Conjunctions are words used in English grammar to connect two concepts together. (Examples: and, but, if, or). When included in a sentence, the conjunction “but” excludes, denies & negates stated before it. For example, my son’s third grade teacher sent home a project for all parents at the conclusion of the school year. We were to complete the sentences on a “Certificate of Hard Work”. After answering questions on what we loved and appreciated about our kids, we were to complete a “but statement”. This but statement said: “I’m so proud when ________ does this, BUT would like it if he/she would ________”. Since my son is so sensitive and eager to please, I had to be careful in how I worded this statement. I responded to it in the following manner:
“I’m so proud Talan works hard BUT wish he wouldn’t worry so much about doing his best.”
And – Equal Consideration….
When using AND in a sentence, you’re connecting to ideas together that have equal importance. The AND functions to expand on an idea, while giving the original one equal consideration. For example, in the above sentence I could say it this way instead:
“I’m so proud of Talan for working so hard AND don’t think he needs to worry about doing better.”
Why does this matter?
(((As a side-note, I’m blogging about my internship group therapy material, because I feel it is important for me to reflect on these insights as well.))) As it pertains to the the subject matter of this blog, it is worth noting the effect these two statements have on the listener. “AND” statements acknowledge the other person’s perspective and implies we give it equal consideration to our own. In contrast, when using a “BUT” statements, we are giving lesser value to the other person’s perspective. In fact, depending on the manner of delivery, “BUT” statements can sound like you’re trying to start an argument….
Oftentimes it is essential for us to share our concerns about a situation or another person. A failure to carefully our words, can sometimes result in a gross misunderstanding…..
YOU MESSAGE: “You’re giving me a headache, turn that down!”
I MESSAGE: “I don’t like all this noise since I’m trying to sleep, can you turn down the volume.”
You messages communicate implicit messages of blame and fault attribution. The cause is the other person. Your goal in using the “YOU Message” is to communicate this fact clearly. As a result, the listener becomes defensive. Additionally, the recipient often feels “YOU Messages” as unnecessarily harsh. For this reason, often create communication roadblocks.
In contrast, when using I messages your goal is to focus on feelings and behavior. You’re starting off with a desire to open up communication, by telling the listener how you feel. This can then lead to a request for a behavioral change and/or remedy to address our feelings. In this respect, they tend to yield a more positive response and feel more honest and kind….
This Monday after surviving another work weekend I came home to find myself alone with two elderly cats. Evidence of my husband’s morning remained throughout the house. The boys had shed their clothes on the floor and half eaten cereal was left on the counter. After a quick shower, I threw my scrubs into the laundry and fired up Netflix. While lounging on the sofa I grabbed my iPad to quickly check my email. Scrolling through this week’s reading assignment for school, I find it ironic that it pertained to transactional analysis. Having just written a post which touched briefly on this subject I was delighted to have an opportunity to learn more about it. As an approach to therapy, this theory always reminds me of those nesting dolls on my therapists coffee table… Later that evening after dinner with the family, I settled down to read that week’s assignment. The following is a quote from my textbook:
“Resistance is often explained as a battle between inner parts: one part wants to change, while the other does not…” (Ingram, 2013, p 234).
This quote hit me as I read it like a bucket of cold water. Contemplating insights in my latest posts, I couldn’t help but note I had just made this conclusion regarding my own stuckness history. In fact, the above video succinctly summarizes my latest lightbulb moment:
“…it’s not other person’s behavior but our own state of mind…” (Theramin Trees, 2010)
It is this statement from the video that requires a close consideration. After all, we all have those issues that we try to get unstuck from, only to be frustrated with the same old repeating patterns. Reading through my post on “Anatomy of a Misunderstanding” I can see the very ego states battling it out within me. To add to matters my hurt child has managed to maintain a consistent dynamic with my sister’s critical parent. Samples of these separate egoic selves can be found everywhere in my old journals. Before attempting to apply transactional analysis to this situation, I’d like to first examine these ego states.
