Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Ego and Core Fears

I used to think I was unlovable.  It was one of those core beliefs that impacted my thoughts and feelings on a daily basis, even though it remained just outside of my conscious awareness.  I was full of self doubt and was severely lacking in confidence.  I was extremely sensitive to any perceived sign of rejection.  I frequently felt depressed and I found it difficult to like myself.  One of the reasons I wanted to go into the mental health profession (but certainly not the only reason -- there were many) was to better understand myself.  Actually, maybe that's not entirely accurate.  I think I wanted to figure out what was "wrong" with me so I could "fix" it.  That was my mindset at the age of 18 when I started college.

Anyway, I spent years working to change my belief that I was unlovable.  Today, I am absolutely certain I am lovable.  In fact, I believe that every human being is innately lovable, although many of us erect barriers that make it difficult for others to get close enough to love us.  I discovered over time that being lovable has nothing to do with having another person love me.  To be lovable I had to learn to love myself.  (I know that sounds cliche and trust me, it's easier to say than it was to do).

Last week, I wrote about "core fears."  Core fears are those that threaten our "ego," or our sense of self.  Core fears revolve around losing those things we believe are central to our identities; to lose them (or so we believe) is to lose our very selves.  When someone triggers a core fear our egos feel threatened; whenever the ego feels threatened it immediately acts to defend itself.  You can tell a core fear has been triggered by how upset you become.  Often you will find that the intensity of your emotion is disproportional to the event that triggered it (i.e., you get extremely upset when someone says or does something to you that doesn't seem to be quite as terrible as you are making it out to be).  When a core fear has been triggered we typically react by blaming the other person involved.  It's not that we are simply blaming the other person to avoid accepting responsibility for our own misdeeds; rather, we truly believe that the other person has wronged us.  This, however, is just our ego deceiving us in an effort to protect us from facing whatever fear has been activated. 

Ironically, as I was typing last week's post on my blog (I'd written it earlier that week) my husband and I got into an argument.  We started out with the best of intentions.  We were doing a communication exercise to address something I'd done that upset him.  We reached a point in the exercise where he was prompted to request that I make a specific change in my behavior.  I was expecting him to ask me to stop doing the thing that I'd done that upset him in the first place (and I was prepared to make this change).  Instead, he asked me to change something else entirely.  He thought the behavior he'd asked me to change was the underlying problem.  I thought he was asking me to change something that is fundamental to who I am.  Sense of self threatened; activate ego defenses.

I stormed off and went back to my computer to finish typing my blog post.  Oh the irony; I was writing about the very thing that was happening at that moment.  I told myself to pay attention to the words as I was writing.  I told myself to sit with my feelings, to observe them and to observe the suffering caused by my ego's insistence on blaming my husband.  I told myself a lot of things but I was too upset to take my own advice.

Against my better judgment (which had taken a leave of absence at that point), I tried to talk to my husband.  It wasn't the best idea but in doing so, my core fear was exposed.  "I don't think you love me," I accused him.  "I don't think you care about me at all!"  There it was: my core fear of being unlovable.

Fortunately, we resolved the issue.  In fact, I think seeing my vulnerability exposed softened my husband and allowed him to see the hurt underneath my anger.

I want to end with a message to my core fear.  Here it is:

So we meet again, Ms. "I'm Unlovable."  I thought I was done with you.  Haven't you realized that I don't believe your lies anymore?  I AM LOVABLE!  Why are you still here, lurking in the shadows?  Well you're not in the shadows anymore!  You've shown yourself.  Maybe I was naive to think I'd gotten rid of you completely.  From now on I will be more vigilant.  You will never occupy the place in my life you once held and never again will I allow you to control me.  You caught me off guard once but it won't happen again.  Now I know you're here and I'll be watching your every move.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Conflict, communication, etc.

