Why Trying to Be Understood Is So Exhausting: Rethinking our Response to Daily Hurts.

Kim came downstairs for breakfast that morning only to find the coffeemaker full of old coffee. Yesterday’s brew sat in the pot, looking stale and dead. Her husband had always woken up earliest and was the designated coffee-maker in the family. 

Kim could count the number of times she’d made coffee on one hand in the nearly two decades of breakfasts together. As she looked at yesterday’s molding coffee, she remembered her husband’s recent announcement that he was swearing off coffee because of acid reflux. The feeling she had standing there, looking at the old brown liquid, listening to her husband chewing his cereal, was of profound hurt, sadness, and anger

“You didn’t make coffee?” she asked, trying to keep her voice and herself calm. “Because you’re not having coffee, you didn’t think you’d make it for me, or didn’t think I was going to have coffee for some reason?”

“I completely forgot, I didn’t even think about it,” he said, oblivious to her feelings. 

Kim, who still had three school lunches to make for her kids, then started to prepare herself a coffee, but soon abandoned the process. 

“Because you aren’t drinking coffee, what about the coffee I drink?” she asked, trying to hold back tears as she moved away from the coffee maker. 

Her husband said nothing, but soon got up and started brewing a pot. Kim continued on with breakfast as if everything was normal, but inside she was struggling with strong feelings. Her chest felt tight, and tears were brimming behind her eyes. 

She felt trapped, knowing there was little she could say about what had happened that wouldn’t set off her husband’s anger and turn her into the “crazy” person who felt so much about something so small and meaningless. Fifteen minutes later, unable to hold her feelings in check, she cracked.

After her husband mentioned his acid reflux yet again, Kim responded with the following: “Yes, your symptoms sound really bad, and, my stomach is actually very different from your stomach. So, the fact that you have acid reflux doesn’t mean I do. 

Her husband once again said nothing in response and nothing for the remainder of the meal.

Interactions like this one, profound but small hurts, happen all the time in couples, at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and every moment between. And usually, they’re not addressed or healed; they just fade away into the giant cauldron that is an intimate relationship. 

In picking apart this experience, Kim and I discovered something surprising and significant: During that breakfast, she had felt guilty for saying something about the coffee. By making those comments, she felt like she had become the aggressor in the situation. She was now to blame; she was the problem. And consequently, she was now at risk of being judged and criticized. What was most painful for Kim was the feeling of having nowhere to go with her feelings of hurt. And, simultaneously, feeling that if she expressed her anger and sadness directly, she would be blamed for having those feelings—she would become the bad guy. article continues after advertisement

While this case may sound extreme, it’s entirely commonplace. These sorts of deep, wounding moments happen all the time. Kim is not different from most of the men and women I see who are in a relationship. We get hurt all the time, and yet, so often, it doesn’t feel safe to express what we actually feel, and so we don’t, or we do it in a distorted way. Or we immediately start trying to fix the problem before it’s even known.     

Kim was hurt when she saw the old coffee. She immediately went into a story in her head about her husband, namely, that he’s self-involved and doesn’t notice what’s happening for anyone but himself. That was her narrative, but under that narrative were big feelings, specifically, feelings of not being taken care of. That little gesture of his making coffee each morning, seemingly meaningless, was, for Kim, a way that her husband took care of her and, ultimately, made her feel loved. 

As we unpacked the experience together, it became clear that Kim did not feel emotionally taken care of in the relationship and had been making do with being taken care of on a practical level. Her husband’s thoughtlessness and disregard for her needs (since his needs had changed) made her feel even less taken care of. She would now have to give up one of the crumbs she received in the caretaking desert she inhabited. The feelings that the stale coffee awaiting her that morning evoked were thick with pain. 

