Words Don’t Make the Whole Picture

We live in a world that values words over most other things, and many powerful moments get drowned in the constantly verbal torrent.  Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that there is any way to make an impact without using lots of words, and it is hard to understand the impact that can be had in wordless moments.  I hesitate to use the word “silence” here because wordless moments aren’t just silent moments.  They can be quite loud if we listen for something other than words.

This morning, the nonverbal part of me sent me out to the garden for no particular reason.  No words, I just felt a strong urge to go into the garden.  I was greeted with signs of life that I would have missed had I not slowed down enough to see them, had I not listened to that silent but powerful part of me.  Seeing the first sprouts of the seeds I’d planted made the back strain from digging a bed for them worth it, and I got very excited about the upcoming season of eating greens from the garden.  Seeing that the asparagus is coming back after a dry winter, I was filled with this feeling of wonder, as if something impossible is happening right before my eyes.  Smelling the violets filled me with this sense of luxury.  These tiny little weed flowers pack a massive, deep scent.  They taste good, too!  Hearing the birds chattering and chirping gave me a feeling that there is a ton of life all around me. I was in the garden for a total of maybe 10 minutes, and all of these things happened without a single word being spoken.

I would like to invite you to join me in a challenge. Take a moment (or more) of your day when you would normally gratuitously talk or look at a screen or anything with words, and stop.  Ask yourself if words are necessary in that moment.  If you are with someone, invite them to join you in this challenge.  Agree not to speak for a designated amount of time.  Allow yourself to take in the wordless things or beings around you and just be with them. Notice how they make their presence known to you and allow them to impact you. Notice your mind trying to put words on them and let that go. See how this makes you feel.  Are you restless?  Bored?  Feeling under assault by a torrent of word thoughts?  People who aren’t talkers feel this way much of the time.  Even if you are able to give attention to the wordless for just a short second, you have changed something.  Keep practicing this, and you will open up a new world in small, powerful increments.

violets in hand asparagus

The Difference Between Hard Work and Struggle in Relationship

I was once involved with someone who was quite lovely, and who wanted a much different sort of relationship than I did.  Our conflicting desires made the relationship unsustainable and rather painful. Unfortunately, we did not communicate to each other what we wanted our relationship to be until we were both too deeply hooked by the usual things that lure people into relationships, including doomed ones: attraction, sex, fireworks, and big feelings. If we’d spoken about our opposing relationship intentions from the beginning, it might have ended there. We were too attracted to each other to take the risk of losing a chance to be together, so we dove in without saying anything to each other about it.  The sex and fireworks acted as a sort of crazy glue, bonding us two unlikely beings quite firmly together. Once we both were hooked, some truths came out about our completely mismatched intentions in the relationship, but by then, neither of us wanted to let go. It felt like there was too much to lose at this point, so we forged on in this struggle to keep each other.

Eventually, I realized that the struggle was the only thing we had together. There was no real relationship, just that struggle. I remember having a picture in my mind of the two of us trying to carry a heavy treasure chest, each holding one handle and not getting anywhere because we were pulling it in different directions. I pictured one of us trying to carry it downhill toward a path to the ocean, and one of us trying to take it uphill toward the path to a mountain peak.  We couldn’t even get that chest onto either path and we were stuck in the crossroads pulling opposite sides of it, then getting hurt from the struggle; talking about how we felt hurt; discussing strategies that did not factor in the fact that we were going in opposite directions; trying again and getting stuck in that same cycle, over and over again.  I had to admit to myself that I could not move any treasure chest with this particular person, ever, and I had to leave the relationship behind in order to take the path I wanted to take.

That experience gave me a visceral understanding of the difference between struggle and hard work in relationships. A struggle is all-consuming and even feels like hard work, but it is work that takes you nowhere. You bust your ass, but you have no impact. In a struggle, you are controlled by that which you are struggling with. If you are struggling financially, your life is controlled by money, the lack thereof and the means you have to use to try make money. If you are struggling physically with someone who is much stronger than you, you are controlled by that person. If you are struggling with your unsatisfying job, your life feels controlled by that job. If you are struggling with a difficult relationship, you feel controlled by that relationship. When something is controlling you, you have little to no energy, space, bandwidth for anything else. That thing is the main focus of your reality, yet you have no real impact on it. That is what it is like to struggle.

In a good relationship, hard work feels different than struggle does.  A healthy relationship takes hard work, but it does not consume and control your life. A healthy relationship requires you and yours to understand that you can survive the loss of that relationship; that you do not need that relationship in order to survive. When you know this deeply, you are free to state your intention at the beginning of the relationship, knowing that you and who you are interested in are both free to walk away if your intentions are incompatible.  If you decide to build a relationship together, you know that you share common goals and that nobody is sacrificing their values or freedom to be in this relationship, and you start out carrying the relationship on an agreed path. You are choosing each other rather than falling into each other. This feels dignified rather than desperate. Your hard work has an impact. Your hard work gets you somewhere, because you are working together on something that you agreed to work on.  You are on the same page; you are not at odds with each other.  When you disagree about things, you aren’t disagreeing about the entire focus and direction of the relationship.

