Sunday, May 8, 2022

9 - The Lonely Bachelor

I've noticed an interesting trend among my clients; particularly those who come to therapy because of a maladaptive behavior that's getting in their way. Often even if they've identified the problem and are motivated to change, they feel powerless. After experiencing disappointment over and over, they mostly believe that change is impossible. Clients with this mindset usually come to their first session looking defeated, skeptical, and often having already predicted that I won’t be able to help them. One of the first interventions I use with these clients is the Empathy Equation. Here's an example.

A client, let's call him Andrew, was a 40-year-old bachelor who was fed up with his long history of failed relationships. At our first session, Andrew said his goal was to learn how to be "less picky" about the women he chose to date. According to his assessment, the problem with his love life was that his standards were too high. He thought if he could learn how to settle for less attractive, successful, and confident women, he might finally find a long term partner. 

Naturally, I was struck by his automatic l assumption that the only thing he had the power to change were his expectations. While I agreed that he had unrealistic expectations, his pickiness didn’t seem to be the heart of the matter. After building trust, I gently encouraged him to tell me his story. Together, we discovered several traumatic events and abandonments early in his life that he had never validated or processed. He was forced to be the "man of the house" and the breadwinner in a rough city at a very young age. It had trained him to project confidence, hyper-masculinity, and perfection at all times to keep from getting stabbed in the back. The business he got involved in just to keep food on the table had required constant bravado and intimidation. Unfortunately, this habit had continued in his dating life. 

Andrew was baffled by the rejections that kept happening despite his best efforts. It would go like this: He'd meet a woman, hoping she'd finally be "the one". He'd spend their first couple dates trying desperately to impress her. He'd show off his spotless, chic apartment and wear clothes carefully chosen to flatter his body. He would brag about his career success, portray himself as fun and carefree, and tell his date about how many people relied on his wisdom and support.

His strategy of projecting absolute perfection inevitably backfired, though. Shocking, I know. If he didn't alienate the woman he was wooing with false arrogance, he would spiral as soon as any vulnerability was required. If she asked him about something he perceived to be a weakness, he would instantly feel humiliated and inadequate. To make the pain more bearable, he'd quickly pivot and identify a flaw in his date. He'd then fixate on it until he'd convinced himself that SHE wasn't good enough for HIM. Thus emerged his theory that his standards were simply too high. 

Andrew's denial about his shame had completely blinded him to the true cause of his relationship troubles. Even after identifying the true issue, several more weeks went by, the cycle playing out again and again. I suspect that deep down, Andrew was still holding out hope that his perfection gambit might work if he just tried hard enough. Finally, however, he was ready to accept the truth: His outdated defense mechanisms were pushing him to withhold empathy from others, and more importantly, from himself.

As the insight grew, he quietly told me a deeper version of his story. He said he'd only survived his traumatic childhood by using bravado to bluff his way out of danger. He had to pretend that he wasn’t wounded. There was no room for mistakes or weakness. As an adult, he’d just continued bragging, competing, and posturing to prove himself. Considering how much professional success it had brought him, the idea of intentionally letting down his guard felt completely counterintuitive. His inner caveman was driving the train. Cognitively, Andrew understood the problem, but when he had opportunities to show vulnerability, he would revert to his old habit and put up a front. 

The first few times he tried to go against his instincts, he had panic attacks, but he kept trying. Slowly but surely, the facade came down, revealing a much more relatable human underneath. By the end of our time working together he was in the longest relationship he’d ever been in. Not only had his love life improved, but the symptoms of depression and anxiety he'd felt for most of his life were significantly reduced.

So what exactly happened? Andrew had started out by noticing the feelings, beliefs and behaviors that were getting in his way. He'd been listening to the inner caveman for so long, he'd confused his behaviors with his identity. But as he started to investigate how his origin story had impacted him, the puzzle pieces fell together. Suddenly his frustrating feelings and habits made sense. Once he understood himself (aka learned self-empathy), he realized he wasn't trapped reacting the old way.

