Mechanics of Betrayal— Understanding the Basics of Healing Betrayal Behavior
Series Three: Blog Fifty-Nine
I have spent my professional career listening to stories of men and women who have broken the hearts of loved ones with offensive sexual behavior. I have watched loved ones strike back as a trauma response. I have sit with partners as they unearth their own dysfunctional patterns that contributed to intimacy disability. Healing broken trust is complicated. Offensive sexual behavior breaches the faith and hope in a partnership like nothing else. There are numerous examples of relationships that have blown up and have been destroyed. Likewise, there are many who have courageously fought to repair the broken trust and rebuild from the ashes of betrayal.
The journey to heal and repair infidelity is long and harrowing. It doesn’t always make sense. Many partners rightfully decided to end the relationship and move on. They created a new relationship with another partner and have steadied their lives with predictability, love and cherish. A few who divorced their unfaithful partner chose to live life without a committed romantic relationship.
There are many steps toward healing infidelity. There is the disclosure process. The betrayer must share the necessary details of infidelity. Sex addicts have numerous sexual acting out behaviors. Coming clean with a partner is critical to healing. The necessary detail is evaluated and determined by the partner, addict and therapist. One size does not fit all. A full disclosure is most likely necessary to set the groundwork of relationship healing and relapse prevention. This takes preparation for both betrayer and partner.
A question that often haunts a betrayed partner after disclosure is where did this behavior come from? The shock of disclosure is overwhelming. A confused partner cries out “I don’t know this person who has done these awful behaviors. Who is this person I committed to?”
It is helpful for a betrayer to identify h/her cycle of sexual offending behavior. It begins with an environment that triggers mistaken beliefs that block intimacy. Marinating in these distorted beliefs about self and the world triggers thoughts of anticipating rejection from loved ones. “Why would I tell my loved one what I am thinking, h/she will only reject me if they know what’s going on inside.”
They then wallow with victim posture. “Woe is me, I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t. I will never get my needs met.” Not wanting to address these intimacy disabling thoughts, a betrayer creates a mask to hide behind like “I got it together”, “great parent”, “consummate professional” etc. Masks promote emotional isolation like work projects, internet surfing, watching Netflix series, kids sports and activities, etc in order to avoid facing the build-up of intimacy disabling thoughts.
This triggers non-sexual and sexual fantasies. To avoid reeling in emotional pain, fantasizing about being anywhere other than facing the emotional discomfort is preferred. It might be a work project, a cross country vacation and/or ultimately a sexual fantasy that has not been fulfilled. The lack of fulfillment triggers a necessary urge toward a specific sexual behavior.
With the focus zeroed in, a betrayer moves to create reality to the fantasy that h/she has camped on in thought. It includes who, when and where the pursuit will occur. In order to proceed, the betrayer grooms h/herself with entitled thoughts like “I deserve some kind of reward for all that I am putting up with in life” or “if no one finds out, no one gets hurt”. They then groom loved ones by pretending normal and groom the acting out partner with words and behavior that will insure getting what they wanted.
Once the betrayer has acted out, there is often, but not always, feelings of remorse and fear of getting caught. There is always a rationale to displace the responsibility like “if I wasn’t under so much pressure” or “if my partner wasn’t so difficult or so different” etc, I wouldn’t be doing this behavior.
Almost immediately a betrayer reconstitutes with non-betrayal behavior after acting out. It might be trying to catch up from neglected work so that no one suspects anything unusual. There is usually a lot of guilt mixed in as motivation to be nice and responsible with a partner around domestic duties and responsibility with the children, etc. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being responsible and nice. It is simply that the motivation is to distance themselves from the shmuck-like behavior and avoid thinking of themselves as a betrayer.
Once well oiled with repetition, the cycle happens like the snap of a finger. To end the cycle, a betrayer must slow down h/her thought process to realize the build up of each phase of their offending cycle. Only then can healing intervention be effectively employed.
When a betrayer embraces and understands h/her cycle of sexually offensive behavior, h/she can then explain to their betrayed partner where the destructive behavior came from and what interventions are necessary to avoid relapse. Betrayed partners, if they choose, deserve this explanation for their own healing whether they remain in the partnership or not.
I wish someone had told me…
1. No matter how prepared you think you are for a death, you can never be fully prepared for the loss and the grief.
2. You can plan for death, but death does not always comply with our wishes or plans.
3. “Stop avoiding and be present.”
4. “Dying is not like you see on TV or in the movies. It is not peaceful or prepared. You may not have a spiritual or meaningful moment. It’s too real.”
5. A hospital death is not always a bad death.
6. A home death/hospice death is not always a good death.
7. “There will be pressure from others to move on, even minutes or hours after a death, and this can lead to regrets”.
8. “Death is not an emergency. There is always time to step back and take a moment to say goodbye.”
9. Death and grief make people uncomfortable, so be prepared for awkward encounters.
10. You will plan the funeral while in a haze. If you aren’t happy with the funeral you had, have another memorial service later.
11. When people offer support, take them up on it.
12. People will bring you food because they don’t know what else to do. Don’t feel bad throwing it away.
13. People will say stupid, hurtful things without even realizing it.
14. People will tell you things that aren’t true about your grief.
15. Death brings out the best and the worst in families, so be prepared.
16. There is no such thing as closure.
17. There is no timeline for grieving. You can’t rush it. You will grieve, in some form, forever.
18. “There will always be regrets. No matter how much time you had, you’ll always want more”.
