Sunday, September 27, 2009

adult supervision

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.
- Samuel Johnson

Wow, I've been a bad blogger this month. There are some good reasons for this, which I'll cover in another post, but for now, I'll just apologize (sorry!) and get on with it.

I fear this post is going to be a personal one, folks, and a bit terrifying for someone of my retiring disposition. But as much as I'm tempted to just skip it and instead tell you about my lunch at the fab Mexican place in Port Chester today (tacos! amazingly fresh tortillas! and horchata!), I think I need to tackle this.

... Okay, so about 10 minutes have gone by since I wrote those few sentences. I'm feeling kind of self-conscious and exposed. Let's just write it all out, audience be damned, and then see what we've got.

This post is about what the pop psych people call "intimacy issues"; if this topic gives you the shakes or an overwhelming sense of ennui, please feel free to click elsewhere.

To follow up on crybaby: I'm not being such a waterworks any more (though those sappy commercials that feature lovely young people being sweet and attentive to charming and grateful old people always, always get me). In fact, the situation that sparked crybaby has turned out to be what I, if I were prone to these types of phrases, might call a teaching moment.

I haven't had much success with romantic relationships in my life, and I've fouled up a fair share of friendships, too. It's a cliché, I know, but when someone gets close to me - or more to the point, when I get close to someone - all sorts of "Danger, Will Robinson!" flashing lights and waving robot arms start up, and I put on the brakes so hard that I typically pull a Rockford and end up zooming in the opposite direction. (How you like those metaphors?)

Why, you ask? Well, that's the $64,000 question. (Actually, I haven't hit the $64,000 mark on this one yet, but if I continue with the steady stream of checks to my therapist, it could happen.) It's mostly to do with trust, which is a tough one for me, and the lack thereof, and a lifelong sense that all it takes is one little mistake on my part (or one moment where I slip and show you my real self), and I'm off your list. So instead of sticking around in a relationship and trying to make sure I don't make any mistakes, which is of course impossible, I head for the door myself. Or I perversely create a minefield of self-fulfilling prophecies - finding all sorts of ways to test this poor man, hold him up to impossible standards, criticize him when he fails, until he is at his wit's end and declares, "This isn't working!" Which of course, I knew all along.

Nothing gets my defenses up like the feeling that I'm being rejected, and it's a feeling that can be triggered all too easily, by a prick to the ego, a broken date, a disappointment, a frustration that he couldn't read my mind and know exactly what I needed, even when I was saying that I didn't want it. It's crazy-making, for me, for him, for anyone who gets sucked into my insane parallel universe. At moments like this, I can go from sweetness and affection to utter rage and scorn in no time flat. The interior monologue goes something like this: "I can't believe he did that. This is ridiculous - this person is not for me, this is all wrong, why are we bothering when we can't even get along, enough already, done."

Sadly, once it starts up, the interior monologue is tough to shut down. It gathers momentum, drowning out all vestiges of rational thought, precluding honest conversation and openness. The moment - and the relationship - becomes completely about my being in control: I'm the one who sees all the problems, and who never relents or opens up or shares anything that might weaken my position of power. When I look back at times like this, it's as if I had been possessed by a demon, and my own feelings and judgments and self were utterly erased.

You wouldn't believe how difficult it is for me to try to break these patterns. For instance, when I'm being just a nightmare to someone, cold and critical and distant, and I manage to recognize that I'm doing this and that it's not the ideal course of events, I'll tell myself that I need to start a conversation about what's going on with me, get it out in the open. So there I am, in my head, trying to encourage myself to open up and stop punishing and perhaps even apologize, and it feels terrifying, as if I'm giving away the farm. It's like the crazy girl in the movies who ends up crumpled on the floor, screaming and crying and scuttling herself into a corner, where she huddles and screams some more, terrified that the nice man in the white jacket is going to take away her blankie, or whatever. That's what's living in my head, refusing to budge an inch, refusing to calm down, refusing to listen. Sometimes I can talk her down, sometimes not.

Later, when the crazy blankie girl has gone away for a rest, it feels nigh impossible to acknowledge my behavior, and to apologize. Remember how the Fonz just couldn't bring himself to say he was sorry? He'd stammer and stutter and look as if he was trying to cough up a hairball, but he just could not apologize - in his world, it was impossible that he was ever wrong. I can relate. Trying to explain myself, to account for and apologize for my bad behavior, can feel impossible, as if there is a physical impediment to speaking, a physical inability to bring forth the words.

Oy. What a mess, right?

