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February 14, 2024

How to Stop Using your Partner as a “Feel Good”-Dispensing Machine.

 

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I used to suffer in my relationships with other people much more than I do now.

Not to say that I’m now immune to the pain of rejection.

At 57, I still confront waves of hurt feelings in my relationship with my own mother, for example.

However, while I feel the pain, I seem to suffer less from it.

Becoming aware of my inner functioning is the key.

Today, I know that what feels like rejection is caused by my own perception of the situation. The pain I experience as a result has more to do with the unfinished childhood wounding that I’m trying to complete decades later than with what is actually happening now.

This awareness allows me some distance from my experience, where I can observe my reactions rather than drown in them.

I feel the strong emotion, but rather than be overwhelmed by it and try to escape it, I stay with it and identify where in my body I experience it.

Ability to stay with the discomfort of my sensations helps take my focus off the long list of what my mother did wrong. I access relief from my sensations by attending to them, rather than demanding that my mother changes.

My sense of self-worth or lovability no longer depends on other people’s behavior.

With that capacity to zoom out from the story my mind likes to spin about the current situation, I’m able to take the focus off the people outside of me and go within, where I can nurture the wounded younger parts of me that are in pain.

This is what actually helps alleviate the experience of suffering.

I spent the last 10 years studying the messages my emotions carry and what they tell me about my needs. Getting clarity on what my needs are allows me to nurture my inner child, re-mothering her in the specific way that she needs, while I let my “outer” mother be exactly who she is.

Of course, this same process of learning to attend to younger, wounded parts of me happens in all of my relationships, including with my husband.

As children, we needed the reflection of our attachment figures to build our sense of lovability and worth. As adults, we are responsible for feeling worthy of our own respect, so that we can step into agency to provide for our own needs or recruit others to help us in that task.

Notice, this is different than expecting others to meet our needs.

As adults, expecting others to complete us, make us happy, fulfill our desires, or save us from all of our unpleasant feelings is unrealistic. These unrealistic expectations, on top of unresolved trauma that we are often not aware of, is at the source of much suffering in our relationships with others.

We tend to associate the way we feel with a particular person or circumstance. When I feel in love, I attribute that feeling to the person in whose presence I feel this way. If it’s anger I feel, I also assign the responsibility for it to the person about whom I’m thinking when I feel it.

If I got used to feeling love in your presence or if I believe it is your job to deliver it to me, I’m now addicted to getting that feeling from you.

If I cannot access the feeling I crave from you—because you did something I don’t like or did not do something I expected from you—then I become angry at you for failing to deliver my “feel good.” In fact, I interpret my inability to feel the love I seek as intentional withdrawal of love by you. I now resent you for “doing that”—for “making me feel this way.”

Meanwhile, I am so uncomfortable with the overwhelming feeling within (the trigger, or flashback re-enactment of past wounding), for which I hold you responsible, that to relieve it I may start putting you down, calling you names or pathologizing you, disrespecting your sovereignty, demanding that you change. I get even angrier when the pattern repeats itself, blaming you for not changing, no matter how many times I demanded that you change.

What’s actually happening is we carry patterns in our body and nervous system from our past pain. When people with whom we are relating inevitably trigger those wounds, most of us do not have the awareness to understand why we feel what we feel. Nor do we have the skills to work through our issues. Instead we make demands, shut down, or escape by looking to someone else for the love we are seeking.

Viewing others as a need-fulfilling machine, while we depend on them for our well-being, leaves no room for seeing them as a sovereign being with their own thoughts, wishes, preferences, and feelings. We simply disregard the fact that other people are their own complex individuals, with their own baggage, traumas, and needs that may differ from ours.

This begins the process of dehumanization of the other, sometimes leading us to addressing or portraying them in ways that demean their humanity or individuality.

We dehumanize others when we dehumanize ourselves, as we judge and shame ourselves for the messiness of our human nature.

The work I promote helps you re-connect to your own power by becoming responsible for your own well-being.

And yet, whenever I talk about self-responsibility in relationships with others, and how what I experience in my body in someone’s presence is less about them and more about me, I get a lot of pushback.

