Paying Dearly in the Chance for Love

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Those whose stories have included the Otherness of adolescent peer rejection and humiliation due to our body shape or size, our gender behaviors, our social awkwardness, or whatever other features marked us as the kid who was different often are willing pay a very high price to be loved…or in the absence of love, to relieve our experience as completely touch-deprived.

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I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Laura Brown’s keynote address at a clinical conference last week. As a therapist who specializes in trauma work, she shared some of the amazing insights from her book, Not the Price of Admission: Healthy Relationships After Childhood Trauma.

The price of admission. Just sit with that one for a minute. Those whose stories have included the Otherness of adolescent peer rejection and humiliation due to our body shape or size, our gender behaviors, our social awkwardness, or whatever other features marked us as the kid who was different often are willing pay a very high price to be loved…or in the absence of love, to relieve our experience as completely touch-deprived.

How much have we given of our physical and emotional health, our dreams, our very identities so that we might participate in relationships that offered us little?

Some of us didn’t believe that love could be ours so we accepted sex. Sometimes, we did things with our sexual bodies that were significantly beyond what we wanted or were comfortable doing because we believed we must.

Some of us sacrificed major financial resources to a relationship. We may have worked extra hours, even more than one job, to win someone and keep her or him in our life. We may have allowed the person not to work. To our way of thinking, if our partner depended on us financially, we’d never be left behind.

Many of us gave up other significant relationships with friends and family who were trying to help us see how harmful the relationship was for us. We knew they were right, but pretended they weren’t. We told ourselves that whatever we were enduring from our partner was part of his way, how she showed love because she’d endured so much, that the love that came our way was real. We knew we could change things for the better if we just stayed in long enough and worked harder.

On and on goes the list of things we paid up as admission into these relationships. Reflecting back on my clinical experiences, I recall so many stories such as:

“Cassandra,” who struggled with obesity her whole life. She learned early in her adolescence that if she gave enough of herself sexually, she could have attention. Her last boyfriend told her that she “fucks with total gratitude.”

“Ronald,” who bore a major scar across his face and jawline, and willingly searched out and rescued destructive women because he still believed he believed that if he eventually rescued the right one, she’d love him for life. He allowed his most recent girlfriend to bankrupt him, and he stayed in the relationship even after he found out she was cheating on him.

“Sherene,” a transgender woman who until her current relationship, had believed she’d be single forever because as the last man she’d loved told her, “no man wants more than sex from a tranny.” She worked two jobs to support her live-in boyfriend because she believed that this was the only way she could keep him; foregoing her dreams of going back to school.

Each of them, each of us, lost so much of life’s joy, creativity. The stories mix and match genders and backgrounds.

The most important piece that I want readers to take away from this is that you’re not alone. You’re not crazy. Most importantly, you’re not damaged; and you don’t have to pay dearly just to be loved.

This is a good place to leave off for the week. I’ll pick up next week with a continued discussion of how we start moving away from paying high admissions for love.

A Parent’s Guide for Understanding and Responding to School Bullying

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I’ve come to view school bullying as a general cluster of activity that are willfully carried out by others to punish a child for some aspect of her or his being. Certainly, this includes the obvious forms of bullying like physically shoving a child, name calling, or practical jokes that aim to humiliate. It also includes use of social media to send denigrating and hate-based messages. Less obvious but also potent methods include willful exclusion from group activities, malicious gossip about a child, and picking a child last for a team in gym class. Sometimes, teachers are active participants in publicly shaming a child (teachers, check yourselves on this. When you dislike a child or parent, seek support to ensure that this isn’t coming across in how you teach or discipline).

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As our nation’s children return to school, what sits with me is a need to talk frankly about the impact that school bullying, exclusion, humiliation, and other actions have on child development. The kids who are different, outcasts, Other bear the legacy of social pain. This doesn’t have to be the case, and parents’ awareness about the impact of bullying and how to recognize and respond to it can prevent problems from developing later in life.

For many adults, being cast as Other during childhood had a long-lasting impact on our social development, with legacies of never feeling good enough still reflected in our self-esteem and the beliefs we hold about who we are and what we deserve in relationships. We came to believe that we were “less than” during pivotal moments as the only child who was Black/gay/poor/non-Protestant in our school, because we were very fat or very short, or because we learned to read and write differently from other children. Sometimes we were highly sensitive or introverted children, and therefore easy to target. We were the kids who were conspicuously different, and the people around us never let us forget it.

