Category Archives: Relationships

The Stealthiest Predator

The individuals who have come forward through the #MeToo movement have highlighted the high incident rate of sexual abuse.  However, what about those incidents of abuse (not only sexual) that don’t come under the rule of law and are often unreported?  

Below is an excellent article by Wendy L. Patrick, Ph.D, that appeared in the June 2018 edition of Psychology Today.  Dr. Patrick not only describes the characteristics of the charismatic social predator, she also explains the way that they groom potential victims, their methods of abuse and how they often manage not to get caught.

I have posted this article in its entirety because being aware is often our most valuable tool is being safe.

Anthony, a senior member of an editorial team at a media company that covers extreme sports, appears to be a case study in modern-day chivalry. He is charismatic and confident, holding the door for female colleagues and instituting a checklist to ascertain that women are never asked to cover “excessively dangerous” events without their explicit consent (and many a precautionary measure, if they assent). He has a great reputation and a mile-long resume to match. He’s a good listener, often spending extended periods of time helping coworkers brainstorm story ideas. His rapt attention frequently causes them to overshare—disclosing not only what is on their minds, but also in their hearts. Unfortunately for them, Anthony is not only a good listener, he is also a good manipulator.

Exploiting the vulnerability of his colleagues is easy, once he has identified the cracks in each person’s armor. Tom, who was long considered the underachiever in his family, is empowered by Anthony’s consistent praise of his intellect—which Anthony couples with requests to create pitches that he then claims are his own. Maria, recently dumped by her boyfriend, maintains her sense of desirability through Anthony’s compliments on her appearance—which he couples with requests for her to help him finish late work in order to make deadlines.

Anthony’s manipulation flies under the radar for months. When a staff writer finally complains that he stole her material for a story on high-tech secrets used by Olympic athletes—information that she shared with him in confidence—her allegations fall on deaf ears. Reluctant to lose a source of positive attention and affirmation, colleagues and higher-ups take Anthony’s side—even those who recognize his manipulation.

Like other social predators, Anthony charms his way through personal and professional settings, using flattery and positive attention to win over those who will help him get ahead. These predators do not violate the law; they violate loyalty. They exploit their victims financially, reputationally, emotionally, and sometimes sexually, carefully covering their tracks to avoid any “official” wrongdoing. They seduce and discard a broad spectrum of trusting individuals.

Social (and sexual) manipulators have had years of practice hiding their darker traits. Many such people share another dangerous feature: They are smart enough to pull off the disguise. I will use the term “social predator” here to refer to these most stealthy offenders, although the categories of offense can blur. Social predators can certainly engage in sexual misconduct; on the other hand, they may do nothing whatsoever that meets the legal standard for offense. The commonality is that they prey on victims’ emotions or resources, either for their own gain or simply because they enjoy doing so.

Many social predators have psychopathic traits, yet if formally evaluated they might fall short of an actual diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. They may lack the ability to perceive or care how their behavior affects others, leading them to break promises, reveal private information, and take credit for others’ accomplishments. They get away with it by ingratiating themselves in an often drawn-out dance with victims that targets their ego and unique vulnerabilities.

Grooming involves desensitizing a victim to inappropriate social or sexual advances through progressive boundary-probing, while at the same time developing a foundation of trust. It is a recipe for a power imbalance. The primary purpose of grooming is to normalize inappropriate behavior. Whether pursuing sex, money, power, or just the thrill of inflicting emotional harm, predators use victims to benefit themselves.

Sexual predators groom a child by providing the affection and attention the child covets. Social predators groom their boss by providing the admiration and respect he or she craves. In both cases, although pursuing drastically different goals, predators manipulate through focused flattery.

“Wow, Ms. Patrick, you really destroyed that witness. You are such a great advocate. I sure hope you go easy on me.” Who do you suppose such a compliment came from? It was, in fact, a defendant in a case that I litigated. I have prosecuted defendants who spent the entire trial complimenting me on my quick thinking and trial advocacy skills, despite their attorney’s repeated admonitions not to talk to me.

The objective? Obtaining a reduction or dismissal of charges, of course—a request they include with the compliments. Everyone has areas in which they are uniquely susceptible to praise, affirmation, or validation. Because some people become suspicious when showered with obvious flattery, predators often target more subtle and insidious areas of need or weakness. A manipulative boss may at first seem no different from a superattentive one. Both might tailor an employee’s work schedule to allow her to attend to personal needs. But the manipulative boss’s compassion comes with a price. Whether the motive is sexual or financial, he or she expects repayment. And, considering how the victims’ personal, private needs have been accommodated, they are likely to oblige.

Social predators won’t just focus on a person’s needs but will often confide how much his or her emotions personally resonate with them, using what researchers Paul Babiak and Robert Hare refer to as a psychopathic fiction to cultivate false similarity. Consummate chameleons, social predators will profess the exact same emotions as their prey, leaving victims feeling both grateful and relieved to have finally met someone who knows how they feel. Never mind the details (which are often fuzzy due to flaws of fabrication), it is heartening for them to realize that someone can relate.

Victims on Trial: The Credibility Contest

Amy loves spending time with Jack, a man she met at the local library. He approached her as she was browsing the Victorian romance novels, admitting (after much hemming and hawing) a similar penchant for historical love stories. Normally reserved and private, Amy is thrilled to have met a man with a taste for this type of literature and with whom she feels comfortable sharing her feelings. Jack asks about her childhood and her goals for the future and seems genuinely interested in her responses. Believing that they have established a relationship of trust over several dates, Amy willingly reveals her fantasies . . . and her sexual past.

When they’ve known each other for two months, Jack shares that he has a sick mother living abroad whom he needs to bring stateside for treatment, and asks to borrow money to help with the medical transport. Flattered that he would turn to her for assistance, and grateful for his companionship, Amy writes a check. Although she is reluctant to admit it, her generosity is fueled in part by wanting to keep Jack on her good side, given the amount of private information he now knows about her.

The fact is that Jack’s questions were never designed to acquire understanding, but ammunition. If he seeks to further exploit Amy sexually, financially, or even reputationally, she will be unwilling to fight back, lest her personal revelations be exposed.

Having prosecuted sex crimes for more than two decades, I have heard scores of victims complain that they feel as if they are the ones on trial. Unfortunately, in a sense, they are. The credibility of an accuser is front and center in a sex crimes case, particularly if there are no witnesses. In a he-said-she-said scenario, the victim is always on the hot seat in the courtroom, subject to unrelenting cross-examination by the defense. Many questions derive from the information a victim has willingly offered the man who now stands accused of a crime against her.

Clever predators create an uneven playing field right out of the gate. During the grooming process, social predators use more than strategies of seduction. They also use strategies of reduction—casting aspersions on the victim’s credibility. They hunt and gather sensitive, embarrassing information about their victims early—to be filed away and retained for purposes of bullying or blackmail. If the victim dares to file a complaint, the character assault begins.

In such cases, a social predator publicly discloses private facts to discredit a victim. Labeling a woman a gossip, a disgruntled employee, an unreliable historian, a problem drinker, a slut, or worse, ensures that the perpetrator wins a credibility contest if a victim ever files a complaint or simply seeks to alert others to the predator’s true nature.

 The Ruse of Reciprocal Disclosure

Brenda meets Tyler at the gym. He is attractive, attentive, and surprisingly transparent, given his position as a federal law enforcement officer. A few weeks into their dating relationship he’s already shared much of his life story, swearing Brenda to secrecy as he brands many disclosures “confidential.”

As a single mom running an online jewelry business from home, Brenda is enamored of Tyler’s glamorous job, especially given the steady diet of forensic crime drama she watches on TV. She is flattered to be counted worthy of his trust, and determined to prove that she feels the same way about him. To match his openness, she discloses information about her struggles, health concerns, and messy divorce. She even shares information about her children.