If you would like to leave the struggle and get to the hard work in a relationship, you are going to have to make changes that might feel scary.  First, you need to find out if this is a relationship that can be fixed: do you have common goals but are just having a hard time figuring out how to work together?  If this is the case, then a good relationship counselor might be able to help you find out how to let go of the struggle and focus on the work.  The work will have you looking at what draws you to the struggle in the relationship and how can you change your focus from the struggle to the hard work.  If on the other hand, you discover that you are in a relationship that can’t be salvaged, you will be focused on ending the relationship.  Your work will have you examining what draws you to a relationship that consumes you but that you can’t have an impact on.  Your work will have you exploring what impact you do want to have.  Once you untangle yourself from the struggle, you will be free to use your energy and hard work to build a satisfying life, with or without a partner.  The hard work is always worth it.

Finding Balance on the Internet: Reclaiming Inspiration, Creativity and Connection

About twenty years ago, before there was the Internet, before I owned a computer, I had rich, complicated and sometimes frustrating friendship with a woman named Barbara.  I have no idea what happened to her in the years since I knew her, and appropriately enough, I cannot find her online anywhere. Back when I knew Barbara, I was a struggling, somewhat lost and plenty broke twenty-something who’d majored in art and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. She shared a lot of her life wisdom with me, since she’d been out in the world much longer and possessed the rare combination of rich life experience, deep insight, and the ability to articulate about both.  During that period, I was bursting with artistic and creative inspiration, and would often tell Barbara about my ideas for various projects and endeavors.  One day she said to me something like this: “Elyn, I feel like you tell me about these ideas you have and then the telling somehow deflates the ideas. I think that if you didn’t talk about them, they might turn into art. By telling me about them, you give them away and they never turn into anything.” Something about this struck me as true and important, so I decided to let it sink in.

One day shortly after this conversation, I was buying groceries and I picked up a sweet potato. I was wearing my favorite hoodie and this sweet potato was shaped as if it were wearing a hoodie, too. I asked the cashier if I and the sweet potato looked alike and she said yes and we shared a giggle with the man in line behind me.  We got into a conversation about spiritual enlightenment resembling a lumpy potato more than bright white lightness.  It was a connected and silly moment with strangers.  I felt a strong urge to call Barbara and tell her about it, but decided that there was something creative about this sweet potato and I would heed her words and not talk about it.  I started heating oil in a pot for soup.  I left the room and came back to discover that the pot was on fire.  Big flames were coming out of the soup pot like a gorgeous, brilliant, strange and somewhat frightening art installation.  I resisted the urge to call Barbara.  I cleaned the pot, started over, and went into the bathroom to wash my hands.  When I looked in the mirror, I noticed that with my hoodie off, my hair had taken the same exact shape as the sweet potato.  It was sticking up as if it were its own hoodie, and I brought that potato in there with me and laughed for quite a while at the image of the two of us in the mirror.  Then I cut the sweet potato up and made a delicious soup.

Again I resisted the urge to call Barbara, and instead I decided to make a little coloring storybook about the whole event, titled “The Sweet Potato of Perfection.”  This turned into a huge project for me, where I made dozens of these little books and gave them to friends and strangers.  Different friends colored the books in different ways, some added drawings to it themselves.  The one copy I still have is one where a friend added an entire picture story line with a little alien flying around in the background of my story.  I gave one of the books to the cashier who’d been there in the first place.  She responded by making her own coloring book about more of the produce in the store, called “The Dreaded Lemon.”  The main character was a lemon with dreadlocks.  So much inspiration, connection and fun grew out of that little moment with the sweet potato, and Barbara was right: if I had told her about my sweet potato, none of this would have happened.  If social media had existed then, the moment would have ended in the grocery store.  I am sure I would have taken a selfie with my doppelganger potato and posted it online, and people might have clicked “like” or made funny comments, but within a short time, it would be buried under some other Facebook moment.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing moments of inspiration online, but I believe that many moments get shared before they’ve had time to incubate and occupy their full potential, and then they get lost.  Instead of giving inspiration away on social media before it can grow, I wonder about exploring the urge to share that moment with others, instead mining that inspiration to see what it holds for us, letting it grow fully before giving it away.  If we see a good looking recipe, why not wait until we make that food before posting the recipe on Pinterest?  That strong urge to share the recipe, if we let it grow, could be turned into an invitation: why not invite a friend or neighbor over to cook together or to try the meal?  I’m sitting here writing about this while sitting next to a window where I see a ton of birds in the yard.  Some of them are comical in the way they interact with each other.  I am resisting the urge to take photos of them or even to talk about what is comical about their interactions, because I think it might be time for me to make a new coloring book.  What do you feel inspired to do?

For more posts about finding balance on the Internet, go here.



