Over It

Holly told me she wasn’t suicidal. I disagreed.
“I guess you’re right,” she said after some thought. “I’ve been killing myself off for years.”

Holly was referring to staying with a man who frequently deflates her spirit—her husband, Lance.

She related the events of an evening they had some friends over. When it was time to call it a night, Holly stood with the front door open while saying good-bye as each guest left. From the living room Lance shouted, “Hey, dummy, close the door!”

I asked, “Could a casual passerby talk to you that way?”

“No,” she said.

“Then why do you take it from someone who supposedly loves you?”

“I’m not so sure I want to anymore,” she said in our counseling session. “I’m afraid to leave him . . . to be on my own. But I’m more afraid of staying. I look in the mirror and wonder who that dismal-looking person is. Where did Holly go?”

For some, contemplating divorce is rooted in valuing oneself, a recognition that greater respect is deserved. One could even say that breaking from someone who is toxic to our well-being is an act of compassion—self-compassion.

It’s typical for people to be drawn to those who treat them as poorly as they treat themselves. If we’re self-harming or self-condemning we automatically feel deserving of harm or condemnation from others. Conversely, those who treat us respectfully are rejected or ignored. Kindness can feel foreign and make us uncomfortable.

But when we begin to cherish ourselves, something interesting happens. We simply cannot tolerate demeaning or abusive treatment anymore. Indigestion is experienced at the core level. Our gut cries “foul” every time we’re subjected to degrading behavior or remarks.

This is what’s happening to Holly.

“His nasty jabs make me boil inside,” she said, “and I cringe every time he puts down the kids.”

That’s understandable. A sense of outrage when treated horribly is not only appropriate but a sign of being mentally healthy. We’re supposed to think protectively of ourselves and of our children.

She recalled an incident in which he tripped over her shoes. He erupted, blasting her for leaving them in his way.

“If it’s not me, it’s the kids,” she said. “I used to fold—letting him get away with being a jerk. But I can’t do that anymore . . . I fight back.”

Abuse should never be permitted or swallowed no matter what form it takes—physical, verbal or emotional. All have a flattening effect on self-esteem.

When I first saw Samantha, another client, she was putting up with physical abuse. “Whenever he would beat me I used to believe it was my fault,” she said. “But I don’t anymore, so what can I do?”

“Why don’t you leave this man?” I asked.

“I’m thinking of the kids,” she answered.

“No you’re not,” I said. “Thinking of the kids includes considering what they’re exposed to day in and day out. Watching mommy get hit isn’t good for children. Period.”

Although Holly isn’t a victim of physical abuse, she’s a constant target of her husband’s verbal and emotional abuse, which is just as devastating. Eventually, I met with Lance, who seemed clueless about his behavior and the effect it was having on his wife.

“Why would she want to divorce me?” he asked. “I love her!” I presented him with the simple truth: “The love in your heart doesn’t count unless it’s translated into actions.”

Instead of feeling loved, I pointed out, she feels like a whipping post.

If Lance wants to save his marriage, he’ll have to make some changes. Real changes. Superficial change—merely going through the motions—won’t cut it. She has to see and feel a changed heart. It’ll show in how he consistently relates to her and the children. Because he seems so blind to his mistreatment, I’m afraid Lance has an uphill battle ahead of him.

While Lance tries to change his side of the equation, Holly is starting to take her life back.

She’s been liberating herself from everything that debilitates or saps her spirit, including him.

She’s growing beyond the belief that she deserves insulting attacks to her dignity. And  she’s realizing that her children need a climate that’s esteem-enriching. She also sees how unhealthy it is for them to observe their father’s cruelty and her mere endurance of it.

Ultimately, if Lance continues in his spirit-deflating ways, she and the kids will be out of there. As they should be.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Listen to Your Soul

 

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So much about our world today is making our souls shudder.

I’m referring to things like unleashed hatred, brazen condemnation of differences, unbridled exploitation, an emerging epidemic of violence, rudeness and disrespect in all forms.

