel that unless we get our way it will be unbearable. The reality is that it is always going to be difficult for two people to share their lives and that we need to find ways of making space for the differences but still allowing each person to have their feelings acknowledged.

John Welwood, one of my favourite writers on relationships, says in his book Journey of the Heart, : “Techniques rarely have any impact when used as short cuts, to bypass letting a difficulty affect us, work on us and move us to find our own genuine response to it.”

(Photo courtesy of Tom Blackwell, creative commons, at Flickr.com)

 

 

What scares us about intimacy

I think that most of us, if asked, would say that we want an intimate relationship with someone. A relationship in which we can truly be ourselves and feel close.

So why is it that so many people struggle to find this in life?

This is a complex question. But one strand to it is the fear of either being engulfed by our partner or being abandoned. In other words, we can experience our partner as either too loving/controlling/intrusive/demanding or too absent/uninterested/cold.

Our experience as infants can feed into this drama and prime us to see relationships through a particular lens. For example, an infant may experience their primary caregiver (usually mum) as being “too present” and not providing enough space and freedom for the child to explore. This chid may grow up to experience a fear of being smothered or controlled in adult relationships.

However, an infant experiencing their caregiver as sometimes cold or uninterested may be particularly sensitive to what they experience as rejection or abandonment in adult intimate relationships.

“Engulfment fears generally lead to withdrawal in relationships, while abandonment fears lead to clinging,” says therapist John Welwood in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships.

Each partner may at times feel a fear of engulfment or a fear of abandonment, but often each person gravitates towards a particular stance. This obviously creates tension and unhappiness.

“She’s always trying to get me to do things with her, but hates it when I just want to relax watching some sport on the TV,” he says. Or she may comment, “He seems more interested in his job and his friends than in me – I feel like he doesn’t love me.”

The effect of this is that one partner is often pushing for something more, while the other is trying to pull away – which is known as a push-pull effect.

Partners can be stuck in this dynamic for years, without understanding why they can’t seem to get genuinely close. Or people can change partners and then find the same patterns of push-pull in each new relationship.

Part of the way out of this stuck pattern is understanding how our early experiences may have influenced the way we relate to people as adults. If we can feel empathy and compassion for ourselves as a child, who felt either deprived or dominated by parents, we may be able to see our partner more clearly and take his or her behaviour less personally.

We may also find ourselves, gradually, being able to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our partner and to let go of judging them.  Which is a good foundation for truer intimacy.

What is co-dependency?

Sometimes psychological phrases seem to enter the mainstream and, in recent years, one such phrase has been ‘co-dependency’. But what does it really mean?

One way of understanding co-dependency is as ‘relationship addiction’, particularly if it is a relationship that keeps the partners stuck in behaviours that are limiting or destructive.

Co-dependency can refer to partners, adult children, siblings or whole families. In this article I’m focusing on partners.

Frequently there is an addicted, troubled or dependent partner and a supposedly stronger partner who’s role can be a kind of helper, caretaker or who tries to fix the person who has the ‘problem’.

Co-dependency began as a description of how some people seem to be drawn to relationships with alcoholics or drug addicts and stay in these relationships even if they are treated badly or the addict shows no serious signs of change. On the face of it the  ‘healthy’ partner is trying to help the addict but the reality is that, at a deeper level, they find it almost impossible to walk away from the tie.

The ‘healthy’ partner is also getting some form of psychological benefit, often at an unconscious level,  from being in a relationship with someone who is much more obviously disturbed or distressed.

Frequently it turns out that the ‘healthy’ partner had a parent or other family member who was an alcoholic or addict and that, in some way, their relationship pattern is mirroring important aspects of their parents’ relationship or dynamics in their family of origin.

While it began as a description of relationships involving people addicted to alcohol or other drugs, co-dependency can be used in a broader way to describe someone who stays with a ‘problem’ partner but nurses underlying resentment towards that partner.

The ‘healthy’ or ‘helping’ partner may seem caring and nice, but often underneath this there is a deep fear of not being in control, which can lead the ‘healthy’ partner to being manipulative. There is also often a need to be admired or approved of.

US psychologist Pia Melody was one of the first people to write about co-dependency. She argues that both partners in a co-dependent relationship have deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that began in chilidhood.

The addict deals with these unbearable feelings through his or her addiction or troubled behaviour. The ‘healthy’ partner deals with shame and inadequacy by their addiction to the relationship and to trying to fix the partner.

For Mellody, the antidote to co-dependency is for the individual to come to terms with the wounds of childhood. In her book Facing Co-depdence she says: “Experience your feelings about the less-than-nurturing events of your past. Because if you don’t, the issues from your history will be held in minimisation, denial and delusion and truly be behind you as demons.”