It was also important to notice that when Kim’s strong feelings and physical sensations arose that morning, she immediately shifted her attention away from herself and towards getting her husband to understand how she felt (which she herself didn’t know just yet). Her husband was now the focus of her attention; he had to get how he had hurt her and the meaning of his choice. And when he couldn’t or wouldn’t offer this to her, she felt even more heartbroken.  article continues after advertisement

Our feelings of hurt too often and too quickly morph into a need to get our feelings understood and validated. We start searching to be understood before we even understand our own experience. Consequently, our feelings don’t have the space to exist, don’t get to deliver the truths they hold, and most certainly don’t get taken care of—not by the other from whom we seek understanding and not through our own self-compassion. 

We get hurt and then end up feeling guilty for chasing after the other person’s understanding. In our efforts to be known, we land in the role of the desperate aggressor, the one who’s demanding to have our experience understood, clawing for empathy, and yet suffering deeply throughout the process. It’s a far too common occurrence in a relationship: feeling hurt, guilty, and not understood—all at once.

Just as an experiment, the next time strong feelings arise, see what it’s like to simply experience what you’re experiencing, feel the feelings in your body. Just for that moment, give yourself permission to not have to get your feelings understood by whoever you believe caused them or must understand them.  See what’s underneath the feelings, what deeper hurt has been triggered.article continues after advertisement

When we interrupt our urge to be immediately understood—when we surrender our chase for the other’s empathy and validation—we have a chance to be with ourselves in a loving way, to understand our own experience and be our own container. In so doing, we can take care of ourselves in a profoundly new and powerful way, a way that genuinely helps us heal.

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Why It’s So Hard to Build Healthy Relationships After Growing Up in Chaos

When we grow up in emotionally chaotic households, we face challenges in establishing healthy adult relationships. When chaos is the norm, we get accustomed to living with what feels bad and scary. We learn to silence our experience because it feels too dangerous to speak up for ourselves or call anyone out on their behavior.

As children, we need to belong; to belong is to survive. To express our experience of the family drama would be to risk the love of our caretakers, our belonging, and thus our survival. When a home is emotionally chaotic, it’s not generally filled with adults who are open and interested in the child’s experience; there’s often no safe person for a child to talk to and even less chance for there to be someone who will take responsibility for, or change, what’s happening. 

When we grow up in an emotionally unstable and untrustworthy environment, we develop certain defense strategies to maintain our safety and keep ourselves intact. Put simply, we learn to get okay with a lot of stuff that doesn’t feel okay. We become experts at burying anxietyfearanger, and despair; we walk through the wreckage as if nothing crazy is happening, no matter how bad it feels. And eventually crazy becomes our norm. 

Our strategies for survival succeed at keeping us safe as children, on a certain level. But when we carry these same defense strategies into adult relationships, they stop working and we end up feeling trapped, powerless, anxious, and angry. The feelings we buried as children are still there— only now they won’t stay underground.

Those of us who grew up in homes where such behavior was the norm often obsessed about what we wanted to say out loud to a parent, but we didn’t say it because it would have created anger or more chaos, and accomplished nothing in terms of changing our world. Similarly, as adults in relationships, we think incessantly about what the other person is doing to us; we make the case for our grievances silently inside our heads, and rehash what we’re going to say and how we’re going to say it. But, again, we stay silent. We think obsessively about the other and our bad situation, but we don’t know how to take steps to make it change: We’re too afraid of the consequences or of our own rage. As a result, we stay stuck in bad situations, feeling powerless to make our relationships change, chronically fearful and overflowing with resentment. 

As adults, when we’re confronted with behavior that feels bad, crazy, aggressive, or just not okay, our nervous system goes into a kind of fight, flight, freeze response. Our front brain shuts down in a sense and we enter survival mode. Deep in the recesses of our brain there is an assumption being made—that if we speak up, we’ll pay dire consequences and ultimately be worse off. Our deep-seated fear takes over and before we know it, we’re figuring out a way to make the other’s bad behavior work inside the relationship.

But staying silent doesn’t work in grown-up relationships. It doesn’t allow us to grow, feel known, or develop real intimacy. Furthermore, it doesn’t keep us safe like it did when we were kids. Quite the opposite: The strategy of swallowing our truth and our natural self-protective instinct under the guise of protecting ourselves become the very thing that harms us. We end up consumed with fear, obsessively thinking about what we hate, and carrying overwhelming resentment. We end up enraged at the other and ourselves—for what they’re doing to us and for what we’re allowing.

