Dealing with a relationship that brings you back to old—and unwelcome—feelings and behaviors
Jane, a client, was heading out to see her stepfather. She had described him as someone who talked incessantly about his importance and the remarkable things he’d accomplished (a lot of which weren’t true). At the same time, he’d never expressed curiosity in Jane or followed up on anything she shared. He often spoke about issues on which Jane was far more an expert than he was, yet he never acknowledged her expertise—and certainly never asked for her input.
In her stepfather’s presence, Jane described feeling like she didn’t actually exist as a real person who had her own life. As she painfully explained, “He’s never actually used the word ‘you’ in a sentence, referring to me; it’s as if there’s no me at all, or certainly not one worthy of interest.”
In the four decades she’d known him, he’d never said anything nice or remotely complimentary, not about her, her kids, the life she’d created, or who she’d become. There had been one argument between them, years back, during which her stepfather had spewed all sorts of negative things he thought of her and her “behavior” over the years.
While he seemed to know almost nothing about her, it was clear that he had long carried an extensive and ugly narrative about her. As Jane succinctly put it, “I’ve never felt like I’m with someone who actually likes me.”
But Jane’s mother had passed away, as had her biological father, and both of her husband’s parents were gone, too. Jane continued the relationship with her stepfather because she wanted a grandparent for her children. And indeed, her stepfather would show up a few times a year for her children, to bring presents for holidays, which Jane appreciated since there was no one else to provide that role.
Jane was conflicted; she wanted the relationship with him for her kids, but she was also aware that every time she was in his presence, she felt shut down, frustrated, enraged, and helpless. No matter how grounded and confident she felt going in, she knew, after decades of lived experience, that being with him would feel dreadful and poisonous.
She would feel unloved, irrelevant, misjudged, and dismissed. At the same time, she would feel cut off from anything remotely authentic in her. Her words would come from anger and resentment, rage at being ignored and simultaneously misinterpreted.
She would also feel aggressive, as if she were injecting herself into a space where she wasn’t welcome. She also knew that, regardless of how she tried to stay open, her heart would close up immediately, without asking for her permission. She would enter a physiological state of self-protection and survival—fight or flight.
Even when she was aware, she still felt unchangeable and profoundly sad. She knew too that it would take a day or two for this toxic residue to pass through her. There was no way around it—whatever emotional trauma was retriggered in his company had to be digested by her nervous system, heart, mind, and body before she could feel entirely free once again.
Over the years, Jane had tried countless strategies to change her experience: psychological, spiritual, physical, practical, and everything else. She wanted, understandably, to find an approach, attitude, practice, technique, frame, mantra, rosary, anything—she even tried changing her attire once—to make it less painful and dysregulating to be with this highly triggering person.
After years of therapy and hundreds of self-help books, she was still looking for a way to feel less defended, hurt, and enraged—and more like “herself” in his company, like who she was with everyone else in her life.
Ultimately, Jane was fighting with her own nervous system and with reality—a fight we never win.
What made matters worse is that Jane blamed and shamed herself for not being able to control how she felt in his company. At 52 years old, she felt she should be able to manage the relationship in an easier and more mature manner, that the whole thing should be less disruptive and traumatic for her. She took the fact that it didn’t get easier as a failure and further evidence of her immaturity.
Her self-blame was then echoed by her partner, who responded to her suffering by asking her, “Isn’t there a time when you just let it go and move on?” And, just as unhelpfully, he reminded her that she already knew all this about her stepfather and the kind of person he was, so she shouldn’t be surprised or bothered by it.
So then, how do we get out of this cycle—endlessly seeking strategies to fix our experience and make it different from how it is? And, furthermore, how do we stop shaming and blaming ourselves for feeling the same way we’ve always felt around certain people, even after we’ve fundamentally changed in so many other ways?
In part two of this series, I’ll offer a new frame for what moving on and letting go can mean, and I’ll suggest new strategies for taking care of yourself when emotional trauma is your reality.