Category Archives: The Latest Wow!

The Unhappy Chameleon

chameleon2

Doug wowed me with this in one of our sessions:

“I always wanted to blend in . . . like a chameleon.” Then looking away reflectively, he added, “You know, it takes a hell of a lot of energy to change my colors.”

He’s right. So why do we do it? It’s all about making sure we’re liked and loved. If we don’t make ourselves acceptable, we fear rejection. And rejection is a very lonely place.

We all do our share of adapting and approval-seeking. It only becomes problematic when we lose sight of our true selves. In the book, The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner describes that condition as being “submerged” or “de-selfed.”

Here’s one of Doug’s examples: In the midst of ordering chicken from a menu, his wife interrupted, “You don’t like chicken—you like roast beef!”

He remembers his meek, defeated response at the time: “I guess you’re right. I don’t like chicken.”

Sadly, Doug didn’t really know what he liked. He was used to being defined by the outside world.

When I first met Doug, he described himself as unhappy most the time. That makes sense because de-selfed people can’t be happy. They live a compromised existence which includes spending endless amounts of energy pleasing and accommodating others. The end result is often depression, a depleted interest in life, and hidden anger forever percolating just below the surface.

Adrian was a card-carrying member of the de-selfed club when I started seeing her. Her comments echoed Doug’s:

“I’ve spent most of my life adapting to others,” she said, “disguising and burying myself to get approval. I’ve done it so well for so long, I now have difficulty grasping who I really am.”

“Who is the real me?”

“I’m a chameleon and I don’t know my real color.”

Adrian started submerging her true self at an early age. “My mom’s love would turn off if I didn’t say and do what she wanted,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to have a self.”

Adrian’s habit of self-denying followed her directly into her marriage … beginning, actually, on her wedding day. Her father handed the newlyweds $500 with special instructions. “He insisted we use the money for having a good time on our honeymoon—and nothing else,” she said.

“Well . . . that didn’t happen,” Adrian said with a defeated sigh.

That incident was a snapshot of things to come. Adrian listed off a series of comparable incidents that took place throughout the 23 years of their marriage. She then lowered her head solemnly and said, “I think my mantra has always been: ‘Yes dear, anything you say.'”

Adrian so needs to speak up in this relationship. She needs to share the person she really is with her husband—not just with me. How else can she relieve her depression and resurrect her actual self? And how else can the relationship possibly change if she doesn’t change?

When Adrian first started therapy, she thought her problem narrowed down to two people, her mother and her husband. Her thinking: If only they would change. But she has moved beyond that and is realizing it’s not what others have done to her, but what she’s been allowing. Until she realized that, she was powerless to change things for the better.

Something very interesting happens when we communicate directly from the depth of our natural being. Our total person comes forward. Call it our true self.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2016 Salee Reese

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Stay Out of the Mud!

pig_31

 

Setting boundaries includes placing limits on what we’re willing to do for others.

Sometimes, we make the same mistake a bazillion times before finally waking up.  It’s exasperating! One of  my clients knows this experience all too well. His mistake was believing he had to rescue other people—mainly women. If they weren’t happy, he felt guilty and responsible. It left his spirit heavy almost all the time.

At some point, he realized that sacrificing himself senselessly was self-destructive so he chose to rescue himself, instead.  I knew he had reached that step when he wowed me with something he had learned while growing up on the farm:

“You can’t get a pig out of the mud if it doesn’t want out. More often than not, you end up in the mud yourself–you get muddy. Pigs like to soak in the mud. Why try to get that other person out of the mud when they want to be there?”

(c) Salee Reese 2016

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Latest Wow: Anger’s a Mask We Wear

angry woman

“I don’t mind being the bitch … it gives me boundaries. It protects me from how vulnerable, wrong, and empty I feel inside.”

This was the first session Kate’s focus went inward. Before that, her focus had been on her outer enemies. Kate’s wow—one of many—had me jumping out of my seat that day! It was exciting to be part of her breakthrough.

A protective shield began forming when she was a small child. She didn’t feel cherished the way children should feel. Instead, she felt afraid—afraid of being attacked verbally by her father and shamed by her mother.

