“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”
― David Foster Wallace
Thoughts can be a good thing and we can probably agree that ‘thinking” is an important skill. Many of us work long and hard to cultivate our ability to be “good thinkers”.
Yet for all the work that we may undertake to be good thinkers, many of us who experience estrangement are stuck in ‘stinking thinking’ and are very literally victims to our own thoughts. Something happens, someone says something, or does something, or doesn’t say something, or do something and the next thing we know, our thoughts are off to the races! We’re busy analysing, dissecting, picking things apart, weighing them up. We’re going to stick with the thought process like glue, as if simply thinking about something over and over and over …will fix it.
Events pass, time moves on and we’re still thinking, ruminating even. We’re replaying conversations in our heads, we’re still picking apart what happened, who said what, who did what. If we think about it enough, we can work ourselves up into emotional distress, sometimes significant emotional distress. We miss out on the things that are happening here and now. We lose our response-ability to current events and relationships because we’re actually not living in the here and now. We’ve entered a relationship with our thoughts and our thoughts are about people and things that have happened in the past.
We can’t just stop thinking, and indeed that would be most undesirable. Yet, we need to develop the skills to be response-able about what we think. We need to develop self awareness, consciousness about what we are thinking, about where our thoughts are taking us, about what we are doing to ourselves. Some of us don’t like to hear that last bit. The bit where we have responsibility for what we are doing to ourselves. Yeah a bad thing, even many bad things may have happened to us, but they are finished now. They are over and done with, except in our thoughts – where we continue to rewind and review.
We do this to ourselves. No one is doing it to us.
Think about it.
“If you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves, to treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend, or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it”
― David Foster Wallace
I am sat here, in my little outdoor writing nook, at my little Balinese hut and I am thinking about the extraordinary good fortune that I created for myself, which has manifested as this trip.
This trip didn’t just happen. It is the culmination of a couple of years (at least) of researching and planning to travel to Bali and to stay at Bambu Indah. This trip was time I set aside for myself, to love and care for myself. It was a gift, a blessing, an offering of caring that I gave to me. It was my ” honeymoon” with and for myself.
This ‘gift’ comes at the end of several tumultuous years, which included a terrifyingly bumpy relocation to a new country, a severe health crisis, the ending of a marriage, my children leaving the nest and the recent letting go of a very full on job I have managed for the past four years.
I have learned about letting go. I have learned about looking after myself. I have earned the right to advocate self care, because I have been forced to my knees over and over again to learn how to practice it for myself.
David Wallace says in his quote that we need to learn to love ourselves the way we love the most treasured and beloved people in our lives. He says we must treat ourselves this way on the understanding that we do it because we are valuable human beings. Nothing more. Each of us, valuable human beings. David Wallace believes it is possible that we can learn to do such a thing. I agree with him.
It is my experience that life will give us the opportunities and challenges to practice self love and self care, over and over until we sort it out. Life is a patient teacher. We can practice getting to self love for exactly as long as it takes us to get there.
Loving ourselves is a choice, it is a commitment, it is an ACTION. Self care is not a philosophy, not an intellectual pursuit, not an airy fairy hippy ideal … it is work. It is about consciousness and awareness and the willingness to pay attention to ourselves. Maintaining this level of awareness is also work. The busyness of our lives and responsibilities to others can mean that turning inwards is unimaginably difficult. Struggling with the weight of family estrangement and other personal/interpersonal problems takes us away from our centre, rocks us from our pivot point, strips our emotions bare and keeps our minds racing.
We need space and time to think about what is important and meaningful to us. So often things we think we need or must have (including relationship things) we really don’t need. Many of the things we think we want, don’t necessarily create the happiness or satisfaction we are certain that they will.