Indeed, our stories of Otherness are many. As it was with us, there is danger that it will be for children today; yet it doesn’t have to be.

The good news is that we’re talking more and more about this stuff. Many schools have made strides in protecting individuals and groups who were previously targeted, offering infinitely more resources for LGBTQ youth, for example, from what even existed a decade ago when I was presenting on this stuff to school counselors in Texas. I’m grateful to everyone who’s made it easier for these kids to stay in school and who’s been active in addressing the high incidence of depression, drug abuse, and suicide among this population.

Even in my gratitude, I wonder about those children whose experiences aren’t represented by concerted advocacy efforts. What happens for the child whose conspicuous differences aren’t part of a protected group? I maintain that as important as it is to continue the good fight for LGBTQ youth, the effort must extend to address a broader set of bullying behaviors for the children who are outcast for other circumstances.

I’ve come to view school bullying as a general cluster of activity that are willfully carried out by others to punish a child for some aspect of her or his being. Certainly, this includes the obvious forms of bullying like physically shoving a child, name calling, or practical jokes that aim to humiliate. It also includes use of social media to send denigrating and hate-based messages. Less obvious but also potent methods include willful exclusion from group activities, malicious gossip about a child, and picking a child last for a team in gym class. Sometimes, teachers are active participants in publicly shaming a child (teachers, check yourselves on this. When you dislike a child or parent, seek support to ensure that this isn’t coming across in how you teach or discipline).

It’s with these thoughts in mind that I offer the following points for parents in protecting children from school bullying:

  • Talk to your child about the school’s social climate, paying attention to discussions of friends old and new. Who’s coming and going in your child’s life, and how?
  • Be aware of your child’s use of media as a tool for communication with peers. What’s new and now, and how does it work? Who else is using the platform in addition to your child’s age group?
  • Look for subtle changes in behavior that aren’t attributable to other issues you’re aware of in the child’s environment.
  • Notice the child’s relative anxiety about separation from you. Is the child becoming more clingy or requiring more attention in spite of no changes in the home?
  • Be aware of compounding effects that home life has in school functioning. If the child begins misbehaving because of a family divorce for example, the acting out at school may lead to a teacher humiliating the child in the classroom as a form of behavior control. Humiliation creates its own set of problems and can be especially traumatic for a child who’s already experiencing upheaval at home.
  • Talk to the teachers and school counselors when you see changes happening in your child’s life. Work with them to get buy-in for the protection of your child. Don’t accept anything other than a full commitment to your child’s safety.
  • Talk with other parents in a non-defensive way about the general problem of school bullying and seek buy-in by inviting them to consider “If this was your child who’s bullied, what would you want?”
  • If problems persist, or if the teacher or school administration is in fact contributing to a child’s problems in school, seek a therapist who specializes in work with children. A therapist can not only help identify the sources of a child’s problems and provide treatment in response, but can also let you know of community resources that might benefit you and your child. The Association for Play Therapy is a great resource for locating a therapist who specializes in work with children: http://www.a4pt.org/
  • Above all, make time and listen to your child. Be flexible with the changes that occur during development. Having a home that’s a physical and emotional refuge from whatever is happening in the world is a significant factor in providing for healthy child development.

 

 

 

The Enabler That Was: An Exercise in Rewriting Our Stories

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We’ve enabled them from taking responsibility for choices, rescued them from the choices they made, and buffered them when these choices should have had consequences. Our skillset may come complete with talents like putting a drunk person to bed without breaking more hearts or furniture; ducking words or objects with the grace of a dancer; or making excuses to others and ourselves (especially ourselves) about how their outrageous conduct is really a sign of love. Tired of this being your story? In The Enabler That Was, I’ll introduce a rescripting exercise for bringing these stories to an end and teach you to create a new story for yourself.

Chances are, life as an enabler began for you as a method to manage friction in your early life. As I often say, humans are extremely flexible in responding to even terrible environmental conditions. People survive abuse, neglect, peer violence, all sorts of things. Enabling was our method for adapting to problems that people brought us by doing whatever we could to stabilize things. Maybe we learned to distract a violent family by being the clown; or perhaps we were the problem solver for a caregiver who had limited coping abilities. We took care of others as a way of caring for ourselves; and did this so successfully that we lost much of our understanding of who we are, what we want. We came to believe that we must be fixers of people if we expect them to love us.