As he learned to have compassion on himself, he gained confidence that the true version of him could be known and loved. By detaching his unhelpful behaviors from his identity, he had the power to choose a different strategy than the one that had been sabotaging him for so long. Much like in my experience with the Bieber Incident, the Empathy Equation helped Andrew reach a deeper understanding of what he was feeling (shame, judgment), believing (survival requires perfection), and behaving (sabotage of intimacy). Once he had accessed self empathy, he gained control of himself.

Friday, April 29, 2022

8 - The Bieber Incident

I'm going to take a break from the Empathy Equation to tell you my "you have unresolved trauma" wake-up call. It took the stupidest form ever. A seemingly innocuous joke triggered a full-blown panic attack for me at work, witnessed by dozens of people. At the time, I was working as an office admin for the youth ministry of a very large, very conservative church in Dallas. The team of fun-loving youth pastors I worked with was notorious for playing silly pranks on each other and laughing hysterically. Fun, right? Well, this particular day was the first time the joke was played on me. TW: I definitely didn't react in a fun-loving way.

My boss, the youth director, had acquired a larger-than-life-sized cardboard cutout of a pre-teen Justin Bieber a few months prior. It had already been featured in numerous practical jokes around the office. High-fives had been had by all. On the day of the Bieber incident, as I jokingly refer to it now, I was walking out of my office to check the mail when a gigantic, man-shaped Bieber jumped aggressively out at me from the shadows. He even roared like a monster: "Bugatey, bugatey boo!!"

In the past, when any of my coworkers had been the victims of this prank, they had shown momentary shock and then immediately started laughing. Not me. I made a high-pitched scream and jumped so high, I was practically crawling on the ceiling. I started shaking uncontrollably and crumpled to the floor, sobbing, gasping for air, and feeling like I was absolutely dying. My boss, who had been wielding the offending Bieber was speechless. After regaining control of my limbs, I fled to the bathroom, locked the door behind me, vomited, and cried as I tried to stop shaking.

I was absolutely mortified by my public hysteria, especially since I generally pride myself on being in control of my emotions. (I better not see anyone rolling their eyes!) My desperation to prove that I was a fun, chill, and *ahem* normal member of the team was crushed in that one spectacular meltdown. I spent about an hour locked in the bathroom, getting my panic under control, and, naturally, spiraling into shame. 

When I finally emerged from the bathroom, multiple well-meaning coworkers grimaced at me with worried expressions. My boss apologized profusely and after a few minutes of silence, he tentatively asked, "So…um… What happened?" I was at a loss. I’d just spent the last hour asking myself that exact same question. (Well, technically, I think the exact question I was asking was, "What the fuck just happened?")

The Bieber incident was the first time I truly confronted the fact that I was still deeply impacted by childhood trauma and I needed to address it. I'd gone to therapists numerous times (always at churches) for depression, but the topic of trauma had never come up. I had chalked up my depression to be a “thorn in my side” that I just needed to live with. The Bieber incident proved it wasn’t going to be that passive of a process.

Confused but intrigued, I started looking for explanations for why I reacted the way I did. Google insensitively informed me that having an “exaggerated startle response” is a common symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rude. The more I read, the more the sobering reality started to sink in. I went to a psychologist (this time, one who specialized in trauma) who confirmed the diagnosis. It was like discovering a gaping wound in my chest that I’d been blissfully ignorant of until then.

I started trauma therapy and reluctantly began examining the long-tucked-away memories of my childhood and the problematic thinking patterns that had come with them. I gave myself permission to stop running from my darkest memories. It was miserable. Whenever I processed a "big" trauma, it seemed like 4 more would pop up in its place, like a diabolical hydra. I was determined, though, hungry to learn about what I was experiencing. 