Here in Bali, I have a few changes of clothing, my camera, my laptop and my iPhone. I’ve got a couple books and a journal sort of notebook and three pens. I haven’t worn make up or done my hair since I arrived. When I catch sight of myself in a mirror, I look healthy, and happy, and rested. I travelled alone and it is good to realize that I have such a strong relationship with myself now, that I am quite all right, happy, on my own.
I find my needs are small. I don’t need a big house filled with things. I don’t miss it at all. I don’t miss closets full of clothes … I am happy with the things I brought. I packed 4 pairs of shoes, I have worn 2 of them. I find I deeply appreciate and value small things … the flower on my table just now, my coffee, the sound of water, the smell of moist earth, the warm embrace of the humidity.
Of course it is a ridiculous and beautiful luxury having these lovely people here at Bambu Indah to tidy up my little space and light my incense and turn down my bed. I like the Balinese people very much; their warm greetings and willingness to stop for a chat. I like the way they pay attention to the world around them, how they are conscious and aware and how they remind me to do and be the same.
We heal when we stop ruminating and running and we instead start paying attention to ourselves.
We heal when we love ourselves and care for ourselves the way that we do for those we love the most.
The past cannot nourish us. We cannot eat our hurt and suffering. Our bellies will grumble and our hearts will go hungry. We know what we need. We can trust ourselves.
What do I need to do to look after myself right this minute?
What is preventing me from doing it?
When will I start?
That is all.
“We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life because it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
Good afternoon, dear Readers. I am writing today from my little hut in Bali. That table up there, to the left, is my writer’s nook and that is where I am sat with my laptop, thinking about sustainability. It’s easy to think about ecological sustainability as I am staying at an ” eco resort” which is entirely centred on the premise of meeting the needs of those who stay here now, without compromising the ability of future generations to also have their needs met. I am sitting here surrounded by jasmine bushes, the chirping of birds, the warm sunshine and cool breeze, the burbling of the natural pond/swimming pool that flows through the property and I am thinking of a different sort of sustainability. I am thinking about the things (thoughts, feelings, behaviours, relationships, work, hobbies etc) that sustain a life of recovery and healing.
The Nietzche quote above suggest that we keep busy because we don’t want to meet ourselves. Yet this meeting of self is integral to building a harmonious and sustainable relationship with ourselves. We must slow down and pay attention to ourselves, for this is the only way we are able to determine what is working and what is not. When we refuse to do this, we may find ourselves becoming emotionally and psychologically rigid. We get stuck thinking about things in particular ways and then doing things, also in particular patterned ways. We get bogged down in avoidance or denial. Maybe we keep ourselves so busy that we can’t be sure how we are really doing. We think we are healing only to find, we’re stuck.
We can stay caught up telling ourselves and each other all of the reasons why we have been wounded or hurt, why we are still wounded or hurt. Telling our stories is an act of reclaiming bits of ourselves, calling them home, calling our power home. Yet, the past and these stories of our pasts, cannot sustain us. We cannot eat them, or grow from them. At some point, we need to reach for and open to change. We need to nourish ourselves and move forward.
I will leave with some questions.
How do we know we are healing? How will we know we have recovered? What is our practice, day to day, that supports our healing and growth? How do we sustain positive change?
― Richard Brautigan
I am an introvert. There are no if’s and’s or but’s about this. I enjoy social interaction, I enjoy being “in relationship to”. I am even very proficient at managing social interactions. All this said, I am aware that such interactions (for good or ill) deplete my energy and take me farther away from my centre, my pivot point, my balance.
I don’t think introverts have the market cornered on this phenomenon. I do, however, think many of us are keenly aware of the need for personal space, time to reflect, opportunity to, as the quote above suggests, reduce intellectual and emotional noise so that we are better able to tune in – to ourselves.
What does this have to do with estrangement you may ask? I would say that the ability to reduce intellectual and emotional noise is central to recovery and healing, regardless of the issue. Dysfunctional or otherwise fraught relationships create an immense amount of intellectual and emotional “noise”. We can become so caught up in the incessant chatter of problems, other people’s words or behaviour, our woundedness or our anger and fear that we lose ourselves in it.