T.A. Ego States…
In transactional analysis, ego states refer to experiential realities that also represent a consistent pattern of relating with the world around us (Ingram, 2012). Three primary ego states exist in transactional analysis: parent, adult and child. The parent ego state is a representation of the way parents and other authority figures conduct themselves. The parental ego influences us by echoing the learned rules and morals communicated to us from authority figures throughout our life. Two main forms of parental ego states include the nurturing and critical parent. The child ego state, in contrast, is archaic and emotionally driven. Comprised of our own first-hand early childhood experiences, it reacts impulsively with others on the basis of these deep emotional memories. Two versions of the childlike ego state exist: the rebel and hurt child. Finally, The adult ego state is much like the wise-minded DBT perspective. In this respect, it is fully present in the moment and is capable of making realistic appraisals based on all perspectives, including thoughts and emotions. As somebody who is trying to lose weight, a funny description of each state is provided in my textbook:
“[rebellious child] I’m going to eat what I want and you can’t stop me…[hurt child] I know I am bad; what’s wrong with me. I’m trying, but just can’t…[nurturing parent]…don’t worry, I know you’re stressed. Go ahead and have some ice cream…[critical parent] you should take those pounds of. What’s wrong with you?! You’re an indulgent loser…[Adult] Lets come up with a plan where I can maintain a steady weight loss of one pound a week yet still eat foods I enjoy and have certain meals where I can disregard the rules.” (Ingram, 2013, p 295)
So what does this quick and dirty overview of ego states have to do with my sister and I? As I continue with this week’s readings yet another quote jumps out at me: “Many problems in adulthood can be understood as efforts to resolve conflicts and satisfy unmet needs.” (Ingram, 2012, p301). This quote confirms my suspicion that we inadvertently “trigger” each other quite often. Preferring the ego state of a critical parent, this adaptive perspective has provided my sister with the structure she needed growing up. Her conversational statements reflect a need for clarity and structure. Made in an assertive and pragmatic manner, she states her opinion, directly and unapologetically. I end up hurt by her and somehow made to feel I’ve overreacted. Since her comments bring up old issues, I react by sharing my these feelings to her comments. She states I overreacted. Here are some examples:
During a visit with my sister, I was discussing how difficult it was to for me since dad was more “hands off” and focused on his work while our mother acted as disciplinarian. As the oldest child, I feel the cultural gap between my mother and I was a big problem for me socially. My sister still doesn’t realize this since my mother changed her parenting to adapt to American culture, after learning a few lessons the “hard way with me”. At any rate, our mother held me to many standards consistent with her upbringing and cultural values. I did not date, I did not wear makeup, and only wore very conservative clothing (by the time my sister was in high school, my mom relaxed these rules). As a result of these rules, I was not allow me to wear regular underwear. My mother instead bought me the “granny panties” and would also forbid me from shaving my legs. I went to school hairy most of the time, unless I was able to smuggle a razor from somebody. I will spare you the story of how much teasing I receive as a result of all this. my sister’s reaction was: “Wow, there’s no way I would have ever allowed that to happen. I would have found a way to go to school properly groomed!” Mind you this was several years ago and the bullying of my childhood was fresh. The “critical parent” in my sister, made it clear that what I did was stupid. While not stated verbally, her comment implied the statement: “What the hell is wrong with you?!?!?
Around the time my sister started dating her husband she converted from Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity, (I am agnostic). As a result of new spiritual beliefs, her thoughts about a woman’s role in society changed to reflect this fact. As a result, her views are a stark contrast to my mother, who is an M.D. and was raised in a very matriarchial society. In her family education is instilled as a priority, and all the women in her family have advanced degrees. I have to say, I respect my sister for following her beliefs and doing what felt right in her heart. At the same time, I respect my mother for her accomplishments and feel its best to simply “do what works”. In the early years, my son was very ill, I had to stay home. As he grew older, our financial situation changed and I worked full time. Consequently, my husband and I examined where we were, and where we wanted to go, then drew a straight line between points.
One day while visiting with my sister I shared my frustrations of balancing home, work (and now school). At one point she mentioned that part of her reason for staying home was wanting to develop a close attachment for her kids. She then states at one point: “There are only 24 hours in a day. Any parent who works should understand this leaves less time for their kids. My family comes first.” This again triggered me emotionally. We ended up getting into the same stupid argument where I have to repeat what she says and I get a response: “I didn’t mean it that way”
In the second of his videos (theramin trees, 2010), delves into how our own ego states interact with significant others. Throughout our day, experiences, thoughts, memories, often cause us to float from one state to another. In the case of my sister and I, we’re engaged in a fairly “complimentary transaction” (theramin trees, 2010). In fact our entire dynamic is complmentary and very much in sync. I play role of “hurt child”, and she is the “critical parent”. Her “critical parent” consists of messages she receives on how to “do the right thing”. This has served to provide a sense of structure, clarity and meaning in her life while she “raised herself”. I play role of the bullied child (see pick to the left).