Learning to Love Your Broken, Injured Self

Learning to love yourself can be a messy, painful business in general, but even more painful and seemingly impossible if you were abused or neglected as a child.  If you grew up in this way, you grew to believe that certain parts of yourself were unlovable, undesirable, even disgusting or dangerous. When you are raised by parents who are unable to see you and love you, or parents who are abusive, you learn to avoid doing anything that incurs wrath or rejection. You bury the parts of yourself that would do those things. If you learned that being angry is frowned upon, you stuff your anger away. If you learn that speaking your mind is cause for rejection, you bite your tongue. You might have been abused or rejected for being smart, not smart enough, too big, too small, too pretty, not pretty enough, not strong enough, too strong, not enough like your family’s definition of a man or a woman, too wild, not wild enough.  It’s an arbitrary list because actual personality traits or behaviors have nothing to do with your worth, but that is what abuse teaches you to believe.

The simple truth is that you were abused or rejected because your parent(s) were abused or rejected themselves.  The abuse was not your fault, but you had no way of knowing that.  You believed that you caused the abuse by being yourself.  You learned to fear and despise those unique qualities that made you who you were were.  You did what you had to do to survive childhood: you rejected the parts of yourself that you believed caused the abuse.  You put all of your energy into growing the parts of yourself that kept you from being abused.   You learned that only some parts of yourself were desirable and that others were abhorrent; that to be loved, you needed to be a certain way other than just yourself.   This is not love, but how as a child were you supposed to know this?

So, how can you learn to love yourself when you have this deep belief that you or parts of yourself are unlovable, even disgusting?  Before you even try, ask yourself if you are ready to turn your entire life and belief system upside down, if you are ready to feel some incredibly scary feelings that challenge any changes you make.  Are you ready to ditch your old road map that, as messed up as it is, gives your world some feeling of sense and direction?  In order to change your belief system about who you are and what you deserve, you are going to have to go through profound discomfort.  All the parts of your self that helped you survive childhood, the bits that shoved down your essential self, are not going to be happy about the changes you make.  Those parts of you existed entirely for the purpose of keeping you safe from harm in your childhood by shoving down the parts of you that got abused.  Big feelings of danger will be triggered when you change that system.

At this point, you might be wondering why you would bother going through all the pain involved in learning to love yourself.  A friend once shared with me a wonderful quote by Anais Nin: “The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  At some point, the pain of locking all of your scary parts down outweighs the fear of what might happen if you were to make some sort of change.  A big part of you wants to grow and is pushing against that bud that keeps you closed down inside of yourself.  When you reach that point, you are ready because nothing is more painful than the place you are in right now.  Now is the time to get help.  I can’t tell you what your new road map will look like, or how long it will take for you to get to the place where you trust yourself enough to love yourself.  I can tell you that you do not have to figure this out alone, that there are others just like you who are struggling on the same path hoping to find you by conquering their own self-hatred, that the path is not linear and sometimes the only way to know that you are making progress is when your old self starts to scream in fear because it is losing its hold over you, and lastly but most importantly, all of the pain is worth it.

When Your Emotional Injury Rules Your Life

When I was too little to appreciate the message, my mom read me the Hans Christian Andersen story  The Fir Tree.  It’s a story that drives its point home in a dark and visceral manner.  It left an ugly impression on me as a child, but as an adult I can appreciate the message in the way it was meant to be understood.  If you are unfamiliar with this story, it is about a little fir tree who was so obsessed with being like the bigger trees that he missed out on all the joys and treasures he had in front of him, while they were in front of them.  His entire short life is spent wishing to be how he imagines the bigger, happier, better trees are.  Every time he achieves the thing he’d been jealous of before, it is empty for him, it does not give him what he thought it would, so he craves the next thing.  Anytime someone like a little bunny reminds him, by jumping over him, that he is small and therefore hasn’t achieved his dream he feels enraged.  The sun tells him to feel the joy of the life he is living, but he does not listen.  He keeps striving for that thing that will give him the escape to the greatness that he is craving.  He gets everything that he wishes for, and still, none of it produces the joy, the magnificence, dignity, and splendor that he seeks. In the end, he dies in a fire having never understood how to enjoy his life, and as he burns up, he says “Oh, had I but enjoyed myself while I could have done so! But now it is too late.”  He couldn’t appreciate what he had until it was gone, because when he had it, he himself was gone, off in the future of his imagination.  Like I said, dark and visceral.

This fir tree could not inhabit his own reality. Sometimes, people can be like this tree, looking externally for something that they hope will make them feel better about themselves.  If you are like this, you might suffer from an emotional injury, one that would be very painful to feel if you were to stop looking outside of yourself and redirect your attention inward.  You might be afraid to look inside, you might not know how.  You just know that you are unhappy and you don’t want to be, so you look for the things that would make you feel better.  When you get those things and realize that you are still unhappy, you try to find bigger, better things.  The more you achieve or receive, the more intense the unhappiness becomes.  You might try fix your feelings of being unlovable by getting married; if you feel unimportant; you might think that a prestigious position at work will do it; if you feel unneeded, you might have a child; if you feel unsafe you might buy a gun.  What happens when any or all of these things that are supposed to make all the bad feelings go away don’t make any of the bad feelings go away?