I've been doing some reading recently and it helped me to better understand an idea that is central to how I conceptualize interpersonal relationships.  My husband and I have been married for about six months.  Since day one there have been a lot of external stressors putting strain on our relationship -- the process of changing his immigration status from student to permanent resident, his trouble finding a good job in a bad job market, and an ongoing custody battle with his ex-wife over his daughter.  There is going to be conflict in any marriage but all of the added stress made us both testy and so increased the likelihood of conflict.  As a result, our "honeymoon" period ended sooner than I would've liked and it was necessary for me to spend a lot of time thinking about (and trying out) ways to resolve conflict. 

(I have to admit, this was a VERY humbling experience for me.  I was a bit embarrassed to admit to anyone that I - a person who teaches other people how to communicate effectively and helps other people develop ways to solve their problems - was having problems communicating and problem solving with my husband.  I believed very strongly that if he would only listen to me and defer to my expertise on how to best communicate with one another we could resolve our conflicts in a way that was agreeable to us both.  Unfortunately, he didn't agree.  I went through quite an internal struggle before i was able to accept that I couldn't make him listen to me and I couldn't make him adopt my way of solving problems, even if I was thoroughly convinced that it was the best thing for us.  Ironically, once I was able to accept this I became less angry and was able to talk to him without becoming defensive.  This enabled us to reach an agreement and to talk openly about our concerns).

Anyway, this experience prompted me to return to a subject which I've thought about, read about, and wrote about extensively in the past but about which I recently hadn't given much consideration: ego and projection in romantic relationships.  Everything I've ever read about this topic suggests that a romantic relationship - and especially conflict within a romantic relationship - provides an unparalleled opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth IF you are willing to do the work.  (Are they kidding?  I was MADE for this).  So in the midst (and the aftermath) of the recent conflict with my husband I looked for a chance to learn - about myself and my husband.

Essentially, any time you feel deeply hurt, betrayed, or rejected by another person you can be certain that on a deeper level your sense of self feels threatened.  When someone triggers your core fears it threatens your sense of self and your ego immediately goes on the defensive to protect the image of "our seemingly solid sense of 'I,'" (Ezra Bayda, in "At home in the Muddy Water," pg. 87).  The ego typically reacts by getting angry and blaming the other person for hurting or betraying our trust.  When we notice ourselves feeling angry and betrayed (which is ho I felt in the conflict with my husband), we can use these feelings as cues that our ego (with a little "e," or self with a little "s") is at work.  Instead of acting on our anger or our desire to blame the other person we can stop and allow ourselves to sit with these feelings.  We can notice how much suffering is caused by the ego's need to maintain its own self image.  We can even observe how much we truly believe the other person is at fault.

I connected very strongly with something Ezra Bayda points out in his book, "At Home in the Muddy Water":

"Our desire to view the self as a solid entity is so great that we miss the readily observable fact that the 'self' is no more than a collection of self-images, identities, beliefs, strategies, memories, and projections.  As we observe ourselves over and over, we come to see how quickly this 'me' can change even from one minute to the next.  No matter how firm and resolute we are in making decisions and commitments, another 'me' will often arise, one who wants nothing to do with them...We finally get the picture that the seemingly solid 'I' is really many 'me's' who frequently disagree.  So why do we think that other people are any different?" (pg. 85).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

No, I'm not analyzing you!

Whenever I tell someone that I'm a psychotherapist they almost always respond by asking, "So, are you, like, analyzing me right now?"  Um, no.  When someone asks if I'm "analyzing" them I assume they are referring to psychoanalysis.  Everyone seems to have some vague idea of what psychoanalysis is but if people fully understood what it entails they would know that one person does not psychoanalyze another by observing his or her social interactions (while simultaneously trying to socialize with him or her, I might add).  In fact, I would argue that even if I was a psychoanalyst - which I'm not (more on that in a minute) - it would be difficult if not impossible to conduct an analysis under such circumstances.  A psychoanalyst does not watch a person from afar and draw conclusions about the inner workings of that person's psyche.  A psychoanalyst analyzes what a person SAYS.  (And not just what a person says in casual conversation with a buddy).  Psychoanalysis involves specific types of conversations and uses specific techniques that are designed to reveal unconscious conflicts in the person being analyzed.  Psychoanalysis takes place in a specific environment - one that is nonjudgmental, accepting, and confidential.  (It does not take place in a bar over beer and pretzels).  Psychoanalysis is a process that occurs over time - several days a week for a year or more - not a judgment one makes about a person after one social encounter.