Increasingly, we’re seeing that a cold-hearted mentality is valued—even admired—over a kind and warm heart.

These disturbing elements have been around for eons—though only faintly visible, so they’ve been easily ignored and denied. That convenience has evaporated. We’re forced to own some harsh truths about “us” and the evolving character of our world. Daily examples are displayed on every screen we own. They’re rampant in the entertainment industry, on social media, in the news and in the political arena.

Outrage, revulsion and anguish are natural responses, but we can’t bear to experience such emotions for sustained periods of time. So we have coping mechanisms that make reality seem a little more palatable. Here are a few:

  • Resort to anger and then blame or attack. Anger is a numbing agent. It gives us the illusion of power and control.
  • Discount the truth or seriousness of certain circumstances. We downplay or deny their existence.
  • Rationalize. We humans have a tendency to reflexively justify and side with the status quo . . . even when it’s wrong.
  • Adapt. That is, we get used to or oblivious to disturbing and unpleasant occurrences or conditions.

I have a recent example of adaptation in action:

Not long ago, while making a purchase in a department store, the background music was . . . well . . . let’s just say hard to take. The longer I stood there, the stronger my empathy grew for the employees, including the one waiting on me. “That music has got to get annoying after awhile,” I said. “Not really,” she said flippantly. “I’ve learned how to tune it out.”

We humans are wired with an ability to adapt to almost any annoying situation. It saves us from unending and sometimes unbearable torment. That can work to our advantage, as in the case of the sales clerk. But adapting has a downside. Consider what happens when we ignore the weeds in our garden. Not good.

Closing our eyes to troublesome realities doesn’t serve us very well. Things go wrong. In essence, the weeds get out of control.

We see this happening when we put Band-Aids on problems at home, when we ignore wrongs at work, and when we turn a blind eye to what our soul finds repugnant on the national or world stage.

Robert Bly, acclaimed poet and author, has garnered attention for his thoughts on the collective human condition—how we behave as a society and how that impacts the human psyche.  There are people, he says in Men and the Life of Desire, whose souls shudder when exposed to “the cruel things people can do to each other.” He also points out that “when you learn to shudder, you can’t take part in it any longer.” To illustrate, Bly used the movie Casualties of War. The character played by Michael J. Fox couldn’t bring himself to participate in a gang rape despite the fact that he was harshly ridiculed by the other men for refusing. Such men, according to Bly, are “not men, but bully boys.”

Fox’s character went against the gravitational pull of conformity and listened to his soul instead. I label that courage.

Bly goes on to say that our culture discourages shuddering. Let’s face it, we’re paying a stiff price for that—personally and socially.

In one of my posts from a few years ago, Be Brave and Speak UpI wrote:

Every time we ignore or neglect to speak out against unkind acts, we allow one more piece of debris to contaminate the collective spirit of humankind.

In other words, weeds multiply.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2017

 

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Love Shouldn’t be a Prison, and True Love Isn’t

love-prison

 

Since this is the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d dust off one of my favorites from several years ago that seemed to resonate with many people. Even if you’ve been following me from the beginning, this one’s worth a second look:

One thing that assures a long-lasting relationship is kindness—each partner treating the other with the same respect, courtesy and gentleness that characterized their mode of relating in the beginning.

Unfortunately, our human tendency after settling in is to relax those standards. We drop those nicer habits. Not good. A relationship should be a place where flowers grow . . . not a place where we’re constantly encountering prickly nettles.

Another crucial element is freedom. Love shouldn’t be a prison, and true love isn’t.

Go to my column titled “The Grander Version of Love” where you can read about Carl and Lynn. I go into more depth about kindness, freedom and two other components that comprise a healthy relationship.

I welcome your views! 

“Making marriage work is like operating a farm. You have to start all over again each morning.”

— Anonymous

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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You’re not Crazy!

frustrated-woman

Ever been around someone who makes you question your sanity because there’s no working things out? Every attempt to reason with them fails miserably . . . nothing works. Presenting facts doesn’t work. Even staying composed doesn’t work.