Feeling unlovable, unimportant, unneeded, unsafe are all symptoms of emotional injuries.  Emotional injuries are internal: they cannot be patched with external objects, activities, achievements, jobs, positions of power, or relationships.  The more a person tries to do so, the more those feelings will grow.  Let’s say that you got married thinking that you would finally feel lovable.  The honeymoon passes, life settles into a routine, and you still feel unlovable.  Now you feel worse: here you are with The One that is supposed to have made you feel loved and you still feel unlovable.  When you thought that the answer was out there somewhere but you didn’t have it yet, at least you could strive for it.  But now you have the thing you strove for, and you are still unhappy.  Unless you start looking inside, you are going to blame your spouse for not making you happy in the marriage.  Your spouse might scramble and try to make you feel better, but unless you attend to your emotional wound, nothing your spouse does will feel like enough.  You can imagine what this will do to a marriage.

The solutions offered to the fir tree were too simple; impossible, really.  For the sun to say “rejoice in thy youth” would be the same as someone telling you, “enjoy your spouse, you are so lucky to have such a good person” when you are feeling miserable and unhappy in your marriage.  It is not a simple thing to stop with the striving and to sit with your emotional injury.  It is hard, ugly, scary work.  I don’t recommend doing it alone.  The first and most important step is to stop looking outside of yourself and accept that there is something inside you that no one else, nothing else can fix but you.  The good news is that, while it is only you who can go inside yourself and face the feelings that this injury holds for you, a therapist can help you find the map to that injury, and can help you to navigate all the pain and fear that comes along with feeling and healing it.  It is yours alone to face and heal, but you do not have figure out how to do it alone.  The other good news is that, while it is hard work, it is work that pays you back tremendously.  When you are no longer enslaved by the striving for the unattainable, you become free, your energy becomes yours, and the love and power that are borne from healing yourself are boundless.

Trusting Your Inner Authority over Your Primitive Self

We used to have unruly Dalmatians, one in particular who was extremely insecure and nervous.  She was aggressive and she barked a lot and sometimes she would bite.  We spent quite a lot of time, energy, and money on dog training.  Our trainer told us that in the world of dogs, the Alpha dog does not need to bark or bite or anything. The Alpha can just walk into a group of dogs with confidence and the other dogs will roll over. Our dog wished she were an Alpha dog, but in reality, she was what the trainer described as a “middle manager” dog.  She lacked confidence, she was a fear biter, and she felt that everything was a threat that was her responsibility to deal with: if someone or something scared her, she’d attack.  Once, our dog trainer had a special group class for emotionally challenged dogs. She brought her elderly, blind, crippled Corgi and one by one, each dog on leash could come up, sniff her, see that she was not a threat, and walk away. Our dog was the only one who came up, sniffed her, freaked out and tried to attack her.  She had no concept that she was much bigger, abler and more powerful than this poor little old dog.

In the dog training we did with her, the idea was to build trust between our dog and her human handlers.  If a perceived threat presented itself, instead of going after the threat, she was supposed to look at whoever was handling her.  If she did so, she’d get a treat and a clicking sound and reassurance.  When out and about, whoever  held her leash was responsible for identifying threats, not her.  Blind, crippled, geriatric corgis and small children were not threats.  Squirrels, sticks that looked like monsters, and pedestrians were not threats.  Off-leash aggressive dogs were threats, but we humans dealt with them.  There was never a threat that was hers to deal with, but had there been one, she could count on us to tell her.  I would have no qualms unleashing her if someone were to attack me, but that never happened.

We all have an inner wild dog part of ourselves who needs to look to the human handler part of ourselves when it feels threatened, to see what to do.  That wild dog part of ourselves is important to keep in reserve just in case it is needed.  I like knowing that it is there if I ever need to protect myself from a real, physical danger.  I like to know that I can count on my inner wild dog should I ever get attacked by a person or an animal, should I ever actually need to go primitive.  I also know that I am lucky to live a life in which this is not an every day possibility.  Most situations in my daily life can be dealt with by my more civilized self.

It takes training to know the difference between a real threat that requires a dog fight and a perceived threat that can be dealt with in a civilized manner.  Sometimes people can say things or do things that make us angry and if we are inexperienced with expressing our anger or have injuries around our expression of anger, we can easily feel threatened.  We might react disproportionately to the situation, or treat someone much less powerful than ourselves as if they are more powerful, including our own children.  Once our inner wild self gets triggered, it doesn’t take these things into consideration.  Once triggered, this part of ourselves just reacts.  It can be hard to access our inner authority that discerns between real danger and elevated emotions.

