Dr. Sue Johnson shared this fabulous song by Edie Brickell with us when she was in Davis last month. I just love how the song and the great illustrations explain the experience of the angry pursuer in relationships, how behind the anger there is so much sadness, loneliness, and longing for connection. Wanting that closeness but being too afraid to ask vulnerably for your needs to be met is such a painful, hard place to be in...and such a trap for this little mouse.
For so long, behavioral psychologists have told distressed couples that they all they needed was better “communication skills.” The theory was that if people could just use “I” statements and use active listening, that their conflict would stop. According to new research by Ronald Rogge at the University of Rochester, this myth is busted. It’s not that couples don’t have these skills — they do — it’s that they can’t access them when they’re in conflict, when they’re panicking about the security of their attachment to their loved one. Or, as Sue Johnson explained, “distressed partners who constantly break all the rules of good communication in my couple sessions [can] show exquisitely honed listening and empathy skills with my receptionist.” This, of course, can be maddening for partners who wonder, “how come you can be so nice, generous, and emotionally present with this other person, but not me!?”
So, why do skills not work? Sue theorizes that practicing skills requires us to be up in our heads, thinking about the “steps” rather than feeling the beat of the emotional music. A husband may be saying the right things, but the emotional disconnect keeps it from being meaningful, keeps it from really soothing his distressed wife. Without being emotionally present, we might say soft things, but our face, our tone, our body language may still convey distance, anger, or other invulnerability to our partner. As Sue says, “We have to learn, in real interactions, how to send the heart messages that touch our loved one and move them to care.”
One of my favorite things about EFT is how rooted in science it is. Gone are the days of psychology being seen as a squishy, not-quite-real science. One of the coolest experiments demonstrating the power of attachment on the brain is explained below. Neuroscientists asked women to brave an electric shock while in an MRI machine so they could observe their brains. In some scenarios, the women were alone, in some they were with strangers, and in others, their partners were with them. When those bonds were secure and loving, women actually experienced less pain and anxiety with the shock, demonstrating how critical attachment really is to the optimal functioning of our bodies and brains. Love is an “ancient, wired-in survival code,” indeed.
I assisted the awesome Jennifer Olden with one of her Hold Me Tight couples' workshops this weekend, and she shared this really wonderful video from Brene Brown on empathy. Although research continues to tell us how incredibly important empathy is to successful relationships, many of us have struggled to define what exactly empathy IS.
According to Brene, empathy has four qualities: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in others and then communicating that. "Empathy is feeling WITH people." Someone's in a deep hole, and you say, "hey, I know what it's like down here and you're not alone." An important lesson for all of is that you can't really stop someone's suffering, but you can make sure they don't suffer alone. Empathy, she says, is vulnerable because "in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling."
She also emphasizes how your empathic presence is the antidote to your loved one's emotional pain vs. trying to come up with a solution. "Rarely can a response make something better—what makes something better is connection."
Check out the clip and learn more about the awesome power of empathy…while watching a judgmental antelope eating a sandwich.
This clip explores the toxic pressures on men to hide their feelings and how we (still!!) give boys and men the sense that they must be completely invulnerable in order to be masculine. This seems to be a key reason so many men shut down and withdraw with their partners, out of the fear that they'll be seen as weak or unattractive if they share their vulnerable feelings and needs with their loved ones.
One of my clients just shared this awesome TED talk with me from Johann Hari, explaining that addiction is not so much a chemical reaction as it is a desperate attempt to escape from profound isolation. He shares several fascinating studies from the lab and from the real world to build the case that "the opposite of addiction is not sobriety…it's connection."
LOVE is a sculpture by Alexandr Milov that was displayed at the Burning Man festival. According to Milov, "It demonstrates a conflict between a man and a woman as well as the outer and inner expression of human nature. The figures of the protagonists are made in the form of big metal cages, where their inner selves are held captivate. Their inner selves are executed in the form of transparent children, who are holding out their hands through the grating. As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives."
This is one of my all-time favorite images. It captures our innate, inborn (literally "wired-in" in this image) longing for connection and depicts the cages our defenses can represent. It's also a perfect encapsulation of what we strive to do in therapy: help the vulnerable parts of us make direct and clear contact with a safe and loving other rather than turning away in pain.
In EFT, we often talk about people as generally falling into one of two categories when they're feeling disconnected — withdrawers (those who shut down and pull back) and pursuers (those who criticize and, you guessed it, blame). That said, all of us have at times used blame as a way to "discharge pain" rather than finding the vulnerability to share hurt feelings or facing the fear of being out of control. Brene Brown's latest video talks a bit about her own experiences with blaming and how dropping coffee on yourself in the kitchen is always your partner's fault.
A colleague forwarded this clip from The Office. Jim and Pam are running into an awkward patch in their marriage, but they show us here how to keep reaching for each other vulnerably and responding, even (especially) when it's hard.
I came across this quote today and I wanted to share it. We have for so long been told sharing our vulnerability with others is a sign of weakness, but many of us would prefer to do just about anything than share something really vulnerable. One of my firefighter clients once told me he'd literally rather go into a burning building than tell his partner how scared he feels inside when they fight!
Being vulnerable is not only a sign of being brave and authentic, but it's also a necessary part of creating real intimacy and security. Vulnerability fuels connection. Sharing something real and tender is a big part of how we build and sustain close bonds. As those of you in EFT therapy know, we get out of the negative cycle by sharing our vulnerable feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and fear rather than hiding them behind protective walls of criticism or defensiveness.
This principle works in any close relationship. If I share something vulnerable with you, and you respond with care and understanding, I decide that you can be safe for me, which makes me more likely to open up to you in the future. "Wow — he was really kind and listened to me. I felt good sharing that with him. Maybe I can tell him more!" I learn that my sharing this part of me with you doesn't make you reject me, which helps change how I view myself. "You know the real me — even this part of me I'm not so sure about — and you still seem to like me? Maybe I'm OK after all…" Also, my sharing invites you to share something personal about yourself with me. "Wow! She really shared something vulnerable with me — maybe I can open up about this thing I've been worried about, too!" All of this creates an atmosphere of safety, acceptance, and closeness between us, a positive feedback loop where the more you share, the more I share, and we keep feeling safer and closer.