Some of my readers confuse taking self-responsibility for their own reactions with forgiving “dysfunction or untrustworthiness” of their partner or worse, with allowing abuse: “Does this mean that we let an abusive individual continue their abuse and ignore them, especially if they are narcissistic or good at playing mind games?”

When I appeal to your sense of non-judgmental compassion toward the complexity of your human partner, I, by no means, imply that you should dispense with your boundaries or put their needs above yours.

Self-awareness and self-responsibility mean that while I can be in compassion of the humanity of another, I do not sacrifice my well-being nor tolerate abuse!

Once you take your focus off them—diagnosing them or listing all that’s wrong with them—and decipher what your feelings tell you about you and your needs, then you’ll become clear on what actions you need to take next.

The more time you spend pathologizing the other, the more you are not connecting to your own power and agency to make choices and decisions toward your well-being. So this is not about ignoring them, but about prioritizing you and your needs.

Moreover, and this may sound really controversial, but not everything we interpret as abuse actually is abuse. Some relationships are unhappy, but not abusive. It’s really important to be able to discern the difference.

Clementine Morrigan, a survivor of abuse in childhood, writes about this inability to discern what is abuse and what is not for people with developmental trauma.

Children are completely powerless and helpless and require parental love and protection to survive. Adults don’t require the love and protection of any particular adult to survive, because we have way more power and agency. We have the power to choose our relationships, and we also have the capacity to care for ourselves and meet our own needs in ways that we couldn’t as children.

It is also true, however, that many survivors of developmental trauma feel helpless and powerless in adulthood, in a way that does not accurately reflect the level of choice and power they have.

What keeps us disempowered is that when we experience strong emotions as adults it is often a flashback to the time of original abuse, most often in childhood, when we were helpless.

Trauma survivors experience emotional and nervous system reactions that are inappropriate (often exaggerated) to the present moment and reflect an event from the past. As Morrigan describes it, “traumatized people have emotional reactions appropriate to abusive situations in non-abusive situations. That is exactly what trauma is.”

Other pushback I get to the self-responsibility message is in the form of a complaint that “it’s not fair” if only one person is “doing the work.” A woman writes “…the person who has done the work enough to learn to regulate while in conflict I believe should not be paying the price for the one who hasn’t put in the work.”

The way I see it, when I engage with life from self-responsibility, I act and make choices that serve me from enlightened self-interest. When I learn to regulate my system and to communicate non-violently, I’m doing it first of all for myself and for the quality of my relationships with people who are important to me.

It helps to know that when I learn to self-regulate, I return to the present moment from the post-trauma flashback, where I can get access to higher order thinking as a team. From that perspective, I can find safety in my own body and no longer see you as a threat. As I calm my system, I lose the sense of superiority and remember that we are in it together, no longer stuck in “you versus me.”

Author and family therapist Terry Real invites us to think about relationships ecologically: “Your relationship is your biosphere. You are not above it, you are in it. You are not thinking of competing, you are thinking relationally, like a team. It’s in your interest to make this work, for both of you. Because from relational perspective: if one of you wins and the other loses, you both lose.”

The Old Paradigm did not prepare us for intimacy, but for competition, consumption, productivity. To access fulfilment, we have to shift from patriarchal thinking to relational thinking, which is thinking as a team. And this is new and feels edgy, and must be practiced and consciously cultivated.

Relationships with others have been the greatest source of joy and the greatest source of suffering for me.

Becoming aware of my psycho-emotional and bio-chemical processes helped me become more comfortable with my reactions and feelings. Cultivating a higher perspective of a witness, I saw that my suffering occurs when I expect the other person to be responsible for providing my joy and safety with their specific behavior, words, or choices.

When I expect that my well-being will be delivered from outside, not only do I disconnect from my own wholeness, where my power is mined, but I also attempt to strip others of their power. I end up living at the mercy of someone else’s alignment or misalignment, all while expecting them to live according to my idea of happiness, instead of their own.

Most importantly, when I was focused on them, I’d lost connection to knowing what I can actually do for my own happiness.

A healthy, loving, consistent relationship with another person is always the byproduct of a healthy, loving and constant connection between you and…you.

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Learn how to build fulfilling relationships with others by choosing self-responsibility. Contact me  for a free introductory conversation.

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