19. Guilt is a normal part of grief.
20. Anger is normal part of grief.
21. “The pain of a loss is a reflection of love, but you never regret loving as hard as you can.”
22. Grief can make you question your faith.
23. “Grief doesn’t come in five neat stages. It’s messy and confusing.”
24. Grief makes you feel like you are going crazy.
25. Grief can make you question your life, your purpose, and your goals. And that isn’t always a bad thing.
26. We all grieve differently, which can create strain and confusion between family members and friends.
27. “However badly you think it is going to hurt, it’s going to be a million times worse”.
28. You may find comfort in very unexpected places.
29. “You should go somewhere to debrief after caregiving”.
30. “The last 24 hours of their lives will replay in your mind”.
31. Trying to protect children from death and the emotions of grief isn’t helpful.
32. “It’s sometimes necessary to seek out new ways to grieve on your own, find new guidance if the people who are supposed to be supportive simply haven’t learned how.”
33. “You grieve your past, present, and future with that person”.
34. Big life events and milestones will forever be bittersweet.
35. Grief triggers are everywhere. You will see things that remind you of your loved one all over the place, and it may lead to sudden outbursts of emotion.
36. “You lose yourself, your identity, meaning, purpose, values, your trust”.
37. Holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays will be hard forever.
38. People will tell you what you should and shouldn’t feel, and how you should and shouldn’t grieve. Ignore them.
39. “The grief process is about not only mourning the loss, but getting to know yourself as a different person.”
40. There is no normal when it comes to grieving.
41. Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better.
42. “It’s normal to feel numb after it happens. The tears will come. They come in waves.”
43. Grief can make you feel selfish and entitled, and that’s okay (at least for a while).
44. Meeting new people, who never knew the person who died, can be hard and sad. But eventually it can be nice to “introduce” them through stories and photographs.
45. The practice of sending thank you notes after a funeral is a cruel and unusual tradition.
46.“People love to judge how you are doing. Watch out for those people.”
47. You can’t compare grief or compare losses, though people will try.
48. Any loss you grieve is a valid loss, though people will sometimes make you feel otherwise.
49. “Just because you feel pretty good one day it doesn’t mean you are cured of your grief.”
50. There are many days when you will feel totally and completely alone, whether you are or not.
51. Grief can make you do stupid, crazy things. They may be what you need at the time time, but you may regret them later. Cut yourself some slack.
52. Grief can make you a stronger person than you were before.
53. Seeking grief counseling doesn’t mean you’re crazy or weak.
54. It’s okay to cry sometimes.
55. It’s okay NOT to cry sometimes.
56. “Time does NOT heal all wounds.”
57. “Grief re-writes your address book.” Sometimes the people you thought would be there for you aren’t, and the people you last expected become your biggest supporters.
58. “You don’t get over it, you just get used to it.”
59. It is okay to tell people when they are not being helpful.
60. Watch your drinking. Alcohol can quickly become an unhealthy friend.
61. You will have to face your emotions eventually. You can avoid them for a while, but they will catch up with you in the end.
62. Talking isn’t the only way to express and process emotions.
63. You will never go back to being your “old self.” Grief changes you and you are never the same.
64. Nothing you do in the future will change your love for the person who died. Eventually, you will begin to enjoy life again, date again, have another child, seek new experiences, or whatever. None of these things will diminish your love for the person you lost.
In our PCS Intensive process, I’ve yet to work with someone suffering from an addiction who has not experienced some essence of trauma, whether that be overt, obvious traumatic experiences, or the other, the covert, one-thousand-paper-cut-style traumas. And so to unlock the door to full-course healing we, as therapists, have to help them identify and process these events, in order to understand why they adopted this maladaptive, addictive coping style in the first place. We also have to help them grieve these traumas and develop empathy for themselves and the person or child they were when these difficult events occurred. We help them understand that they can really only give empathy and intimacy to others to the degree they can give it to themselves. So often, we will ask the Adult today to imagine being there for the Child then, and fulfilling what that Child needed and did not get. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing that Adult finally grieve what was denied them, and grow as the Adult showing up as the “parent” today for that Child, in the here-and-now. Clients will often say they feel as if they have lifted a heavy weight they have carried most of life.
Then what often happens is the Client shares their trauma processing with their significant other, partner or spouse. And when the Client informs this loved one of the trauma and neglect that is most certainly behind the addictive behavior the loved one has been subjected to, often for years, and, understandably, their significant other is less than happy. It is as if we, the therapists, are hand-holding this Client and giving them a pass for their hurtful behaviors (whether that involves sexual betrayals, alcohol of drug-related incidents, gambling precious finances, etc.). They want to tell the Client to take their trauma egg and “you’ve got to be kidding me”, Build-a-Bears, and shove them…somewhere! The Client might explain that the Build-a-Bear is to remind them to show up as the “parent” today for that Child that was harmed back-then, and, again understandably, the loved one has heard enough. They respond, “It sounds like they’re helping you find your grand EXCUSE for all the harm you’ve caused!”