When Brenda and Tyler dine with some of his colleagues, she discovers in conversation that he has shared some of her stories about dealing with an unpleasant ex-husband. Apparently Tyler did not deem her private information to be confidential. What is she going to do about it? Nothing. Tyler has just demonstrated that he has no qualms about repeating her confidences. It would not be worth the exposure, shame, or humiliation that could ensue if Tyler were to retaliate by sharing more details.

Now, what to make of Tyler’s disclosures, which are essentially braggadocio about his professional feats, and all of which are confidential? Sharing information “in confidence” does not make it more credible. In fact, if it is supposedly confidential, the alacrity with which it is offered, early in a relationship, should flag it as less credible. This is particularly true when a new paramour holds a position of public prestige.

The “top secret” information a manipulative new love interest reveals is often false. It is G-rated fiction, and a social predator is virtually guaranteed to be the long-suffering protagonist. In contrast to the often sordid disclosures a victim is prompted to share, a predator’s private information might be sympathetic, but it definitely will not be salacious. Manipulators never tell scandalous or embarrassing stories that could be used against them.

Another red flag is the sharing of details that cannot be corroborated. Predators with professional status or community prestige are careful not to be exposed as liars. Relating stories about being duped by an ex-business partner “who shall remain nameless” ensures that no real personal or professional contact is impugned.

One of the few specific individuals about whom a predator may disclose information is his or her current romantic partner. He or she is “unstable.” The marriage is “coming to an end.” This is almost always a ploy to stoke emotional investment and romantic interest on the part of the victim. The predator wagers (usually correctly) that the victim will not directly confront the current partner. After all, predators size up levels of empathy and conscientiousness in choosing their targets.

The Masquerade Of Malevolence

Karen’s new mentor at the pharmaceutical company where she works is a traveling regional manager with a small car. He insists on taking her to his appointments at various regional hospitals to “show her the ropes.” When they are in the car together, he constantly reaches over her to access the glove compartment, checks her seatbelt, paws around for his coffee in the cupholder (and misses), or makes other superfluous physical moves in her direction. “Accidental” touchings happen frequently. When Karen finally tells her direct supervisor she does not want to accompany her mentor to any further meetings, her supervisor asks why. She is too embarrassed to catalog the minute but real chain of infractions, so she instead cites logistical problems, allowing his inappropriate behavior to go unreported.

Public officials, corporate managers, and other power players routinely serve as mentors and role models to interns, new hires, and local youth, with the goal of empowering and encouraging them to step up and fulfill their potential. Both social and sexual predators seek out such roles but with very different goals. They capitalize on the inherent power imbalance present in mentoring relationships—in pursuit not of victim empowerment but of exploitation. Should a victim complain to a third party, the power differential provides a ready-made credibility contrast, such that the perpetrator expects to “win” every time.

Predators know that they must always have plausible deniability, so they find legitimate ways to isolate a subordinate, having an aide stay late at the office to prepare for an event the next day, for example. Successful predators are smart enough not to invite anyone to their homes or hotel rooms; they strategically arrange other options. I have prosecuted sexual predators who ensured the office space they used to make moves on victims was out of the line of visibility from windows or cameras, so that their behavior could not be documented or corroborated.

Victims With Compromised Credibility

Sexual predators must be even more vigilant than social predators, as the consequences are far more severe if their behavior is exposed. Accordingly, they often select victims who already lack credibility, based on background, social status, criminal record, or other historical or situational factors.

Sexual predators masquerading as mentors often volunteer to work specifically with problem employees as part of a peer-support network, or with troubled youth in the community. In these situations, increased victim vulnerability coupled with decreased credibility provides a potent power imbalance, which also serves to decrease the likelihood that a victim will report any perpetrator who crosses the line.

I have prosecuted many cases where perpetrators specifically preyed on victims with damaged reputations. These cases included men raping prostitutes, assaults on prisoners, teachers molesting emotionally troubled adolescents, and coaches abusing players with documented behavioral problems. The victims’ social status inures bystanders (and jurors) to the weight and import of the crime.

Sadly, countless cases are never reported. Many victims of sexual harassment or abuse who suffer from compromised credibility remain submissive and silent. They fear the perpetrator will expose their own disreputable past or emotional problems and are afraid they would never be believed over an individual who holds relative power.

Idealize, Devalue, Discard in the #MeToo Era

In a world caught up in so-called social climate change, the behavior of men in the workplace is under a microscope. Men who in an earlier era might have committed overt misconduct will be more inclined to do what some predators have always done—to simply toy with a victim’s emotions. Victims are left feeling violated and humiliated—but unsure whether they have even been victimized.

Jeffrey and Susan are website designers. Although they work for the same large online company, their interaction has been limited to the exchange of pleasantries. One day, Jeffrey approaches Susan in the staff lounge, where she always takes her 3:00 P.M. break, to compliment her on a memo she shared in an internal forum. Susan is extremely flattered, because Jeffrey is the only colleague who has acknowledged her efforts, much less complimented her on her work. Susan notices that Jeffrey is as attractive as he is attentive. This positive contact leads to additional conversations, which begin to occur at 3:00 P.M. almost daily.

Encouraged by Jeffrey’s apparent fascination, Susan opens up to him about her life. She shares personal information, goals, dreams . . . and photographs. Because she has developed a crush on Jeffrey, when he asks if she has photos of a recent vacation, she happily complies. When he stipulates that he’d like to see her in a swimsuit, she sends a few bikini-clad selfies. After his enthusiastic response, she decides to share a few more, which she describes as “me in my PJs.” She is wearing only lingerie.

One day, Jeffrey fails to show up at 3:00. He never comes again. Susan is confused and distraught. She immediately checks the internal forum to ascertain that his username still exists and even takes a trip to the adjacent building on campus to ensure that he is still at the company—only to see him at his desk, working away. Her emails and text messages to him go unanswered.

After a week she returns to his building to ask, in person, if anything is wrong. He politely smiles and explains that he is busy. Susan is devastated, and the two never speak again.

Yes, it is possible that this is simply a romance that never got off the ground. If Jeffrey is a predator, however, he is practicing a time-honored MO of deliberately luring Susan into oversharing so as to obtain photos, often just to humiliate and destabilize her. Predators engage in this type of behavior simply because they can. In fact, Jeffrey will take pleasure in gaslighting Susan by denying that he was ever interested in her. And given their tech-savvy positions, Susan worries every day what Jeffrey will do with those compromising photographs.

The worst aspects of human nature do not change merely because a societal spotlight finally shines on them. But public awareness of subtle predatory tactics can drastically reduce the likelihood that men and women will fall prey in any arena.

How to Fly Under the Radar: The Predator’s Toolkit

  1. Selective Attention Social predators express unique nonsexual interest in potential victims, a tactic designed to test receptivity and create vulnerability, without using any inappropriate behavior or language. Such behavior comes after the predator has gained the victim’s trust.
  2. Too Much Information Predators overshare to prompt reciprocity, making victims feel obligated to disclose their own private, sensitive information, which can then be used for blackmail.
  3. Strategic Privacy Predators arrange office furniture to create a zone of privacy away from windows or surveillance cameras. Beware of areas that are obviously designed to be out of the line of sight.
  4. Creating a Captive Audience A moving vehicle is the perfect trap for a predator seeking to corner a victim alone. The small space inside a car is where “accidental” touchings occur, yet such close quarters allow the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt.
  5. Red Flags After 5 p.m. Social predators in supervisory positions impose obligations on victims, requiring them to attend after-work “team-building” events where alcohol flows and cell phone cameras capture moments of weakness. Such outings are designed to compromise victims’ physical state, judgment, and ultimately, reputation.

