Source: Photo of Magritte’s La Clairvoyance/David G.
Yesterday, I was upset because so many of my efforts to connect with people about my recently published memoir had fallen on deaf ears or, more likely, into overstuffed email boxes. I sat across from my husband at lunch and cataloged the names of those who had failed to respond to a personal, carefully written email. The frustration of reaching out into the ether and being ignored was getting me down. My husband tried to cheer me up by offering a different point of view. Patiently, he listed all the successes I had had — the readings in libraries, bookstores, even at my yoga studio; the fun and stimulating discussions at book clubs that had invited me to join them; the bookmarks or postcards handed out to people we had met who had been interested. By pointing out moments of joy that he and I had shared as we took our story out into the world, he forced me to shift my point of view, take a deep breath, and get back to work.
I was a graduate student when the pioneers of what became “cognitive behavior therapy” laid down their first principles. Learning theory provided foundations; Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Therapy, an approach; Aaron Beck, a new take on depression as being rooted in dysfunctional thoughts. Michael Mahoney added free association and other mental interventions to classic behavior therapy; Donald Meichenbaum came up with “cognitive behavior modification” as a label for the new integrative approach. Arnold Lazarus folded in techniques from Gestalt and other therapeutic modalities as he articulated principles for “multi-modal” therapy. They all emphasized the power of perspective to alter emotion and, therefore, belief and subsequent behavior. Research supported the fact that thoughts can drive emotions as well as emotions evoking thoughts and that either can influence behavior and its evolution.
Using my own commitment to the diagnostic and curative power of imagery, I even wrote a chapter for the original edition of Kendall and Hollon’s classic handbook, Assessment Strategies for Cognitive Behavioral Interventions. Although I embrace a psychodynamic or interpersonal way of viewing human behavior, I appreciated then and still do now what a learning/cognitive/behavior-focused approach can bring to alleviating human suffering, especially by promoting changes in behavior and encouraging more effective problem-solving.
Fast-forward to my conversation with my husband. He was showing love. But we had a momentary mismatch. I was complaining. He wanted to cheer me up by reminding me of the “irrational beliefs” underlying my childish pouting. No, it was not true that absolutely no one was responding to me. No, it was not a permanent condition, implying that no one ever would (or had). Nor did my “communication failures” go beyond those initiated through email. I already knew all that.
What does any of this have to do with showing love? How we respond to distress in someone we love needs to address their point of view before we interject our own. We must listen carefully, be open to multiple perspectives, and consider the match of our responses to the current emotional state of the person receiving them.
What are some points of view to consider?
- Our loved ones have at least three sides to them. Which one is expressing the concern? We all carry with us fears and joys we experienced as a child, skills and competencies we learned as adults, and a capacity to judge where we have been and where we hope to go, as a parent might guide us into our futures. Is the concern based in the magical global thinking of the child, the barriers to problem-solving being faced by the adult, or a larger notion of “should” that may need revision given the world and times we actually live within?
- What is the underlying, unspoken concern being conveyed? Most messages have a subtext. Is the concern about being lovable? Being powerful? Being competent? Being connected? Fill in the blank. What hot button is your loved one telling you is blinking?
What does the person you love need at this minute? An immediate response or rebuttal can be quite distinct from a long-term solution. Does the person simply need to feel heard? Carl Rogers’s classic approach of mirroring thoughts and feelings may be all that is necessary. Indeed, most effective problem-solvers come up with solutions and new perspectives on their own, once they can fully articulate what is actually bothering them. In our eagerness to help, too often we jump in with counter-data or suggestions for solutions instead of first exploring the full nature of the loved one’s distress. Look at the emotion first and the sources underlying it, after the emotion is grasped. Sometimes the unconscious provocation has little to do with the target the emotion gets attached to. In psychology, we label this “misattribution”.
- Is there an easy transition to a more mature way of viewing the situation? Once the feeling-state is validated, a person can move on to other perspectives. What impact is possible? Are there other solutions? Can the problem itself be redefined?
How can you respond most effectively?
- By focusing on the experience of the loved one rather than what you can bring to him or her, you can assure both of you that you are looking at the same object, even though it may be through different lenses, seeing it from a different point of view.
- By allowing your responses to match the needs of the moment, you demonstrate that you saw who was sending out the distress signals (the child, the adult, the judge) and what they were needing.
- Only when the state of your loved one no longer requires immediate attention can other information be useful and alternate approaches to the problem be effectively entertained. In other words, once the frightened child inside is comforted and again feels safe, he or she can shift into the more problem-solving-oriented state of his or her adult and allow new information, resources or points of view to be helpful.
Why is acknowledging different points of view a way to show love?
- It accepts that the loved one is a complex person. Acknowledging all sides of the self can show acceptance, negating reactions of shame or impulses for defensiveness or hiding. It allows the loved one to share rather than muzzle less competent-feeling sides of the self and thus experience safety in confiding without risking scolding or judgment.
- Ultimately, you can be a partner rather than a critic and help the loved one solve his or her problem that underlies the distress — or at least address its immediate trigger. No, there was no magic bullet for writing more effective emails to people I wanted to reach. But I could learn to take being ignored far less personally. After all, in today’s times, we are all deluged with far more demands and requests and information than we can possibly address. It’s not personal nor necessarily permanent — and it isn’t even global, because those people I do reach at the right moment do indeed respond.
When have you needed a shift in your own point of view? Were you over-personalizing or dramatizing the extent of the experience? What was helpful to you in adjusting your perspective? How did someone you love help – or hinder – your evolution to a more comfortable state? If they hindered, were you able to find what did not work and suggest what might have been a better strategy?
Copyright 2017 – Roni Beth Tower
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