“Many children grow up with deep feelings of shame – that they are defective and inadequate to the core and, if others find out that secret, they will be rejected, humiliated, and abandoned. The childhood solutions keep painful emotions out of awareness. For that reason they are resistant to change…” (Ingram, 2012, p 302)
Why is it this endless cycle occurs? In answer to this question, (theramin trees, 2010), mentions the concept of “life positions”. In transactional analysis, this concept refers to a consistent belief about ourselves in relation to others. As a broad stance we take in relation to others, it might convenient to think of “life positions” as self-imposed roles. We distort our realties through these life positions, and utilize patterns of interaction with others as preferred coping tools. Naturally, the benefit of a “life position” is its pay-off. While I can’t speak for my sister, my own “life position” allows me to play victim. The needs that are fulfilled as a victim, are that people acknowledge my hurt so I can receive compassion and feel better (things I didn’t get as a child). Theramin trees (2010), suggests to viewers, that in addition to desconstructing transactions to gain clarity, we should let go of the payoff that allows these cycles to continue. Without the payoff (i.e. need fulfillment) the “life position” is no longer a logical choice. For me, letting go of the victim role, means not expecting that others can or will ever understand or acknowledge all the painful experiences of my childhood, including family. The radical acceptance and forgiveness I’ve worked on to get to this place has taken time and continues still. As I have expanded my “adult ego state”, my relationship with my sister has improved substantially. In fact, if we can both learn to develop greater tolerance for negative emotions the old baggage can’t replay itself continually. Once this happens, we can begin to learn valuable lessons from one another.
addendum…(one week later)
I’m here trying to sort out my family relationships and my role in them. What follows is an email snippet with my mother. At the time it was sent I was trying to process some traumas regarding early childhood bullying. It is an email from my mom, after I told her I wanted to speak with my old counselor in high school.
“Kathleen, in this venture you have to be ready to hear things you may not want to hear. I told Barb to give her impressions as she remembers them. If all you want from her is a statement that others were bad and were really after you, then you are only looking for vindication of the righteousness of the stance. If you are willing to accept that you may have had a hand in creating an atmosphere of aloofness around yourself, a cocoon of leave me alone I hate you all; then you are more likely to come to acceptance and resolution.”
This perception of events blames me for what happened. What she still doesn’t realize is how suicidally depressed I was then. I remained strong and didn’t do anything stupid. I needed comfort and I got criticism. Once I developed the courage to tell her this in a conversation, she reflected on it a bit gave me a hug and sent me the following email after arriving home:
“I agree. I do not fully understand the pain that you suffered as a child. I also was not there to hold your hand. I am sorry………Mom”
My heart melted when I read this and the hurt disappeared. With my “hurt child” satisifed, the adult ego state has taken over. I immediately felt bad for having to bring up this old shit. As a mother, with the shoe on “the other foot”, I now realize how difficulty parenting is. You have no guidebook since there is not “Right Answer”, everybody has an opinion, and “making mistakes” is scary – (especially if our kids pay the price”). I share my own shame-laden parenting story here and commentary on the concept of “Good Enough Parenting” .
Ingram, B.L. (2012). Clinical Case Formulations: Matching the Integrative Treatment Plan to the client. (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. ISBN: 978-1-118-03822-2
Theramin trees [screen name] (2010, June, 10) Transactional Analysis 1: ego states & basic transactions Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKNyFSLJy6o
Hopefully, since you read the previous post I can provide a bit of context and why I am choosing to drudge up ancient history. Around late fall of last year as I was entering my final year of coursework, I was assaulted by a patient at work. This re-traumatizing experience forced me to seek the help of my old therapist, whom I now visit with monthly. In our initial session she was quite direct with me about her disappointment about my lack of self care. This much-needed wake up call has resulted in a new exercise and nutrition regimen. Other steps taken included reaching out to others and taking time to de-stress. I made a conscious effort to avoid isolating myself and reached out to others. I got to get together with some coworkers a few times for lunch. Finally, after the holidays, my sister and I decided to meet up at a local mall to shop. This was our first “get together” after a much needed break. The experience was truly serendipitous in a way I am unable to put into words. It’s as if all old hurts had melted away and I was able to simply enjoy spending time with my sister.