We can build awareness into these moments.  Unless the person we are reacting to is coming at us physically, there is no urgency to react immediately.  If we’ve established that we are not in immediate physical danger, we can give ourselves a few seconds to identify what part of us is reacting to the situation.  The best way to do this is to breathe and notice what is happening in and around our body.  You can press the pause button by saying, “Give me a second, please.”  If the person respects this wish, or even if they don’t, go inside yourself and ask any of these questions:  Am I breathing?  Where does my breath stop?  Am I clenching muscles? Am I ready to throw punches?  Do I want to scream?  Am I hunching myself into a ball, trying to hide?  Do you notice your surroundings beyond who is in front of you?  Do you feel your feet on the ground? If you are able to establish any sort of consciousness of your inner state in the face of the perceived threat, you’ve successfully engaged the human handler within.  The part of you witnessing yourself in this way is the part of you who knows how to identify whether there is a real threat and what action, if any, needs to be taken.  This part also can reassure your primitive self that everything is under control, that no action is required from the wild dog inside.  From this moment forward, let this witnessing part of yourself decide what happens next.  When you engage your inner authority, you invite others to engage theirs and often things automatically become more civilized as a result.

Some Practical Things to Look At Before Starting Therapy

When I see a client for the first time in my therapy practice, I ask questions about their daily life and habits to help both of us get started.  If a person spent weeks in advance of therapy thinking over these questions and trying to address any issues they illuminate, therapy would get a nice kick start.  With that in mind, this post is for anyone out there who is considering calling a therapist, to help kick start your own experience.

First, I want to know if there are physical issues that could be relieved by seeing a medical doctor. Sometimes, physical issues such as thyroid problems or hormonal changes due to perimenopause can cause a person great emotional distress. If you are battling physical issues by trying to attack the emotional ones, you won’t get very far and you will get frustrated.  If you suspect that something physical is going on, make an appointment with a medical doctor first to rule out or address these issues.

I also want to know whether you are getting any exercise, and if so, how much, how frequently and how intensely. Exercise can help move emotions along and has a profound impact on mood and anxiety. If you are getting too little exercise, before calling a therapist try to fold exercise into your life for a few weeks to see if that helps. If, on the other hand, you suspect that you are getting too much exercise, see what happens if you cut back just a little bit. Notice what changes for you when you change your relationship with exercise.

Linked to exercise is food. What sort of relationship do you have with food, and are you eating a healthy, balanced diet?  It is quite common to have an emotional rather than a physical relationship with food. Even if you don’t change anything in your diet, see if you can become aware of things such as whether you eat when you are hungry, whether you stop eating when you are full, if you eat to avoid certain feelings, if you have judgments about what you eat and so on.  Coming into therapy with this sort of awareness gives you a head start, but if you suspect that you have an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, you need to consult an eating disorders specialist.

Related to food is your relationship with alcohol, caffeine, recreational drugs and prescription medications. If you suspect that you have an addiction to any of these substances, it is important that you address the addiction before you try to delve into deeper emotional issues.  Contact an addictions specialist or seek out a twelve-step program.  If you’ve ruled out addiction, but you suspect that your relationship with these substances is contributing to your emotional state, shine some awareness on these habits.  Notice how much caffeine you have each day and how it makes you feel. If you are on a prescription drug such as asthma medicine, pay attention to its impact on you.  If you drink alcohol or smoke pot regularly, pay attention to the impact it has on you physically and emotionally.  If there is something you can change, give it a try and take note of how it affects you.

Another thing to look at are your habits around screen time. How much time do you spend on social media? How much time is spent on political or news sites?  Do you engage in comment threads, and how susceptible are you to the trolls that lurk on these threads? Do you shop online, do you play games online? How much television do you watch, and what sort of shows do you like? Do any of these shows make you feel tense?  Spend a few days or weeks keeping track of your online and television habits, really noticing how much time you spend each day online or watching TV, and try to see how you feel both physically and emotionally while you are doing so.  Ask yourself if there is anything or anyone you are avoiding or neglecting when you want to get onto a screen.  If you decide to make any changes with your engagement with screen time, take note of how this makes you feel and when you feel most tempted to get online.

It is possible that you might feel much better after examining these areas of your life and making some changes.  You might even decide that therapy is unnecessary, which would be the ideal outcome.  It is also possible that you feel the same or maybe even worse, and that you want help navigating all the feelings that this self-examination has brought up for you.  Therapy is most effective when there is awareness, so you will be entering it equipped with the right tool to give therapy the best start possible.

Trying to Fix Others to Make Yourself Feel Better

When I met my husband, he was going through a divorce. He’d recently moved with multiple pets into an old, crumbling house that had been a college rental for years.  The pets were insane and both the house and yard were a wreck which nobody had attended to for years.  The hedges were overgrown, the yard was weedy and full of construction dirt from his first major attempt at fixing the foundation.  His personal life as well as the house, the yard, the hedges were all a big, wild mess.