Are you Rooted?

Are you rooted?  If you are a gardener, your first thought may be about plants; but I’m talking about being connected to a place.

When our children were preschoolers, my husband and I seriously considered moving  from our home to a bigger city in order to be closer to family members.  We had arrived in our city due  to employment, and the plan had been to stay for a few years before moving on.

As part of the decision-making process we listed all the things that we would like to have in a new community.  What would we miss by moving away?  How could we replace the doctor we relied upon, my hairstylist who had been part of our children’s first haircuts? Where could we find a neighbourhood park that we loved as much as the one we already had?  What about our friends and neighbours?

After creating many lists of the pros and cons of going vs. staying; we decided to stay. We could visit family, and so many things about our community were irreplaceable. We were rooted.

The Importance of Being Rooted

“To be rooted”, philosopher Simone Weil once wrote, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”  When we are rooted, we feel that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves.  We have a vested interest in the health of our community.  We develop a sense of ‘hometown pride’.  We care.

When we feel attached to our community, we’re more likely to be social and volunteer. We feel a connection to our local economy and may support neigbourhood businesses by spending our money locally.  As we learn more about our community, we may support local farmers at the market or join a Community Shared Agriculture group.

A key benefit is that the system is reciprocal…when we give to our community, it gives back.  Our support systems grow, there are more local choices, and there is a sense of belonging that we experience when we walk down the street and say ‘hello’ to people that we know, or the local barrista already knows our order when we walk in the cafe.

Being Rooted in our Community is Good for Us

Research confirms that being rooted in our community is good for us.  In the July/August 2016 issue of  Psychology Today,  author Melody Warnick (in her article”Right Where You Belong“) describes a study conducted in Tokyo.  This study discovered that elderly Japanese women who felt attached to their neighbourhood were more likely to be alive five years later than were women who didn’t care about their communities.  For women who liked where they lived and also interacted with their neighbours, their chance of survival compared to more ambivalent residents increased by 6 percent.

In her book Lonely:  Learning to Live with Solitude, Emily White describes her experience with loneliness.  She cites many studies that show the connection between loneliness, loss of health and increased mortality.  However, we may be less lonely and have an already-developed support system in place when we are rooted in our community.  These support systems are there when life becomes difficult.

Rootedness In Practice

When I think about support systems, I  often remember a particular example of individuals being rooted in their community.  There was a group of widows that attended the same church.  As Sundays can be difficult for people on their own, this group of women would plan a day’s worth of activities (church and lunch, followed by a matinee or concert).  By the time each arrived home, the day was mostly over– they had connected to others and enjoyed themselves.  These women made a point of including anyone they knew who needed to take part in this group–especially new widows.  Participation ebbed and flowed, and the group continued to be there when needed.  They looked out for each other.

Being Rooted Takes Effort

Being rooted and building community are reciprocal, and takes effort.  For many years a laminated copy of this poster hung beside our door.  It was a reminder of how to grow roots.  It recommended:

  • Turn off your TV
  • Leave your house
  • Know your neighbors
  • Look up when you are walking
  • Greet people
  • Sit on your stoop
  • Plant flowers
  • Use your library
  • Play together
  • Buy from local merchants
  • Share what you have
  • Help a lost dog
  • Take children to the park
  • Garden together
  • Support neighborhood schools
  • Fix it even if you didn’t break it
  • Have potlucks
  • Honor elders
  • Pick up litter
  • Read stories aloud
  • Dance in the street
  • Talk to the mail carrier
  • Listen to the birds
  • Put up a swing
  • Help carry something heavy
  • Barter for your goods
  • Start a tradition
  • Ask a question
  • Hire young people for odd jobs
  • Organize a block party
  • Bake extra and share
  • Ask for help when you need it
  • Open your shades
  • Sing together
  • Share your skills
  • Take back the night
  • Turn up the music
  • Turn down the music
  • Listen before you react to anger
  • Mediate a conflict
  • Seek to understand
  • Learn from new and uncomfortable angles
  • Know that no one is silent although many are not heard. Work to change this.

These ideas may sound like a lot of work, and the payback is tremendous–much more than is originally put in…and it’s good for us and others!

Now, for a flashback to how some of us learned about community; here’s some vintage Sesame Street.  Enjoy!

 

 

The Magic of Non-Verbal Communication

When we look at the family of communication types, sometimes verbal communication is over-rated.  In a world where we are usually bombarded with
noise–traffic, construction, one-sided cell phone conversations–silence can be a gift.  Non-verbal communication is often a gentle, yet powerful, alternative– lovers glancing at each other across a crowded room, the gentle touch of a friend when we are upset, the wink shared with a co-conspirator.   I suggest that there is an intimacy in non-verbal communication that can be missing from it’s louder sibling.

An Experience Without Spoken Language

I recently returned from travelling in an Asian country where English is not the first language.  In fact, where I was staying, most people didn’t speak English at all (or very little).  Other than some rudimentary French, I’m uni-lingual.

Often one of the first questions I received when I returned home was how I coped with no ability to speak the language.  My response–very well!  The question is how–especially when we put such store in verbal communication.

Trust and Vulnerability

I believe that the answer lies in both parties taking part in the ‘dialogue’ being willing to experience vulnerability.  It can be scary not to be able to rely on shared language (verbal or written), and when out of our comfort zone there needs to be an element of trust.  This was a lesson that I learned early in the trip.  As a blond, blue-eyed human; others who saw me could safely assume that I wasn’t from their country.  When I spoke, their suspicions were confirmed.

Where does the trust come in? By being open to the help of strangers.  I lost count of the number of times that I was gently guided by a local person who noticed my confusion when looking at a subway or street sign, or the person at the market who helped me to figure out where to find a desired item.  Many may think that I was naive, and I prefer to balance risk with believing the best of people.

Vulnerability?  I suggest that the individuals who were willing to offer help to a stranger who was a guest in their country required them to step out of their comfort zone.  I could have rejected their aid.  My non-lingual attempts to be understood (usual by making hand gestures or animal sounds–when trying to avoid dairy products) could certainly make those trying to help me ask themselves what they had gotten themselves into!  However, what was happening was the magic of non-verbal communication–the human desire to hear and be heard.  Part of being human is our desire to connect with others.

Non-Verbal Communication In Our Daily Lives

Whether we are aware or not, we use non-verbal communication all the time, and in many different ways.  Already mentioned are  examples like the healing touch of a friend, or meeting a lovers gaze, and there are also the small forms such as motioning a driver to turn ahead of us, or waving at someone across the street.

What about facial expressions?  We don’t like something and we grimace.  We notice a happy baby across the cafe and we smile.  Our partner does something to annoy us and we frown.  Reading facial expressions is now in popular culture with shows like as Lie to Me.   Do a google search on body language and you’ll have close to 73 million sites to explore.  Being able to read non-verbal communications isn’t only of interest to poker players!

Where We Get Into Trouble

Non-verbal communication can wreak havoc in our relationships for two reasons–lack of awareness and assumptions.  One is on the sending side and the other on the receiving side.

An example:  Bob and Sarah meet for coffee after work.  This is a first meeting.  Bob has already arrived and Sarah rushes in a few minutes later.  She throws her bag on the floor and flings herself into a chair.  She sits with her arms crossed and leaning back from the table while smiling/grimacing nervously.  Bob, somewhat taken aback, shifts in his seat, and pulls away from Sarah.

If we could look into the inner world of this couple we would know that Sarah is a high-energy person, who uses big physical gestures as she moves about the world.  She is excited and nervous about meeting Bob.  Bob, simply based on Sarah’s physical communication, assumes that Sarah is angry and doesn’t really want to get to know him.  Sarah’s lack of awareness of how her gestures may be perceived (she wonders why people often ask her if something is wrong), combined with the stories that Bob is telling himself about Sarah may contribute to this being their first and last meeting.

