CHARLETTE MIKULKA, LCSW
Author Psychotherapist Speaker
CHAPTER THREE: PERSONALITY IN DAY TO DAY LIFE
CHAPTER FOUR: PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA, HEALING AND EMDR
CHAPTER SEVEN: INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS
CHAPTER EIGHT: FAMILY LIFE
CHAPTER TEN: FINAL CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATONS
Use of this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the author
This book is jam-packed with information and images that I believe will resonate with your most meaningful life experiences. On the one hand, I expect that you will feel validated, reassured, encouraged and inspired. On the other hand, much of what I present and recommend may be quite eye-opening and not a “walk in the park.” Inhaling my words may be hazardous to your delusions. But that is the very reason why this book’s path has the power to dramatically alter your life, unlike other’s you may have followed. The bottom line is this: I am foremost an optimist and would never walk someone through a disturbing scenario unless I was certain that there were clear and achievable ways to move beyond it and flourish.
Some of you might have a pattern of absorbing emotionally-charged information like a sponge and becoming overwhelmed or alarmed. As you read this book, you may be quick to judge yourself harshly as having too much wrong with you, having too much to overcome or having caused too much harm. But this book is not about increasing shame and blame. It is about increasing awareness, understanding, compassion and wise action.
Or you might feel a sense of urgency and panic to fix things quickly and pressure your partner to “get with the program.” I suggest that you instead slow down the process of exploring this material, take smaller bites and keep your focus on your own self-nourishment. It will also help you to remember that what I am describing is the human condition, which means that we are all in the same boat. We’re all striving to feel more effective and fulfilled in our relationships and to be at peace. Trust me; it’s not coming easy for any of us.
You may also be comforted to know that human beings are resilient. We possess inherent healing processes that can be tapped to bring us back to qualities of being that are our birthright. These qualities include courage, curiosity, calm, clarity, confidence and compassion. Consider how well the human body recovers from cases of chicken pox or poison ivy. It seems as though our bodies are going to be scarred forever, and yet, there is barely a trace when the condition passes. Likewise, the human psyche has a built-in capacity to return to wellness. We may need assistance with this healing process when harm is traumatic, extensive and deep-rooted, but now, more than ever before, effective help is available. Hang in long enough with me and you’ll find out about a wide range of healing approaches. In the kind of therapies I will be telling you about, clients develop abilities and engage in unique experiences they had no clue existed, but which they discover to be highly effective. Many people have only experienced talk therapy and taking medication, which can be beneficial, but often are insufficient. We will be taking a look at some newer, less-known approaches that are surprisingly powerful.
As you begin to read the material in this book, some of you might be inclined to dismiss it as relevant to only a small portion of the population and not applying to you. You might think, “I know all that already” or “people have to stop being so fragile and whiny and grow up.” You may not reflect deeply on how this information relates to the drama of your own life. I hope instead you will dare to open your mind and heart a little because, day after day, people suffer needlessly due to being in the dark. Knowledge truly is power. Understanding the forces that shape our personalities, relationships and even physical well-being increases our ability to work with them and even to transform them. Many conditions and problems that people consider hopeless are not at all beyond hope to a psychotherapist. We make it our business to help people, not only learn and accept what is outside their control, but to recognize what absolutely is within their control. We also know which solutions people are inclined to pursue that are actually dead-ends or illusions.
I expect that Peace in the Heart and Home will benefit a wide range of people, including:
· those who feel baffled, overwhelmed, trapped, stuck, frustrated, disgusted and tired of spinning their wheels;
· those who suffer various psychological symptoms such as anxiety, depression, rage, panic, phobias, obsessions, compulsions, addictions or problems with attention, memory and decision-making;
· those who endure chronic or recurrent physical health problems, whether mild or severe, or have a family history of significant health problems;
· those who have experienced childhood trauma and deprivation;
· those who learned long ago to be satisfied with crumbs;
· those who don’t believe they have any psychological needs and don’t see any point in dwelling on problems, emotions, relationships or the past;
· those who are frustrated by their inability to make their spouse happy;
· those who have suffered a series of relationship failures;
· those who care deeply about the relationships they are in and are aware of their unmet needs, dissatisfaction and pain;
· those who are noticing that their marriage and parenting aren’t going as well as they had hoped;
· those who haven’t yet married nor had children and want to learn how to prevent the problems they see so many other people experiencing;
· those who want to be better at marriage and parenting than their parents were;
· those who can’t imagine doing things better than their parents did.
