Finding Courage to Love Again

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The notion that we’re unlovable, that we have to work much harder if we expect a modicum of affection, that revealing our hearts and expressing love will invariably lead to the information being used against us are not facts. These beliefs have a basis in our history of course, but they do not reflect the possibilities of our lives today. What we need is an updated understanding of ourselves based on who we are in this moment and the love that we are truly capable of fostering.

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We enter the world with our abilities to love and trust intact. As we develop, we experience relational violations that impair these instincts. The brains of children who are abused or neglected are fundamentally altered to adapt in an unsafe world. Those who are made to feel different or Other during tween and teen years may struggle to find a sense of worth and dignity for many years to come. Too often, we make significant emotional investments in adult relationships that later result in gut-wrenching, soul-crushing breakups. We are inherently relational beings, and yet with so much working against us, finding courage to love again is perhaps one of the greatest challenges adults can face.

Relationship violations can have a significant traumatic impact on our lifespan development. Whereas we tend to think of trauma as existing purely for cases in which abuse has occurred, we can also experience trauma in nonviolent but nonetheless emotionally upending breakups. These tend to occur when our trust is violated, as in the case of a partner with whom we were deeply in love but who cheated, stopped loving us, or as we came to know, never fully reciprocated our feelings. The reason these violations are so very jarring is that they throw us into a state of disequilibrium. Like a person waking up in a burning house or who experiences an extreme car accident, our brains try to make sense of a world that’s become chaotic.

If we eventually move out of these relationships, we often do so with a heightened state of guardedness which reflects our fear of ever being hurt this deeply again.

A sticky mess of shame, humiliation, and abandonment are the legacy of traumatic break-ups. We assume that we’re somehow not good enough to be loved. Entering new relationships, we pull back on expressing affection when we feel it, working hard to keep ourselves safe. After all, we don’t wish to appear vulnerable if our experience has taught us that our vulnerability can be exploited and used against us. More to the point, we don’t wish to re-experience the acute pain of rejection. We come to fear it, and therefore avoid the experiences that can take us there. The more risk-averse we become, the more we disconnect ourselves from the possibilities that truly growth-fostering relationships offer.

Becoming overly guarded to the point of not allowing ourselves to be seen as our authentic selves ultimately works against our participation in healthy relationships. Our disconnection is often met with confusion by the other person. They may chase for a period of time. If we become more guarded, the relationship is invariably doomed, though. If they choose to drop us, it confirms our suspicions and strengthens the beliefs that stem from our traumatic break-up. Each time we’re rejected, our beliefs about our unlovability are confirmed, and our isolation is solidified. 

Over time, we may begin to avoid relationships all together so as not to experience the complicated attraction-pull back-disconnect emotions. We live in fear.

It doesn’t have to be as such, however.

A thing to know about trauma is that all sorts of mistaken beliefs about ourselves are embedded in it. The notion that we’re unlovable, that we have to work much harder if we expect a modicum of affection, that revealing our hearts and expressing love will invariably lead to the information being used against us are not facts. These beliefs have a basis in our history of course, but they do not reflect the possibilities of our lives today. What we need is an updated understanding of ourselves based on who we are in this moment and the love that we are truly capable of fostering. To aid this effort, we can test ourselves by answering a few questions as we enter new relationships:

1) Does this new person seem to be expressing real interest in me? List all of the evidence you can see: the sweet words you’ve received that reflect real interest (not purely sexual), the way the person smiles at you, eye contact, efforts to reach out to you or see you, that sort of thing. Nothing’s too small. List as many as you can.

2) What are the moments when I become most fearful in this relationship? Here, try to pinpoint all that you notice about these fearful moments, including the circumstances that create the fear, the beliefs that come up, and any self-talk you put yourself through to convince yourself that you’re being played or that your interest isn’t mutual.

3) When have I experienced similar thoughts and sensations? Try to isolate all of the relationship situations in your life where this has been present for you in the past.

4) What’s different about this relationship here and now? List all of the ways this is unlike other circumstances from the past. Spend time here.

5) What do I want to continue to be different about this relationship tomorrow? Here, you will guide yourself by clarifying how you wish to proceed in a manner that differs from what you may have done in the past. You can choose a way of connecting that maintains your dignity while also allowing you to foster a connection that will work for you. Being authentic and inviting will likely draw the other person into your world, and vise versa, creating a space that nurtures you both.

6) What can I do when I have questions that come up? Having a strategy to address the inevitable miscommunications, disagreements, etc. will help you avoid attaching a lot of erroneous beliefs about your worth each time you misunderstand a text, experience a delay in receiving your 7:30 phone call, or see that the other person is distracted by competing priorities.

