Licensed Psychologist

Containment in Relationships

While the vicissitudes of ordinary discourse in relationships may be easy for many of us, this is by no means the case for everyone. What can we make of the times when words are not treated as simply the best tools we’ve come up with for communicating our private experiences to others, but instead serve as triggers in relationships- triggers that can lead one to feel quite threatened or to feel the need to marshal whatever defenses may be available in one’s arsenal? What can we do when seemingly ordinary attempts at communication lead to feelings of humiliation, woundedness, or unbidden vulnerability? Unfortunate circumstances such as a history of trauma in relationships, bullying, or chronic humiliation are only a few of the things that can lead a person to feel a sense of danger about making contact with another person’s point of view. Rather than experiencing another’s perspective as food for thought, an opportunity for meaningful reflection or increased intimacy, or helpful feedback about one’s interaction with the external world- those of us wounded by past traumas may at times experience others’ ideas as weapons of destruction that can lead to painful and concrete outcomes such as disruptions in the ability to think, the visceral experience of being slapped in the face, a rush of adrenaline or “out of control” emotion, or even physiological distress/illness. And since meaningful relationships typically require a level of communication that involves a regular open exchange between oneself and others, relationships can be a minefield for those who experience the other person’s mind as a potential source of danger and distress. This is, of course, not only difficult for the one who feels so raw to the other’s impact, but is also difficult for the partner or loved one in relationship with such a person. It is certainly not easy to speak freely of one’s impressions, needs, or observations- only to have this easy conversational flow be treated as an act of aggression or a threat. It is also not easy to be on the receiving end of defenses such as rage, counter-attack, or distance and withdrawal. And so, the fate of a conversation between two partners very much depends on each person’s ability (not just willingness!) to hear and take in the other’s communications without feeling unduly threatened, as well as each partner’s ability to accommodate to the other’s capacities (or lack of capacity) to do the same. One partner may need to learn how to tone down a sense of reactivity to the other’s communications; the other may need to figure out how to speak in a way that will expand his loved one’s tenuous ability to hear and to be aware. Whether it’s feedback about oneself that is felt to be painful; awareness of the other’s needs, separateness, or vulnerability; or even perhaps just the unknown of what we may come to feel, know, or remember when talking with another, finding ways to help the people we love most be able to stretch their capacities to listen and to know, is often a task left to the one who is perhaps a little less wounded- or vulnerable- in the moment. (And of course the one who finds himself positioned in the more vulnerable position can shift from one minute to the next!) So, how do we take some of the sting out of talking, thinking, and listening? One of my favorite techniques is the simple one of “asking permission”. By the simple act of asking another’s permission before we offer our thoughts, we avoid catching the person off-guard; we give the other a sense of healthy control; and we create a sense of receptivity which can open up space for our words can to enter willingly and gently, rather than by force. We can also communicate in ways that allow the other to “save face”, whether it’s during a shared parallel activity (like cooking together in the kitchen) or while sitting side by side (in the car, for example), easing the pressure often demanded by direct face to face communication. We might use metaphor, stories about our own selves, or open-ended comments that reduce the sense of threat that the other may experience from a more direct communication. Perhaps the best gift we can give another is to simply hold stuff inside ourselves until the other is truly ready for us to share it. Processing and containing our own thoughts, feelings, and perspective until the time seems right to “put it out there”, can give those we love the much needed space they may need in order to heal from past assaults and impingements to their own sense of self and integrity of being…allowing them slowly to trust that inviting in another may actually be a rewarding experience rather than a threatening one. Is this a gift you can give to those who need it most? Originally posted on Goldstein Therapy- Clifton, NJ

What Steve Jobs Wrote Days Before He Died

Read what Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple software, wrote days before he died: "I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world. In others’ eyes, my life is an epitome of success. However, aside from work, I have little joy. In the end, wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to. At this moment, lying on the sick bed and recalling my whole life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in, have paled and become meaningless in the face of impending death. In the darkness, I look at the green lights from the life supporting machines and hear the humming mechanical sounds, I can feel the breath of God and of death drawing closer. Now I know, when we have accumulated sufficient wealth to last our lifetime, we should pursue other matters that are unrelated to wealth... Should be something that is more important: Perhaps relationships, perhaps art, perhaps a dream from younger days... Non-stop pursuing of wealth will only turn a person into a twisted being, just like me. God gave us the senses to let us feel the love in everyone’s heart, not the illusions brought about by wealth. The wealth I have won in my life I cannot bring with me. What I can bring is only the memories precipitated by love."