Whoever you are, I hope that you and your loved ones will benefit from my experience and heartfelt words. Like the Olympic Torch, I transfer my flame of knowledge to you. May it guide your journey and lighten your life.
CHAPTER THREE: PERSONALITY IN DAY TO DAY LIFE
I find myself on surging, wild waters that are emanating from my childhood living room and propelling me out the front door onto a vast raging river. As I watch the shoreline rushing by I am aware of my vulnerability and that there is no place I can go… and then I see a stone fortress up ahead. I know that only children and animals live there, so I will be safe. I find myself inside the fortress, hiding within massive, heavy, dark wooden furniture. I can barely breathe. I’m astonished that my life could have dwindled to such a tiny flickering flame that still refused to go out. Suddenly a child approaches me, points to me and says, “I see you there!” While he is laughing, I’m alarmed and tell him, “This is not a laughing matter! No one must know I exist.” Then out of the corner of my eye I see, through an open doorway, a harbor with a ship. I see my chance to escape. When I become aware again, I am in an apartment of my own. I’m very pleased to discover that I have successfully escaped and survived. I am on my own and intact. Then, I look out the window and realize that my world is black and white while the world outside is full of color. My heart sinks.
This is the most significant dream I ever recall having. I experienced it in adulthood during the period when I was in therapy and actively reconnecting with my childhood memories. I’ve held onto it for over twenty years because it captured so poignantly and vividly what my life had felt like prior to my decision to face my emotional history. Most of us do not find the safety and guidance we need to face and heal our pain until we are adults. Many of us go to our graves never having been freed from our past.
As we go through our daily lives there are patterns to how we typically feel, perceive, think and behave, especially in relation to other people. Many of us don’t allow enough time to reflect on these patterns; we take the way we are for granted. We may assume that we are set in stone and there’s nothing we can do about it, so why think about it? Plus, it would only make us feel miserable. Indeed, many people are tormented, drowning in awareness of their feelings, emotions, thoughts and experiences, and feeling absolutely confused, stuck and overwhelmed. As we move along in Peace in the Heart and Home, I will provide a framework that enables us to imagine a way of being that is neither a “done deal” nor utter chaos. That framework will involve effective ways of being in touch with difficult emotion-laden reality.
States of Mind or “Ego States”
“But he seemed so timid and polite--the last person to do such a thing.” Following a murder-suicide in the community, this kind of shocked remark is typically made by neighbors and co-workers. A similar kind of disbelief and confusion may follow the news that the compassionate clergyman molests children. Then there is the pillar of the community who ignores his wife and drinks himself to sleep; the feisty “tough cookie” who at home appeases her domineering husband; the man with the perfect life and family who is having an affair with his sister-in-law, the jovial guy at work whose presence provokes dread in the hearts of his wife and children; the superstar athlete whose amazing feats are sandwiched between battles with cancer, the vegetarian parent whose children are obese and the organized perfectionist whose procrastination puts him in bankruptcy. How could these contradictions exist in the same person?
Every one of us has multiple sides to our personality. Different sides become activated in different situations. Some people who were angry, impatient and critical as parents, turn out to be benign and loving grandparents. In some situations, we consciously make changes in how we behave, such as when we attend a funeral or meet with our boss. Other sides can be triggered unconsciously by strong emotions or potent cues in the environment.
Generally, when we are in public, we tend to be more conscious of the impression we are making and less likely to let down our guard. But at home behind closed doors, with the people who mean the most to us and who we depend upon the most, we are far more likely to experience “emotional hijacks.” As soon as an old wound is triggered and we feel vulnerable, one of our protective parts is bound to jump in to try to come to our rescue. At those times, we are basically possessed; our mature state of mind is nowhere to be found. Perhaps this is why so many of us are fascinated with stories and movies like Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, The Wolfman, Alien, The Incredible Hulk, Sybil and The Exorcist. Instinctively we recognize that we, too, harbor a deeply irrational side.