So obviously, I (nor anyone else, for that matter) am not analyzing someone I meet at a party, at a bar, or through a friend at a restaurant.  In fact, I personally do not analyze anyone (except for myself, which I am perfectly entitled to do, in my opinion).  I am not a psychoanalyst; I am a psychotherapist.  They are not one and the same.

A psychoanalyst is a type of psychotherapist.  All psychoanalysts are psychotherapists but all psychotherapists are not psychoanalysts.  Psychoanalysis is a particular type of therapy, one that requires a very specific type of training.  It is also a treatment that has become less and less popular over the years.  The mental health field as a whole has moved away from psychoanalysis.  For one thing, insurance companies typically won't pay for it; this is because there are other treatments that will reduce or alleviate a patient's symptoms in a fraction of the time (and for a fraction of the cost).  Psychoanalysis is not a very practical treatment option for most people.  Take, for example, any person working a nine-to-five job.  To participate in psychoanalysis, he or she would probably have to leave work early three (or more) days a week for about a year (or more).  (This is assuming that the person's analyst keeps "regular" office hours, which is typically the case; still, I am sure there are some who do offer evening hours).  Even if the person had an extremely understanding boss who allowed him or her to do this he or she would probably have to pay for every session out of pocket (remember, insurance companies won't cover psychoanalysis).  At $60, $80, $100, or even more per session, this would quickly become unaffordable for a typical, middle-income adult.

In addition, the mental health field has shifted towards a preference for evidenced-based treatments.  Since psychoanalysis as a treatment does not easily lend itself to study via the scientific method there is not a large body of evidence demonstrating its efficacy.  Universities, training programs, businesses, institutions, and individual practitioners typically prefer to invest their time and money in teaching and learning those treatment modalities that do have a large body of research demonstrating their efficacy.

So I'm not a psychoanalyst.  Even if I was a psychoanalyst, I still wouldn't be able to produce an assessment of the inner working of an individual's psyche on demand.  A feat like that does not fall under the realm of those trained in psychology, psychiatry, or mental health.  If you want an instant summary of your hidden inner world, you'd be better off going to a psychic.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Home sweet home

I just got back from a four day trip to New York with my sisters.  I've been looking forward to this trip since we planned it several months ago.  Most of us identify traveling as something we'd like to do at some point in our lives.  We envy others when they talk about the exotic and far away places they've visited.  We all have somewhere we long to go, to see, to experience.

Most of us also have some excuse why we can't.  Probably the most frequently cited reason for being unable to go where we long to go is lack of money.  I use this excuse myself all the time.  There is some truth in it -- I don't have money to throw around.  However, I could probably get a credit card with a $10,000 limit and six months without interest, splurge for a big trip, and try to pay it off over the next six months.  That would, however, require a lot of sacrifice on my part.  Instead of buying myself a new outfit on pay day or going out with my girlfriends for dinner I would have to pay off the credit card instead.  So not having the money isn't the real reason I don't travel very much; the real reason is that I'm not willing to sacrifice my everyday comforts.

Another common excuse - "I don't have the time."  Again, it's all about priorities.  Most of us can delegate our responsibilities long enough to take a vacation.  In fact, if we're honest, we've all probably covered for a colleague or fed a neighbor's cat while they were out of town. 

It's important to remember that we all have only one life to live.  We can choose to make excuses for why we don't spend it doing the things we'd really enjoy but at the end of the day that is all they are -- excuses.  Many of us talk about being able to do the things we dream of doing some time in the future.  The problem is that none of us know what our future holds.  We don't even know for certain that we will have a future.  We always, however, have the present moment. 

One other thing I've noticed, at least about myself, is that no matter how much I enjoy a good vacation I am ALWAYS and without fail ready to go home when the time comes - sometimes even before the time comes.  Why is it that I should spend months looking forward to a trip yet be so eager to return home in the end?  Just something to think about...

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