Lack of awareness and making assumptions are more common than you think.  We tell ourselves stories all the time–he doesn’t like me because he pouted when he walked in the room, but what if his chin was itchy?.  She is feeling sad because she is walking slowly, but perhaps she hurt her knee.

What Can We Do?

This is where non-verbal communication’s sibling comes in.  Ask!  “You look angry.  Is everything ok?”   “You don’t seem to be your usual self, what’s up?”  When we take the time to question our assumptions we connect with others–and isn’t that what communication (both verbal and non-verbal) all about?

And now…one of the masters of non-verbal communication–Charlie Chaplin.  Enjoy!

 

 

Valentine’s Day! What Does it Mean to You?

Ah Valentine’s Day!  For some, it’s the most romantic day of the year…for others it’s the biggest ‘Hallmark Holiday’ of all time.  However, no matter where you fit on that continuum, February 14 can be an opportunity for you to create a personal experience of love, while avoiding the pitfalls that can accompany the day.

The Dark History of Valentine’s Day

Traditionally we may think of Valentine’s Day as a celebration of love, cute stuffed toys, kisses and chocolate; however, it’s beginnings were not so cozy.  According to a 2011 opinion piece presented on National Public Radio (US), the Romans had a lot to do with the creation of Valentine’s Day.

“From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.

The Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.

The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.

The ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day.”

There wasn’t a cupid in sight!

As time went on, through the 15th and 16th century works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, February 14 took on the more romantic tone that we recognize today.  In Britain and Europe, hand-make paper cards became part of the tradition during that time.

Modern Valentine’s Day

What about now?  How does an ordinary Canadian mark Valentine’s Day?

A 2016 Montreal Gazette article stated that in 2015, Canadians spent $3.3 billion on chocolate.  When we add in money spent on other gifts (flowers, jewelry) and dinners out, our bank accounts went down by an average of $177–all in aid of February 14.

Businesses appreciate this ‘love festival’ as there are no associated discounts associated as there are with Christmas (i.e. pre-holiday and Boxing Day sales).

This holiday is seen to be such a romantic day, that 10 percent of marriage proposals happen on Valentine’s Day!

What If I’m Single?

Traditionally, we think of Valentine’s Day as a celebration for couples.  But what if we’re un-coupled?  No worries!  Business has found a solution!  Thanks to the Canadian Association of Professional Cuddlers (CAPC), you can hire a professional cuddler to spend Valentine’s Day with.   Cuddling starts at $45 for 30 minutes and goes up to $155 for two hours. If you’re looking for skin-to-skin cuddling, there is an additional fee per hour.  Cuddlers are trained to ensure that everyone is safe and comfortable at all times.

Some single people will participate in Single Awareness Day–a celebration of the love of friends, family and self.  Individuals recognize the day by getting together with loved ones, buying themselves a gift and/or taking part in a favourite activity.

It appears that if you want to celebrate, there are many options.

Expectations…A Roadblock on the Road of Romance

Sometimes this ‘holiday of love’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Based on what I hear personally and professionally, Valentine’s Day can be a minefield…and I don’t mean the “Will you be mine” variety!  The problem comes down to expectations about how our partners should show their love.  However, there may be a solution.

Gary Chapman, in his 1995 book The Five Love Languages:  How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate; outlines the five ways that we show and accept love from our significant other(s).  These are:  giving/receiving gifts, spending quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service (devotion) and physical touch.  When a couple doesn’t understand each other’s ‘love language’ hurt feelings can erupt.

Let’s look at Bob and Sue…Valentine’s Day is around the corner and Bob has dropped many (what he thinks are obvious) hints about his ideal gift (Kitchener Rangers tickets). Sue has decided that she will surprise Bob by taking their children to her parents home for an over-night visit and then making him a romantic dinner.  A clash is possible as Bob is looking forward to tickets, and Sue is imaging Bob’s appreciation and delight at all the work she has done to make Bob feel loved.

When we are part of a couple, it’s important to communicate with each other about our expectations–especially as these can change over time. If you’re curious about your ‘love language’, check out Dr. Chapman’s site and take the quiz.  It may be useful pre-Valentine’s Day activity!

Speaking of Communication…

Valentine’s Day can bring a lot of pressure to new relationships. What does my new person want? Will dinner out be too much?  Too little?  My last partner really loved jewelry, but is it too soon in this relationship?  What impression will my gift give?  Maybe I’ll just go out of town on February 14 and skip the entire thing!

What would happen if Valentine’s Day became an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation around expectations–what we like, what we don’t?  Is this something we want to celebrate as a couple?

I wonder how many hurt feelings and broken relationships could be avoided by having a simple conversation?

Despite all the buildup, February 14 is just another day on the calendar. No matter how you choose to spend it, I wish you love and your fair share of chocolate!

And now…some romance from Peanuts…Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Boundaries Are Your Friend

For anyone who has had to deal with a troublesome nearby resident, they can understand the truth in the old saying “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Just as a fence is a physical boundary that allows for privacy and controlled interactions, emotional boundaries do the same.  In this post, we explore the wonder that is boundaries.

What are boundaries?

Simply stated, a boundary is a bottom line position, coming from an awareness of what we need and feel entitled to.  It takes into account the limits of our tolerance.  They are derived from our values and gut-level responses that define what we can accept in our relationships.

When we let others know what we will accept by setting limits, we are using boundaries.

Boundaries are not…

Melanie Beattie, in her book The New Codependency, explains that boundaries are not:

  • limits we set because someone told us to;
  • empty or angry threats;
  • attempts to control others;
  • limits we don’t or can’t enforce.
A Story…

Julie loved getting together with her friend Susan. The two women had met a few months previously when Susan moved into the neighbourhood. They had liked each other on sight, and would meet weekly at a nearby cafe to catch up on their lives, share stories and discuss current events.  However, after a few weeks things began to turn sour.  While Julie enjoyed their coffee dates, she started to feel annoyed by Susan’s frequent late arrivals.

At the beginning, Julie would dismiss her frustration as over-reacting.  It was only 10 minutes, and once Susan arrived the conversation would take over and all would be well.  In order to continue to enjoy her time with Susan, Julie started to make excuses for her friend–‘her life was busy’–‘she was unbound by rules, which was one of the things that made Susan so much fun’–‘she’s a free spirit’.  Eventually, these rationalizations stopped working, and Julie started to feel angry.

Julie had been brought up in a family where the consideration of others was a core value.  It was important to take other’s feelings into account when making decisions.  Behaviours such as punctuality were a sign of respect.  As Julie pondered these ideas and how they may be affecting her reactions towards Susan, she wondered what do to about this new relationship.  Should she stop meeting Susan for coffee?  What if she just put up with the status quo?  Maybe she should say something?

Why do we need boundaries?

We put boundaries in place for ourselves, not others.  For some people–especially those who identify as care givers–this idea is hard to wrap our brain around.  When I suggest the idea of setting a limit to clients, I’m often met with the response that to do so would be selfish.  However, boundaries are not selfish–they are a form of self-care.  Not only are they not selfish, but, when used well, can ease interpersonal interactions.

Sometimes we need to let our friends, family, coworkers, etc. know how we want to be treated.  Being able to clearly voice our boundaries is a way to do this.

Why we don’t have them?

In some families, boundaries are rare.  Being able to create and maintain boundaries is a skill, and if we grew up with adults who are unable to set limits, then we may repeat this family trait.  As children/young adults if we were able to start to put boundaries in place, and they were ignored by family members, then we often stop setting limits.  We learned that not having boundaries ‘normal’.  In order to learn about boundaries we need role models.