“Making the other person bad is my defense mechanism against feeling guilty,” she said.

Mostly, she was afraid of not being loved, afraid of not being even worthy of love.

“You wanna know what’s at the bottom of my anger?” she asked.

“What?” I inquired.

“I’m craving bonding … real connection.”

When Kate’s heart was hurting, she wasn’t comforted. When she yearned to be heard, no one listened.

“At some point I quit trying. I had determined that no one would listen and nothing would ever change.”

It’s a lot easier to be angry than to feel the sadness that accompanies hopelessness. In a strange sort of way, anger soothes the wounded heart.

Not surprisingly, Kate’s current relationships—including her marriage—are continually impacted by her powerful early family environment. For example: “Just like my parents, I go straight to being pissed. I don’t talk things over. Things were never talked over when I was a child.”

Kate reminded me of another client I was seeing, Lindsay, who shared Kate’s inflammatory, angry outbursts.  Her motivation was different, but the root cause was identical.

Find her story by clicking here.

Both Kate and Lindsay grew up in homes where they were not heard and felt disconnected from their families, particularly their parents. They coped by adopting anger as a mask—a protective shield.

Ironically, the very thing they have used for protection is the very thing that interferes with their getting what they so desperately crave. In short, anger works against them. It doesn’t cultivate closeness and understanding. In fact, it does the opposite. Kate’s husband can attest to that: “It’s hard for me to be soft with her if she’s angry.”

I applaud Kate for acknowledging her destructive patterns of relating, and for wanting to change. She’s also willing to remove the mask and face her buried pain. And she’s willing to test being vulnerable. All that takes courage!

I’ll walk that path with her. I’ll also be helping her establish healthier boundaries and a more effective substitute for anger . . ., er, bitchiness. 🙂

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2015

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The Truth about Tears

inside out

“Only strong people allow themselves to feel pain.”

–Heather, 16

If you haven’t watched the movie Inside Out, drop everything and head for a theater immediately! The story takes place inside the head of 11-year-old Riley, where five key characters reside—all representing her main emotions: Joy, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness.

The story carries a powerful message about the important role each emotion plays in our life, including those less desirable emotions such as sadness.

In the movie, Sadness starts out as a bother but ends up the hero. That’s because she knows how to handle Riley’s problems. Unlike the other emotions, she knows where to take things so they can change for the better.

She’s also the only character who demonstrates  empathy. When Riley’s imaginary friend—Bing Bong—from early childhood, becomes sad and discouraged, Joy is powerless, but that isn’t true of Sadness. She listens in the only way that counts—at the heart level. Bing Bong got better.

And when Riley’s parents got in touch with their sadness over Riley’s sadness, they were capable of listening. The result? Things got better. Prior to that, Riley believed that the only allowable emotion was joy. And in the movie we learn that joy has its limitations.

It was apparent that Riley was sheltered from negative emotions from the start. Therefore, she was poorly equipped to deal with the stresses and heartbreak of moving to another state at the age of eleven.

As I lost myself in this movie, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Heather, whom I quoted above, a teenager I counseled who was grappling with overwhelming sadness. Her parents were oblivious to that fact until they found her suicide note. Read her story here.

Both Riley and Heather needed the freedom to feel, and the freedom to express it. They needed to be understood, and that was best accomplished when their parents felt with them.

When I asked Heather: “When you’re hurting, what do you need most from your mom? Do you need for her to be strong?” Without any hesitation, she replied:

“No! I need to see her feelings. Showing feelings isn’t being weak—it’s being close.”

That says it all.  Thanks, Heather.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality

(c) 2015 Salee Reese

 

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The Latest Wow: The Great Divide

grand canyon

 

Not long ago, I was counseling a couple when one partner, Tracie, wowed me with this:

“There will be days in which I will get mad at you and you will get mad at me but we will resolve it. I don’t want to live a life of avoidance.”

Tracie is on to something. Avoidance is no way to inhabit a relationship . . . it isn’t living. It’s compromise; it’s existing in a space of bitterness and resentment; it’s detachment. And detachment grows like an untreated fungus. Pretty soon, a canyon-sized gap defines the nature of the relationship. Not good. Problems don’t get resolved, discussion is thwarted so misunderstandings are allowed to flourish, and wounds don’t get healed—only compounded.