One of the great challenges for humanity is in overcoming the sense of isolation that’s inherent in a world in which we all struggle to form healthy and growth-fostering relationships. Yet, as we learn to overcome our fear, we gain courage to take bigger emotional risks that can promise the payoff we deserve. In next week’s blog, I’ll talk about healthy risk-taking strategies for our relationships that serve to deepen the connections that we make.

Learning Empathy for Parents of a Screaming Baby on a Plane

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It was the end of a business travel death march, a Saturday evening in DC on a plane that was too small in weather that was too stormy. As we sat waiting on the runway for the storm to pass, a baby girl who was several rows behind me began crying, then screaming. I anticipated the irritated looks and accusing sighs that were being hurled at her parents as the hour wore on. In a moment of lucidity, I realized that not long ago, I might have been one of those nonverbal dart throwers. Something had changed in me, though; and on this day, I felt real empathy for the screaming baby and her parents.

In trying to pinpoint what was different now and why, I realized that my journey had brought me some key encounter moments, the significance of which I was only now recognizing.

I’d been vacationing a couple of years ago with a young mom whose daughters were 7 months and 2 years old, even though the girls weren’t with us. It was my friend’s first time away from her youngest, in fact, and we were enjoying a decidedly adult trip to Walt Disney World complete with wines, indulgent meals…that sort of thing. While munching on overpriced but delicious pastries in the French pavilion, a child at a nearby table experienced one of those classic WDW meltdowns that occur when the fun and stimulation of the day maxes a kiddo out. He screamed. I cringed and cut eyes toward the table. My friend called me on it.

“You know, if we’re going to be friends in our present lives, you’re going to have to understand that this is what kids do. I promise that if we were here with my kids, one of them would experience that at some point. I’d like to think that you would be understanding of it when it happens.”

That moment brought a couple of things to my awareness. For as much as I’d written and spoken about the experience of being made to feel ‘less than’ or Other for people who lived in gender and sexual identity margins, racial and ethnic margins, income margins, physical health and physical feature margins…I’d never considered that I might be guilty of Othering my friend as a parent. I didn’t want her or any parent to feel that I was shaming them. If there’s one thing I understand about life, it’s this: shame sucks. I therefore can’t knowingly engage in shaming behaviors.

The interesting thing about this is that I’ve never thought about myself as a particularly oppressive person. Yet, as my friend made me realize in that moment over those French Disney pastries, this was exactly what I was doing to not only those flustered parents and their child, but to her, by extension. I became aware that because I love my friend and because I aspire to a path of compassion for my existence, I now needed to rethink how I engage people around me. Apologizing profusely and acknowledging my mistake, we moved on from the incident and had a great rest of our vacation.

My empathy moved deeper during the work I was doing on an article for Family Circle in which I talked to a mom whose little girl has autism and is sometimes overwhelmed and starts screaming in the middle of Target; and another mother who’s so attuned to strangers’ reactions that she tries to shield the visibility of her daughter who has cerebral palsy when the family eats at restaurants because the child’s motor functions sometimes cause her to drop and spit food on herself.

As I learned the stories of the cold stares and clueless advice that these women had heard and experienced, I knew that if I had ever engaged in any sort of demeaning behavior toward parents in similar situations, I could never do so again. In fact, it opened my ideas to more opportunities for helping them. I began asking myself what I needed to do, who I needed to be. 

One of the fascinating things about being human is that as even as we gain the ability to recognize and testify to the story of our own pain, we are often blind to the methods by which we inflict pain on others. It’s easy to see and feel empathy toward those who are most like us, but another thing entirely to see the pain, and our role in creating it, for those whose lives seem to reflect adult choices that differ from our own. 

My ability to recognize that someone who at first appears quite different from me has in fact the same needs I do frees me to respond in a much more loving way; for a thing that I share with all homo sapiens is a desire to feel cared about in my most vulnerable moments. To parents of a screaming baby who are faced with the very difficult task of trying to calm her down while also feeling very self-conscious about the discomfort of strangers, I can now truly feel compassion.

If there’s one thing I know to do as a positive source of change, it’s to tell the story of my own transformation in a hope that it will spark something similar for others. 

Consuming the Green-Eyed Monster: Using Jealousy as a Tool for Change

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What makes jealousy so different is that it often comes up unexpectedly. It’s a somewhat embarrassing emotion because it tends to reflect an area where we feel less certain about ourselves or even inadequate. The physically fit and attractive sister, the neighbor with the attentive spouse, the successful coworker…all sorts of people in differing circumstances can trigger our jealousy. When we are jealous of a person, it’s often reflected in our actions.