Other reasons why we may not have developed the ability to set limits:

  • We are overly dependent on others.  When we feel that we are unable to be alone or take care of ourselves, then we are more willing to accept negative behaviour from others.
  • We have low self esteem.  Perhaps we feel that we are not worthy of being treated well by other people, so we don’t set boundaries.
  • We don’t have the words.  Sometimes we are unable to find the words to express our limits.
  • We want others to like us.  If we care too much about what other people think of us, we may be afraid to risk their good opinion by putting boundaries in place.
  • We are “uber” caretakers.  As mentioned above, if we see boundaries as selfish, then we won’t enact them.
How to develop boundaries.

If we haven’t been able to develop the ability to create and set boundaries when growing up in our family of origin, all is not lost.  Like most skills, it is never too late to learn.  However, just as it’s harder to learn to ride a bike at the age of 30 than at age 5, learning to set limits in adulthood requires work and patience!

The first step is self-awareness–becoming in tune with our values and beliefs.  What is important to us?  How do we want to be treated?  What is acceptable?  No acceptable?

One way to finding the answers to these questions is anger.  Anger is a wonderful teacher as it shows us when our values and beliefs have been walked over.  In our story, Julie became aware of her bottom line about Susan being late because her value of punctuality and belief around respect were crossed.

Once we know what are boundaries are, it’s time to put them into words.  We’re defining a ‘bottom line’.  A standard way to do this is using the structure of “When you do this, I will do this”.  When creating a boundary it’s important that it be clear and enforceable.

The Story Continues…

After much thought, Julie decided that she valued her relationship with Susan enough that she didn’t want to end it before making an attempt to clear up this issue.  However, she was prepared to stop meeting with Susan if the tardy behaviour continued.

The next time the women met, Susan was late, and the following conversation occurred.

Julie:  “Susan, I really enjoy our coffee dates and getting caught up.”
Susan:  “Me too!”.
Julie:  “While they’re fun, I’m getting frustrated about your late arrivals.”
Susan:  “It’s usually only 10 minutes–15 tops.”
Julie:   “Ten to 15 minutes doesn’t seem to be a big deal, but in my family punctuality was important.  Being on time meant that you respected the person you’re meeting.”  So, in the future, I’m going to wait for five minutes.  If you’re late , then I’m going to continue on with my day.”
Susan:  “Hmmm…”

What happens when we set limits?

While we can control our boundaries and how we set them, we can’t control how they will be received.  Sometimes, other people hear what we are saying and accept our limit…all is well.  However, often things don’t run so smoothly.

If stating our bottom line is a new behaviour for us–especially in a long standing relationship–the other person could become angry, disbelieving or dismissive.  They may make attempts to make us feel guilty.

One common response is push back behaviour.   Push back behaviour is an attempt by others to test our limits to see if we are serious.  Are we going to enforce or follow through with what we said?  In some cases, the behaviour can become extreme as the other person hopes that the boundary setter will become so tired of the increased negative behaviour that they will give in.

While once understood, in some cases, push back behaviour can become almost humourous.  For example, a partner refused to do the couple’s laundry unless the other partner put the laundry in the hamper–leading to that partner to let the laundry to pile up to become laundry ‘mountains’!

Unfortunately, push back behaviour can become nasty and even dangerous.  Emotional and physical safety is a non-negotiable boundary.  If you are feeling unsafe, support is available by calling 911, the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, Anselma House, Haven House and Mary’s Place.

The Final Chapter…

The next week Julie arrived at the cafe at the usual time. Susan wasn’t there.  As promised, Julie waited for five minutes and then left.  When Susan arrived 10 minutes later, she was told by the barista that her friend had come and gone.  Susan was annoyed and thought that Julie was being ‘childish’, but as she sat quietly with her coffee, she missed her friend.

The following week, Susan was only a few minutes late and apologized to Julie for her tardiness.

Julie still needs to enforce this limit as Susan doesn’t see punctuality in the same light as her friend.  In this way, Julie continues to enjoy her time with Susan without added frustration, and Susan knows what to expect if she is late.  As time evolved, the women were able to set up a system–when Susan knew in advance that she was going to be late, she contacted Julie ahead of time and they met a bit later.

And now…some great fence humour from Tim the Toolman Taylor…enjoy!

The Path to Forgiveness

In this post, we explore the concept of forgiveness…What is it?  Who benefits?  Why is it important? And, most importantly, how do we do it?

The idea of forgiveness is a difficult thing.  When we have been disappointed or hurt by someone else our instinct is often to recoil and protect ourselves.  When a person close to us breaks our trust, the last thing we want to do is forgive them.  On the other hand, when we have hurt others, forgiving ourselves can be just as difficult.

However, in order for  true healing to happen, walking the path to forgiveness is a necessary journey.

What Is Forgiveness?

When we think of forgiveness, we may think of cheesy movies where by plot’s end, mortal enemies have become best friends–the closing scene showing them walking hand-in-hand into the sunset.  While this could happen in real life, forgiveness doesn’t usually look like this.

One way to describe forgiveness is to point out what it does not do.  According to Ron Pevny, in his book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging, forgiveness does not…

  • Mean that we have to ignore our hurt feelings.
  • Change the past, or assume that we have to forget what happened.
  • Mean that we have lost and the offender has won.
  • Excuse the act that did the wounding.
  • Absolve the offender of karmic or legal consequences.
  • Mean that we will resume a relationship with the other person–especially if it is not safe (emotionally or physically) to do so.

What forgiveness does is to provide the opportunity for healing and being able to move on with our life, without being limited by what happened.  According to Buddhist philosophy,  “Holding on to resentment is like picking up a hot coal with our hand with the intention of finding an opportunity to throw it at the one who has hurt us.”.

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu states,

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past.  Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.  We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped.  Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor.  When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings.  We become our own liberator.”

When we can forgive, we are able to stop labeling our self as a “victim” and move forward from a place of growth.

Holding on to negative events that lead to ongoing feelings of resentment, anger, hostility may undermine our health.  In one study, psychologists asked people to think about someone who has hurt them, while monitoring their heart rate, facial muscles and sweat glands.  When people remembered these grudges, their heart rate and blood pressure increased.  However, when they were asked to think about forgiving these people, their stress responses returned to normal (Book of Joy, pg. 237).

Steps to Forgiveness

While it seems obvious that forgiveness is a good thing–for our physical and mental health–how do we do it?  Especially since rehashing the juicy details of past hurts can provide an addictive energy rush.

It’s important to remember that forgiveness is a process; one that is repeated over and over as new feelings and details arise as we work to let go.

Pevny breaks down the path to forgiveness into the following five steps:

  1. Uncovering and feeling what happened.  Before we can forgive, we need to be clear about what we are forgiving.  It’s important to explore the actual event–what were the circumstances?  Who said what?  What emotions did you feel?  Take your time and be gentle with yourself.
  2. Committing to forgive.  Forgiveness is a choice–sometimes a difficult one.  When we have held on to resentments for a long time, they become part of our story.  Forgiveness is choosing a new story.
  3. Humanizing the offender.  Forgiveness begins to happen when we are able to separate the person from the action.  To do this requires compassion and the ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective.  Maybe there were things going on that you didn’t know?
  4. Honestly looking at your role in relation to the situation.  This is especially challenging when the emotions are still raw, so it’s useful to use your logic vs. emotions.  Human relationships are never simple.  As my grandmother used to say “It takes two to tango.”
  5. Forgiving and continuing to forgive.  Forgiving is an act of will–we choose.  This act will play out differently for each person.  For some, it’s a private, quiet letting go.  For others, they want to meet with the person involved and voice their forgiveness.  No matter how it manifests, forgiveness is an ongoing process.
What If I Need to Forgive Myself?