Whatever circumstances you’re presently in that have you believing you must always be the compassionate one; the forgiving one; the person whose loving presence is boundless, constantly available with few or no requirements of the other person, your decision to change things can happen now. The old scripts that had us believing we must fix the broken people of the world were yesterday’s news. It’s time to write a new script that moves away from the toxic people I described in last week’s blog.

Using pen and paper, a Word document, or whatever works for you, write out in some detail your journey as the Rescuer. Give yourself as much detail as you want, but it’s probably valuable to trace your story back as far as you can and note the places it took you. I suggest writing this in third person because it allows you to exist as both observer and participant in the story you tell, empowering your ability to make change.

Pay particular attention in your narrative to both the gains and the losses. Whereas it’s very easy to focus exclusively on the bad things that came your way from rescuing, there was also good. Somewhere along the way, you may have rescued people and animals that gave you love back in abundance.

Begin your story in past tense, something like:

Jeannette learned to rescue when she was six years old. Her parents would fight and her father would throw things and yell at her mother. By acting silly, dancing around and singing a song, Jeannette learned that she could distract her parents from their fight by making them laugh.

 

Kevin learned that by being the good kid who could put his mom to bed and then fix his own lunch and get his little sister Sam ready for school, he could take care of everybody and everything.

 

Let the story follow its natural progression:

 

When she was 16, Jeannette met Eddie and knew he was in pain because he did drugs and cut classes. She fell in love with Eddie and thought that if she showed him love, he’d pull his life together. She devoted herself to him, wrote poems about him, and bought him little snacks and gifts she thought would cheer him up. She gave her virginity to him, and he broke up with her two weeks later…

 

Even after she keyed his car, Kevin thought he could love Letha enough to make her happy, normal. He thought he could give her the stability she’d always needed and that this would make her whole. It didn’t.

 

For the first time in her life, Monica felt attractive. Karen was the first person to tell her she was beautiful, smart, funny. Monica believed whatever Karen said because she wanted to, even when Karen told her things that Monica knew couldn’t be true.

 

Be sure to find the good points:

 

Kevin bought the hungry dog some food, and decided to take him home and name him Shoestring. Shoestring loved Kevin every day from then on.

 

She gave her cousin a place to stay and a job lead, and within 8 months, Diana was back on her feet. They’ve always been like sisters, and Diana even let Monica’s kids stay with her during the divorce.

 

And bring it up to yesterday:

 

Jeannette still hurt for Nathan. She had a special tone on her phone and waited to hear that he’d texted her, just as she’d done every day. She believed that if she loved him enough, he’d come around and stop lying/cheating/meth/deserting her…

 

Pause and read through the journey you narrated. It’s important to honor the past and be clear that what was is not what is.

 

Now it’s time to make space for today, using only present tense:

 

Jeannette now realizes that Nathan needs to stay in yesterday because he isn’t good for her. Jeannette’s not his plaything, his therapist, his fool. She’s not his punching bag. She’s given him enough compassion, and will now give this to herself. So today, she’s walking away. She’s blocking his number from her phone, Unfriending him, and making herself completely inaccessible to him forever. Here’s what she’s going to do with her time instead….

This is where I hope you’ll spend the majority of your creative space. Be indulgent. What is it you’ve always wanted to give yourself? What would you wish to do now that you won’t be giving all of your time and energy to someone who doesn’t deserve it?

As a final activity, give your story a name that evokes the change you want: “Jeannette’s Story As the Woman Who No Longer Believes Lies,” “Kevin Decides to be Really, Really Happy,” “How Monica Learned to Celebrate Her Body,” or whatever work for you.

I hope you’ll next devote yourself to doing the these you’ve listed. I hope you’ll also share this blog with someone who needs to read it.

 

 

 

 

Toxic People: Why We’re Drawn to Them, How to Avoid Them

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Like fresh, hot donuts that we know are bad for us, the irresistible allure of toxic people overwhelms our senses and draws us in, rendering us powerless to resist. Unlike donuts, which rapidly leave our lives once the sugar spike, bloat, and guilt are gone; toxic people bring a variety of problems which may remain with us for years after these individuals have physically exited our space. Why are we drawn to them in the first place, and how can we resist? Read on to understand how toxic people have functioned in your live.