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Jealousy is one of those emotions that we all have and which can lead us down paths of destruction, both personally and relationally. Rarely do we talk about the role jealousy plays in our lives as a potentially healthy or at least illuminating experience that we can leverage to understand our wants and needs. In today’s blog, I’ll share ideas in using jealousy as a tool for change so that you can avoid seething in it and taking actions that do not help you.

Jealousy is undoubtedly one of the most complex emotions we have. When it occurs for us, we’re not always aware of it, so we fail to isolate it, fail to name it. Anger, sadness, joy, infatuation…all are emotions that we understand when we encounter them. Sometimes they overlap, and we have anger and sadness, or even sadness and relief (as when we witness the passing of a person we loved who was sick or in pain for a long time). We tend to see and understand these emotions somewhat clearly because they have a much more traceable cause and effect.

What makes jealousy so different is that it often comes up unexpectedly. It’s a somewhat embarrassing emotion because it tends to reflect an area where we feel less certain about ourselves or even inadequate. The physically fit and attractive sister, the neighbor with the attentive spouse, the successful coworker…all sorts of people in differing circumstances can trigger our jealousy. When we are jealous of a person, it’s often reflected in our actions. We may use sarcasm with or about the individual, engaging in gossip or other undercutting behaviors. Maybe we’re outright rude or pretend to ignore all together. We fabricate additional elements to the person’s story, pretending that she or he is arrogant, a bootlicker, vain.

All of these actions veil us from insight into our own wants and needs. We don’t have to act blindly, though. Like any emotion, jealousy is neither good nor bad. It doesn’t feel particularly good, of course; but not feeling good about something is actually very insightful. All emotions, irrespective of what it’s like to have them, are really a barometer to help us understand whether a situation is truly right for us. As such, if we spend time feeling our emotions fully before we act, we can come to understand their nature and thus use them as a tool for changes we’d like to make.

Let’s say for example that you are dating an ex-boyfriend of mine and that I never really got over him. In addition to whatever hurt, guilt, and other emotions that we often experience with messy breakups, I would also feel jealous of your relationship. If I stop to examine it though, I might realize that this is coming from a sense that I should be in your place and having the life you’re having with him. This is the heart of jealousy; seeing someone else in a space that we wish was ours.

Were I to spend more time with it and allow myself the clarity of honest reflection, I could recognize that as much as I’m idealizing myself in a relationship with him, it isn’t where I am supposed to be right now. Perhaps I was bored in the relationship and stopped attending to it, or was never particularly invested (or didn’t demonstrate that I was). Perhaps he was never as invested as I was. Irrespective, I can recognize that as much as I think I want that situation that I do not have, it clearly isn’t for me or I would have it. As much as I’d like to tell myself that his investment in a relationship with you is because of his faults (I’d list them) or yours (I’d find them), the truth would be that because there wasn’t mutual investment when he and I were a couple, the relationship was ultimately doomed to fail.

Taking this a step further, I can gain insight into what I want and need in a relationship which can guide my decision-making for the future. If I’m smart about it, I can look toward people who can give me things I want but without the problems that occurred in the relationship I had with him.

This is true insight. It is also a healthy use of jealousy.

Let’s next imagine that you and I are co-workers and that you receive a higher performance rating and better raise than I. Presupposing that I can’t realistically identify a serious concern like discrimination (in which case, I should follow the appropriate HR and legal channels), I may tell myself that it’s because you kissed up to the boss, that you’re younger and cuter than I, or some other aspect of you that I can easily dismiss. Maybe I justify my stance by talking about you to coworkers, carefully weaving the tale to demonstrate how I’m the victim.

Do you see what I’ve done? By focusing the attention all on the character of you that I’ve created, I distort the real focus, which should be my own work performance. If I am willing to be honest, I may recognize that you in fact did a better job than I in some way. Maybe I can learn a thing or two to improve, or maybe the truth is that I’m not as invested in the job as you seem to be. Whatever it is, my time is better spent asking myself what I’d like to have that’s different instead of seething over it and disparaging you.

Jealousy is a hard emotion to acknowledge, let alone use for healthy decision making. We are forever being passed over, not receiving attention, struggling more, or in other situations in which someone else seems to be getting the goodies that we want for ourselves and believe we deserve. Where we fail in this is in our inability to recognize that if the situation was truly best for us, it would be us receiving the goodies. If it didn’t come our way, the love interest/promotion/big house/‘perfect’ face and body wasn’t ours to have.

This is an invitation to then consider what we wish to create for our life and thereby invite into it, based on who we are today and what we need to feel fulfilled.