When we have hurt others, the feelings of guilt and shame that we carry can be overwhelming.  While we may be able to show compassion to others, doing so to ourselves is more difficult–if not impossible as we’re our own harshest critics.

Pevny suggests that the five steps are applicable to those working on self-forgiveness, and may include specifically asking for forgiveness from those we have hurt (if possible and appropriate).  However, sometimes the person we have hurt is ourselves.  Pevny writes:

“In a great many cases, what needs self-forgiveness is not harm done to others but personal weaknesses or perceived choices or actions that we feel have damaged our own lives.  Self-forgiveness depends upon our willingness to carefully examine our choices and actions and, in many cases, acknowledge that we did the best we could with the awareness we had at the time.  If we see that we did not do the best we could, it requires that we use our regrets not to berate ourselves but as important guideposts on our journeys into a positive, conscious future.  The biggest catalysts for our growth are often (perhaps mostly) what we learn from our mistakes, weaknesses and poor choices.”

Rewriting our Stories…Sometimes We Need Help

Whether we need to forgive ourselves or others, walking on this path gives us the opportunity to rewrite our story–and sometimes the stories of others.  And we know that the journey isn’t easy.  Self-care is important.  If you start on this journey and feel that you are losing your way, please reach out to a trusted friend, family member or professional to provide support.  Sometimes, our hurts are too big walk up to on our own.

And now…a quick lesson in self-compassion.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

It’s All About Relationships

As humans, we are fragile.  Physically, we break bones and sprain joints. We experience muscle pain and headaches. More seriously, we get sick, sometimes so ill that we look death in the eye.

Our fragility also extends to our emotions. Just as our bodies can be hurt, so can our feelings. When we misunderstand another’s intentions or our expectations are not met, we make up stories (true or not) about how others feel about us. Based on our created narratives, we may feel disconnected and unloved.

Support Systems

In preparation for this post, last week I re-posted an earlier article about support systems. The idea of support systems is that we have a circle of care–a community–that we can call on during times of need.

I like to imagine a support system to be like a large web–each small piece forming and connecting to the whole. Digging deeper, what is it that forms the connections?  Relationships!

Some Thoughts on Relationships…

While relationships are what hold our connections together, they can be challenging.  But why? How can we improve our chance of success?

Over centuries, many religions and spiritual practices have created guidelines to help us to create loving relationships.  One concept common to all religions is “The Golden Rule”–to “treat others as we would like to be treated”.  Because a basic human need is to be happy, this rule sounds like it should be easy enough; however, happiness is subjective.  What makes me happy may make my neighbour miserable. Add into the mix our past experiences, preferences and judgments, and it’s amazing that we can have positive relationships at all! Yet we do.

I suggest that our ability to move beyond what we think we can get out of our relationships, to what we can give is important to developing supportive, healthy bonds.  When we develop the self-awareness to understand and look past our own biases we will have an easier time in relationships. This is what builds connections.

A Quilt of Relationships

At one point in my life, I was an avid quilt maker. I especially loved making scrap quilts and the challenge of using whatever fabric came to hand–no matter how unattractive.

What if our web of relationships is like a beautiful scrap quilt? As a quilter I learned that the more varied the fabrics making up the pattern, the greater interest and complexity in the design. Just as all the scraps weren’t “beautiful” or matched nicely with its neighbour, the overall effect was stunning. As a quilt maker, I wouldn’t notice the “ugly” fabric, but would be aware that something was missing if they weren’t there to balance out the “pretty” pieces.

What would happen if we looked at our own relationships from the perspective of the “whole”–the entire pattern rather than the individual scraps of fabric? Would we be more forgiving? Be able to look at the entire history of the relationship, rather than the latest interaction, and give others the benefit of the doubt? Be less willing to end friendships or family ties because of a “rough patch”?  I wonder…

Relationships in Therapy

Being in a relationship takes courage. Being able to see past our own pain to that of others requires emotional awareness and compassion.

When I start to work with new couple clients, I explain the difference between “couple therapy” and “individual therapy”. When I work with an individual, they are the client.  However, when I work with a couple, the relationship is the client. From this perspective, we start to look at individual actions through the lens of “Will this help or hurt our relationship?”. This question helps to put some distance between our individual wants in order to focus on the other’s needs.

This concept applies no matter the type of the relationship–romantic, friendship, parent/child, work colleagues…

Not easy work, and it’s fulfilling.

At the End of the Day

At the end of the day, it’s all about our relationships. When people at the end of their lives are asked about regrets, they’re not usually about work, money or things.  Their regrets are about missed chances in relationships–those not pursued or that were allowed to end badly. Often their joyous memories involve connection to others.

I suggest we focus on our connections now so that we have fewer regrets.

And now…here’s a link to the official trailer for the movie “Happy” as well as the TED talk from Roko Belic–the creator of the movie–talking about his experience making the movie.  The movie is currently available on Netflix and definitely worth time.  Enjoy!

 

 

Triangulation: The Trouble With Triangles

I wasn’t very gifted when it came to high school geometry.  The logic evaded me, and I couldn’t see the point of learning how to prove that right-angled triangles were “right-angled”. However, if my Grade 10 math teacher had told me that triangles were linked to relationships, I would have been very interested!

In a recent post, I explained that if you are in a family you are part of a “mobile” or family system. In this post, we’ll look at a specific relationship habit that can have a negative affect on the quality of family life.

A Story…

Jane, Sue and Rob are middle-aged siblings. Their parents (Marjorie and Ed) recently sold the family home and are in the process of downsizing their possessions before moving into an apartment.  The siblings agreed that the home needed to be sold as both parents were starting to suffer from age-related ailments and having trouble maintaining the property.  Because they all lived in different towns from their original home, they were unable to help their Mom and Dad as much as they would have liked.

In the beginning all was going according to plan.  The house sold quickly, and a suitable apartment was found. However, things started to change once Marjorie and Ed started to pass on family heirlooms.

One day, when Sue was visiting her mom, Marjorie mentioned that she was struggling to find a place for her china cabinet. While she loved the piece, it wouldn’t fit in the new apartment.  Sue, who had always loved the cabinet, offered to move it into her home as she had the space. Marjorie was relieved as her problem was solved; and she would be able to see her cherished cabinet when visiting Sue.

Later that week, Rob called his parents to check in.  Marjorie shared that Sue had offered to take the china cabinet.  Rob was speechless!  His daughter, Rebecca, had always loved the cabinet, and he had expected that his parents would have offered it to her. Rob wasn’t angry at his mom as he understood that her memory wasn’t what it had been; however, he was furious with Sue as she had always known how much Rebecca wanted the cabinet.

Rob seethed all the way home and called Jane to let her know what Sue had done. As he ranted, Jane started to remember past grievances that she had with Sue. Then the conversation really took off! By the end of the call an hour later, both siblings felt better and had decided that Sue had behaved badly.

A few weeks later, the siblings met at their parents’ home as arranged to help with packing. Sue was confused and hurt by the distance she experienced from her brother and sister.  She had no idea what had caused the chilly reception. As the day progressed, she started to remember times in the past when her siblings had sided together against her. She thought about how often she had felt excluded. The day was uncomfortable for everyone–including Marjorie and Ed, who had no idea about what was going on.

The next day, Sue called Marjorie to complain about Jane and Rob’s behaviour.

Welcome to Triangulation

The relationships we share with family members can be stressful. Sometimes they become intense, and as we cope with a current difficulty, past challenges come back to haunt us.  Uncomfortable emotions such as anger, sadness and frustration can arise, and we want to lessen our discomfort. Triangulation occurs when we pull in a third party to help decrease the heightened, negative emotions we are experiencing with the first person.