Makes sense. And so, clarity is necessary, as the one who has endured someone’s hurtful, addictive behavior deserves empathy and beyond. So, one thousand percent, trauma is NOT an excuse; it’s an explanation.
A Client needs to understand what happened in order to realize that back then, they most certainly had zero power and control over their life circumstances. Now they can face the explanation and grieve and process it. From there, they are encouraged to understand that today, as an Adult, they fully have power and choice, and therefore, are fully responsible for ALL of the decisions they make. They are also responsible for any harm they cause. Their childhood trauma, though at times awful and heartbreaking, is NOT an EXCUSE.
At times I have seen Clients attempt to use their traumatic childhood experiences as a “trauma shield,” in order to dodge what they perceive as shame-inducing blame and finger-pointing. It is a maladaptive way of avoiding the hurt and pain of the one they have harmed, and they cling to it like a life-line. It is at this juncture that I and their team of therapists try and help them understand that unconditional love and acceptance is the pathway to true internal freedom, and to get there and be free of shame, one has to embrace all that is wonderful about them, and all that is challenging about them as well.
When a Client can speak openly about what makes them hard to live with, shame ceases to have an leverage over that individual, and only then are they truly on the path to strength and recovery. No longer allowing the explanation to control them or their choices, and no longer needing an excuse to manage their shame and avoid responsibility.
As an EMDR and experiential therapist, the most satisfying part of my work is seeing someone genuinely experience self-love and watching them gain insight as they process traumatic events in their lives. It is beyond satisfying to hear them name their challenges and talk about how those behaviors no longer serve them. Many people shed tears and believe they look “terrible” after EMDR; however, I will ask them to look in the mirror and what they see is the opposite – they see a person free of the weight that has held them back; a person who has never looked better!
Hayes & Roadin – 2003 developed four factors as a measure to understand the aging process. They are:
- Chronological Age – The number of years that have elapsed since birth. Time may be considered as a simple number of many events and experiences.
- Biological Age – A person’s age in terms of biological health. The younger a person’s biological health, the longer a person is expected to live regardless of chronological age.
- Psychological Age – An individual’s adaptive capacities compared with those of other individuals of the same chronological Age. Thus, older adults who continue to learn are more flexible, motivated, in control of their emotions and are able to think clearly. They are able to utilize more adaptive behaviors than their chronological age.
- Social Age – The social roles and expectations related to a person’s age. Older adults who continue with their social interactions and activities age longer than their chronological age.
The following information is provided by The World Health Organization (WHO) concerning ageism.
The term “ageism” was coined by Robert Neil Butler in 1969. The definition of ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others based on age.
There are three levels of ageism:
- Micro level – Individual
- Meso level – Social networks
- Macro level – Institutional and cultural
Data from the 2020 National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 82% of older Americans reported experiencing ageism regularly, 65% experienced ageist messages from the media, 45% experienced interpersonal intentional ageism and 46% had internalized ageism.
Workplace Examples of Ageism
- Using a person’s age to decide whether to hire or not
- Asking a person’s age not related to the type of work
- Company policies that negatively reflect a person’s age
- Rejecting a person by age because they are seen as out of touch, less skilled or fixed in their ways
- Taking advantage of a person by bullying, critizing or harassing because of their age
Personal Examples of Ageism
- Elder abuse, whether physical, emotional, sexual or financial
- Making jokes demeaning a person’s abilities or appearance
- Taking away a person’s independence because of their age
- Withholding medical and mental treatment due to the person’s age
- Forcing a person to undergo unnecessary procedures
Ageism has far reaching consequences and effects all age groups worldwide. As a person ages, their physical and mental health declines requiring greater care. With the need for greater care the cost of this care increases. WHO reported that the United States spends billions of dollars each year to treat the elderly’s medical and mental health condition.
Ageism is associated with an earlier death; estimated to be 7.5 years on average. They are seen as less capable and worthy of care.
How to Combat Ageism
Education – Provide a better understanding of the process and how to manage this process.
Intergenerational Intervention – Develop and encourage more cooperation, compassion and empathy between the age groups.
- Change the law and practices to reduce inequality and discrimination.
- On an individual level, become knowledgeable about the aging process
- Enable a person to become more aware of their feelings, manner of thinking and decision making
- Be able to call on life experiences to engage the aging person
- Help the aging person develop allies so they can be heard, recognized, respected and appreciated for their views, knowledge and life experiences
What Are the Positive Views of Aging?
- 88% feel more comfortable being themselves
- 80% have a strong sense of purpose
- 67% feel more positive about aging
- 65% think their life is better than they thought it would be
- (taken from Institute for Healthcare Policy and Intervention, University of Michigan)
The aging process involves many factors including heredity/genetics, cultural, nutritional, level of exercise, level of education, early child development process, plus many more. It is a complex process which requires a good deal of patience, diligence, foresight, planning and fortitude.
I would like to conclude with a brief vignette. My mother-in-law, who was a mother to me was diagnosed with lymphoma at age 88. She received treatment for it successfully! She was a sage with a willingness to share her wisdom and life experiences. I am sure that if I asked her about ageism she would respond with a twinkle in her eyes and a smile on her face. “Those people should be forgiven for they known not what they are thinking or saying.” She lived another 15 years and passed peacefully at 103 years old. Her beacon of light continues to shine brightly to this day.