How do we change when our nervous system naturally responds to bad behavior in a way that keeps us stuck? How do we make what’s happening instinctively into a conscious process so that we have choices? The first step is to start paying attention to what’s happening inside us in the face of conflict—that is, to recognize and acknowledge this pattern, and become aware that we go into reactionary mode when confronted with what feels relationally unsafe. In recognizing and acknowledging this truth, we offer ourselves not just kindness and compassion, but also gratitude for keeping us safe in the only way we knew how. And we remind ourselves that this behavior no longer takes care of us.

Secondly, we stop to ask our fear what it needs to know or hear from a trusted other that would allow it to speak up for itself. Sometimes the frightened part of ourselves wants to know or be reminded that it doesn’t actually need this other person. 

If we can realize that we won’t die without this other person, that we’ve projected our childhood dependence onto this relationship, the risk drops and we can find the courage to speak our truth. If we don’t yet genuinely believe that we don’t need the other, we can start taking steps toward the autonomy that can set us free.

On the other hand, the little one inside us may need to know that it doesn’t have to explain why what’s not okay is not okay, or get the other person to understand or agree. Sometimes the fear is about having to defend our case against the other’s anger, blame, and defensiveness that feels most daunting. In truth, we don’t have to get confirmation or validation from the other that their behavior is not okay for us. We can offer ourselves permission to simply say No, this is not okay, period.

There are an infinite number of possible answers to the question, What would I need to believe to speak up in the face of chaos? What’s most important is simply that you ask the frightened part of yourself, with kindness, what it needs to stand up for you, confront the crazy, and speak your truth. Once you know what your system needs to move forward, you can offer yourself that truth, or start on the path to making that answer true. 

When we grew up accepting the unacceptable because we had to, and we become grownups afraid to stand up for ourselves, we learn to stuff our anger and keep the peace at all costs, including the cost to ourselves. 

But just because we grew up around chaos doesn’t mean we’re condemned to live with it forever. We can change. We can change our reaction to behavior that’s not acceptable, and in the process, change the situation itself. Or we can leave a situation that doesn’t work for us. Once we become conscious of our own behavior, we have choices. We can learn to be the light in the darkness and create our own reality.   

Unlike what we believed as children, we do get a say in our own reality and we can move from the problem to the solution. 

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Are Your Thoughts True? Do You Even Believe Them?

I was recently taking a walk with my closest friend, hand in hand, enjoying each other’s company and kidding around as we usually do. My friend, who is a bit of a loner, made a joke that he doesn’t make friends easily, to which I sweetly and playfully replied, “Well you made friends with me, a long time ago.”

His response was, to my ears, a lukewarm, unenthusiastic “yeh” or it might have been an “eh.” Either way, it was upsetting. We had been having a good time and, in an instant, I felt hurt and angry, and, for a moment, I saw no alternative other than to turn around and head home, which I did.

For the few blocks it took me to get home, a tsunami of thoughts was building inside my head, at the center of which was the thought that my best friend had just taken a sweet moment—a moment of real connection—and intentionally thrown it away. My thoughts were also saying that he chose to reject me because he didn’t really think it was such a great thing that we became friends back in high school, and that he would actually rather have other friends than me.

With each tree I passed on the journey home, I was becoming more hurt, more resentful, and more convinced of my storyline. By the time I got the key in the door, my thoughts had convinced me that my story of rejection was the absolute truth.

But then, thankfully, it occurred to me to ask myself the following question: Is this choice I’m making right now—to stick with my story about what just happened (and what it means)—moving me closer to happiness or unhappiness?

The answer was easy; I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I stuck with what I was thinking and kept feeding it with my attention, my evening and maybe even my next day would be prickly, tense, and just plain bad. I wondered, was it really worth it when I could actually, right in this moment, make a different choice and change the whole trajectory of my next 36 hours? I pulled myself out of the micro and considered the macro.