Another metaphor. Have you ever been working or doing something, and have the stereo or tv on in the background? Have you ever suddenly realized that this noise, chosen noise even, has suddenly become too loud or aggravating? Some of us will turn the stereo or tv off. Some of us will reduce the volume. How many of us however, determine we will never listen to music or the tv again?
Some of us see estrangement as the ultimate way of removing this noise. No matter how we try to find points of balance, to retain our peace, we are unable to do so whilst sitting in the noise of dysfunction. Some of us take frequent time outs from draining relationships and are able to more fluidly move in and out of them, without eliminating the relationship or our peace of mind. We are able to effectively “manage the noise”. Some of us are firmly stuck in noise, without understanding that we have the freedom to turn down the volume, or even turn it off. We may have forgotten how to seek silence and the space to reconnect with ourselves. Some of us, even after turning the noise off, are still living it, thinking about it, talking about it, reacting to it.
To heal is to reduce intellectual and emotional noise, whether this noise is attributable to other people, or our own noise. It’s to place a high value on our need and responsibility to tune in and deeply listen to ourselves. To heal is to realize that we have the ability to filter the noise that keeps us from tuning in and connecting … to ourselves.
We can turn the volume down. We can take a time out.
I have been thinking a fair bit about the preoccupation we have with relationships and how our attention can be captured by a single person, or a couple of people, often to the exclusion of other people who populate our lives. I have also been thinking about the way that people weigh particular relationships over others. This has some considerable significance when we think about estrangement.
First of all, we tend to prioritize relationships that trouble us. They grab the lion’s share of our attention, particularly when we are struggling through rocky relationship terrain. We may have ten significant relationships in our lives, but if we were to make a pie chart describing where our attention resides, these “difficult” people are the often the ones who would be taking up rent in our thoughts and emotional space. They get a big cut of our emotional/psychological pie.
We also have a tendency to weigh particular relationships more heavily than others. For instance, our family relationships are perceived as more significant than our relationships of choice. Relationships with parents or children appear to be weighted more heavily or be considered of greater importance or relevance than relationships with our siblings or extended family. Our relationships with our partners or spouses, can become more compelling than our relationships with our birth families. And so it goes.
It’s worth taking a look at how we divide up our relationship pie chart. Who gets the majority of our focus and attention? Is it the people who deserve it or is it the people who create distress, dysfunction and pain? Who do we think about, talk about, worry about? Are the healthy relationships wilting in the background of our preoccupation with the unhealthy relationships? Do these people get slivers of our pie, when they should have big slices?
Additionally, I think it is worthwhile to consider how heavily we weigh each relationship. For instance, how much power do we give any one person in our lives? Is it disproportionate? Do we blame one person, or two or however many people for our problems and unhappiness? In so doing, do we neglect to consider all the positive, affirming and life enhancing relationships that we have in our lives? Do we neglect to see our own power in the circumstances of our adult lives and relationships? Do we forget that actually we are the people who divide up our pies?
We can let ourselves off the hook a bit as well. We are not all powerful in anyone else’s life either. If they are choosing to hyper focus on us and our behaviour, it’s a choice they make. For example, I recently had a client explain to me that her children blame her for all manner of things – some legitimate, but most, not at all. She has felt very burdened by a disproportionate feeling of responsibility for her children’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour. The reality is, her children’s lives were populated by many people. When she looked at who the main influences were in her children’s lives, she could see over a dozen significant people. She is 1/12th of her children’s relationship pie chart, yet the burden for all things problematic or negative have been assigned to her.
Yes, we can let ourselves off the hook.