While I would like to discuss this experience in greater length during a later post, my therapist shared some interesting perspective on healing trauma that is worth mentioning briefly. In the aftermath of a splendid afternoon with my sister that produced no “triggery” experiences, I couldn’t help but wonder how the effects of past traumas could have melt away suddenly – even if for only one splendid day? Keep in mind, I could write a novel on the intricacies of my own self-understanding (as you can see). Despite my best efforts, it wasn’t the cognitive work or self-awareness that mattered. Simple tasks like remaining present when a trigger hit, meditation, EMDR and daily exercise allowed my body to process old hurts, in the way my mind alone was unable to. Reviewing insights from Bessel Van der Kolk’s book “The Body Keeps The Score”, in our session, my therapist provided interesting insights on healing trauma (2014). His insight contradicts “conventional wisdom”, Bessel’s description of how healing happens, coincides my experience better than any other work I’ve ever written. For those of you interested in “Cliff’s Notes” version of this book, what follows is an excerpt from a recent New York Times interview:
“Exposure therapy involves confronting patients over and over with what most haunts them, until they become desensitized to it…desensitization is not the same as healing…CBT seeks to alter behavior through a kind of Socratic dialogue…trauma has nothing whatsoever to do with cognition….the way to treat psychological trauma [is] not through the mind but through the body….paying careful attention to physiological states…” (Interlandi, 2014, p4)
In the aftermath of having experienced a serendipitious “healing” event, I have a renewed appreciation my therapist’s wisdom, of the critical importance of self-care. As a perpetual caregiver, student, mother, and PTSD sufferer, attending to my own well-being is a vital. Coming to terms with this diagnosis has meant accepting that interventions exist as a form of management and are not a cure. Accepting the fact that there is not cure means acknowledging how my past traumas have changed me in ways which are unalterable. Letting go of “what I was” has been an essential component in moving forward.
…and then life throws a curve-ball
In the months since this experience, life for me has been fairly unremarkable. My kids are thriving, school is progressing and I’m wrapping up the final coursework necessary for my program. I am looking forward to a few promising internship opportunities, and have even started a new weight loss regimen. In the midst of these events, I receive a call from my sister “out of the blue”. She informs me she has breast cancer. With a hysterectomy, oophorectomy and possible bilateral mastectomy in her near future, we are waiting the results of a genetic test which determines my risk for developing it. My mother (a clinical cytogeneticist) thinks the results are probably negative in light of no family history of breast cancer. However, there is no guarantee of this until we receive the results of my sister’s test. In light of these recent events, I have developed a renewed appreciation of life as a gift to behold. As a woman in today’s world who is “north of 40” and struggling to lose weight, I have issues with the qualities defining my “meat suit”. In the aftermath of this news I suddenly realize these appearance-related insecurities are irrelevant to me now. Instead, I appreciate my good health, and the fact that this body has given birth to life beyond itself. Having said all this, my struggles with PTSD and family relationships are ongoing. Recent events have been triggery, yet I’ve managed them quietly. In the hopes that I might find an appropriate place to begin “processing”, I’m turning to this blog as a place to “do my dumping”…
And the dumping begins…
My immediate reaction to this news has been strangely reminiscent to other experiences of this variety. At two months of age my son went into cardiogenic shock while at home with me. He was later diagnosed with pulmonary atresia, and has endured five open heart surgeries thus far. I was in shock during the ensuing events that unfolded when he was first diagnosed. Doctors and nurses hovered over him, and struggled to keep him alive. The idea that he require a series of surgical repairs was met with an outer-body response and complete numbness which prevented any emotionality from “peaking through”. As I have later come to understand, this dissociative response (common to PTSD sufferers) is a double-edged sword. As I like to put it, PTSD is a normal response to an abnormal situation. Effective coping tools necessary when in the midst of “extreme situations” have allowed me to survive them. At the same time, when these coping tools became permanent life-altering modes of adaptions to daily life, the price has become painfully huge.
As I reflect now, I’m still troubled by the fact that my emotions aren’t peaking through. In light of the very real fact that my sister’s life is now “held in a delicate balance”, due to a nasty and insipid disease, why is it I can’t allow myself to feel anything? Fortunately I have a therapy appointment next week in which I can begin “processing”. In the meantime, I need a place where I can “be me”. I desire to “own my story” and claim my “role in it” in order to move forward. I need a place, where I can speak those “unspoken thoughts” and share “unpleasant feelings” openly. Since my family is VERY technologically challenged, I feel the chances they run across this blog highly unlikely. In fact, I’m at peace with the idea, that I’m creating these posts for “nobody”, since I really get no traffic. This brings me to the subject matter of the previous posting. Events have unfolded that have resulted in the re-emergence of old misunderstandings that leave me in the midst of a troubling ethical dilemma.
“How to insert foot in mouth…”
Last week, my sister sent a group email with a link to an article titled “How not to say the wrong thing”. Written by a breast cancer survivor and psychologist by the name of Susan Silk. This Los Angeles Times article delineates her “Ring Theory” of support for those facing a crisis. Referring to the image at the beginning of this post, this “Ring Theory” describes concentric circles of relationships surrounding the person at the center of a crisis:
“Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma…Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma…In each larger ring put the next closet people…” (Silk & Goldman, 2013).