Those hair-pulling moments can reduce a person to a pitiful pile of frustration and self-doubt in a flash.

That’s a fairly typical response, according to Dr. Alan Godwin, author of How to Solve Your People Problems. In a seminar I attended, he pointed out that the world is populated by two groups of people—those who can be reasoned with and those who can’t . . . or won’t.

Those who can be reasoned with, he says, possess three psychologically healthy traits. They self-observe, self-monitor and self-correct.

That means they’re willing to take an honest look at themselves. They want to know their flaws and they want to monitor them. They admit to being wrong, and readily take responsibility for their actions and shortcomings. Then they go that next step—they make things right.

Godwin says that when such people see their wrongness, they cringe.  Call it a healthy dose of feeling ashamed of oneself. It’s a response rooted in a fully developed conscience. When they violate their own standards of character—how they want to be—they cringe.  ( I like that word 🙂 )

The opposite of cringing, he says, is shrugging. Shrugging is an expression of no conscience. In other words, they couldn’t care less.

Godwin states loud and clear: “If personal wrongness doesn’t bother us, we’ll do nothing to correct it.”

So true. In fact, we may deny its existence, gloss it over with elaborate excuses, or simply shrug it off.

It’s clear to me that shruggers don’t care about the quality of the footprint they leave on the landscape of humanity.

So here we are. We find ourselves living among cringers and shruggers—reasonable and unreasonable people. It’s good to know the difference, especially for those who believe they will be understood if they just exert enough effort. Those same people are certain that reasoning will inevitably transform any feud or misunderstanding into a harmonious state of connection, compromise and appreciation.

That’s all true . . . if you’re dealing with a reasonable person. But, according to Godwin, “You can’t reason with unreasonable people.”

It’s also helpful to know that unreasonable people are chronologically older than their developmental age. That is, you may be trying to communicate with a twelve-year-old who’s walking around in a forty-year old body. So your attempts to reason can only go so far. Have realistic expectations.

How to know if you’re in the presence of a reasonable versus an unreasonable person?  You’ll know them by their willingness to hear contrary opinions. They welcome feedback and are open to changing how they see and do things.

In contrast, if you try to talk to an unreasonable person, they’re likely to distort the meaning of your words and not allow you to correct any misinterpretation. They hear what they want to hear.

Reasonable people embrace truth. They don’t deny or distort it in order to avoid their own wrongness. That’s not the case with unreasonable people. Being right and winning is all they care about. Enhancing a climate of mutual cooperation, problem-solving and goodwill isn’t even on the radar.

Blaming is a characteristic of unreasonable people. When they argue, Godwin says, “They play the ‘blame game,’ absolving themselves of responsibility and attributing exclusive blame to the other side.”

What to do about these people? Godwin suggests we avoid them when we can and if that’s not possible, establish firm boundaries. This includes guarding our buttons and accepting the fact that our relationship with them will be limited—lacking depth and a level of intimacy that accompanies open and honest sharing between two people.

Godwin sums it up in a nice package:

“Superficial and light is better than bitterness and strife.”

One of my clients decided to do just that with her difficult sister. “There’s no point in trying to reason with her. I might as well save my breath because she’ll twist things to fit her world anyway.”

Needless to say, my client is feeling much freer and more peaceful these days. Her hair-pulling moments are a thing of the past.

If you’re in her shoes, take comfort: you’re not crazy. It’s probably just the company you keep.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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The Making of a Narcissist

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Letting people experience the consequences of their actions is the loving thing to do. Rescuing people interferes with the lesson plan in the classroom we call life.

Sarah wishes she would have had that valuable piece of information when her son, Colby, was a toddler. But today he’s 22, and she’s paying a hefty price for habitually sheltering him throughout the years.

Colby is notorious for mismanaging money, and Sarah is equally notorious for bailing him out. He always promises to pay her back but fails to deliver. Invariably, Sarah seethes with resentment over having her trust betrayed. And as for Colby, he doesn’t grow up.