We can let go of our need to carve up our relationship pie chart in ways that disadvantage our health and well being. We can decide where and on whom, we are going to spend our emotional energy. In fact, we are the only person who can make this decision. We can also put our own power and responsibility into reasonable context. Other people may try to make us into a big chunk of their problem pies. They may try to serve us their view of us as their ‘problem person’, but we don’t have to accept that huge piece of pie, and we sure don’t have to eat it.
“I believe in the magic of books. I believe that during certain periods in our lives we are drawn to particular books–whether it’s strolling down the aisles of a bookshop with no idea whatsoever of what it is that we want to read and suddenly finding the most perfect, most wonderfully suitable book staring us right in the face. Unblinking. Or a chance meeting with a stranger or friend who recommends a book we would never ordinarily reach for. Books have the ability to find their own way into our lives.”
― Cecelia Ahern
One of the wonderful things I see happening in the E-Stranged community, is the sharing of personal experiences and stories and also the sharing of information and resources that have been helpful for each of you. I’d like to open up a thread that would allow people to post reading recommendations. If you could name the book and share a bit about why you found it useful in terms of looking at or managing your estrangment, I will compile a list of reader resources and put it over in the sidebar so you are all able to easily access it.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
― C.S. Lewis
I will begin this post by thanking everyone for contributing to the Does Love Endure Estrangement? poll I posted last week, for all your thoughtful comments and for the caring and support you show each other as a community. You have left some incredibly considered comments and have opened yourselves to thinking about love. Thank you for that.
It would seem that this emotion, love, for all the wonderful things it brings to our lives also has the capacity to wear us down, hurt our hearts and leave us afraid or unwilling to try love again, not only with those who have hurt us, but also with new people and in other relationships.
We who are estranged have been vulnerable, and we have been hurt. We may also have failed to respect other’s vulnerability and in our own turn, have caused hurt. Reconciling the weight of these realizations, is central to the task of healing from estrangement and moving forward to love again.
It may be that we have been unwilling to open ourselves to receiving love. People in our pasts may have used their love as a means of power and control. Maybe their love was highly conditional upon our willingness to do and be what someone else decided we should. Maybe love came at such a high price we were no longer able or willing to bear the cost. Maybe receiving love meant that we could not authentically be ourselves. Maybe we just got used to not receiving love, no matter how hard we tried. Maybe we no longer trust that we are deserving of love or that even if we do believe we deserve love, we are unable to trust that other people will give it to us.
It may also be that we have come to withholding love. We may have decided that loving others is too risky, that it leaves us too vulnerable. We might feel that in loving others we become open to being manipulated, hurt or weakened in some other way.
We may have been told that our love should be unconditional. We may be asking ourselves, How Much Should We Love? We may have had to come to terms with the fact that sometimes love is not just not enough. We may not know how to do something different with love. We may understand that we need to be free to give and receive love, yet not know where to go with this. How do we work out who is safe to love? How do we work out who will really love and care for us? How do we let others love us without falling into positions where we become fragile, trapped or powerless, unable to do the things we need to do to look after and care for ourselves? How do we love others without leaving ourselves open to being hurt, abused, misunderstood or abandoned … again?
We all want to be seen for our best intentions. We want to be valued, understood, cared for. We all want to be loved.
Fear. It creates anger and selfishness. They sit together, supporting each other, as inseparable as red, orange and yellow on the spectrum.
- Seth Godin
Fear can be an ever present hum for many of us who are working with estrangement issues. We may have been hurt, in fact, we surely have. We step away (estrange) from relationships with family members to ensure we won’t be hurt again. Sometimes this is the most healthy thing that we can do. Yet estranging does not often resolve the lingering fear we have.
We may be afraid that someone else is going to hurt us again. Maybe another family member, maybe a friend, or a colleague or a new person we meet. Our trust is low. We second guess other people and their motives. We start with the assumption that people are out to hurt us or take advantage of us and we come out swinging, or we just eliminate them.
What are we so afraid of?
Of being hurt? Of failure? Of not being loved, cared for, supported?
How does our fear shape our behaviour?