While viewing this ring, it is important to remember that the person in the center requires comfort and support from loved ones to endure the oncoming crisis. In order to provide the support a sufferer needs, everyone associated with this “crisis sufferer” needs to be aware of what they bring to the table in interactions with that individual. Providing comfort and support, means listening to this sufferer while they dump on others. This might mean listening to the sufferer discuss their current “life is unfair…why me” (Silk, & Goldman, 2013), moanings, while providing an empathic “I’m sorry this must be hard for you” (Silk & Goldman, 2013) response. Supporters need to be aware of their needs to dump, and avoid doing so in the sufferers presence. Bitching and moaning, rather than offering comfort, while with a sufferer means they need to utilize precious psychological resources to comfort you. Susan silk describes this experience in the next quote:
“When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan’s colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleagues response? ‘this isn’t just about you’…’It’s not?’ Susan wondered. ‘My breast cancer is not about me? Its about you?'” (Silk & Goldman, 2013).
As the above quote implies we make another person’s crisis ‘about us’ when we dump upon them and share our reactions to their trauma and expect them to comfort us. For example, in the aftermath of my own trauma recovery process, I remember having to console my sister and parents much of the time. As I described in the previous post, while overlooking my own emotional needs I provided the comfort they needed as revelations pertaining to past traumas came to light. This resulted in a disturbing turn of events in which the sufferer (me) felt it necessary to comfort others at a critical turning point in my own recovery & healing. Instead of “Comfort IN and Dump OUT”, it was Dump IN and Comfort OUT.
“When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is more helpful than talking. But if you open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort. If it isn’t, don’t say it.” (Silk & Goldman, 2013).
As I stated earlier, the above article was included in a link to my sister who provided the above article link to me in an email a few days ago. In it she included the following comment: “…I wish I had read a long time ago in ministering to friends/family who are in the midst of a trial. It talks about having circles or rings around the person in the center of the trial and to be mindful of how we speak to those affected by the trial. Very insightful.”
With the benefit of clarity, I can see my sister’s sharing of this article comes from a place of self-reflection and desire to assert her own needs at this time. I appreciate her ability to communicate her needs in this respect. However, when first receiving this email, it caused an old familiar twinge of anxiety as I was reminded me of our history. I couldn’t help but wonder in frustration why “The Man Upstairs” was doing this to me? How could it be, that I’m expected to be there for my sister in a “Ring Theory” fashion, when she failed to do so with me during my PTSD recovery? This whole expectation wreaked of a hypocrisy which infuriated me. Since I received this email over the weekend, I was “jet lagged” when receiving it. Working three 12-hour weekend night shifts back-to-back, I responded only briefly. In retrospect, I should have responded when I wasn’t tired, I’m afraid I dumped when I should have consoled:
“Thx for article. Throughout my own trauma recovery, the sentiments from this article succinctly describe my own needs. I regret I was unable to effectively state this need at the time….it was hard at at first to witness M&D reflect empathetically on what you had to go through…that old regret popped up in which I would have wanted the same from them.”
Her response to this email was the following: “I am sorry that the way M&D are responding to my cancer is difficult for you. I’m having major surgery in 4 days….It is the opposite of helpful for me to know any information as it relates to your emotions….I would appreciate you talking to someone else about things…Like the article said ‘comfort in, dump out’. I hope you get the help that you need.”
While her response shows an amount of understanding, it still produced some negative emotions. I was impressed with how effective she was at asserting her needs. As a result, I wonder about whether I handled things correctly throughout the last five years of trauma recovery? At a critical point during the process, I remember a visit with my family about 3-4 years ago. After a weekend of the same ongoing triggery familial dynamics, I stated my frustrations honestly to them. I made it clear that I couldn’t deal with this any more and “maybe we should cut off contact”. At the time, this reaction was a logical assessment of matters in light of how my relationship with them provided the greatest difficulties. Additionally, the emotions contained in this statement reflected the burdens of having to provide comfort to them, while I was trying to get better. Their failure to provide a comforting presence as Silk describes in her Ring Theory created a huge burden, in which their presence was more hurtful than helpful. Nonetheless, aware that this may be the PTSD talking, I told myself this was a harsh and irrational decision. I was left to contend with their anger, and made to feel I should do whatever possible to maintain and heal these relationships. In the process, I’ve had to settle for something less than the “Comfort in, Dump out” expectations my sister describes. Throughout this journey, I’ve had to tend to my family’s processing of my traumas. I’ve learned to let go of the expectation that they can be anything other than what they are now. The process has been quite wearisome. I’m left with lots of questions….