Instead of learning from his mistakes, Colby repeats them. For example, he has wrecked more than one vehicle, resulting in costly repairs. But he doesn’t pay for the damages—Sarah does. So by escaping the full brunt of his reckless driving, he misses out on the lesson.

When she’s not rescuing him financially, she begrudgingly assumes other responsibilities that should fall squarely in Colby’s lap. These include doing his laundry, cleaning up after him, balancing his checkbook, setting and reminding him of his appointments.

“I’m disappointed in him,” she said. “It took me a long time to admit that to myself.”

Who he is today doesn’t match the dreams she’s carried around in her head and heart. “I have trouble saying this,” she continued, “but I just don’t respect him, and I don’t like the person he’s turned out to be.”

She described his most disturbing personality traits:  “He’s rude, self-absorbed and insensitive. He doesn’t care who he hurts. He has a nasty mouth and a nasty temper. He can’t hold a steady job. If he gets annoyed with someone at work, even his boss,  he blows up and either gets fired or quits. He uses people, including his best friends.”

There are exceptions, Sarah noted. “He’s nice when he wants something,” she said.

Tired of having “sucker” stamped on her forehead, Sarah sought my advice. I asked her why she continues to overindulge him. “I would feel guilty turning my back on him,” she said. “And no matter what he does, I should love him unconditionally.”

So if Sarah stopped bailing him out, she would equate such action with being hurtful and neglectful.

I told her that letting someone struggle isn’t the same as neglect, and unconditional love isn’t about unconditional tolerance. I can love someone deeply, but this doesn’t mean I ought to tolerate their appalling behavior. Overlooking or accepting such behavior isn’t love. It’s neglect.

In its purest form, love is focused on what’s best for the other person at his or her core level. What’s best for the eight-year-old boy who approaches his parents with a long list of toys he wants? What will further his personal development most? Getting everything on his list or learning the hard lessons of discreet spending, coping with disappointment and facing denied requests? Character-building involves learning how to earn and manage money. It entails grappling with life’s difficulties, including those we create for ourselves.

Another vital aspect of the maturation process is social development. Colby’s an unabashed taker and is puffed up with his own self-importance. In contrast, others are completely insignificant. Consequently, respect and cooperation are foreign concepts to him.

The advice I gave Sarah was simple.

“Stop making things cushy for Colby.”

“So, I hear you saying I have to let him fall?” she asked, giving me a look of disbelief.

“Actually, yes,” I replied. “That would be the first step toward helping him.”

I shared with her a bit of wisdom from a former high school football coach, Don Armstrong:

“It’s so empowering when we love people enough to let them fail.”

I emphasized that to love her son in the truest sense, she must always ask herself what’s best for his character. It boils down to this question: “Sarah, how is doing his laundry hurting him at his core?”

She smiled . . . getting it.

In essence, I told her to stop doing his laundry for him, and quit doing everything else he should be doing for himself. Doing those things doesn’t teach him the lesson of personal responsibility. It just reinforces his self-centeredness, his sense of entitlement and his inflated expectations of how the world ought to treat him.

A few years back I learned of a father who parented his children with this guiding philosophy: “You won’t respect me for what I let you do. You’ll respect me for how I teach you to live.”

He nailed it.

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2016

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Don’t Step In It

 

BOXER PUPPY

 

Anyone who takes an occasional walk will tell you that poop is out there — count on it!

For several months we’ve been seeing a lot of it everywhere, especially flung between the presidential candidates. That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to rise above the fray! Here’s an example:

A professor of engineering walked into his classroom the day after the elections and encountered a roomful of arguing students. Raising his hand to silence them, he calmly said:

I have only two things to say and then we’re going to talk about engineering. I have lived through nine presidential elections and what I’ve observed is that when my team wins, the results are never quite as good as I anticipated, and when my team loses, the results are never quite as disastrous as I imagined.

The situation was promptly diffused. His words were calming for both sides.

I call this The Poop Principle: you can either walk around it or step in it.

(c) Salee Reese 2016

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The Unhappy Chameleon

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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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