Series Three: Blog Twenty-Eight
During the early part of the 20th century a number of individuals intersected with separate research development that aided the creation of the first polygraph used in 1921. It has evolved and has been modified many times to its present use in deception detection. Today there is a variety of traditional analogue and modern digitized polygraph models that can be used.
The quality of polygraph research has improved considerably over the past three decades. Its value is likely to increase as research continues to improve and address its current shortcomings. While it may not be possible to improve the polygraph to the level where it can truly be thought of as ‘The Lie Detector’, it does appear to hold the potential of becoming one of the most effective tools for the purpose of aiding in the detection of deception.
Therapeutically, a polygraph can be useful. Throughout the years as a therapist, a pretest sexual history interview has always yielded more sexual behavior history than I have been able to unearth in my own exploration. It is a support to an addict in recovery. A sexual history polygraph supporting that what has been shared by an addict to a therapist is complete and truthful is a form of validation.
Further, I have used a polygraph with an addict who tends to piecemeal addict behavior in disclosure. This behavior is agonizing torture to an addict partner and family. The partner and family wonder with anxiety “when will the next shoe drop”. The polygraph process circumvents the dribbling out of addict behavior in the disclosure process.
At times it has been helpful to utilize maintenance polygraph as an accountability tool for an addict. It gives reassurance to a partner who has experienced broken trust, particularly with an addict who has continued to lie and relapse in addict behavior.
At times an addict can distress on a question that they have not lied about but they did not reveal the entire truth around. For example, Joe who came to see me was on probation for cocaine abuse. During his maintenance polygraph he was asked a relevant question, “During the past 6 months of his probation had he used cocaine. He said “no” but distressed on the question. Upon review, during the past 6 months he disclosed that he attended a family gathering on Good Friday. He walked to the backyard patio and immediately noticed that many were smoking pot. He knew he needed to leave and that his probation terms would not allow him to stay. He was polite and said hello to family members, excused himself and left. However, he did not disclose this information to his therapist, probation officer or the polygrapher. Therefore, when asked the question about cocaine use he distressed. Upon thorough discussion, the question was reviewed again and he was non-distressed when answering “No”. The polygraph was helpful to unearth behaviors that were compartmentalized. Compartmentalization is a common struggle for addicts in early recovery.
That said, it is my experience that polygraphs can be abused during recovery. Here are some considerations when employing a polygraph in an addict’s recovery.
- Addict history polygraph. An addict history polygraph is extensive. Most addicts are poly-addicted or compulsive about more than one behavior. It is helpful to do an extensive history that traces each addictive behavior. An addict needs to recognize the cocktail of life experience that is used to numb out the pain. Addicts need to know not so much “why the addiction?” but “why the pain?” It is helpful to understand the magnitude of the pain by tracing the history of numbing out what hurts thru compulsive/addictive behaviors. After a therapist has completed an addict history interview, a polygrapher will do a more thorough pre-test interview that most often goes much deeper and excavates even more detail before relevant questions are designed or given. Remember, an addict in recovery has learned to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable. Telling the truth with thorough detail is not a 90 degree turn for an addict. Details that have been compartmentalized or hidden take time to unearth.
- Maintenance polygraphs can be utilized to provide partner safety and accountability for an addict. That said, I have concern that this use of polygraphy can be abused. It has proven helpful for addicts who continue to lie or withhold information about addict behavior to submit to a maintenance polygraph about behaviors that are minimized, withheld or blatantly lied about. The problems that I have noticed is when an addict partner will declare they need a polygraph to feel safe in the relationship. This may be true. But, it also may be an attempt to manipulate what they cannot control. What would be better is the partner utilizing their own tools for centering and caring with the help of a support group. Obviously, in order for a polygraph to be most helpful in this case, consultation with a seasoned addiction specialist is necessary. I don’t support partner’s demanding that an addict submit to a polygraph without consultation with a proven professional addict therapist. Standardization with the science of polygraphy is still evolving. It cannot be applied like a home test for COVID. There are many considerations beyond the skill and perception of a partner whose trust has been broken. Some couples have relied on a quarterly, semiannual or annual polygraph for years. To those who do I would ask how long do you want to rely on a machine to build trust with your addict partner? Do you want to sleep with a polygraph between you and your partner? There is no one right answer. It takes courage to answer questions like these. Please consult with a therapist before engaging polygraphy!
- The alchemy of a polygraph requires training and experience. It is unwise to mix and match different issues when utilizing polygraphy to get at the truth. When you mix and match issues like sexual fidelity with money management or ask vague questions over a long period of time, the reliability of the polygraph examination suffers. A trained experienced polygrapher knows this. However, it has been my experience that some ignore this concern and ask relevant questions that are not so relevant. Make sure your polygrapher is relevantly trained.
- Polygraphy requires an environment that treats the examinee with dignity and respect. It is intimidating to have wires attached to your body to measure physiological responses to questions that are asked. It is important that a polygrapher treat each examinee with dignity and respect. It has been my experience that many polygraphers that I have engaged do not. Some treat examinees very unprofessional, condemnatory and rude. Don’t ever use a polygrapher who is condescending and bad mannered. Only use polygraphers who will treat you with professionalism.
Polygraphy can be very helpful tool in healing when used by those who have been trained to administer and utilize it as a healing strategy in therapy.