But the question I asked next was the one that snapped me out of my binge-thinking, convinced me to put my thinking fork down if you will, and propelled me to act differently. I asked myself this: Is it true that my friend said what he said for the reasons I’m telling myself right now?  Is the meaning I’m assigning this interaction actually true?

With these questions posed, I could immediately see that I was thinking myself into a lather about something that, when considered deeply, I not only didn’t and couldn’t know was true, but that I deep down believed was untrue! I did not believe that my friend wanted or intended to hurt me and also did not believe that he would rather be friends with others instead.

Realizing that I did not believe in the truth of my own story allowed me to recognize the ridiculousness of hanging onto my storyline and staying looped into such thoughts.

Considering these questions allowed me to feel an entirely different feeling towards my friend. It shifted my emotional weather from resentment to gratitude. In considering how much he did not want to hurt me, it made me appreciate his kindness, his deeper intention to make me happy.

I will also say, however, that through the investigation of what was true, I discovered that indeed I had been feeling a bit under-appreciated by my friend, and maybe even a little hurt. What was true was that I knew he appreciated my friendship deeply, but that lately, I had been needing a little bit more acknowledgment of that appreciation. And so, the inquiry into what was true uncovered my love for my friend and also, the hurt in me that needed a voice.

While in this example, it was clear to me upon asking this question to myself that what I was telling myself actually contradicted what I believed to be true, there are also many times when the answer is not so clear cut, and when it’s not so easy to break free from the thinking pattern.

It’s often the case that we do in fact believe what our thoughts are telling us. We may believe, for example, that another person is intending to hurt us. But here’s the thing: Even when we believe it, we can open up to the possibility that we don’t know for sure what’s true in another person’s inner world. When we can say to ourselves yes, this is true as I see it, but I don’t know what’s true for the other, in their reality, then we’re on our way to freedom.  It’s just that little bit of wiggle room we give ourselves when we say, “I can’t know for sure what’s real for another; not at least until I talk to them about it.”

The mess we get into with our thinking is that we assume our thoughts are telling us the truth, which includes what’s true inside another person’s reality. Asking ourselves, “Is this true?” Or possibly, “Is there anything else that could also be true?” allows some air into our airtight system of thinking.

Once we deeply comprehend that we can’t really know what’s true inside another person’s mind or heart, we are relieved of the suffering that comes from having to believe in the stories we create—for others. We are still free to write our own stories, make meaning or truth for ourselves, but we no longer have to write the motives and intentions, the parts if you will, for all the other characters in our life.​​

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Are Healthy Relationships Possible After Growing Up in Emotional Chaos?

When we grow up in emotionally chaotic households, we face challenges in establishing healthy adult relationships. When chaos is the norm, we get accustomed to living with what feels bad and scary. We learn to silence our experience because it feels too dangerous to speak up for ourselves or call anyone out on their behavior.

As children, we need to belong; to belong is to survive. To express our experience of the family drama would be to risk the love of our caretakers, our belonging, and thus our survival. When a home is emotionally chaotic, it’s not generally filled with adults who are open and interested in the child’s experience; there’s often no safe person for a child to talk to and even less chance for there to be someone who will take responsibility for, or change, what’s happening.

When we grow up in an emotionally unstable and untrustworthy environment, we develop certain defense strategies to maintain our safety and keep ourselves intact. Put simply, we learn to get okay with a lot of stuff that doesn’t feel okay. We become experts at burying anxiety, fearanger, and despair; we walk through the wreckage as if nothing crazy is happening, no matter how bad it feels. And eventually crazy becomes our norm.

Our strategies for survival succeed at keeping us safe as children, on a certain level. But when we carry these same defense strategies into adult relationships, they stop working and we end up feeling trapped, powerless, anxious, and angry. The feelings we buried as children are still there— only now they won’t stay underground.