The Flight from Conversation Part 2

We use conversation with others to learn to converse with ourselves. So our flight from conversation can mean diminished chances to learn skills of self-reflection. These days, social media continually asks us what's "on our mind," but we have little motivation to say something truly self-reflective. Self-reflection in conversation requires trust. It's hard to do anything with 3,000 Facebook friends except connect. As we get used to being shortchanged on conversation and to getting by with less, we seem almost willing to dispense with people altogether. Serious people muse about the future of computer programs as psychiatrists. A high school sophomore confides to me that he wishes he could talk to an artificial intelligence program instead of his dad about dating; he says the A.I. would have so much more in its database. Indeed, many people tell me they hope that as Siri, the digital assistant on Apple's iPhone, becomes more advanced, "she" will be more and more like a best friend - one who will listen when others won't. During the years I have spent researching people and their relationships with technology, I have often heard "No one is listening to me." I believe this feeling helps explain why it is so appealing to have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed - each provides so many automatic listeners. And it helps explain why - against all reason - so many of us are willing to talk to machines that seem to care about us. Researchers around the world are busy inventing sociable robots, designed to be companions to the elderly, to children, to all of us. One of the most haunting experiences during my research came when I brought one of these robots, designed in the shape of a baby seal, to an elder-care facility, and an older woman began to talk to it about the loss of her child. The robot seemed to be looking into her eyes. It seemed to be following the conversation. The woman was comforted. So many people found this amazing. Like the sophomore who wants advice about dating from artificial intelligence and those who look forward to computer psychiatry, this enthusiasm speaks to how much we have confused conversation with connection and collectively seem to have embraced a new kind of delusion that accepts the simulation of compassion as sufficient unto the day. And why would we want to talk about love and loss with a machine that has no experience of the arc of human life? Have we so lost confidence that we will be there for one another? We seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship. Always-on/always-on-you devices provide three powerful fantasies: that we will always be heard; that we can put our attention wherever we want it to be; and that we never have to be alone. When people are alone, even for a few moments, they fidget and reach for a device. Here connection works like a symptom, not a cure, and our constant, reflexive impulse to connect shapes a new way of being. Think of it as "I share, therefore I am." We use technology to define ourselves by sharing our thoughts and feelings as we're having them. We used to think, "I have a feeling; I want to make a call." Now our impulse is, "I want to have a feeling; I need to send a text." So, in order to feel more, and to feel more like ourselves, we connect. But in our rush to connect, we flee from solitude, our ability to be separate and gather ourselves. Lacking the capacity for solitude, we turn to other people but don't experience them as they are. It is as though we use them, need them as spare parts to support our increasingly fragile selves. We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don't teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely. To make room for conversation, we can create sacred spaces in the kitchen or dining room. We can make our cars "device-free zones." We can demonstrate conversation to our children. And we can do the same thing at work where we are so busy communicating that we often don't have time to talk to one another about what really matters. Employees asked for casual Fridays; perhaps managers should introduce conversational Thursdays. Most of all, we need to remember - in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts - to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another. I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod, and for decades I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked, looking at the water, the sky, the sand and at one another talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices. So I say, look up, look at one another, and let's start the conversation.

The Flight from Conversation

We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we're on dates. My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it's hard, but it can be done. Over the past 15 years, I've studied technologies of mobile connection and talked to hundreds of people of all ages and circumstances about their plugged-in lives. I've learned that the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are. We've become accustomed to a new way of being "alone together." Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party. Our colleagues want to go to that board meeting but pay attention only to what interests them. To some this seems like a good idea, but we can end up hiding from one another, even as we are constantly connected to one another. A businessman laments that he no longer has colleagues at work. He doesn't stop by to talk; he doesn't call. He says that he doesn't want to interrupt them. He says they're "too busy on their e-mail." But then he pauses and corrects himself. "I'm not telling the truth. I'm the one who doesn't want to be interrupted. I think I should. But I'd rather just do things on my BlackBerry." A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, "Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation." In today�s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny ouch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. "Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits." With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken. In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people - carefully kept at bay. We can't get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control: not too close, not too far, just right. I think of it as a Goldilocks effect.
Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little - just right. Human relationships are rich; they're messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it's a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference. We are tempted to think that our little "sips" of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don't. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places - in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation. Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, "I am thinking about you." Or even for saying, "I love you." But connecting in sips doesn't work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another. In conversation we tend to one another. (The word itself is kinetic; it's derived from words that mean to move, together.) We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another's point of view. FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news. Shakespeare might have said, "We are consumed with that which we were nourished by."

Infertility and the Mind-Body Connection

Couples in distress may disagree about sexual issues, romance, money, or infidelity. They criticize and blame each other, and often cannot let go of painful incidents or arguments from years past. They are quick to bring up grievances with their partner but are unable to listen and truly hear what their partner has to say. What is going on?