Let’s begin by exploring the notion of toxicity as it exists in relationships. Many of us grew up in families where we had unmet needs. No, I’m not parent bashing, although children who were abused or neglected certainly understand a thing or two about toxic moms and dads. Even in families where love existed, the competing priorities of other family members, work, and other life circumstances kept our caregivers busy. Maybe they were attentive for a time, but life changed when a new baby, a new spouse, or other commitment came into the picture. Sometimes, this was a chronic pattern, and they doted on us in-between their other significant relationships. Perhaps this was the case with older siblings, grandparents, and other family members whose affection was inconsistent.

Fast-forwarding a few years into elementary age and early adolescence, peer relationships took on a progressively more important role. We wanted to fit in and be accepted, and may have been very willing to morph ourselves so that we might do so. This is particularly true for children who’ve been made to feel different, oddball, Other. When our rejecters or someone who has the potential to reject us suddenly invite us in, we may be very willing to do whatever it takes to meet their approval. Oftentimes, this comes at the expense of our self-worth and dignity, particularly when the social group whose approval we seek is inviting us in for their own gain. It’s the sort of thing Mrs. Garrett warned Tootie and the rest of the “Facts of Life” girls about, constantly.

This is all to say that our child development primed us to feel we must audition for relationships. Growing into sexual maturity, we often found ourselves most drawn to people who recreated the potential for the dynamics in which we’d first known love. That’s to say that if part of our brain development centered around a notion that we needed to earn love from a parent who was on again/off again in their demonstration of affection, and perhaps this was reinforced as we learned that we could earn love by meeting the behavior requirements of a particular group, our brains became wired to respond to romantic interests in much the same way.

When we think about how we are drawn to The Lone Wolf, The Girl in Need of Protection, The Bad Boy, etc., we are actually being attracted to someone who offers us the sense of completion we wanted from these earlier relationships. If you think about this for a moment, it makes perfect sense. Our brain is so very adaptable that, no matter how ridiculously bad the circumstances in which we developed, we will seek connections in whatever way we’ve learned to do so. So primed do our brains become toward trying to earn love that will give us a sense of completion that we’re drawn into the emotional needs of The Lone Wolf or other toxic people. Our deep yearning for completion often reflects unspoken but very real notions like “When I make him turn his life around and love me, I’ll be complete.” We seek the worth that we always wanted by playing out a rescuer dynamic which is rooted in our earliest development.

Vowing to clean up the shards and righting the person with our undying love, we pursue the chase. It seldom goes well for us. Just as we are primed to rescue, The Lone Wolf and friends are primed to prey. This is the symbiotic relationship which allows chronic patterns to perpetuate things like addiction (someone has to support the addict), abuse (whether physical or emotional, someone has to be the punching bag), neglect (someone has to be left at home to cry), and betrayal (you get the drift. Someone does the betraying, someone gets betrayed).

Our completion evades us when these relationships inevitably fail due to the broken logic on which they were built. Lone Wolves, Girls in Need of Protection, Bad Boys are after all drawn to rescuers who enable them to stay in the destructive patterns of abuse, neglect, etc. They take the resources they need and move along…and we are left with the broken hearts, dreams, and whatever else got destroyed in these toxic people’s wakes.

It’s important to understand how attraction works for us if we’re going to change the patterns for our lives. I realize that once someone starts down a path with a toxic person, it’s a very slippery slope and we probably won’t see you again until you’ve crashed at the bottom. If however you’re lucky enough to be away from toxic relationships at the moment or perhaps seriously looking at how to get out of one, the following exercise might help:

  1. Begin by bringing to mind the most toxic people you’ve pursued. List the qualities that these women and/or men had in common.
  2. Next, consider when you initially encountered these people. What were the behaviors you saw that attracted you and drew you in?
  3. At what point did each of these individuals know they’d captured your heart?
  4. Once they had you, how was your life changed as the toxic parts of them start to show up?
  5. What strengths did you demonstrate that got you out of the situation; or if you didn’t choose to leave the toxic person, what or who has helped you survive and begin rebuilding your life?
  6. Thinking now about the strengths you’ve developed, how will you draw from these when someone with qualities you listed for item 1 shows up and starts trying to draw you in with their behaviors you listed for item 2?

Stay strong. Stay healthy. Share this blog with others who are in these relationships.

And steer clear of toxic people and donuts.