Within a short time of moving in, a neighbor knocked on his door.  She lived more than a block down the street in an extremely tidy house with an equally tidy yard.  She announced that she and “the other neighbors” had been talking about his messy yard, and that it bothered all of them.  At one point in the conversation, she said to him, “I don’t know if you are depressed, or what is going on in your life, but if you cleaned up your hedges and your yard, you might feel better about yourself.”  He responded quickly with, “No, you would feel better if I cleaned up my hedges and my yard.”  This comment cut right through to the heart of the matter: she did not care what my husband was going through, she just wanted him to change his property’s appearance to suit her desire for tidiness and order.  She said that maybe she would come back one day and weed his yard.  While she never actually did so, her response made clear that she had such a strong desire to not have to look at my husband’s messy yard that she was willing to put a great effort into changing it to look how she wanted it to look.

Years later, we found out that this woman’s personal life was much messier, dangerous and out of her control than my husband’s yard was.  Inside her home with its orderly, perfect exterior was a frightening interior overrun with severe domestic violence that she was unable to escape from, change, or control.  The messy yards and the loud children and the wilder people in her neighborhood were too much for her to bear because they reminded her that she was not in control of her life.  She was doing her best to find some sense of order and sanity by trying to get others to clean up their acts; it was too overwhelming, painful, and seemingly impossible to clean up hers.  She was so attached to her role of sane person in control that she couldn’t reveal to anyone that her life was exactly the opposite.  She needed help but instead of asking for it, she tried to alter everyone else so that she could look outside of her turmoil and see a sane world.

There are many ways that we might have a little bit of this neighbor in ourselves when we try to get others to do things that would make us feel better about ourselves, but we frame those things as being better for them.  We might even throw an ultimatum in there, to get them to make those changes.  Doing this often ends in frustration because it is impossible get people to change to suit us.  Instead of attempting the impossible, look within and ask, “Is this really something that would be good for me, would make me feel better?”  If you are trying to get someone to do something for “their own good,” whether they are your partner, friend, child, ask yourself, “Would I feel better if they did this?”  If the answer is yes, the next question to ask is, “What feels bad in me that needs to feel better?”

Let’s say that you are trying to get your reluctant partner to get therapy, because you think it would make them feel better (but actually you are hoping it will make them act better).  Would you feel better if your partner got therapy?  If so, then something in you is feeling bad in the relationship.  What is that thing that feels bad?  Do you feel unheard because your partner doesn’t listen to you?  Do you feel ignored because your partner is too distracted: by work; by pot; by the Internet; by something other than the relationship?  Do you feel shut out because your partner can’t share their feelings with you?  What part of you is attracted to this sort of relationship to begin with?  You might have some success in getting your partner to go to therapy, and maybe your partner will come out of it as a better listener who is more attentive and who can share their feelings with you, but unless you address and change the internal part of you that fits the bad listener who is inattentive and withholds feelings, your partner will no longer fit, and the relationship will end.  You can’t make your partner change to become the person you wish you were with, but you can change yourself.  It is work well worth your time and the rewards surpass the effort.

Disengaging from the Silent Treatment and Engaging with Each Other: An Experiment for You to Try

I’ve written extensively about the silent treatment on this blog.  I wrote my first post about it because I was receiving the silent treatment myself, and I felt that my energy would be better spent writing about it than trying to get the attention of the person who was giving it to me.  The person giving me the silent treatment at the time was not someone I had an intimate relationship with, so it was easy for me to disengage.  I had nothing to lose if that particular acquaintance ended, and it did end.  I had no idea that the original post would touch a nerve in so many people who receive or give the silent treatment in much more intimate relationships than the one that inspired it. I have learned quite a bit from those who have commented on this blog about their experiences, and those comments have pushed me to look more deeply at the silent treatment from different angles than I’d originally written about.  Sometimes these comments show me that there is more to say about something; that one post is only the beginning of the story.

Recently, a person commented on the post I’d written about disengaging from the silent treatment.  This was a post directed at both the person giving the silent treatment and the person receiving it, with suggestions for how to disengage from the dynamic of the silent treatment and how to redirect focus away from the person on the other end of it, to one’s self. The person who commented was receiving the silent treatment from her partner, was feeling distressed, and was looking for help.  Part of her comment jumped out at me: “I am trying to just go on with my daily things, work, house cleaning etc. Trying to show that it is not getting to me.”  This was not what I was trying to encourage when I wrote the post about disengaging from the silent treatment.  That post now feels incomplete because it only addresses how to disengage from the silent treatment but it does not talk about how to re-engage with either the person giving it or the person receiving it.

If someone is giving you the silent treatment, they likely feel that they can’t get to you any other way.  Another way to say “get to you” is “have an impact on you.”  The person giving the silent treatment is doing so because it has an impact.  This person is angry or hurt, and wants to have an impact on you and this is the only way that they know how to do it, the only way that works.  It is a waste of energy to pretend that they are not having an impact.  By pretending that the silent treatment is not having an impact, you are giving yourself the silent treatment too.  Do not ignore yourself just because your partner or friend or whoever is ignoring you.  Feel your feelings.  Attend to those feelings.  Treat yourself the way you want your partner to treat you, and prepare to talk to your partner about what it is you want to happen that is different than this.  Prepare to hear your partner talk, even if what they have to say might not be easy to hear.

