No Such Thing as a B-word (Chapter 9 of That Loving Feeling)
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. -William Shakespeare
It’s not the situation that’s causing your stress, it’s your thoughts, and you can change that right here and now. You can choose to be peaceful right here and now. Peace is a choice. –Gerald Jampolsky
Jessica, Doris, Mei, Angela and I formed a group to practice the Jackal Show and self-empathy without our partner present. Gina and the men would meet with Carlos in the adjoining room. Without our partners we would be free to explore our jackal thinking.
There was a buzz of conversation until Jessica said, “Let’s get started with practicing empathy for our self-judgments.” She gave us that read, “I’m too: angry; irritable; nagging; selfish; inconsiderate; controlling; submissive; sensitive; insensitive; fearful; irrational; incompetent; dumb; lazy; crazy; unforgiving. She asked us to circle the names that our inner critic calls us.
Once we had pondered our list, Jessica asked us if we wanted to share any of the judgments we had circled, reminding us that she didn’t want us to feel pressure to do so. No one held back. Mei reported that she circled nagging, inconsiderate, unforgiving, and to my surprise, irrational. She explained, “At work I’m as rational as any man I work with—more so. But sometimes when I’m with Amir I find myself complaining about stupid stuff. Last week he was gone for four days on a backpack trip in the Sierras with some old friends. I had a hard time with it. For some reason it hit me hard that I was going to be home alone. Well, not completely alone. I had the refrigerator and the television.”
I’m sure the men in the next room heard us laughing.
Jessica asked the group to empathize with Mei.
I was familiar with Mei’s reaction. I tried, “Mei, you said you were complaining about stupid stuff. Are you feeling a little disappointed in yourself? When Amir is out with friends do you want to feel more independent?”
“Yes!” She practically leapt out of her chair. “I want to feel my normal self, not this insecure woman I became because,” lifting the back of her hand to her forehead in mock distress, “my partner is leaving me for four days.”
Jessica invited us to empathize with why Mei was poking fun at herself.
Doris asked, “Do you feel confused about why you got upset about him leaving?”
“Exactly! Why do I get irrational?”
Jessica said to the group, “It’s tempting to accept Mei’s judgment that she was being irrational. That carries a negative connotation. It doesn’t help us understand what’s going on. Instead of agreeing with this jackal jargon, can we help Mei translate it?”
Angela looked puzzled, “What do you mean translate it?”
“I just mean guessing at feelings and needs with kindness. I’ll demonstrate. Mei, you asked, ‘Why do I get irrational?’ Are you feeling curious about why some strong feelings come up when Amir leaves with his friends?”
“Yes, I’d really like to know what comes over me.”
“You don’t like what comes over you and you’d like to change it?”
“Yes.” Mei smiled. “I want to feel fine about him being gone. Well, maybe that’s not realistic. But I don’t want to feel my strength drain out of me.”
“You’d like to feel calm and strong?”
“Not a care in the world?”
“Not possible. If you don’t have a care in the world you’re on drugs.”
“Do you wish you could lay this particular care to rest—about Amir going out?”
Mei sighed. “Huh. I guess I worry about him more than I realize. I guess deep down there’s the fear that something might happen to him. But see? That’s irrational. I can’t be worrying every time he goes backpacking.”
I wanted to reassure Mei that she isn’t being irrational. I learned from an early age that life is precarious. I remember my parents taking me to the movie in which the narrator, Tevye, told the audience, “You might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.” I reminded myself that reassurance is not necessarily what she’s looking for. I held my tongue.
Jessica continued empathizing. “Are you wanting some perspective that helps you deal with the worry?”
“Yes, I guess so. I don’t want to be worried at all…. I never thought I was a worried person.” Mei frowned.
Jessica turned to us, saying, “See what happens? Our jackal takes a human experience like worry and wants to turn it into a judgment about what kind of person we are.” Turning back to Mei, she asked, “Do you need to find some acceptance of the fact that worries come up?”