Family, friends, and strangers often ask me what it’s like being a therapist. It is important to note: I just got here, so I may not be the best person to ask at this point. I completed my Doctorate in Psychology a few months ago, and I’m now completing a postdoctoral residency at Psychological Counseling Services.
I am not new to life, however, nor am I new to the trauma that can occur once thrown into this difficult and beautiful life. I am a combat veteran (Afghanistan) where I was a medic for the United States Army. I played in rock-n-roll bands for 20 years prior to that, and I worked in the hospitality industry for a decade as well. Most of it was really fun. You could say that I have lived among the people, dealing with real life problems, making all sorts of human mistakes. I then transformed several messes into something more productive and beautiful. I joke with my colleagues that I got to the game (clinical psychology) late because I spent my first three decades gathering personal research on trauma. Though I joke, it is very true. Now, I’m a pre-licensed clinical psychologist, and people of all kinds ask me what it’s like. They want to know what it is like holding someone’s darkest secrets and knowing the most intimate details of their life.
So far, I can tell you that it is sacred. I walk on hallowed ground every moment that I am in the presence of a client. Being a therapist can be demanding, as it requires that you do your own inner work, applying the knowledge you learn in school to your own personal life. It means getting in touch with your inner child and listening. It means getting in touch with your most vulnerable self and daring to heal. It means learning to say yes and learning to say no. It means having boundaries with family and friends, with all people truly. Being a therapist means waking up before the job to work out or taking your dog around the block as the sun is rising. It is practicing the same mindfulness you teach your clients. It’s practicing tolerance in traffic, in politics, in uncomfortable emotions. It’s sharing space. It’s taking healthy chances. It’s investing in your cells, so it is drinking water and balancing your diet. It’s going to bed early. It’s being physically and mentally active, socializing, and cooperating within a community. It’s having compassion for yourself when you stumble. Being a therapist is turning your own past trauma into healing and growth, subsequently shining a light for others.
A few have said, “Therapists sound superhuman.” I answer with this: It is simply important that we therapists practice what we preach, that we lead by example, that we ensure what we bring to the table is our inner, wiser Self who has been tried and is true, who is fluid and ever-changing, ever-growing, always being. No, we’re not superhuman. We are extra human, and our responsibility to our clients is “to do good and to do no harm.” It means all the things mentioned throughout this article. We are not superhuman. We are extra human, falling and succeeding in our own everyday lives often and regularly.
Just like my clients, I encounter challenges in managing my relationships with myself and others in healthy ways. Because of the work I do, I am surrounded by information and ideas to help me live my life and connect with others in a healthier way. In order to be congruent in my work and personal life, I never recommend doing something that I am unwilling to do. Therefore, in teaching or recommending specific things to my clients, I feel myself challenged to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk.
It seems that we are biologically wired to avoid uncomfortable situations and feelings. Maybe it is the old part of our brain telling us we are unsafe and to avoid these experiences at all cost. However, we know that although avoidance may feel better in the short term, it leads to all sorts of social and personal issues in the long run such as disconnection and internal conflict. Moreover, I think we know that being uncomfortable leads to growth and change, to learning and doing things better. Knowing things intellectually and being able to do them with an open heart are two very different things.
I am going to write about a few of my personal challenges and how I cope. It feels vulnerable to write about these challenges, because I tell myself that as the professional, I should know better or do better. However, I know that this thinking is not healthy and contributes to my not walking the walk. I believe that being transparent and vulnerable is important in relationships. I do have specialized training to help people, but I am also walking with people as a part of their life journey. And as I walk with them, I am human too.
Holding space for difficult conversations.
We teach our clients that by being able to have emotionally challenging conversations with others, they can build safety, trust, and intimacy in these relationships. They will also learn that they can keep themselves safe in relationship without people pleasing or avoiding advocating for their needs being met. They can also experience that they will be ok when others are disappointed or displeased with them. But to build safety, we are also taking the risk of losing the relationship. And to learn that we can be ok during an emotionally challenging conversation, we may also feel shaky inside and not be ok. Because it likely takes time for the difficult conversation to play itself out, we will have to reassure ourselves often that it will be ok and that we can only do our part in building safety and trust in this relationship. Before the conversation, take the time to make sure that you are coming from a caring place and not being reactive. You may also want to consult with someone you trust. Having healthy communication and listening skills, a process, or the words to use can be helpful. I know that I cannot do things that I have not been taught. In addition, working to heal the hurting parts of myself can be helpful in keeping myself calm and curious during the conversation.
For me, this is challenging both at work and home. There are many times when I am unsure what the healthiest boundary is or I am too afraid to set and/or enforce my boundary. I find Marilyn Murray’s Circles of Intimacy, Responsibility, and Impact to be a powerful tool that is easy to use as a check. I have to keep myself in the number 1 circle and keep other people and activities in their appropriate circles so that I am the best I can be, not only for myself, but for others. Learning that saying “No” is a complete sentence has been reassuring. I don’t have to explain my needs to others. Sometimes I may not know why, but something just does or doesn’t feel right to me. Continuing to educate myself about boundaries and listening to my feelings in addition to my thoughts also helps.