While I ‘did right’ by my family, has this been at the expense of my own personal well-being? After all, I can’t extricate me from the triggery effects of our relationship. Since they have asserted repeatedly that “they cannot validate me”, and will not respect my own needs in a “comfort IN and dump OUT” since, what do I do? What does “being there” for my sister mean to me at this time, and am I indeed capable? Should I jump in and attend to her needs throughout this healing process? Or, am I wrong in allowing others to step in while I focus on myself.? After all, if the “Comfort IN and Dump OUT” rule is to be in effect, I feel all individuals should abide by it, not just me. As much as it pains me to say this, maybe I need to reserve my mental powers of comfort for myself, since my family isn’t effective in this regard.
I am still struggling with the above questions, but did receive a comforting email from my mother moments ago in which she stated the following: “She added you to the conversation…because she wanted you to also see the article that Dorene wished she had know of long ago (when you were in need). Effectively it is an apology from Dorene (and me) for not realizing the depth of your grief…” In a phone conversation later that day, I was reassured that Dorene has many people to help her and that I need to continue living my life. As she noted focusing on my well-being is always a critical component of daily life for me.
Does Cancer Trump PTSD???
Before concluding, I hope to explain the meaning underlying the title of this blog. It isn’t about a childish “my hurt is bigger than your hurt” conversation in which I compare my crises with my sisters. Instead I can’t help but note how mental illness elicits a very different reaction than physical ailments do. For example, when I’ve had to discuss with somebody my sister’s diagnosis, I experience a genuine and compassionate response. In contrast, the PTSD diagnosis feels like a cross to bear, as a source of stigma. For this reason, I try not to discuss it with others. When the subject comes up, the responses are highly varied and reflective of an individual’s preconceived notions. It is for this reason, as a useful counterpoint to the above insight from Susan Silk’s I’m including the following quote from Jamie Berube, who has written an article titled “10 Things You Should Never Say to Someone with a Mental Illness”. If you click on the quote below, it will take you to the article. I also found a useful video by Marriage and Family Therapist Katie Morton.
Berube, J. (2014, August, 12). 10 things you should never say to someone with a mental illness. Retrieved from: http://thoughtcatalog.com/jamie-berube/2014/08/10-things-you-should-never-say-to-someone-with-a-mental-illness/
interlandi, J. (2014, May, 22) A revolutionary approach to treating PTSD. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/25/magazine/a-revolutionary-approach-to-treating-ptsd.html
Silk, S. & Goldman, B (2013, April, 7). How not to say the wrong thing. Retrieved from: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/07/opinion/la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407
Suggestions for Further Reading….
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score. New York City: Viking.
“I am extremely hurt by this labeling Kathleen. I am COMPLETELY misunderstood. And I don’t think there is anything that I can do about it”
The above quote is my sister’s response to an email I sent to my family when I first entered therapy back in 2010. I became interested in the insights from therapy models (like the DBT Skills Group I was enrolled in at the time). I applied these skills daily and found them very beneficial. I also was fascinated by the results of some MBTI assessments of myself and immediate family members. It presented an honest reflection of everyone’s temperaments, and was useful in understanding areas of miscommunication in our relationships. With this in mind, I reflected on these results in order to gain perspective on unresolved misunderstandings. At some point during all this I wrote an email describing my insights to my parents and sister. The following is a quote which produced the above response:
Missing Pieces & Triggers
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it’s clear that our misunderstandings were never what they “appeared to be” about. Instead, they reflected something much deeper. This email reflects an attempt to examine “missing pieces”, (i.e. holes) in my own self-understanding. As I have since learned, missing pieces are shame-based minefields of insight regarding how we are in relation to others. They reflect our unwanted identities. For this reason, addressing “missing pieces” is a bit of a double-edged sword. While facing the full truth of our life story empowers us with a unique and transformative self-understanding – it also forces you to face the unresolved hurts that come with it. I guess what I failed to realize is my sister wasn’t as prepared to handle these honest realities as I had been. I am at fault for failing to get this fact.
For both of us, underlying this misunderstanding are temperament-based coping mechanisms. Her methods of coping in childhood produced missing pieces that were reflected of the personal narrative I created in childhood. In other words, I lived in a reality that reflected those things she overlooked and ignored. They pertained to hurtful pieces of information regarding who she was in relation to others. Additionally, in a mirror-like fashion, her childhood narrative was rich with trigger-producing elements I hated to face, but needed to understand for the sake of personal growth. Her perspectives on our childhood experiences have forced me to acknowledge those missing pieces in my own understanding. It is for this reason, that I often marvel at how divergent our perspectives are on various childhood events. How is it we could have experienced the same thing and yet each interpreted things so differently? I have since come to the conclusion that there is much we can learn from one another. Allow me to explain…
“Dorene is afraid to open up to me because I’m unable to take criticism….”