Triangulation is a habit…a way to make ourselves feel better. In our story, Rob triangulated Jane into the situation with Sue. He was able to let off some steam and continue with his day. Sue pulled in her mom as a way to cope with her negative feelings regarding her interaction with Jane and Rob the day before.

The Trouble with Triangulation

Often, we don’t see that there is a problem with this way of coping. We vent to a third party and then feel better. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. We may be able to move on in the moment, but the original issues don’t get resolved.

When creating triangles becomes a family  habit, relationship problems are pushed underground where they fester–only to be brought up the next time the triangle is set up. Past issues between Jane and Sue were unearthed and discussed when Rob reported on his current dissatisfaction with Sue.

Because of triangulation, past hurts are more difficult to heal.

A Particularly Harmful Type of Triangle

The above story deals with triangulation between adult siblings and a parent–leading to ongoing painful relationships. However, when triangles are created between a parent and non-adult child the repercussions are much worse.

When couples are having relationship difficulties, it is often tempting for one (or both) members of the couple to triangulate in a child/young adult as a way to decrease their feelings of tension.  This can range from complaining to a child about a partner’s bad habit to a full-on disclosure about what is causing a relationship breakdown.  Sometimes parents will speak to each other ‘through the child’ to avoid having to talk face-to-face.

Ideally, in a family system, the parents are the “head” of the household.  For healthy maturation children need to know that the adults in the system are stable as they provide a “united front”. By triangulating a child into adult concerns, we are robbing them of that stability. We may end up pitting the child against a particular parent, damaging that relationship. A child/young adult’s self esteem can be damaged as they learn that “half of their gene pool” is not acceptable.

If you feel the need to complain about your partner to your child, please stop! If you cannot speak to your partner directly, find someone else you can speak to until the situation improves.

Ending Triangulation

Triangulation is a habit.  Like any habit, with work and awareness, we can choose to do something different.  But how?

  • When feeling upset about another’s actions, resist the urge to bring in a third party. We can practice self-soothing tools.  Go for a walk, have a bath or shower, watch a movie or read a book. Find something that will distract you from the painful emotions until they have calmed enough that you can look at them from a rational vs. emotional mindset.
  • Refuse to be brought into another’s triangle. Getting involved in drama can be exciting! However, we’re not doing ourselves or others any favours. Rather than getting caught up in the story, you can help the other person to calm down. Encourage them to speak to the person with whom they are having the difficulty.
  • When you are calm and ready to talk, start a conversation with the person who is the source of the negative emotions. This may take some time and require outside support–especially if this has been a pattern for a long time and there are deeply buried resentments.
A Word of Warning!

Triangulation can be a difficult habit to break. We use it because we may experience some immediate relief. Not triangulating is hard. Taking the first step to speak to another about what is bothering us takes courage and we can’t predict  how they will respond.

When we change our pattern and refuse to take part in a triangle, the person inviting us in may become angry.  It’s important that we hang in there and gently explain that we don’t want to continue in this behaviour.  Again, this takes courage and consistency.  It may take awhile, but you will see positive results.

Triangulation–Not Just in Families

Once you become aware of the triangulation dynamic, you may begin to see if everywhere–at work or in friendships.  Where there are two people interacting, there is the potential for triangulation.

Being swept up in a triangle can be exhausting.  We can choose to do something else!

An now, where was Homer Simpson when I was in high school?  Enjoy!

When the Ground Cracked

At some point in our lives we go through periods of transition and discernment about where to go next.  We can learn so much from the experiences of others.

Below is the latest  “Point of View” article entitled “When the Ground Cracked” published in the October 2017 issue of Psychology Today.  It is a moving and honest account of moving through this process.  Here is Tova Mirvis’ article in its entirety. 

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels and The Book of Separation, a memoir to be published this month.

 

The blind date had been arranged by a friend of mine who thought that this young man and I were perfect for each other. He was a first-year law student who knew many of my friends. I was a senior in college, a few months away from graduating and awash in uncertainty about what was to come.

In the Modern Orthodox Jewish community of which we were both a part, the rules of courtship were rigidly prescribed. Physical contact was prohibited. Dating was intended to lead directly to marriage and family. Since childhood, I had been taught to believe in a detailed set of rules and a preordained truth. Orthodox Judaism was a life built of minute actions, each one a single brick that contributed to a reliably secure structure.

Aaron, as I’ll call him, was sweet, soft-spoken, and gentle, and on our first date, at a local kosher restaurant, we catalogued all the ways we were similar. We had been raised in the same religious sphere, one that espoused the idea that you could be part of the secular world yet remain strictly observant. Ours was a world of studying sacred texts, adhering to the exacting laws of the Sabbath, and eating only food that had been rabbinically approved. The innumerable rules not only governed every aspect of our lives, they also built a community that was all-encompassing. By remaining inside it, we were surrounded by people who ordered their lives as we did, getting together for Sabbath meals and living in close proximity to one another. We didn’t have to challenge or struggle or question; we just had to follow the path laid out for us.

This was especially comforting because I sometimes felt the presence of a wily inner self. It was as if other versions of me were hidden inside, like a Russian nesting doll. Ever since I was a little girl, sitting beside my mother in synagogue, I would look around at the other congregants who were supposedly deep in prayer and wonder what they were really thinking. In accordance with the strict laws of modesty, the married women wore hats, many of which blocked their faces from view. I was curious about what more complicated stories might lie beneath. Were they as happy and faithful as they outwardly appeared? Did they really believe the content of the prayers they recited, or did they sometimes chafe at the abundance of Jewish laws that regulated their lives? Did they have any doubts, like me?

Aaron and I got engaged 12 weeks after our first date. I was a little nervous about how quickly we’d made this decision, but I pushed away the feeling. There was a clear path before me now. To be engaged seemed to lock in who I was and would always be. Getting married felt like an insurance policy against the possibility of change. At our wedding, I walked down the aisle, a tulle veil covering my face and casting the world in an ethereal haze. The ring on my finger bound me not just to my husband but to our religious life together.

 I was correct that marriage was the best way to quiet my questions, at least for a while. We had three children and raised them the way we had both been raised. I dutifully instilled in them the Jewish teachings that had been drilled into me, though I sometimes heard an inner voice questioning what I was saying. And I still found myself glancing at the people around me in synagogue, though now I was one of the married women wearing a hat that drew a line across my view. I quietly wondered: Did anyone else harbor fantasies of escape? Did they ever feel that the truest parts of themselves had to be kept out of sight, even from those who presumably knew them best?
“I don’t know if I really believe in this,” I would sometimes confess to Aaron, wishing for the freedom to lay bare my full self, hoping that we had the kind of marriage in which we could burrow down to the raw truth. An anxious look would flash across his face. “But I want to be Orthodox,” he would say.

“I know. We are,” I would assure him, tucking away the questions. We had originally connected because we were so similar, the life path we yearned to follow so rigid and certain. Now, years later, there was simply no way to change course.

At night, in the dark, my unease emerged nonetheless. I lay awake imagining the firm ground below me giving way to cracks. Or pulling a thread on a sweater and watching as it came apart in my hands. I wondered what would have happened had I not gotten engaged so young, so quickly. What if I had allowed myself the time to question and wrestle and experiment? What if I hadn’t been so afraid of the unknown?

I continued to observe the rules of Orthodoxy, hoping all this activity might eventually take the shape of actual belief.  I felt alone in my marriage but warned myself away from the hard places—it was easier to remain in denial about the differences between us, which I saw no way to change. I still didn’t know if anyone else felt the same searing loneliness, the same jagged-edged doubt that I did. But I couldn’t hide from the fact that I didn’t believe in the tenets of my faith. And there wasn’t any space inside my marriage for the person I was slowly becoming.