If you are giving your partner the silent treatment, it is likely that they have done something to upset you and that you feel that there is no other way to make them stop doing the thing that upset you.  You might be afraid of telling your partner what they have done to make you angry enough to stop speaking to them altogether.  It might feel easier to let them rage until they’ve worn themselves out or let them apologize enough times, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem if you don’t tell them what the problem is. Prepare to talk to your partner, even if what you have to say will be hard for them to hear.

When you are changing a dynamic in a relationship, it can be scary and quite difficult to know how to do it.  If you are on the Internet reading articles such as this one, it is because you are looking for help, which is a very positive thing to do.  The downside is that whoever writes the articles does not know you or your partner. I know some things about the silent treatment and its many different manifestations, but I do not know you or your partner’s particular situation and history.  I am writing this post as a sort of springboard to get you started in talking with your partner on either side of the silent treatment, not so much as an endpoint that solves your problem.

Before trying to approach your partner from either side of the silent treatment, ask yourself if it is safe to do so.  Some commenters have described the silent treatment as part of an overall physically abusive relationship.  If you are in that situation, it may not be safe for you to be with your partner, and if you sense that this is the situation, no article about the silent treatment will help you.  If you are in a physically dangerous situation, you need to seek help from experts in the domestic violence field in your area.

If it does feel safe to try something new and approach your partner from either side of the silent treatment, then I offer the rest of this post as an experiment for you to try.  Before speaking to your partner, write them a note saying that you are trying to do things differently, but you don’t know where to begin.  Let them know that you have read a blog post that has some suggestions, and invite them to sit with you and read it together, in the same room.  Let them know that there are some ideas in this post that you would like to share, and that you would like to know what your partner thinks of these ideas, whether they resonate or whether they do not.  Just because this post resonates with you, that does not mean it will with your partner, but at the very least, you can share your perspective and offer to listen to theirs.  If you can agree to listen to each other without attacking or interrupting or name calling, just listen, you are at a great starting point.  If this feels impossible to do, it might be time to look into couples counseling, just to help you get started.

If you are caught in the dynamic of the silent treatment with your partner, it is important to understand that both of you contribute to it and that each of you needs to change something in yourself.  This is not a matter of right or wrong, and if you get stuck thinking so, you won’t get very far.  This is a matter of two people who want to have an impact on each other who don’t know how to in any other way.  If you are open to talking to and hearing from your partner about how you have impacted each other negatively, the chance for change is good.  The silent treatment only exists if two people are engaged in it.  Each person plays a role.  It is common in relationships to focus on what your partner is doing wrong, but harder sometimes to look inside and see how you’re contributing.  If you are the person giving the silent treatment, examine your behavior.  Ask yourself why you want to inflict pain on your partner by withdrawing into the silent treatment.  Do you need to learn to speak more?  If you are the person receiving the silent treatment, examine your behavior.  Do you need to learn to listen more?

One way to learn to talk and listen better is to stop talking altogether and instead, read and write, which brings me back to the experiment part of this post.  If you are reading this and imagining yourself writing a comment here, what would that comment be?  Instead of writing it here, both of you take a moment and write that “comment” and give it to your partner.  Know first that I have a policy of not approving comments that are mean-spirited or involve name-calling, so when you write the comment to share with your partner, imagine that it is being moderated by a therapist, and write it in a way that conforms to the moderation rules on this site.  It is totally possible to express anger without being mean-spirited or calling names, but if you feel tempted to do so, replace the mean-spirited words such as “stupid” with the phrase “I feel angry, or “I disagree” and replace any names you want to call your partner, such as “asshole” or “bitch” with “I feel angry.”  When you are done, agree to give each other some time to really read the comments you have written to each other.  Let each others’ writing sink in for a while.  Sit quietly together, and then decide together whether you are ready to speak, or if more writing is in order, but continue to stay with each other.  Understand that both of you have some big, ugly feelings and it might take a while to get them out.  This is just a first step toward transforming the overwhelming dynamic of the silent treatment to a new way of communicating.  If it works, keep doing it, and feel free to share the results here.  If it doesn’t, keep looking for ideas and trying things because that is how you grow!

Having a Real Impact, Not Just a Virtual One

When I was a little girl, probably about 8 years old, my friend and I were running around in the grocery store, completely oblivious to our surroundings and the people in those surroundings.  We were tearing through the aisles laughing loudly in a fun, wild bubble of our own, when suddenly from outside of our bubble a man spoke to my friend.  He was calm but very commanding, so much so that he got our undivided, awed attention.  He said to her in a kind, appreciative voice, “Thank you so very much for going behind me instead of running in front of me when I was looking at the items on the shelf.  I really appreciate it, just as much as I appreciate it when people say “Excuse me” if they do have to go in front of me while I shop.”  He said nothing to me, who had run right in front of him, and I was mortified.  I’d had no concept that I was impacting anyone negatively because no one had ever said anything to me, or had even looked at me, really.  I wanted to be like my friend from that day forward.  This man had a powerful impact on me: in the grocery, I have never since been able to pass between someone and the grocery wall without either going behind them or saying “Excuse me” if I have no other place to go.  My children have been taught to do the same.  If you’ve ever shopped at a grocery just before Thanksgiving, you might appreciate the behavior that man was advocating for when he spoke to us.