“It seems as though all I’ve managed to do is cause you more hurt. I believe that the loving thing to do is to step back and give you space. I don’t feel it is a good idea to continue our relationship in the same way.. The truth is, the only way I can see of interacting with you without hurting you is to simply sit and passively listen until you are done sharing. That’s not a relationship.” – Dorene
This quote was pulled from an email my sister sent me a few years after I sent the above email. In the interim between these two exchanges we struggled – and mostly faltered – in our interactions. In fact, I now realize there are times in which her assessment of matters is correct.
Relationships require us to accept people as they are and not expect them to change to suit your needs. I failed to understand this and was wrong to expect what she was unwilling to give. As a pragmatic individual she is very direct states things as she sees them. As she had also admitted in this email, “I cannot be the source of validation for you. I will fail.”While I will touch upon this in greater length at a later point, I feel it is worthy of mention here. Interacting with my sister means taking things as she intends them, brushing aside misunderstandings, and clarifying my perspective only when absolutely necessary. There are many respects in which her words provide useful insight into my own traumas and their pervasive effect over my entire life, ((More on this later)).
For now, I wish to make it clear that my goal is to utilize a “wise-mind” as described by D.B.T. Wise-mindedness is a “decision-making process that balances the reasoning of your thoughts with the needs of your emotions”. (McKay, et al. 2010, p. 75). It is for this reason, I’m using this post to sort out and clarify my role in our past misunderstandings. I’m trying to remain diplomatic and am wary of the usage of sentences that include “buts” – since this conjunction creates a comparison out of two connected statements. For this reason a “but statement” implies an inherent oppositional negation of everything which lies before it. Instead, I feel comfortable saying that my sister states things as I see them, and I have difficulty coping when verifiable proof is present that I still have “missing pieces” to resolve. In this respect, the resulting emotions are evidence of an unresolved trauma and not the immediate event. It appears that “claiming ownership of my story” is a lifelong struggle and not “end goal”. It is my hope that I can learn to let go of what isn’t offered, and instead focus on myself.
“I’m afraid to open up to her because she represents what I try to avoid – the potential judgments of others.”
“I have been afraid to open up to her because Dorene has represented for me through our childhood, everything that I’ve rebelled against. She was convention and I was nonconformity.” – Kathleen.
I believe it is this statement in my initial email that yielded my sisters response: “I am extremely hurt by this labeling Kathleen. I am COMPLETELY misunderstood. And I don’t think there is anything that I can do about it”.Naturally, hindsight is 20/20. There are some things better left unsaid. We were both guilty of making statements that appeared neutral at the time, but brought up old hurts in the other. Sometimes there are truths that slap us in the face and cause a full-on rush of emotions, once a specific comment is brought to the forefront in a conversation. At the time this email was written (over 5 years ago), there was much I didn’t know about PTSD, and it’s pervasive effects. Its surprising how much the symptomatology associated with this issue became “my normal”. I didn’t know anything else. It is for this reason I had difficulty explaining what I was experiencing and the needs that result from this. In her latest book, “Rising Strong”, Brene Brown describes chandeliering as exquisite and unbearable pain:
“[Chandeliering is] used to describe the kind of pain that somebody can’t hide even if they’re trying their best to be stoic…chandelier pain…hurts so much to the touch that people jump as high as a chandelier…one of the outcomes of attempting to ignore emotional pain is chandeliering. We think we’ve packed the hurt so far down that it can’t possibly resurface, yet all of a sudden, a seemingly innocuous comment sends us into a rage or crying fit. (Brown, 2015, p. 60).
Time and time again, my interactions with my family have yielded emotive chandeliering. Throughout the course of our get-togethers with my family of origin, events and/or comments would trigger a huge unresolved well of emotions. The comment might be something seemingly innocuous, regarding my childhood, yet it would produce a well of anxiety and pain I could not dissociate or numb my way thru. At the core of these comments was a realization of the extent of my family’s emotional absence. Unaware of my childhood experiences due to an emotional absence they can only conceive of these events according to their own memory of things. What’s more, since the “majority rules” notion is in effect, I’m understood to be the one who has the misunderstanding – not them.
What I’m sure they still do not realize is, the problem wasn’t what was said, but their inability to acknowledge my feelings. The response, “I didn’t mean it that way” always came up. Family events, where I had to “fake normal” also became a struggle, since my unique history made this impossible. In the end, during this difficult time, my therapist warned me things get worse before they get better. (If you’re wondering, things are much better now). However, this time was a crazy-making experience. I endured much exquisite chandelier pain in my interactions with them. Their responses to my feelings mirrored experiences of childhood bullying and an emotionally abusive relationship. In both cases, when I was hurting, their reaction was either ignore me or utilize those “but” statements to indicate I implicity caused my own pain. This was too much to bear with family. While not intentional, it was still exquisitely painful. What follows is an email I sent to my family which summarizes my feelings during this time period:
and the plot thickens….