Self-care is central to this concept. I can’t feel good about me if I am tired, frazzled, or overwhelmed. Regularly being outdoors and doing yoga are helpful for me. I also practice mindfulness meditation with an app on my phone. Regular social contact with those I love is crucial. Terry Real’s Circles of Health is an easy check on where I am in terms of healthy self-esteem and healthy boundaries. I have learned to not push away parts of me that are feeling uncomfortable feelings. Instead, I will check in with that part from a place of curiosity, listening to what it needs. Hopefully, I can reassure those parts of me that are struggling that it will be ok. In therapy, addressing core negative beliefs has been freeing. It never surprises me how many people are walking around with a negative core belief that they are not good enough.
Again, as I write this, I am experiencing internal conflict: is it ok to have this risky conversation in such a public format (holding space for difficult conversations)? Am I revealing too much about myself (personal vs professional boundaries)? Do I feel good enough about myself to be vulnerable about my struggles (healthy self-esteem)? Not sure if there are easy answers, but I am trying.
“Although it is embarrassing and painful, it is very healing to stop hiding from yourself. It is healing to know all the ways that you’re sneaky, all the ways that you hide out, all the ways that you shut down, deny, close off, criticize people, all your weird little ways. You can know all of that with some sense of humor and kindness. By knowing yourself, you’re coming to know humanness altogether. We are all up against these things. We are all in this together.“
– Pema Chodron, author of When Things Fall Apart
I work with a lot of people who identify as bisexual in my practice and certain themes keep showing up: “People don’t understand me. They think I’m fooling myself. They think I’m indecisive or greedy. I feel alone, erased, and unwanted.” Bisexuality is commonly misunderstood, dismissed, and devalued.
It’s time to talk about BISEXUALITY.
Let’s be clear. Bisexuality is a valid and distinct sexual orientation. It is normal and natural. Robin Ochs has defined it well: Bisexuality is “the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.”
Let’s take this apart. People who are bisexual (commonly abbreviated as “bi”) recognize an attraction and capacity to develop relationships with more than one gender. People who are monosexual (such as gay or straight), by contrast, find themselves attracted to only one gender. Bi people are not limited to one gender. While this can be viewed in a strictly binary sense as being attracted to both men and women, it can also mean attraction to the same and other genders, attraction to all genders, and attraction regardless of gender. The concept of gender here is expansive and potentially includes attraction to people who are, for instance, transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, gender fluid, and those who do not identify as any gender. A person of any gender identity can be bisexual.
For bi people, the attraction to other genders can be either romantic or sexual, or both. For instance, I work with bi clients who are drawn to be sexual with both men and women but would only fall in love with a woman. And other bi clients who could see themselves falling in love with anyone regardless of gender, and would only consider being sexual with men.
A bisexual person does not have to be equally attracted to each gender that appeals to them. For most bi people, the attraction is usually not exactly 50/50. It is very common for a bi person to prefer people of one gender more than another and for the preference to shift over time. Their attraction may depend on who they are in a relationship with.
It is important to recognize that a bisexual person stays bi regardless of the gender of their partner. Thus, a bi man who marries another man does not instantly become gay; nor does a bi woman who marries a man become straight. Bi is a deeply rooted identity, a sense of who one is as a person and, like other sexual identities, does not tend to change over time.
Bisexuality has been around for eons. The term was first coined by Von Krafft-Ebing in 1892. History is full of avowedly bisexual figures including Alexander the Great, Francis Bacon, Casanova, and Eleanor Roosevelt. There have been many bisexual celebrities and entertainers including Billie Holiday, Cary Grant, David Bowie, Angelina Jolie, Whitney Houston, Drew Barrymore, James Dean, Jason Mraz, Katherine Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe. Many literary figures have been bisexual— such as Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham, Tennessee Williams, and Walt Whitman. The website bi.org offers biographic sketches of all these people and dozens more.
There are lots of misconceptions and stereotypes about bisexuality. Let’s clear up some of them. Bisexuality is not a phase that people go through on the way to becoming gay. Nor is it a phase one “grows out of.” Being bi does not mean being part straight and part gay; it is not a hybrid sexual orientation–it is a distinct sexual orientation in its own right. Being bi does not mean that one wants to go to bed with everyone or is bound to cheat with someone of another gender. Bi people can be monogamous and faithful to their partners, just like people of any other sexual orientation. Being bisexual just means that attraction is not limited to one gender.
Being bi in our society is not easy. Society at large, including the gay and lesbian community, does not see bi people and tends to discount them. Often, bisexual women are assumed to “really be straight,” and bisexual men are assumed to be covering up the fact that they “really are gay.” A bi man who partners with a bi woman is still seen as being in a “straight relationship;” their queerness has been erased in the eyes of society. There is a generalized “bi-phobia” that assumes that exclusive attraction to one gender is more natural and valid, and that deviation from that norm just doesn’t happen. All this is an attempt by society to erase bi people, to deny that bisexuality is a legitimate, real, and distinct sexual orientation.
It doesn’t feel good to be erased or considered inauthentic or deceptive. And these are the attitudes and micro-aggressions that bi people face all the time.
While being bi opens up more of humanity for possible attraction and relationship, being bi often makes finding and keeping relationships more difficult. For some women looking for a partner, bi guys are not straight enough. And for some gay men looking for a partner, bi guys are not gay enough. Bi people may cover up their bisexual identity to make themselves more appealing or may deny its existence, burying their bisexual urges and attractions for a long time… but often not forever.