The emotions that typically torment those who have unresolved traumatic memories and attachment trauma include fear, panic, anxiety, overwhelm, vulnerability, helplessness, shame, inadequacy, guilt, anger, sadness, loneliness and despair. Fear is probably the most common disturbing emotion that drives behavior between human beings, especially fear of being abandoned, alone and isolated, seen as inadequate, rejected, humiliated, betrayed or annihilated. Like everything else in life, emotions are waves; they rise and fall, come and go. Except in the case of unresolved traumatic experiences, in which case, they rise, peak and get stored in the brain in that heightened state. Emotions are problematic when they get stuck in either an “on” or “off” position. In life, elasticity and fluidity are signs of health, while rigidity is limiting. The Dalai Lama is said to feel his emotions very powerfully, but they recede quickly and he regains his composure and equanimity.
I often explain to my clients the relationship of emotions to reason using my hands. I call it the “Island of Reason and Ocean of Emotion.” Make a fist with your left hand; that is an island and represents your left hemisphere, cognitive faculties, reason and composed adult perspective. Now, flatten and stretch out your right hand; that is the ocean and represents your right hemisphere, emotions and physical sensations. When the emotional ocean rises too high, there is the risk of flooding the island of reason. The island can disappear under intense anger, fear, shame and despair. At the other extreme, if emotion recedes too far, the resulting aridness can stunt life and growth. Optimally, the ocean washes across the island’s shores, continuing to provide its riches and vitality, without jeopardizing the island’s presence.
CHAPTER FOUR: PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA, HEALING AND EMDR
When clients come to my therapy office, some are very aware of the sources of their emotional pain. They know they are tormented by the past but don’t know how to stop it. Others have no idea of the impact of their formative years on their current difficulties and attribute their pain entirely to current relationships and circumstances. The reality is that emotional pain and symptoms are caused by a mixture of past and present distress. Most of the time, we don’t consciously connect the emotional dots. While current circumstances may be legitimately challenging, they are often magnified by their resemblance to past wounds. The old traumatic pain piggy-backs on top of the current hurt. The emotional reaction the person is having may be totally out of proportion to the actual triggering event, but in another time and context, the emotions make absolute sense and are normal.
Many difficult experiences in our lives may have been deeply disturbing but, between talking about them, receiving empathy and hugs from those who care, reflecting on them and dreaming about them, these matters get resolved and stored in our memory bank in a benign way. However, when an experience is too overwhelming to process, it stays stored in a form that keeps the event as “hot” as the day it occurred. Some people have discussed their painful memories for years with friends, family and therapists and yet the emotional charge of these memories and its impact on daily functioning barely budge. Some traumatic memories are always present to some degree, lurking in the background of our lives, tainting our present moment. Other traumas go completely underground and, like a volcano, lie dormant for months, years, or even decades. The way we react all depends on the strength of our defenses and the presence of powerful environmental cues.
Sarah grew up with a mother who had a parade of men entering the house. A number of these men sexually abused Sarah. She was able to recognize these men as self-centered exploiters, but her mother was clueless and childlike. Sarah was very protective of her younger sister, Lynn, and when these men began to show interest in Lynn, Sarah offered up herself so that her sister wouldn’t have to experience the abuse she was enduring. Because of this horrifying childhood, Sarah never married nor had children.
When she arrived in therapy for the first time at age fifty, Sarah was filled with anger, fear and helplessness over her married best friend’s relationship with another man, who was an irresponsible, flirtatious alcoholic. Sarah’s friend lacked good judgment and resisted Sarah’s increasingly desperate attempts to warn and protect her. Sarah told me, “I can read people and detect when they are conning, self-centered and exploitative. I’m extremely angry and untrusting. Then I feel guilty for being so mean. This isn’t me. I’m not like that. When I’m angry, I’m a bad person and I push people away.”
After Sarah did EMDR on her childhood traumas, she was able to let go of the burden of trying to protect her dear friend. She was able to continue the relationship and feel peace as she accepted the fact that her friend was an adult, responsible for her own life. She could live with the reality that her friend was not ready at this time to deal with her own issues. Instead of threat and anger, Sarah felt more secure in all her relationships and experienced joy every day.
To me, Sarah is an excellent example of the way that our childhood wounds and emotions inevitably infiltrate our adult lives. She may have avoided marriage and parenting in an attempt to protect herself, but because she had people in her life who mattered to her, she was still vulnerable to her old fears. Those perceptions, beliefs and emotions will get projected onto and attached to something in our present lives, regardless of how many defenses we’ve erected. They will not be denied.