As I neared my 40th birthday, my questions took on an urgent tone. For how long would I try to deny what I really knew? I recalled how on holidays as a child, I eagerly anticipated the moment when a group of designated men blessed the congregation. With their black and white prayer shawls pulled over their heads, these men recited a special incantation while the rest of us followed the strict admonition not to look at them, mindful of the stories of what supernatural punishment could befall a person who did: Some said you would go blind, or become corrupted. Automatically heeding the rules, I kept my eyes squeezed shut, afraid of seeing something forbidden.

Now, I could no longer keep my eyes closed.

I left my marriage. I stopped going to synagogue. I began to break the religious rules. After years spent trying to keep both my marriage and my faith intact, the two came apart with a single snap.

Surely many married people have room to change and evolve within their relationship. Surely, for some people, marriage and faith can be disentangled, one remaining intact while the other falls away. But for me, leaving one necessitated leaving the other. From the start, they were entirely intertwined. Orthodox life was the foundation that my marriage was built on, so as the former dissolved, so did the latter. Both were structures that were supposed to match the shape of who I was, and instead, both had come to feel like a vise.

Divorced and no longer Orthodox, I had no clear path before me. There were no more assurances that if I followed a specific set of rules I would be blessed and content. There was no longer a defined, clear-cut way to raise my children, whose custody my ex and I shared. Now at sundown on Friday, when I once would have lit the Sabbath candles at an exact time, preparing for a day to be observed in a precise way, I could go anywhere, do anything. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted that to be. Now when I ate nonkosher food or wore sleeveless shirts that I once deemed immodest, it was hard to recognize myself. Each transgression was new and destabilizing, each its own separate leave-taking.

 Gone, too, that web of community that had always surrounded me—those invitations to Sabbath dinner tables, that comfort of knowing that community members would show up with meals if there was an illness or death in my family. Many of my Orthodox friends ceased speaking to me altogether. I discovered that sometimes the price to be paid for freedom is loneliness.

But slowly, the sense of disorientation began to ease. Soon it felt less strange to break rules that had once seemed so taboo. I accepted that change always comes with loss. I came to understand that the people who no longer spoke to me were part of one small world; with time, there would be other worlds I would discover for myself. I began to enjoy the fact that I could sample new foods, explore new places, entertain new ideas, meet new people, try out new ways of being.

I still had questions: How could I maintain a sense of tradition? How could I ease my guilt about having upended so much of my life? But now there was room for doubt and uncertainty, growth and change. I didn’t have to convince myself that I believed things when I didn’t. I didn’t have to teach my children to adhere to rules whose validity and value I questioned. It became easier to say what I really thought. There were no easy answers, but after all this time, I felt as if my eyes were finally open.

The Curiosity of Perception

On February 26, 2015, this photo became an Internet sensation as people argued about whether the colours of the dress were blue and black or white and gold.  People in my workplace at the time, defended their position and couldn’t understand how others didn’t see what they did.

According to the Wikipedia article on this item, the phenomenon revealed differences in human colour perception which have been the subject of ongoing scientific investigation in neuroscience and vision science, with a number of papers published in peer-reviewed science journals.

Unfortunately, some perceptions aren’t as black and white (or white and gold!) as the dress conundrum–or as easy to understand.

What is Perception?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines perception as the way we think about or understand someone or something.  It’s the ability to understand or notice something easily.  Perception describes the way that we notice or understand something using one of our senses.  It’s part of being human, and one of the ways that we make sense of our world.  But how does it play out in daily life?

Perception in Practice

If we are always using our sense of perception, do we ever run into problems? Unfortunately, yes.  Our perceptions can lead us down the path of judgement–which can encourage separation from others rather than inclusiveness.

An Exercise

Take a moment and imagine that you are on a crowded bus.  It’s the beginning of the day and you’re travelling to work.  On the bus is a father with two young children.  The man is starring into space as his children run up and down the aisles, yelling at the top of their lungs. The boys appear to be unkempt–dirty faces and rumpled clothes.  Their father ignores them as they ask a woman sitting near to them if they can have a bite of her muffin.

Many people’s first perception could be that the “father is incompetent”.  Why isn’t he parenting his children?  We may think that the children are badly behaved and neglected. We  wonder if there is a need to call Family and Children’s Services.

How does our opinion change, if we know the story of this small family?  What if we were able to read this man’s mind to discover that he had been at the hospital all night sitting with his dying wife?  That this visit would be the last time that the boys would see their mother?  Suddenly, we see the situation from a place of compassion, and a desire to help may take hold of us.

It comes down to perception.

Perception in the Bigger Picture

There is a concept about perception that I encountered years ago in the Utne Reader.  The writer was exploring how the citizens of one country could be convinced to wage war against the people of another.  She suggested that the first step was to change the population’s perspective of the proposed enemy–a movement from seeing them as people to “Them”.  “Us” were the ‘good guys’–honest, hardworking, family-focused, ‘in the right‘.  Over time,  “Them” became demonized–a ‘not “Us”‘.  The writer posited that it’s easier to be willing to hurt others when we don’t see them as human.

Again, it comes down to perception.

Perceptions and Thought Patterns in Health

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Full Catastrophe Living:  Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness writes about the connection between perception (thoughts) and health.

Kabat-Zinn states:

“Although we are often unaware of our thoughts as thoughts, they have a profound effect on everything we do and they can have a profound effect on our health as well, which can be better or worse.”

The writer goes on the explain that in his opinion there are two basic filters on the world–optimism and pessimism.   Individuals who are more pessimistic tend to blame themselves for negative events in their lives and see them as lasting for a long time.  When encountering a negative event or failure, pessimistic thinking may look like:  “I always knew I was stupid and this proves it; I can never do anything right.”.

Individuals who have a more optimistic perception of negative events tend not to blame themselves and if they do, see them as short-term ones that will be resolved.  Rather than catastrophizing, i.e. having sweeping global statements about the event, they see the event as having specific consequences related to the incident.

From a mental health perspective, Kabat-Zinn cites research showing that individuals who have a highly pessimistic perception/style are at a significantly higher risk for becoming depressed when they encounter a negative event than are those who have a more optimistic way of thinking.

It appears that our perception of the world and what we think about those perceptions has an effect on our health.

Working With Perception in Therapy

One of the gifts of therapy is the opportunity for a change of perspective.  Often the binds and broken relationships that we find ourselves in can be connected to judging a person, place, historical event or situation and then creating stories based on our perceptions. These stories become the narrative that runs through our lives.  Changing perspective helps us to change our stories.

There is a story of a young woman who lost her memory due to a stroke.  Until her memory returned she had no judgments about anything from her past.  One day she met a man who introduced himself as her father.  Until that time, the daughter had chosen to end the relationship with her Dad due to a serious misunderstanding.  However, because of the brain trauma, she was able to look at everything from a place of ‘beginner’s mind’–i.e.  it was all new.  Because she didn’t know the history, she was able to develop a positive relationship with her Dad that continued once she became well.

In Life Review Therapy the therapist helps the client to look at past, painful events from the perspective of the current day.  Like the example of the young father on the bus, the client is able to fill in the pieces of missing information and in doing so re-frame stories that they may have been telling themselves.

When couples come to therapy, a lot of the work involves helping each partner to see situations, conflicts and past hurts from the perspective of the other.  In the process, each person can gain an understanding of how misunderstandings arose, the repercussions of shared actions and a greater love and respect for the resiliency of themselves, each other and their relationship.

At it’s core, therapy is mostly about stories–the stories that a client tells are the clay that is molded by the therapist and client together to create something new.  A thought that I’ve often heard clients express, sometimes in a state of bemusement is: “I’ve never thought of it that way before.”.

It’s all about perspective.

Now, for a lesson in perspective from childhood…enjoy!