Those of us who grew up in homes where such behavior was the norm often obsessed about what we wanted to say out loud to a parent, but we didn’t say it because it would have created anger or more chaos, and accomplished nothing in terms of changing our world. Similarly, as adults in relationships, we think incessantly about what the other person is doing to us; we make the case for our grievances silently inside our heads, and rehash what we’re going to say and how we’re going to say it. But, again, we stay silent. We think obsessively about the other and our bad situation, but we don’t know how to take steps to make it change: We’re too afraid of the consequences or of our own rage. As a result, we stay stuck in bad situations, feeling powerless to make our relationships change, chronically fearful and overflowing with resentment.

As adults, when we’re confronted with behavior that feels bad, crazy, aggressive, or just not okay, our nervous system goes into a kind of fight, flight, freeze response. Our front brain shuts down in a sense and we enter survival mode. Deep in the recesses of our brain there is an assumption being made—that if we speak up, we’ll pay dire consequences and ultimately be worse off. Our deep-seated fear takes over and before we know it, we’re figuring out a way to make the other’s bad behavior work inside the relationship.

But staying silent doesn’t work in grown-up relationships. It doesn’t allow us to grow, feel known, or develop real intimacy. Furthermore, it doesn’t keep us safe like it did when we were kids. Quite the opposite: The strategy of swallowing our truth and our natural self-protective instinct under the guise of protecting ourselves become the very thing that harms us. We end up consumed with fear, obsessively thinking about what we hate, and carrying overwhelming resentment. We end up enraged at the other and ourselves—for what they’re doing to us and for what we’re allowing.

How do we change when our nervous system naturally responds to bad behavior in a way that keeps us stuck? How do we make what’s happening instinctively into a conscious process so that we have choices? The first step is to start paying attention to what’s happening inside us in the face of conflict—that is, to recognize and acknowledge this pattern, and become aware that we go into reactionary mode when confronted with what feels relationally unsafe. In recognizing and acknowledging this truth, we offer ourselves not just kindness and compassion, but also gratitude for keeping us safe in the only way we knew how. And we remind ourselves that this behavior no longer takes care of us.

Secondly, we stop to ask our fear what it needs to know or hear from a trusted other that would allow it to speak up for itself. Sometimes the frightened part of ourselves wants to know or be reminded that it doesn’t actually need this other person.

If we can realize that we won’t die without this other person, that we’ve projected our childhood dependence onto this relationship, the risk drops and we can find the courage to speak our truth. If we don’t yet genuinely believe that we don’t need the other, we can start taking steps toward the autonomy that can set us free.

On the other hand, the little one inside us may need to know that it doesn’t have to explain why what’s not okay is not okay, or get the other person to understand or agree. Sometimes the fear is about having to defend our case against the other’s anger, blame, and defensiveness that feels most daunting. In truth, we don’t have to get confirmation or validation from the other that their behavior is not okay for us. We can offer ourselves permission to simply say No, this is not okay, period.

There are an infinite number of possible answers to the question, What would I need to believe to speak up in the face of chaos? What’s most important is simply that you ask the frightened part of yourself, with kindness, what it needs to stand up for you, confront the crazy, and speak your truth. Once you know what your system needs to move forward, you can offer yourself that truth, or start on the path to making that answer true.

When we grew up accepting the unacceptable because we had to, and we become grownups afraid to stand up for ourselves, we learn to stuff our anger and keep the peace at all costs, including the cost to ourselves.

But just because we grew up around chaos doesn’t mean we’re condemned to live with it forever. We can change. We can change our reaction to behavior that’s not acceptable, and in the process, change the situation itself. Or we can leave a situation that doesn’t work for us. Once we become conscious of our own behavior, we have choices. We can learn to be the light in the darkness and create our own reality.

Unlike what we believed as children, we do get a say in our own reality and we can move from the problem to the solution.

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Parenting 101: Love Is In the Details

Pam was crying tears of happiness and relief, but also sadness. The man she’d been dating for six months had asked, “How do you feel about what’s happening in the news, given what happened to you in middle school?”

Her boyfriend had remembered a small detail about her, something she had mentioned in the first week of their relationship. Unprompted, he had looked through the lens of Pam’s experience, which he had remembered after just one casual telling. She had shared her experience with him, and he had carried it with him.