CHAPTER SEVEN: INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS
The good news about our love relationships is that there is a rapidly emerging scientific theory to explain what takes place between intimate partners. There is also an effective therapy approach that corresponds with that theory. The patterns found in happy, secure couples versus insecure couples are highly predictable and understandable when you have the proper map to guide you. There is a method in the madness--and better yet, a method out of the madness. Let me tell you about it.
The very emotional needs we instinctively tried to get our parents to meet, long ago, are the same ones we consciously or unconsciously long for our adult romantic partner to fulfill. Adults who are in touch with their instinctual attachment longings and needs will be looking for connection in the form of accessibility, responsiveness and engagement. Or put another way, they will expect their partner to be available, attuned and emotionally present and to respond in a way that is comforting. If we’ve been lucky enough to have had a secure attachment experience with our parents, we will feel whole and valuable and our partner will be the frosting on the cake. Because we had our basic emotional needs sufficiently met in childhood, we are unlikely to feel panic and go into defense mode when our partner at times behaves poorly, invalidates our experience or isn’t immediately available. We will intuitively know how to soothe ourselves and repair the bond with our partner. Trust, safety and love will be regained over and over again. Our life will be a balanced blend of satisfying relationships, activities and solitude.
When we are accustomed to being responded to by our parents and experiencing repair of breaks in harmony, we will not find it comfortable, familiar or desirable to be in a relationship with someone who is overbearing, rejecting, indifferent or undependable. We will be drawn to someone who is attentive, sensitive and responsive while, at the same time, able to request and receive support in return. When our partner’s caring behavior is “good enough,” just as with “good enough mothering,” then there is a feeling of psychological safety. We feel heard, understood, empowered, supported, respected, valued and loved, which reinforces our positive beliefs about ourselves, others and life. This makes us appreciate our partner and life and able to give back with a generous spirit. The mutually nurturing pattern of interaction is a “secure attachment cycle.”
Unfortunately, the majority of us did not receive “good enough parenting” or suffered too much trauma to feel secure. That means the people we are attracted to and the way we deal with our emotions are inevitably a recipe for disaster. Not only are we not going to get the frosting; we’re not even going to get the cake. Worse than that, we eventually get gruel. In adulthood, as in childhood, the person we depend upon the most turns out to be both the source of our greatest longing and our greatest pain. It’s not exaggerating to say that we turn out to be each other’s “designated tormentor.” The relationship becomes more a marriage of two sets of defenses than two authentic selves. Marriage and life then become not for the faint of heart.
In most couples, at least one member is consciously in distress over the inability to get their attachment needs met by their partner. When our painful childhood emotions and core beliefs about ourselves and others get triggered by our current insecure attachment bond, the past infiltrates the present. We all have a tendency to choose partners whose ways of defending themselves from their sensitivities, vulnerabilities and wounds puts salt in our own sensitivities, vulnerabilities and wounds. We, in turn, blindly put salt in the wounds of our partners whenever we defend ourselves.
I call this dynamic “interlocking wounds and defenses.” I sometimes will pull from my desk drawer a “Chinese finger trap” to demonstrate for my clients how they keep themselves stuck through the way they defend themselves. For example, the more he shuts down, withdraws and drinks, the more she criticizes, blames and nags. The more she criticizes, blames and nags, the more he shuts down, withdraws and drinks. The only way to get free from the finger trap is to do what is counter-intuitive, a simultaneous relinquishing of defenses; universal disarmament of emotional nuclear weapons. As anyone who has been in an intimate relationship knows, when the amygdala registers threat, it is the emotional equivalent of a nuclear bomb.
Psychiatrist Maurice Nicoll said, “Life is a drama of the visible and invisible.” Psychology and spirituality author J.G. Bennett similarly observed, “We tend to see ourselves primarily in the light of our intentions, which are invisible to others, while we see others mainly in the light of their actions, which are visible to us. We have a situation in which misunderstanding and injustice are the order of the day.” What keeps partners stuck is this fact that we are far more aware of our own intentions, efforts, hurts and frustrations than those of the other person. We neglect to see our behavior from the perspective of the other and we assume the other should be able to understand our suffering without us having to spell it out and reveal our soft underbelly. This, in a nutshell, is the source of conflict and disharmony in all relationships, whether between husband and wife, parent and child, two cultures or two nations. Without understanding and compassion for the other as well as ourselves, we are doomed to work at cross-purposes and bring each other down.