“Acceptance.” Mei reflected, trying it on for size. As if none of us were there, she talked to herself. “Me—worried. Ha! Well I’m not the bold girl I pretend to be.” Mei winced and she shared her thought, “Ay! I give my mother a hard time for worrying too much. I was hoping the apple would fall farther from the tree.”
“You see some consequences in the way your mother worries?”
“Yes, I think her worry gets in the way of her life.”
“And you don’t want worry to get in the way of your life?” As Mei nodded Jessica added, “I’m going to flip that around from what you don’t want to guessing what you do want. Do you want to be making conscious choices about how you handle your worry?”
“Exactly!” Mei continued, “Poor Amir. I let him know I was unhappy about him going. But he didn’t know the real reason. So we got into this confusing argument.”
Jessica nodded. “Yes, how can our partners know the real reason we are upset unless we know it? That’s why we put so much attention on finding out what our inner jackal is saying. It’s hard to find it if we’re embarrassed about what we might find.”
Mei smiled. “Yeah. I felt embarrassed.”
Jessica smiled warmly. “Thanks for that.”
Jessica asked if others wanted to share their list of inner jackals.
Angela read from her list, “I’m too angry, irritable, nagging, controlling. I’m just a bitch.”
“Ouch!” Jessica grimaced. “See how we talk to ourselves? Let’s see if we can help Angela find some compassion for herself. Can someone make an empathetic guess about what Angela is feeling and needing?”
There was a pause. Jessica filled the silence. “Let’s start with guessing a feeling. Can we guess at a specific emotion that Angela might be feeling?”
Mei guessed in a tentative voice, “Shame?”
Before Angela could reply, Jessica responded, “That’s the emotion that I feel when I’m saying those kinds of words to myself. But it might be tricky to ask someone, ‘Are you feeling ashamed?’ The person might feel ashamed of admitting that they feel shame. That’s being in the jackal hall of mirrors. We used the word embarrassed a moment ago. That may be a little easier on the ego than ashamed.”
Doris tried, “Do you feel discouraged about yourself?”
Jessica asked Doris, “Would you continue guessing at what Angela wants?
Doris continued, “Do you want to react without anger?”
Angela responded, “I’ve tried to be nicer and it doesn’t work with Dave. I tell him what needs to be done around the house. He doesn’t respond unless I get angry with him.”
Jessica addressed the group, “I’m guessing a lot of us in the group may have a similar belief: I won’t get my needs met unless I get angry.”
Mei spoke up, “Show us some other options, Jessica.”
“OK. For starters I’ll share an inner process of self empathy in response to calling myself a bitch.” Jessica closed her eyes. “Feelings…I’m feeling distressed because I can’t get the response I want from my partner. That’s why I yell in order to be heard. I don’t like that feeling. I feel ashamed to see myself being harsh. And I feel discouraged about the relationship. I think, ‘What has happened to us? We used to feel kind and generous towards each other.’ OK, my needs: I want the relationship to feel close and connected. I want to find a way to communicate my needs so that he’ll understand them.”
Angela spoke in a quiet voice, “I don’t know if I can go back to being kind and generous. He’s just failed me too many times.” Looking at her downcast face, I got the feeling that her relationship was on the verge of breaking up. What can you say to someone who feels hopeless?
As if reading my mind, Jessica suggested to the group, “When we experience someone else’s discouragement we can find ourselves feeling discouraged too. If that’s true for you, set the discouragement to one side and stick with guessing feelings, wants, and needs.”
Jessica seemed to have trust in this process, so I decided to trust her. I guessed, “Angela, are you feeling discouraged and you want some reason to feel hopeful?”
Angela tossed her hair back. “I used to think that he would change if I could get him to talk to me. But the harder I try, the more he pulls away. He just gets angry. He doesn’t even want to have sex anymore.”
I tried not to let my startled reaction show. A guy in his 30’s not wanting to have sex sounds serious. I figured he was either having sex outside the marriage or he felt pretty alienated.
Mei asked, “Is he cheating on you?”
Angela shook her head. “I thought about that. But there’s no way. If he’s not at work, he’s at home. I can account for almost every minute of his time.”
