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4/14 Interactive Board: Codependent Partners

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12/29 Interactive Board: There Goes the Wife...

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Turning Point: Giving Up Control

  Turning Point: Giving Up Control

by Dr. Irene

Some people are molded by their admirations, others by their 
- Elizabeth Bowen

I love working with this couple: Gail is a pretty, wispy and spirited little thing with a huge heart. Rich is an offbeat, super-smart, creative type with a very appealing vulnerable side. She is codependent and he is verbally abusive. They've been at it for over 20 years. 

This page reflects a therapeutic moment in the breakdown of Rich's truly well-intended but destructive and self-serving rationalizations: the lies angry people believe when they don't see reality.

We were talking about a recent near-blow up: Rich came home and noticed that HIS CAR had been moved. No one is allowed to drive this car, but his wife needed it for an errand. Rich was able to reconstruct the thinking that went through his head and instantly transformed him from calm to angry for no apparent reason. It went something like this:

bulletHe saw His CAR
bulletThe CAR was moved!
bulletWho did it?
bulletA mental accounting of all existing sets of keys.
bulletAlmost every time the kids drive His Car, there is an expensive problem: tires, dents, etc.
bulletThis can't go on, especially during a time of  tight finances.
bulletGail has keys.
bulletShe gave a set to one the kids.
bulletJulie must have manipulated Gail AGAIN.
bulletHow come Julie rates, but I don't?
bulletIt is always Julie's way and never mine! Grrrrrrrr....

Rich had many, many "good" reasons why the kids should not drive HIS CAR, but I was not really  interested. Nor was I interested in the anger management route where he stops, tracks his thoughts and disputes them. He missed it this time; he's human.

Based on his excellent progress, I wanted him to go one step further: to challenge the validity of the underlying belief system - the harness that holds him back from himself and all the wonder that is he.

He was able to drop the defensiveness long enough to hear that people's feelings are more important than things. Also,

bullet"reasons" were not the issue.
bulletHe was obfuscating matters by using "reasons" as an excuse to control a situation he did not like/ found threatening.
bullethe worked himself up into an unnecessary and painful state by obsessing on stuff he wanted to control but had no control over.
bulletIt didn't work. He got everybody upset and accomplished nothing.

This was shattering information for a man whose existence is predicated upon following rigid though arbitrarily applied (at his whim) rules. He became upset and uncertain of his footing, as he pulled a lifetime of assumptions upon which his identity rests out from under him. Analogous to what the old est training sought to accomplish, he saw reality, and it made sense.

As logic seeps in, the credibility of rules and reasons, the core of irrational thought, diminishes. ("...maybe its not always Julie's way?") Irrational, control-oriented thinking is one of the angry person's mainstays in imposing control over feelings. Now, nothing prevented Rich from experiencing a flood of normal emotions. However, he person is not used to feeling and does not know how to handle it.

Since the angry person grew up in an emotionally dangerous environment, there are few how-to-handle feeling skills.  Instead of allowing the full range of normal feelings to pass through and garner the information they offer, angry people tend to focus in on one or two negative themes - and obsess and obsess and obsess. They are adept in creating a full-blown depressive, paranoid, or panic state. Figuratively, they are now in hell. You can't really blame them for not wanting to feel when they are so bad at doing it.

Note the multifaceted nature of the angry person's rules and reasons:

bulletRules and reasons are well-intended because they have to be credible. How else can you convince others to buy into an agenda? In the example above, it is reasonable to ban the kids from the car given their history of mishaps. But why is Gail banned? (Hint: if she has keys, who can she give them to?)
bulletThey are self-serving because they seek to control others or control outcomes. Rich's secret emotional agenda is to control his wife. He fears she favors their daughter, and that the two of them will throw him out. There is almost always a measure of validity to the fear. In Rich's case, Julie and Gail have a long history of siding against him. Gail gets a sympathetic ear. In exchange, Julie draws her mom's attention away from her own, very significant, misbehaviors.
bulletRules and reasons offer a measure of self-esteem, or, more accurately, short-lived ego boost. It feels good to be right, to win, to be the smartest, the richest, the handsomest, the most famous, etc. In its absence, self-esteem is replaced by achieving (or appearing to achieve) an externally-defined measure of success. People's opinions are very important since their admiration or consensus provide the only nourishment angry people know.
bulletRules and reasons provide a caricature of inner peace to their author. These obsessive-compulsive personalities cannot handle emotion. They feel best at work or otherwise occupied with addictive behaviors which dull the senses (e.g., substance abuse) or provide distraction (e.g., danger or thrill-seeking behavior) from having to spend time with themselves.
bulletRules and reasons, in cutting off human emotion, allow angry individuals to do nasty things like lie, cheat, treat others poorly, and much, much more for some. This further depletes the soul.
bulletRules and reasons distort reality. There is a circularity in that the distorted assumptions are used to justify distorted assumptions.
bulletRules and reasons are a lie. They shoot their owner in the foot. They don't work.

Maintaining this complicated infrastructure is hard work, certainly much harder than the work of ordinary living. Why would anyone want to work so hard? Why wouldn't they just read this text, recognize their operating irrational schema, fix it, and get on with life?

Because these control issues are not ordinary. They are not about avoiding fear or anxiety. They are about avoiding Terror; the kind of existential terror and panic that nightmares are made of.  Annihilation. Death is a far preferable option, and detailed plans for committing suicide are not uncommon themes among this group - just in case life gets to hurt too much. That is why.

All this to shut out feelings the individual cannot manage. However, with the loss of feeling, there is a loss of the very essence of individuality and of our very special humanity. These people did not get out of bed one morning and decide that it would be cool to adopt rules and reasons. Rules and reasons were not a choice. They were an imposition; a set-up to develop the propensity to dread emotion.

Nature and nurture conspired against them: Growing up in emotionally or physically dangerous homes, angry people are adults who were not given, or who were unable to receive the "basic stuff." They were not comforted and are now unable to comfort themselves through difficult times. When they go inside, all they find is the terror and annihilation anxiety of a very pained, very young child. Their difficulty with emotional material is compounded by their life-long avoidance of same. With few resources, even ordinary amounts of negative emotions are too big. The momentary disappointment a spouse is likely to feel when their partner arranges to spend time away - is not so little. The disappointment weighs more heavily. Ouch.

With each Ouch, the angry person, obsessive by nature, heads for the pitfall trap. As the tendency to obsess kicks in and some minor aspect of What-I-Don't-Like is made BIG, the individual knows few options. He or she tries to control everyone, everything, and anything - except the self. (God forbid!)

For the angry person, self-control must be about breaking the unyielding control over the "feeling self", while at the same time imposing behavioral control over compulsive acting out. The angry person does it the other way around!  

While giving up control and going into the void inside is terrifying at first, if an individual imposes self-control to stay and simply notice their feelings feel without reacting to or obsessing about what them (i.e., fabricating more layers of awfulness), they will realize there is nothing to fear. Not only is there nothing to fear, but there is everything to gain. This place is about the self, the soul, call it what you wish. This is the place of freedom, creativity, and inner peace. Home.

The goal is to develop the emotional and cognitive skills to cope with feelings and then to seamlessly move back-and-forth from inside to the place of rules, as need be. Parenthetically, the angry person's rules and ability to exercise phenomenal control over aspects of the material self is not a liability. Neither is the codependent's exquisite over-sensitivity. However, over-control and over-sensitivity become true assets when in synch with the whole person. This is why nobody is off the hook. It is each person's duty (yes, DUTY) to him or herself to "be the best YOU can be." 

Read Rich's Reply Here!