CHAPTER EIGHT: FAMILY LIFE
Every member of a family has the same psychological needs: safety, comfort, closeness, protection, acceptance and respect. Some parents invest a great deal in their relationships with their children, while the relationship with their spouse is tense, hostile or almost non-existent. Any neglect, mistreating or undermining of one family member is going to be felt throughout the family system and will cause repercussions in the present as well as in the next generation. Family therapy practitioners call this the intergenerational transmission of pain. We need to keep uppermost in our minds what messages and lessons our children are taking from our behavior, which speaks louder than any words. As Robert Fulghum said, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you, worry that they are always watching you.” Albert Schweitzer also had this to say, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”
In some families, tremendous thought, time and energy are poured into achieving, developing skills and talents, or renovating their houses. While these, in of themselves, are valid and worthwhile pursuits, when they are substitutes for being in touch with our inner life or nourishing intimate relationships, they can be equivalent to putting beautiful paintings over a crumbling wall. It seems to me that our first order of business is to remodel our emotional brains and relationships and be concerned with the Feng Shui of our psychological homes. Children breathe in the emotional states of their family members and the parents must be responsible about monitoring, managing and, if necessary, healing their emotional distress or numbness.
CHAPTER TEN: FINAL CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Small but Significant Changes to Weave into Your Daily Life
· Allow more moments of noticing and being and far less analyzing, reacting and doing.
· Catch yourself mentally lost in the past or future and bring your attention back, again and again, to what is actually happening right here and now. Really see, hear, touch, taste and breathe in and out all of what is present-- both what is desirable and what is not.
· Spend more moments observing with appreciation and wonder the world before you, especially people and all forms of nature, and less time hypnotized by your thoughts or an electronic screen or device. You are in the midst of a miracle; don’t miss it.
· Cherish your solitude. Let it be an oasis for reconnecting with the simplicity of your lilting breath and ever-present stillness.
· Throughout the day, take breaks to walk mindfully at a very slow pace. It is very refreshing and calming, even when done for about five minutes.
· Recognize that every life has assets and liabilities, opportunities and limitations. Every gain may have a corresponding loss. Every loss may carry a corresponding benefit. Nothing will ever be aligned perfectly according to our personal expectations. But we can continually develop our ability to live gracefully and wisely with whatever the moment presents. Jack Kornfield’s teacher, Achaan Chaa, said, “Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a great tree in the midst of them all.”
· Know that experiencing a deep and full self-knowledge, self-efficacy, and aliveness is possible with each moment of our life. We are provided countless opportunities to live more artfully. As Jack Nicholson said in As Good As It Gets, when he realized that his first kiss with Helen Hunt was clumsy, “I know I can do better than that.”
· Keep yourself open to learning. Allow yourself to change your mind and recognize new perspectives. Once we’ve figured everything out and nailed it down, life stops. As entrepreneur Ray Kroc said, “When you’re green, you’re growing.” Cultivate an open-minded curiosity. It is one of our most valuable mental states.
· Remember that change and growth are not linear, but tend to move in a spiral: two steps forward and one step back, three steps forward and one step back. Falling back on old habits is a normal aspect of the change process. Often it is through relapse that we learn some new aspect about ourselves that helps us handle future challenges more effectively.
· Check in with yourself frequently throughout the day, to identify what, if anything, you need in that moment to calm and refresh yourself. Review the chapter on Self-Care and make sure to use the potent forms, as well as the more commonly known strategies.
· Catch your mind relentlessly making judgments. In Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, Jack Kornfield says, “A day spent judging another is a painful day. A day spent judging yourself is a painful day. You don’t have to believe your judgments; they’re simply an old habit.” Kornfield quotes Master Sengstan as saying, “Do not seek perfection in a changing world. Instead, perfect your love.”
· Recognize the value of the love you bestow upon another by being emotionally present, attentive, receptive and responsive. This is far more nourishing than praise. There is no greater gift.
· Ask for and offer hugs more often; they are a natural tranquilizer. They access your internal pharmacy, are free of charge and have no negative side-effects.