Having a partner who comes out as bisexual later in life may be very threatening to the other partner who fears losing their beloved to someone of another gender. Making such a mixed-orientation marriage work (for instance, one partner straight and the other bi) can be very challenging. This is one of the most common reason bi people and their partners come to see me for help.
Like other groups in the LGBTQ community, people who are bi may face challenges with understanding and accepting themselves, coming out, dating, romance, sex, and relationships. Fortunately, there is an active online bi community, many informational websites, and opportunities for members of the bi community across the world to connect. These are also common reasons why bi people enter into therapy.
Our world is full of remarkable and rich human diversity. The bisexual community is a proud part of this and needs to be better understood and welcomed by all of us. For those who are interested, I have listed some resources and suggested readings below.
The Trevor Project www.thetrevorproject.org
Bisexual Resource Center www.biresource.org
Human Rights Campaign https://www.hrc.org/resources/bisexual
National LGBTQ Taskforce https://www.thetaskforce.org/the-411-on-bisexual-resources/
Bi the Way: The Bisexual Guide to Life (by Lois Shearing)
The Bisexual Option: Second Edition (by Fritz Klein MD)
When I was 16 years old, I went on a white water rafting trip with my scout troop. There were a few seasoned veterans within our group but most of us were clueless greenies. The river we were going to conquer was the Green River – a major tributary to the Colorado River. Being 16 years old, and being surrounded by about 15 other testosterone filled young men, I approached the adventure with a great deal of bravado. This was despite having never been in any water more turbulent than a backyard swimming pool when somebody was making waves by repeatedly pushing a pool lounger down into the water with his legs while sitting on the diving board.
My sense of invulnerability was a bit shaky however, when the guide was giving us some safety tips. Specifically the one that was something along the lines of, “if your raft flips and you get caught up in a rapid that keeps you spinning in it (known as a “hole”), don’t fight to get out when at the top where the current pulling you back down is too powerful – you’ll likely not be able to beat it. Instead, when you feel the rapid pulling you down, dive down deeper and the undercurrent will pop you out”. He then went on to explain that the life vests we were wearing would help us float back up to the top and the helmets would protect our noggins if we happened to get thrown up against the huge rocks while in the washing machine.
First thought: I REALLY hope our raft does not flip!
Second thought: If it does I REALLY hope, I don’t get sucked in to this liquid vortex of death!
Third thought: There’s no way in heck (I was a good Mormon kid so wouldn’t have likely thought to myself “hell”) that I am going to dive down deeper in to if that does happen!!
White water river rapids are classified based on difficulty and danger, with class 5 being the highest level that most commercial companies will raft. Fortunately over the course of the 4-day trip and sailing through several Class III and IV rapids, only one of our rafts flipped (I was not on that raft) and nobody got sucked in to a hole.
Since that awesome adventure over 40 years ago I’ve often thought of how absolutely crazy the idea of diving down deeper in to a rapid that was scaring the hell out of me just on the surface. In my own life, as well as with the therapy clients I’ve worked with over the past 29 years, I’ve seen frequently seen how scary it is to “dive deeper” in to uncomfortable or unfamiliar emotions. The fear felt is often just as real as the fear I felt on the Green River at the prospect of getting sucked in and pulled down deeper and deeper to my ultimate demise.
With intense emotions like grief, pain or fear, there is often a great sense of overwhelm and thoughts along the lines of “if I allow myself to feel this any longer or any deeper I may never be able to get out”. And so we often do things to keep from having to feel such emotions at all – or at least not too deeply or for too long. Food, sex, drugs, alcohol, shopping, spending, gambling, pornography, adrenaline seeking, compulsive exercise, busyness/workaholism, taking care of others so we don’t have to feel our own pain, video games, social media, and numerous other outlets are usually readily available. Some of these are socially acceptable and we get rewarded for our work ethic or selfless acts of service. Others we do our best to hide and often are contributors to our shame-based selves.
Thinking back to the river, it’s easy to assume that if somebody DID get tossed out of the raft and sucked in to a rapid, and somehow popped out (aka survived) but had no clue how they survived it – or thought it to be a fluke, they would most likely demand fellow rowers to beeline it for the shore, and then get out and stay out of the river declaring “I’m not ever doing that again!!”. Perhaps that person would walk along the shore as the rest of the group floats down the river. Maybe he/she would be willing to get back in the raft but only if the guide was able to GUARANTEE that there would be plenty of time to get out before the next set of rapids…..EVEN IF THEY ARE ONLY CLASS I RAPIDS!! Or perhaps that person would see the smiles and hear the cheers and laughter as the others conquered the next stretch of rapids and begin to contemplate getting back in the river.
I’ve come to learn that too many people have “somehow” popped out of a class V or VI emotional rapid (a traumatic experience, abuse, neglect, betrayal or any form of heartbreak) and are so afraid of getting hurt again that they have been stuck sitting on or walking along the shoreline as they watch others in the crazy, wonderful, unpredictable, scary, exhilarating, and joyful river of life and love, as they cheer, scream, cry, and high-five one another. While watching, they know that some of the rafters are going to get tossed, and are perplexed as to why somebody would be willing to risk getting hurt and maybe even dying. They are essentially stuck in over-protection…sadly at the expense of human connection. Their superficial walk through life leaves them safe, yet alone. Loneliness for most people is one of, if not THE most painful experience in life: a tragic irony.