This man could have ignored us and then complained to other people his age about “kids these days” who don’t have any respect for anyone.  If he had done so, neither I nor my friend would have learned about our impact and our behavior would remain unchanged.  He could have shouted at me and I would have run away from him in fear.  He could have berated me and called me a name, and I might feel some shame but I still wouldn’t know what I did wrong.  He could have told me that what I had done that had upset him, and given that I was 8, I probably would not have had the capacity for empathy that one grows into as they get older.  I might have changed my behavior, but it would be coming from a fear of getting in trouble more than a desire to do the right thing.  This man really knew something about kids.  When he told my friend how she had positively impacted him, I wanted to be her.  I wanted to have that sort of impact on him.  I tried to have that impact on everyone I ever passed at a grocery store from then on, and I really appreciate it in a way I might not when others treat me with the same respect he was asking for.

This man is on my mind today because the word “impact” has been on my mind in a big way lately.  We  have gotten to a place in the world where many people do not feel like they have an impact on things, on each other.  When you don’t feel like you have an impact on anyone, on the world around you, you start to feel invisible.  If you are invisible, you might think that nothing you do matters, since no one can see you.  If you feel like you have no positive impact, that you are invisible to others who are hurting you, you can feel quite helpless and stuck.  If you feel that you have no negative impact on others, you will keep doing things that hurt others without knowing it.  The person who feels that they have no positive impact might get angrier and angrier until they blow up at the person who has never been told what their negative impact is.

Until that man spoke to us in the grocery store, my friend and I felt invisible; no one was acting like they could see us, so we could run and laugh and do whatever we wanted in the store because nobody seemed to care.  If that man had not taken the time to speak to us, he might have continued to be invisible to us.  Back then, if there had been cellphones and social media, he might have gotten on Facebook or Twitter to say something about the rude kids who’d just run past.  He’d have spread his belief that we were hopelessly inconsiderate to others who feel the same way, and we would have no idea.  Others who related to him would possibly bond online about kids these days and then would see us or others like us as unreachable, inconsiderate little brats.  Even without social media, he could have just said nothing to us, then gone home to complain about us to his family, but he chose to speak to us and by doing so had a great impact that continues to have power almost forty years later.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about balance on the Internet and how the lack of balance in the use of social media has created an illusion of having an impact while robbing many of us of a real impact.  Using the example of the man in the store, imagine that the man at the store had said nothing to the kids who’d upset him.  Instead, he got on Facebook and posted about what had just happened and maybe he threw in some opinions about “kids these days.”  Let’s say that all of his friends who are about the same age as him feel the same way, and they click on all those little reaction buttons and post tons of comments.  He’s had an impact!  He wrote something on Facebook and his “community” responded!  There are smiley faces, there are frowny faces, and there is a conversation.  The problem with this is that the kids are not included in this conversation and have no idea that they had this impact that has now grown into a firestorm.  In fact, now when those kids do something else awful, he knows how to get more reactions on Facebook about how awful the kids are, and he will get more responses, and he’ll feel like he’s having an impact somewhere.  The kids don’t change, but now there might be an increased feeling of hostility that these kids are meeting up with in public.  And this man’s community has now bonded over the kids’ bad behavior, so now they are a bit dependent on the kids being awful in order to keep their feelings of togetherness going.  Not only are the kids not getting an opportunity to see what their impact has been, an opportunity to grow and change, but now they are expected to stay stuck in their awful behavior so people on Facebook can come together and complain about them.

Social media can be a wonderful tool to bring people together, but when it is out of balance with reality, it can become a weapon that divides.  Next time you are about to post on Facebook about someone who has upset you or is not like you in the real world, whether you are a Gen-Xer complaining about a millennial, or a small town American complaining about an Elite or vice versa, or you are one white liberal complaining about some other white liberal who is doing it wrong, or if you are someone who feels ignored by that person in the weight room who is talking to someone while sitting on the bench; whoever you are, try this challenge I am about to throw down.  If you are impacted by someone in the real world, whether positively or negatively, resist the urge to bypass letting them know their impact.  Notice yourself composing your Facebook or other social media post about the person who is in front of you and, if it is safe to do so, muster up a commanding presence and speak to that person calmly and respectfully about their impact on you.  Then, if it works out in a good way, or even if it doesn’t, go ahead and share on social media what it was like to do this, and maybe it will inspire others to do the same.  If everybody does this, we will all have a real impact.

For more on having an impact, go here.

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