Happily, I do feel that I'm making progress in my quest to become a better person. Now that I'm more aware of these mechanisms, I'm trying to dismantle them. I'll spare you the therapy-speak, for the most part, not because I don't believe in it, but because it just don't travel well, do it? I'll just say this: My monologue is more of an interior dialogue these days, as I try to talk myself down from this tautly strung state, down to something more human and less frightened and more willing to be open and present. It is so incredibly difficult to try out unfamiliar behavior such as this - it would be so much more comfortable to stick with the behavior I know so well. But that hasn't exactly worked for me in the past.

In the intro to Psychotherapy Without the Self, his book that attempts to reconcile psychotherapy with Buddhism, Mark Epstein writes the following:

In particular, the British analyst D. W. Winnicott moved therapy from a focus on unacceptable instincts and urges to a focus on the unintelligible aspects of emotional experience. 'We are poor indeed if we are only sane,' he remarked once in a famous footnote. [Love that! -Ed.] Winnicott had the idea that the opposite of integration (the state of an apparently cohesive self) is not disintegration but something he termed unintegration. Here he was moving away from Freud and toward the Buddha. He compared unintegration to what it is like for a child to surrender himself in play, knowing that his mother is in the next room providing what he called 'good-enough ego coverage.' He also compared it to a lover's consciousness 'after intercourse,' when the urges are relaxed and the mind and heart are open, and to an artist's mind when unburdened in the studio. He saw the state of unintegration as the foundation of creativity and wrote volumes about the consequences of failing to tap into it. When a child has to manage an intrusive or ignoring parental environment, Winnicott suggested, he or she is forced to develop a 'false' or 'caretaker' self, centered in the thinking mind, in order to survive. This false self (which can paradoxically seem 'really real') is created at the expense of unintegration, and the capacities for spontaneity, subjectivity, and authenticity are all compromised as a result. Winnicott, in his own way, seemed to be describing something akin to how the Buddhist unconscious could be covered over by early experience.

This whole passage is incredibly powerful to me - to the point where I don't think I feel ready to write about how I believe these concepts relate to me - but perhaps most powerful is the parens about the "false" self, "which can paradoxically seem 'really real'." It's fascinating to me how right the crazy blankie girl can sound, and also fascinating to begin to recognize how I can have a different opinion and perspective and approach from hers, that I can try to figure out why she's so upset, and try to calm her down, and try to get her out of the driver's seat. Revelatory, my friends. It feels kind of like growing up - and about time.

Fabulous "madwoman" button from


  1. So very brave, siobhan. And I can't think of a better "forum" in which to explore it than the anonymity/intimacy of cyberspace. I can also relate, especially after a lifetime of preemptive exits/departures. Have you read THEM, A Memoir of Parents by Francine Du Plessis Gray?

  2. Wow... to echo Brenda, very brave indeed, Siobhan, and brilliant. I had to read this twice. I'm no shrink (though bartenders have been accused of that) but if recognition of a problem is the first step to solving it, you're already several steps up that ladder. This amazing post proves that.
    Good luck, dear friend.

  3. Thanks, Brenda and Scribbler - this one definitely had me hesitating before I hit the "post" button - an experience I'm sure you two fellow bloggers can empathize with. I feel like like I've given everyone x-ray glasses... and I'm trying not to freak out about that! Thanks for the support....

  4. Woowee! I think you may have overcome a barrier in your blogging here my friend. Not sure I could be so exposed about the inner working of my rants to myself.

  5. You`re speaking the language of more than one of your readers...personally, I`m going to pick up the book Brenda recommended.

  6. In my experience, the types of reactions you describe arise almost wholly out of the conviction that you "need" the other person. Although it can seem paradoxical, the only way to have a mutually satisfying relationship with another person is for each to know that they can be happy and satisfied without the other.

    In practice, this leads to the conclusion that reactions to other people are epiphenomena arising out of one's self-regard, and that the way to achieve good relationships is to learn to love oneself.

    This is also why I consider "couples therapists" and "relationship counselors" to be charlatans.

  7. Good Old Neon, by the late David Foster Wallace. Nobody sorted through this stuff as hard as he did. It's just a short piece of fiction in the Oblivion collection. And if you slog through it a couple of times, it may be just possibly reassuring to you.

    Sign me,

    50, straight, relatively "successful," never married, rarely with GF over a lifetime.

    (Fortunately, I have the friend thing down cold.)

    That was very interesting to read, Siobhan. Thanks.

  8. Addendum: It MIGHT be reassuring. You have to try to ignore the fact that the author lost the battle he's recounting in the story.

    I checked it out, and the whole thing (Good Old Neon) is less than 50 pages long. Set in the blink of an eye, which is the interesting part.

  9. Where ARE you, S? I'm dying down here, waiting for the next post.

  10. Man this post is gettin' loooooong in the tooth.

    Miss S to the computer. STAT!