It’s a story that presents in all sorts of shapes and colors, but holds at the center the same theme. It’s a story, ultimately, about listening. Again and again, clients tell me about a parent who was unable to remember the details of their life. Whether it was not remembering the names of their friends, if they preferred their sandwich bread toasted or plain, or who their most hated teacher of the moment was, the experience was the same… loneliness frustration, and suffering.

As children, when those who are supposed to love us are unable to hold the details of our life, the small pieces that put together the puzzle that is us, the result is profoundly impactful and long-lasting.

Pam sobbed when her boyfriend remembered that small detail, in part, because she had grown up with a father who didn’t remember the small things about her life. And while she knew in her head that her dad loved her, when she needed to remind him, over and over, about the name of her best friend or favorite flavor of ice cream, she didn’t actually feel loved.

Clients have described the experience in different ways; for one woman, it was the feeling of starting from scratch in each interaction with her parent, choosing details to share, building a new story about herself as if with a stranger. Another woman talked of introducing herself over and over again, reminding her parent who she was and what her life was about. And yet another told me of getting off the camp bus after a summer away and being surprised that her father actually knew which child was his daughter. To be known is to be known, in all its details.

I write this blog today as a cautionary tale for parents, and also, I hope, an encouraging tale. As inconsequential as they may seem, the details of a child’s life are vitally important; it’s difficult to feel truly known if the details of one’s life are not remembered or retained. And, most importantly, we can’t feel loved if we don’t feel known.

It’s common for children to take the blame for a parent who doesn’t listen. The child assumes he isn’t interesting or important enough, doesn’t matter enough to be remembered. The child concludes that he is the one who is broken and lacking. He takes responsibility for the parent’s inattention, in part, because a child’s primary need is to maintain the bond with the parent no matter what, in order to belong and hence survive. Secondly, a child blames himself, because he needs to hold the parent in his mind as something good and trustworthy, to see his parent as reliable, even if to do so causes the child harm. The idea that a parent might be untrustworthy, flawed, or even unkind is too discordant with what the child needs for his own equanimity. For little Jonny, it’s less problematic (paradoxically) if he is responsible for his dad’s inattention, as opposed to his dad himself choosing not to pay attention to him.

So often I meet clients who were not adequately listened to early in life, and the chronic suffering that accompanies such an absence is profound. As adults, such folks frequently continue struggling to be known, seeing every interaction through the lens of being adequately listened to or not, and never really achieving the feeling of being entirely known.

All that said, I offer parents the following advice: Listen to the details of your children’s lives, and don’t just listen, remember them… whether you’re interested or not. Furthermore, ask about those details, show them you know them. Parenting is a boots-on-the-ground endeavor. It’s not that hard to do really, and yet it’s one of the most powerful and generous things we can do for our children.

As a parent, I know how overwhelming it is these days to raise kids. Just the number of tasks we have to perform for our kids is staggering, without the rest of the caretaking. I also know that our children’s friends’ names change weekly, as do all the details. I also know what it’s like to work a full day and come home in the evening, cook dinner, and try to pay attention to the stories that kids tell.

As parents, our goal is not perfection; we’re works-in-progress, never completed. We’re going to mess up, confuse last week’s frenemy with today’s BFF. The point is that we try hard to show up, be present, listen well, and remember what we hear. So much of parenting is challenging and sometimes even impossible, but the act of listening and retaining the details, while it may take some effort, is not that hard. And particularly not when you know that the small details are portals to something infinitely larger.

If a child feels we’re present and experiences us as interested in and paying attention to their life, then even when we make mistakes, miss and forget things, it’s more likely the child will feel known and grow up to be an adult who feels sufficiently seen and heard, and thus not have to keep searching for it for a lifetime. It’s likely that child will also know that they’re important—they matter. There’s a saying: “God is in the details.” I believe love is in the details, and maybe it’s the same thing. Paying attention is love. Remembering that our child likes the crusts off the bread is a small way of saying I love you, I see you, I know you.

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