Drs. Sue Johnson, Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, believe that the root of the problem is that the partners do not have an adequate emotional connection. They state that the need for a safe emotional connection is basic to all relationships. When that connection is present, partners feel safe with each other, and can risk emotional vulnerability as they listen and speak to each other openly about their feelings and needs. When safe connections are lost, partners seek to protect themselves and avoid hurt. They may blame each other, or even get aggressive in an effort to get a response. Alternately, they may shut down and try not to care. If the reconnection does not occur, their struggle intensifies, continues, and becomes more painful.

Think about the messages that you have received from important people in your life about closeness and trust. What did your past relationships teach you? Did you see loved ones as reliable or untrustworthy? Was your voice heard and listen to, or were you told to be "seen and not heard?" Did you learn to distance yourself, or not need others because depending on others was dangerous? Were you taught that it is weak to need closeness, or support? What strategies did you use in past relationships when things went wrong? When you felt alone or disconnected in your present relationship did you become very emotional and demanding, or were you more likely to shut down? How well do these patterns work for you in your relationships?

Relationships are never easy but as you become aware of your dysfunctional behavior patterns, you have the power to change them. You can make your relationships more meaningful by learning a new way of relating to one another. As you develop healthy communication patterns you will be building trust and allowing rewarding emotional connections.

Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson
Making Marriage Simple, Harville Hendrix, PhD and Helen Hunt, PhD

Trust

Researchers have found that the capacity to develop intimate relationships is highly influenced by the kind of relationships the child had early in life. The ability to trust is basic to any relationship. Trust comes more easily for some people than for others depending upon their past experiences. A child who successfully develops trust will feel safe and secure in his world. Those who are unable to develop trust are more likely to view their world as inconsistent and unpredictable.

Learning to trust begins at birth. Eric Erikson describes this as the most fundamental stage in a person's psychological development. Babies are born completely helpless and dependent upon their caregivers for food, shelter, comfort and love. When a baby's cries are responded to in a loving, attentive, and consistent manner, he will feel safe and learn to trust his environment. This kind of positive parent-child relationship teaches him that he can communicate in order to get his needs met. If instead, his parents are inconsistent, rejecting or emotionally unavailable, he is more likely to feel mistrust and may carry a sense of shame and inadequacy into his adult relationships.

Trust is the cornerstone of a meaningful and lasting relationship. When you trust someone, you believe that he will be honest, loyal, and faithful and will not abandon you. You believe that she will forgive you and accept you unconditionally. You think of your partner as your ally, not your foe. Only when you feel safe with your partner will you be willing to be authentic and vulnerable.

Previous hurts and losses can interfere with a person's ability to trust and be honest in a relationship. The adult whose childhood relationships were painful will be more likely to view situations that others would perceive as innocuous through a lens of mistrust. The wounds of an adult who has been betrayed by someone she loved, admired and trusted will take time to heal. It is not easy, but regardless of the past, people do have the capacity to recover and trust again. Sometimes while recovering from a hurtful relationship, a person will develop greater personal strength, self awareness and the capacity for more fulfilling relationships.

Childhood and Society, Erik Erikson

Emotional Connections

Couples in distress may disagree about sexual issues, romance, money, or infidelity. They criticize and blame each other, and often cannot let go of painful incidents or arguments from years past. They are quick to bring up grievances with their partner but are unable to listen and truly hear what their partner has to say. What is going on? Drs. Sue Johnson, Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt, believe that the root of the problem is that the partners do not have an adequate emotional connection. They state that the need for a safe emotional connection is basic to all relationships. When that connection is present, partners feel safe with each other, and can risk emotional vulnerability as they listen and speak to each other openly about their feelings and needs. When safe connections are lost, partners seek to protect themselves and avoid hurt. They may blame each other, or even get aggressive in an effort to get a response. Alternately, they may shut down and try not to care. If the reconnection does not occur, their struggle intensifies, continues, and becomes more painful. Think about the messages that you have received from important people in your life about closeness and trust. What did your past relationships teach you? Did you see loved ones as reliable or untrustworthy? Was your voice heard and listen to, or were you told to be "seen and not heard?" Did you learn to distance yourself, or not need others because depending on others was dangerous? Were you taught that it is weak to need closeness, or support? What strategies did you use in past relationships when things went wrong? When you felt alone or disconnected in your present relationship did you become very emotional and demanding, or were you more likely to shut down? How well do these patterns work for you in your relationships? Relationships are never easy but as you become aware of your dysfunctional behavior patterns, you have the power to change them. You can make your relationships more meaningful by learning a new way of relating to one another. As you develop healthy communication patterns you will be building trust and allowing rewarding emotional connections. Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson Making Marriage Simple, Harville Hendrix, PhD and Helen Hunt, PhD
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