Although I didn’t have the words for it then, the Bieber incident had kickstarted a pivotal change in how I viewed myself. In hindsight, the work I was doing in therapy was me working through the Empathy Equation…for myself. My PTSD breakdown had highlighted feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that didn’t make sense to me. In order to solve that mystery, I had to investigate my identity, experiences, and circumstances with curiosity and non-judgment.

As I slowly got to know myself, I discovered a problematic core belief that had unconsciously been the foundation of my worldview my entire life. It was this: My feelings don’t matter. It wasn’t a belief that I had chosen, but one that I acquired through years of repressed trauma and trying to smother my fear for the greater good. The Beiber incident made me realize I had a habit of shutting off any awareness of my needs in order to handle situations where I felt trapped and powerless.

Confronting my trauma forced me to start paying attention to my body’s constant tension and stress and actually look for solutions instead of hiding. As I slowly opened the door to self-empathy, I not only uncovered parts of my identity that I had never acknowledged before, but I actually started treating myself like I mattered. That was the year I quit my job and started my master's in counseling.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

7: Experiences & Circumstances

We’re working through the Empathy Equation and here’s a quick reminder:

Identity + Experiences + Circumstances = Feelings + Beliefs + Behaviors

Earlier in the blog, I talked about origin stories, the dramatic backstories of heroes or villains that help to explain their motivations. Origin stories aren’t just in fiction, though. Every single human has an origin story of their own and, believe it or not, their feelings, beliefs, and behaviors can all be understood in that context. Today I’m focusing on the most obvious parts of someone’s origin story: their experiences and circumstances.

Experiences are the unique events that we encounter throughout our lives that shape how we see the world. Formative experiences are like plot developments in the origin story of our life, setting the stage for how we will interpret events and react in the future. Experiences can be adverse (abuse, poverty, illness, etc.), positive (relationships, accomplishments, etc.), or just neutral, but they all play a part in molding us. The way we were raised, friends we’ve had, jobs we’ve worked, our love life, our losses, and even major global events are all experiences that influence how we think and how we see the world.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Think about a major event that happened in your childhood. It doesn’t matter if you perceived it to be a “good” or “bad” experience. How did that event impact the way you saw the world? What did it motivate you to do? Now imagine that you have a clone, someone whose brain and identity are perfectly identical to yours. If you experienced that pivotal childhood event but your clone did not, what would be different about their perspective on the world? How much a difference would it make?

In that scenario, we’re noticing how one single event, or lack thereof, could impact two humans with the exact same brain, genetics, capabilities, etc. In real life, no two brains are identical though, so we have an even greater range of possibilities. If you had 10 different kids experience the exact same event at the exact same time in their development, each of their responses would still be completely unique. Their own unique identities and other experiences would heavily influence the way they perceived that same event.

Circumstances are similar but even more acutely relevant. They are the immediate contextual factors that impact how we think and feel right here, right now. These factors can be anything from getting a poor night's sleep to having a midlife crisis. Because circumstances are immediately relevant, they have a huge impact on our feelings, thoughts, and reactions.

When you start thinking about how Identity, Experiences, and Circumstances affect each person uniquely, it’s no wonder that we respond to the world in such drastically different ways. Our very perception of what’s going on is subject to the filter that we each carry around with us. In turn, as each of our experiences gets integrated into our worldview, they start to impact how we interpret new information moving forward.

The first half of the Empathy Equation is a person’s origin story. Their identity (who they are), their experiences (what they’ve been through), and their circumstances (what’s stressing them out right now) all set the stage for what they’re feeling, thinking, and doing now. A person’s experiences and circumstances will never be exactly the same as any other human’s. And when we recognize that no two identities are identical, it makes sense why similar experiences and circumstances would provoke vastly different responses from different people. 

The next time you encounter someone who is feeling or thinking something that doesn’t make sense to you, you need not assume that they are being irrational. Maybe it would be irrational for you, but you are not living in their body, with their memories, with their stressors. Conceptualizing a person’s unique origin story goes a long way toward helping us understand why they react the way to do to the world.