Jessica addressed the group, “Sometimes we want to ask for details in order to make sense of what we’re hearing. But that can divert Angela to responding to us instead of us responding to her. So let’s stick to the process.” Jessica led the way, “Angela, are you sad about how the relationship got to this point where Dave is not interested in sex? And do you want to figure out a way to make it better?”
“I don’t know if he wants to make it better. We’re like roommates. We only talk about what we need to work out with the kids or the apartment.”
Jessica nodded. “Are you missing the kind of conversation where you’re both interested in each other?”
“I don’t think he’s capable of that.”
Jessica said to the group, “Right now I’m going to shift from empathetic guessing to expressing myself. In real life conversations, we go back and forth from listening to expressing. It’s good to be aware of when you are shifting from one to the other.” She leaned forward and spoke slowly. “Angela, you are here among four women who are feeling for you. Can you feel that?” Angela nodded. “I think I can speak for the group by saying that we can see how painful it’s been for you in this relationship.”
Angela covered her eyes.
“I’m sensing that in addition to all the frustration you feel and how discouraged you feel, that you might be feeling a deep sadness. Is that correct?”
Angela’s body began shaking in deep sobs. Jessica put her arm on Angela’s shoulder. Mei linked arms with Angela on one side. I took the other arm. We stayed that way for a minute in silence, until Jessica suggested we let the silence continue and take a bathroom break.
After the break Angela looked composed, although the signs of a good cry were unmistakable on her face. Jessica began, “I want to appreciate Angela for sharing her vulnerability with us. I truly believe that we need to grieve when our situation is painful. Grief can be a way to get to a more empowered place when we’re stuck in resentment or hopelessness.”
Doris asked, “What if we get stuck in grief?”
“My mom used to say that she didn’t cry much because she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to stop. Is that what you are asking?”
Jessica sighed. “I know someone who lost her child to violence. She said that in the period after it happened she wondered if she would fall apart—that she might lose her sanity. She said that the people around her held her up. If we fear we’ll lose our sanity if we let the floodgates open, I think that means we need to surround ourselves with support. It’s probably a good idea to restrain our grief until we have that support and it’s safe to let ourselves experience it.
“I’m also clear about the costs of not grieving. It could spell the end of a couple’s relationship. The resentment can build up until the couple splits apart. Grieving can bring us to a place of acceptance. We stop trying to change the other person. Rather we focus on taking care of our needs. And we can figure out whether that means we want to stay together with different expectations, or whether we want to separate. I don’t think we can do our best thinking about our options unless the resentment moves towards acceptance.”
Jessica’s eyes were warm. “Grieving can also help us see our part. We may have learned destructive patterns that we want to unlearn. Feeling sadness can motivate us to change. It’s that kind of sadness that Carlos felt last week in the supermarket when he couldn’t think of what to say to the father who was berating his child. Carlos felt sad about learning a habit of righteous anger that blocked his compassion. It’s a bittersweet feeling when we discover what we want to change. Sweet because we now see what we were blind to before—those old habits that kept us in pain.”
Jessica looked at the time. “Next week we are going to cover making requests instead of trying to get our needs met through anger and guilt trips. When we experience getting our needs met through compassionate communication, we’re less likely to use anger to get our needs met. In the meantime remember that there is no such thing as a bitch. There’s just a woman who has some powerful needs—and who is trying to meet them the best way she knows how. And who yearns to discover better ways. If we can’t see past our own negative behavior to the beautiful needs beneath, how can we expect our partner to do that?
* * * * *
Skill: Self Empathy
- If we feel ashamed for having a thought, we’ll have a hard time examining that thought. If we’re accepting of ourselves, we can look at our self-judgments and learn.
- We are quick to judge a habit of behavior as someone’s identity. That makes it a “life sentence,” instead of something that can be changed.
- Grieving—feeling sadness—can be a path to overcoming guilt and noticing what we want to change about ourselves.
- We can’t do our best thinking about our options unless we move from resentment to acceptance.