Problems don’t magically go away. They grow fatter if ignored. And we can’t rely on time to do the healing. It doesn’t always work that way.

Dr. John Gottman, an acclaimed marital researcher, doesn’t mince words. He maintains that such relationships are doomed, and further states that unaddressed issues and avoidance are more detrimental to relationship health than conflict. At least in the midst of conflict, he continues, passion and engagement are occurring.

All of that makes sense. Can we really feel close to someone who isn’t receptive to talking things out, who’s unwilling to listen to our point of view, who’s unwilling to work on arriving at a common understanding, who’s unwilling to get vulnerable and naked with their truth? Of course not. It takes mutual understanding—more so than agreement, actually—to spawn an intimate connection.

Thich Nhat Hanh put it perfectly:

“Love is made of understanding and understanding is made of love. “

And, let’s face it, understanding can’t happen unless we have the courage to share honestly, gently, and with an open heart.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality

 

 

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The Latest Wow: How to Save a Sinking Ship

healthy ship


“I just learned that the human brain isn’t fully formed until the age of 24.  I got married at 20 so, therefore, I wasn’t in my right mind.”

This little gem—which activated my uncontrollable-laughter-impulse—fell straight from the lips of Anna, a client experiencing a bit of disillusionment in her marriage. Not at all unfamiliar territory for those of us trying to make a marriage or partnership work. We can so relate. 🙂

Peggy is another client who came to me for help in figuring out how to effectively cope with her own brand of disillusionment—living with a man who perpetually sees every glass as half empty . . . tempting Peggy to throw said glass against the wall.  Click here to read my advice to her . . . .

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

 

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The Latest Wow: Where Life is

man sunset silhouette

 

Not long ago, Todd, a client, wowed me with this:

“I want to be the type of person who loves others above myself. I know that’s where life is.”

Todd lives in a self-contained sphere that doesn’t include other people. He’s not a hermit—living an isolated existence. Far from it. He’s a husband, father, and successful businessman. No, Todd’s out there mingling—being part of things. Or so it seems.

Deep down he lives alone in himself. Secluded and cut off.  In his words: “I don’t form attachments well.”

His family keeps him reminded of that fact because they tug on him to be more involved . . . more connected. Their pain is something I hear about from his 20-year-old daughter, Jodi. Not long ago, after one of our sessions, she went home and expressed her distress to him—tears and all. He listened. She listened.

Soon after, Todd contacted me to set up an appointment. In essence, he wanted to learn more about himself—why he keeps people at arm’s length, and how he can change that. His long talk with Jodi—her words along with her emotional truth—opened his mind and his heart. That raw conversation had a powerful, “possibly life-transforming impact,” he said.

In our session, I learned that Todd’s detachment is the byproduct of early childhood abandonment. He never met his father and there was virtually no attachment to his mother. He described her as “self-centered” as he recounted incidents of reaching out for her nurturing and understanding. Such attempts yielded empty results. So understandably at some point, he decided to stop needing people.

Isolation and indifference became his friends and his comfort zone. And his job became the arena for proving his worth to himself.

Some people consider him a workaholic. But such a label isn’t fair because it misses the driving need underneath. Todd yearns to feel valued and he obtains that by over-achieving.

If I don’t feel valued for being me, I’ll seek value by what I do—by what I accomplish. 

Self-contained people have trouble giving and receiving love, and that’s a very lonely place. So, despite the comfort-zone experience of being disconnected from the world of other people, the yearning and need for love and connection never really go away. They only get covered up.

For Todd to change, he has to dismantle his ancient programming and replace it with the truth about himself. He is love-worthy. And he’s capable of giving and receiving it. He’s already demonstrated that by hearing Jodi and allowing her to impact him.

I go back to his words: “I want to be the type of person who loves others above myself. I know that’s where life is.”

There’s a heart in there . . . and Todd’s going to be sharing it lots more.

 

Names have been changed to honor confidentiality

 

 

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