With the above as the relational backdrop, I’d like to share how the misunderstanding referenced in these emails came to a conclusion. Things quickly got ugly for me when my mother sent me an email that included the above quote. I felt an immediate rush of anger at the fact that my mother required an apology from me when it seemed we were both saying things “that weren’t meant”. In my response to my mother’s request for an apology, I responded in email by describing events just prior to this whole exchange. Interestingly enough, a similar “misunderstanding” came up between Dorene and I during Josiah’s B-Day just prior to this series of email exchanges. It was as a result of similar innocent comment – like the one in my email. I was talking about the childhood bullying Josiah was going thru and how it reminded me of my own experiences. I shared my concerns since it triggered some old unresolved hurts and I was having difficulty coping. Trying to get through my day meant attempting to keep chandelier emotions at bay. When I shared this, Dorene said what she felt was an innocent reflective observation – and mentioned how what happened was a byproduct of my own doing. Stating, that I chose to be a victim, she believed I could have made more efforts to make friends. In sum “I just needed to get over it.” Mind you – like my email – it was intended as a casual observation regarding events in our childhood. This comment – while not intentionally hurtful, lacked compassion. What’s more, my emotions were glossed over, leaving me with the triggery blow of unacknowledge hurts to work thru as the evening dragged on.
As the day progressed I tried to shake it off. I tried to enjoy Josiah’s birthday – (and did for the most part). However, my emotions became overwhelming in the final hours of our get-together. My husband pulled me aside and asked me what was wrong. As the pain kept building up, I reached a point where I could no longer ignore my feelings. I quietly bawled like a baby with him for 30 minutes before returning to enjoy the ongoing festivities. Concerned, Kelly told me I should talk to my parents – because he thought it would be a good way for them to understand where I’m coming from. I then talked with them about it, simply to help them understand my hurt – and the nature of it. They listened quietly and attentively, but chose to “stay out of it”. No need for apology from my sister arose in the conversation. With this in mind, what follows is an excerpt of my email response to my mother’s request for apology:
“You see I’ve buried it so deep, I’m not sure the family knows the extent of it. I’m also able to hide it from myself – so I’m assure I’m not aware of the extent of it either. Nonetheless, while hiding it from you guys, causes less drama – it hurts me. I need to get beyond it and heal it. This means speak my truth, owning it, and understanding how I created it that way.”
Sometimes misunderstandings must be managed if they cannot be resolved. This series of events is reflective of an ongoing dynamic in my family of origin which I’ve learned to manage, (so it doesn’t drive me crazy). You see, these events aren’t just about a series of incidental occurrences. Underlying these occurrences are repetitive patterns set at auto replay. By asking me to apologize for a comment made in an email, my mother is expressing acknowledgement of Dorene’s feelings. By responding to my own hurt feelings with a “just get over it” sentiment, I am left feeling like my emotions don’t matter. This response of “get over it” implies a negative judgment of my feelings – as unworthy of compassion. Jumping to my sisters aid when our misunderstandings cause her hurt feelings pains me to see. Why is it I get the stoic and observational approach that expresses a desire to “stay out of it” – at those moments I needed them most???
By asking me to apologize to my sister in this email, I felt like I was asked to respect her perceptions of reality, when she was unwilling to do the same. Keep in mind underlying these hurts are missing pieces we both need to resolve in order to achieve clarity. In this respect, both perceived narratives of childhood events warrant examination. What’s so frustrating about repetitive experiences like these woven thru the familial dynamics, are the baggage they leave me with. When my emotions are treated with a stoicism and implicit assertion that “no one can truly understand anyone else’s feelings” this really stings. My other favorite is the family’s claim that “If valid means true, why should I acknowledge feelings based on misunderstanding (i.e. incorrect info)?” Given the nature of the traumas woven throughout my childhood, listening with an intent to understand and provide a compassionate ear is essential. I can only interpret refusal to do so as matters of unwillingness rather than incapability. What follows is my final response to my mother’s request for apology:
“SHOULD I HAVE APOLOGIZED? if it means being made to feel I’m denying my reality – NO!!!. Sadly, I hate to say it but since you are all very ignorantly unaware of my reality that’s how the apology feels – to me.”
Brown, B. (2015). Rising strong. Random House: New York.
McKay, M., Wood, J., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.