We can take risks with relationship. We can engage and wait and see what happens. Maybe we will be hurt. Maybe we will fail. That’s okay. It’s all feedback and we’ll use that feedback to modify our behaviour as we go. We’ll set boundaries if we need to. We’ll have conversations if we are led to. We’ll back off if we have to.
But lets not start from the default position of fear.
In a violent and threatening world we are readier to fear ‘others’. We mistrust more, and polarize more fiercely into our groups in pursuit of the protection afforded to social animals by tribal unity and cohesion. A Mean World is a more divided world, less able to achieve compromise and progress. A Mean World makes us more prone to the profound ill effects of chronic stress. And as Gerbner put it “…a society in which most people or many people already expect a higher degree of victimization, sooner or later they are going to get it.”
This is a bit of a departure for me as far as posts here usually go, however it’s something I have been pondering of late, and something I thought that I would share. I was reading an article this morning by David Ropeik, Aurora, and The Mean World Syndrome in which he was discussing the recent Aurora shootings and considering the link between what we believe the world is like, the level of risk or threat we think is present, and the way we respond or live our lives.
Ropeik is talking about the media and how a constant onslaught of violence and fear mongering unsurprisingly creates fear and reflexive self protection. He’s also talking about the potential fallout that we will come to see that the world is a vile and dangerous place, where terrible things happen to people, and may at any moment happen to us. He suggests that “if we think the world is a ‘mean’ and violent and unsafe place, the kind of world we see again and again in both the news and so much entertainment media, we live our lives accordingly“.
What on earth does this have to do with family estrangement you might ask?
Well, this leads me to a second set of ponderings about victimization in its broader sense. Many of us who have become estranged, whether through our choice or someone else’s, feel very much victimized by the behaviour of other people, and often legitimately so. Research tells us that when people have been victimized, there is emotional fallout. We know that victims may experience problems like: fear, anxiety, nervousness, self-blame, anger, shame, and difficulty sleeping. Sometimes these problems are so severe that they even result in the development of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is certainly my experience that people who have experienced significant interpersonal relationship trauma are prone to such problems. It is also my experience that sometimes the circumstances of estrangement are severe enough to result in this range of trauma symptoms. So I want to acknowledge just how powerful our negative experiences within our relationships can be and how far reaching the consequences also may be.
I also want to talk about how our past experiences may come to shape the way that we perceive the world, people and our relationships. This is to again acknowledge that the impact of estrangement doesn’t necessarily end with one particular ”trigger person”. When we have experienced powerfully impactful and negative relationship experiences, we may find that we have a stronger belief of our personal vulnerability. This is to say, we may attribute other people with negative motivations, and personalize those motivations. We may come to see the world as being a dangerous place, populated by mean, uncaring people who are out to get us or hurt us. We may feel we are more or less powerless in the wake of these mean and uncaring people, and may find ourselves becoming deeply self protective in an effort to ward off the next potential attack. We come to accept that the world is a mean, dangerous place and that opening ourselves to relationships with others is at best, a risky proposition.
We may also trip into something that is known in social psychology as fundamental attribution error. What this means is we may have a tendency to explain why people do the things that they do on the basis of their disposition or personality and overlook more situational explanations for those behaviors. Wikepedia gives a simple example of this:
If Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).
Linking this back to Mean World Syndrome, it is entirely possible that as a result of the trauma experiences we may have we may come to think that the world is a worse place than it actually is, due to our previous experiences and also to our need to over (?) analyse the behaviour of others who have harmed us, to seek psychological attributions for their behaviour, and to project those explanations onto the wider population.
Yes, we should learn from our experiences. Yes, we should strive make sense of them. Yes, we should be appropriately protective of ourselves. The question is, can we take this caution too far? How will we know if we have?
Here’s a bit of a thinking treat, do watch the video: Your Brain Is A Testy Survival Machine: Slow Down and Think