**** Nurturing Your Intimate Relationship
ARTICLES BY CHARLETTE MIKULKA
IT'S NOT WHAT YOU THINK
The Essential Ingredients for Peace in the Heart and Home
By Charlette Mikulka, LCSW
Mmm, I bet some anise seed, grated orange rind and minced dates would make this bread delicious. I'll add some wheat germ to the flour for nourishment and if I use buttermilk instead of water, the texture might be even better. I just have to make sure to preheat the oven and not let the family bang around the kitchen and I can't go wrong.
Unfortunately, no one ever told her about the sugar and yeast. So it may be with knowing what it takes to master relationships and life. In the thousands of hours with our parents and siblings, we may have rarely, if ever, witnessed or experienced the essential sugar and yeast. If our parents never received sugar and yeast, they wouldn't have known they existed or how to use them. They would feel baffled when their children ended up having so many difficulties in their lives. "Where did we go wrong?"
THE ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS
Here are the essential ingredients for thriving. They are all forms of social and emotional, not cognitive, intelligence. How many of us can say we experienced or witnessed our parents behaving in these ways more times than not?
My experience has taught me that the vast majority of us have not been blessed with such security-enhancing relationships. If these ways of relating weren't lived, they weren't wired into our brains. The only way we would be able to practice them in our own adult family would be if we actively and consciously worked at developing them and letting go of the habits that had been second-nature.
Most people don't realize that deprivation of these skills and experiences is the most likely source of the physical, psychological, behavioral and relationship problems that are so prevalent. We could have the perfect house and body, impressive talents, stimulating activities, high achievement at school or work and dozens of friends. But if our childhood relationship with a parent, our parents' relationship with each other or our adult relationship with our own partner is precarious, painful or empty, our lives are likely to fall flat.
THE PAST PERMEATES THE PRESENT
As we walk down the aisle, we have feelings of love, hope and possibly trepidation. We also have abstract concepts such as love, patience, loyalty and forgiveness. At the same time we have, but are blind to, potent, unconscious, emotion-saturated memories that will be running the show. These are the memories of how we, our parents and siblings dealt with strong emotions in daily life. They include the gut-level beliefs we learned about our self and what we can expect from relationships. This is the instruction manual that will have us repeating the past with our new family, despite our lofty goals and even heart-felt intentions.
As much as we would like to believe that we are in charge of our lives and making conscious decisions, the reality is quite the opposite. Family life, especially, is fueled by compelling underground energies and lessons. The last several decades have produced abundant scientific and clinical evidence that human beings are driven by unconscious childhood attachment bond memories and our survival-motivated, anxiety-prone nervous system.
It isn't even the content of our conversations that has the strongest impact on our feelings of security and happiness in family life. Whether we are five or fifty-five, our biology speaks louder than words. We human beings are tremendously reactive to others' non-verbal signals, particularly those people whose approval and responsiveness means the most to us. A vast amount of that communication transpires at lightning speed without our consciously processing it.
THE BODY SPEAKS AND RULES
The architecture of our brain, especially our limbic and autonomic nervous systems, was predominantly shaped by how adults and other significant people (e.g. siblings, classmates) behaved when as children we felt vulnerable and in need. These implicit, procedural memories are automatic, just like riding a bike; they kick in without thinking. So the less we experienced empathy and physical soothing, the more our nervous system registered threat and became wired to anticipate threat in significant relationships.
Our unconscious mind is powerfully attuned to the behaviors of whoever we depend upon the most for our social, emotional and biological needs to be met. The major player, but not necessarily only one, is our partner. His or her posture, physiological quirks, gestures, facial expressions and tone and speed of voice can signal safety, comfort and kindness or danger, judgment and insensitivity. Additionally, our children and authority figures can unknowingly trigger emotional reactions and dramas reminiscent of when we were young and vulnerable.
Whenever we feel threatened, our stress response provides us with three knee-jerk possibilities: fight, flight or freeze. Fight could be excessive or loud talking, expressing of intense emotion, whining, clinging, complaining, criticizing, blaming or attacking. Flight could be withdrawing and compulsively investing in other relationships. The other relationships might be with a lover, a child, the internet, hobbies, work, travel, alcohol, drugs or needy people and vulnerable animals. Freeze could be shutting down, zoning out, appeasing or submitting. Having a family member who flees or freezes can be just as distressing as having one who fights.