Getting back in the river and being vulnerable is….well, vulnerable. If we had a guarantee of NOT in any way getting hurt by somebody, being in relationship with them would not involve any degree of vulnerability. So the key is finding relationships (a person, group, etc.) where there is a high likelihood of safety, and also a high likelihood of connection, joy, fulfillment, etc. (interpret as: people who are imperfect yet overall have good hearts, and are willing to own, apologize for, and seek to change assholy behaviors and who are pretty fun to be with and love) -and then making sure we have our safety gear on.
In the river the experts taught us rowing techniques, how to avoid common dangers, made sure we were wearing helmets and life vests that were the right size and properly secured, and taught techniques such as “point your feet down river if you’re flung out of the raft and floating in rapid water” and of course the “dive deeper” tip.
For the river of life and love, with all its many rapids, there are also numerous safety tips and tools. Specifically as it relates to “diving deeper” in to our feelings it’s important to make sure we’ve got a life vest and helmet securely attached. This might take the form of processing a break up or betrayal in the presence of a loved one or with the guidance of a skilled therapist. It might involve reaching out to a loved one and letting them know you are choosing to allow yourself to grieve the death of your child tonight versus drinking yourself to oblivion and asking, “Can I call you later if it feels too much to handle?” Perhaps it would be holding off on unpacking a childhood trauma until you’ve built up some solid self-soothing tools. One way or another, we have to “put on our helmet and life vest” and get back in “the raft”.
And when we do get tossed and end up in one of those really scary emotional rapids…if we take a leap of faith choose to follow the advice of someone who’s been there/done that and actually dive deeper toward what feels like a bottomless pit and our inevitable demise…and hit that undercurrent and get popped out….realizing “HEY IT ACTUALLY WORKS!!”…. it’s then when we will be screaming and cheering in celebration, – having survived what seemed impossible to survive, emerging confident in our ability to handle the really tough and scary parts of vulnerable connected living. It’s in that space, where truth has been born of our own experience and is not just somebody else’s suggestion or theory. It is then that we are ready, willing and able to live and love fully.
If your heart or soul has been broken and you find yourself lonely and numb behind your walls of protection, or too often watching others from the shore, I invite you to put on your helmet and life vest and get back in the river. It’s OK to start with some still water, and then slowly row toward parts of the river with class I or II rapids, and then III, then IV, and even class V level rapids!! Hopefully with some fellow rafters who make the ride so much more enjoyable. Oh, and it’s OK to stay away from Class VI rapids if at all possible…..but guess what, if you find yourself in one, you don’t have to survive it alone!! Trust that one of your fellow rafters will throw you a line! Maybe you’ll need all of them to help pull you out, and maybe you’ll even get a little help “from up above”.
Enjoy the trip!!
“How do I change the way I respond when I am triggered?”
This may be the most frequently asked question I get. And it’s an important one.
First, let’s define a ‘trigger.’
A trigger is when something in our present moment elicits a very big emotional reaction within us. The reason the feeling is so big is because what we are reacting to in the moment is typically about something we are carrying with us from the past. It can be past experiences, past emotional wounds, or past unmet needs; some traumatic. Our current experience is then being filtered through those events and we assign meaning to what we are experiencing in our current environment. For example, if I have a critical father and have listened to his remarks my whole life, then in present day when he makes a critical remark I may have a very big internal emotional reaction. Objectively it may have been a one sentence remark, but in this moment it has become the accumulation of every critical statement my father has ever said. And, in that moment, I may begin to assume the remarks mean that he doesn’t respect me, value me, and/or think I am loveable – all contributing to how I feel inside.
When triggered we often do one of two things. We either kick and scream (do something outward) or we go inward and detach, numb, or dissociate. For many of us, in this moment of big emotions, we are actually having a physiological experience, a nervous system response. This is why we may feel it in our body. Our heart rate may increase, we may begin to sweat, etc.
For this reason, breath is so important in these moments. Using our breath can be an incredibly helpful tool to bring our body back into physiological balance. To help calm the very real nervous system activation that is happening in our body when we are triggered. If we can pause for a moment when we feel a surge of emotions and create space for our breath, this could be the difference in allowing our emotions to down regulate enough and choose to respond responsibly, rather than react impulsively. So instead of screaming or detaching, I give myself the gift of choice. To choose to do something new in that moment. As a result, when I leave that exchange I get to feel empowered and avoid feeling terrible about how I behaved.
It may sound simple, but as you begin to practice focusing on your breath, it will likely feel pretty weird. This is why practice is so important. Do not wait to practice breathing until you are in the moment of a trigger. If you do, a few things may happen: You are probably not going to remember this concept and if you do, you are not going to be practiced enough for it to be effective. There are hundreds of breathing techniques out there. While I am a big fan of belly breathing, I encourage each person to find the practice that works best for them.
If we learn how to use our breath and harness this power, we can begin to create empowered choices even in the most uncomfortable or challenging environments.
So the next time you experience an intense emotional response, I invite you to PAUSE and BREATHE before acting.