There is this powerful rut that happens when we plant ourselves in mud thinking if the person across from me would just get a clue, fix their problems, and stop acting the way they act, my life would be so much better. It’s the human response and hard to avoid. We know how this so and so is making us feel! We are really good at observing, analyzing and writing the prescription for all the changes this person needs to make so we can find peace, function unobstructed, and finally be happy.
I remember being an intern at PCS, and sitting in the Tuesday morning Compulsivity Group, listening to a client talk about their spouse. My job was to document the client’s share and the share wasn’t uncommon. It went something like, “When my partner is mad or triggered, they call me this name or that name… loudly, screaming and shaming me.” There was more; “My partner breaks all of the communication rules our therapist has taught us: “You” statements, all or nothing extremes, threatening divorce…”
And then I heard Dr. Ralph Earle gently pause the client and say, “Let me ask you something…
The ask was soft…non-provoking…almost loving…unexpected.
All eyes were on the client.
Initially, I thought this client would fight back with something like, “I wasn’t talking about me, I was talking about my partner.” I did see a glimmer of surprise and a little irritation. But then this exhale happened, and, in the silence, the client turned inward and really thought about it. Then I heard the client say with clarity and sureness, “I’m stubborn, if I don’t get my way, I can be pissed off for a couple days and I might not talk to you. I shut down, I don’t deal with things; I don’t really let anyone in, and I’ve got an addiction, so I hurt people. I hurt my partner.”
Ralph asked, “How does that feel?” The client said, “Good. Freeing.” Everyone in the room believed it; we could see this sense of relief on the client’s face, and I noticed the question was working its way into the minds of other clients… what does make me hard to live with? What if I could just own that, without having to run from it? Ralph’s response was simple, direct, “Thank you for sharing that; I’m glad you’re here.”
In that moment it really clicked for me. We spend so much time being defensive, and we think our rebuttals, our safeguards, and our winning facts are going to make us feel better, but they don’t. If we are “right” or we “win” it’s a Pyrrhic victory; empty, superficial – when there are winners and losers it’s a sum loss.
In my weekly Communication Group, we explore destructive communication patterns, and often someone in the group will ask, “What do I do if my spouse does all of the things on this negative list?” At least one or two additional group members will bolster the question, “Yes, exactly!” It’s the human response. We focus externally and are masterful at identifying what makes the other person hard to live with and calling them out for it. Sometimes I’ll joke and say, “When you go back let them know you worked on communication, and you’ve figured out exactly what they are doing wrong.” They laugh; thankfully they know I’m joking. But the joke makes a point, and from there, with a credit to Ralph, I borrow his words: “When you figure out both what is amazing and great about you AND what makes you hard to live with, you will feel freer and more empowered than you have ever felt.” Just like the client on that Tuesday in Compulsivity Group, they pause and somehow the idea resonates.
Because think about it…think about how much energy it takes to carry and execute daily defensiveness. Defensiveness keeps people in victim, and from there, they are powerless to change anything. Once we can accept that we are all both wonderful and challenging, victims and victimizers, then we achieve adult accuracy and freedom: freedom to forgive oneself and everyone else.
In the same group, I typically add, “Now if you carry a negative belief about yourself such as, “I’m a bad person,” “I’m shameful,” “I’m a failure,” or “I cannot be forgiven,” it’s going to be really difficult to let go of defensiveness. I encourage them to face and heal those debilitating beliefs, in order to walk away with a healthy confidence, and relaxed assuredness that everyone has massive strengths, and at the same time, everyone on a level is hard to live with.
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