THE NEOCORTEX TO THE RESCUE
The good news, also coming from the latest neuroscience research, is that we can train our mind and brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, to become conscious of our inner world and our interactions with others. Just like strengthening muscles, we can access and increase our innate capacity for calm, equanimity, mental clarity, open-mindedness, acceptance, non-judgment and compassion. Increasing numbers of researchers, psychotherapists, physicians and educators are recognizing the enormous physical, psychological and social benefits derived from cultivating this state of being called mindfulness.
During mindfulness meditation we learn to observe the flow of thoughts, images, emotions and body sensations. We reduce our absorption of the thoughts we've accepted as authoritative truths. Our disturbing thoughts are, after all, predominantly the misguided lessons and beliefs of a childhood without sufficient adult nurturance and guidance. Our greatest wisdom arises during mindfulness from the integration of our heart, gut, and both brain hemispheres. The left brain provides language as well as adult reason and perspective. The right brain's strengths are emotion and body awareness, holistic perspective, imagery, intuition and creativity.
We can bring this mindful, inquisitive attention to the present moments within our daily life, especially when we are interacting with those with whom we are interdependent. We can recognize how we get trapped in a negative cycle with each other and discover what elicits the best in each other. We also can mindfully savor what's right about the world we live in so that the beauty and joy we experience provides a cushion for the challenges of life.
THE FATAL ATTRACTION AND THE TREASURE HUNT
What makes intimate relationships especially difficult is that nature has designed us to be drawn to the very partner who is most likely, eventually, to trigger our deepest wounds and insecurities. Partners will feel the other is the perpetrator and they are the innocent victim. Making it safe for the lamb hidden within each lion to emerge is the challenge that many couples would consider ridiculous or impossible. Each partner will instead feel tempted and entitled to cling to familiar defenses acquired or witnessed in childhood, thereby keeping the relationship clenched tightly in an undermining stranglehold.
The only way out of this Chinese finger trap is to do what is counter-intuitive, to utilize with our partner faculties that are undeveloped and behaviors that are out of our comfort zone. We may have access to these faculties and behaviors with everyone but our mate, the one person who our unconscious has anointed as the heir apparent and reminder of our childhood attachment bond emotional legacy.
To meet this heroic challenge requires sustained consciousness, effort and risk as we relinquish the safety net of our favorite defenses. We gradually replace those self-defeating behaviors with reflection to discover and then share our deepest fears, sensitivities, vulnerabilities and needs. We rely more on the tenderness of our lips, eyes, arms, hands and heart. As our defenses dissolve away, so do many of the symptoms with which we struggled for years. We become the loving caregiver we always longed for and elicit the same from our mate. We create the marriage our parents never had nor imagined.
Nature, in its wisdom, provides us with the incentive to grow into true love, which involves extending ourselves for the well-being of another. As we find the commitment, courage, open-mindedness, understanding, tolerance and compassion necessary to provide our loved ones with the essentials they require to thrive, we evolve into full emotional and spiritual maturity. The more we meet our loved ones' most essential needs, the easier and sweeter life becomes.
THE INTERDEPENDENCE OF LIFE
Whatever investment we make in becoming a more whole and emotionally mature person will benefit us, our children and our community, as well as our partner. We are all inextricably joined, whether we realize it or not. When it comes to our intimate relationships, what goes around comes around. Mistreating or neglecting any family member is equivalent to poisoning our own water supply. We are all drinking from the same emotional well.
Any social or physical organism is unhealthy to the degree that parts of it remain vulnerable and unattended. The security of a couple, family or world is in proportion to the security of its most vulnerable member. So, when we choose to walk the tightrope of emotional risk-taking with our partner, paradoxically, we build a more secure home-base for both of us, as well as greater security for those around us.
Charlette Mikulka has been with her husband forty years, practiced social work for thirty-five and been a parent for twenty-five. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a full-time private psychotherapy practice serving individuals, couples and families. Charlette is also available to speak to the general public about thriving in body, mind, relationships and life. She is a member of the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (www.iceeft.com) and the EMDR International Association (www.emdria.org) Charlette is the award-winning author of Peace in the Heart and Home: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Creating a Better Life for You and Your Loved Ones. www.peaceintheheartandhome.com
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