Your Former Self has Something to Share

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“Everything you do shows your hand. everything is a self portrait. Everything is a diary.”
― Chuck Palahniuk

A couple of weeks ago I found a box that has been in my garage for ages. I opened it up and it had all manner of things inside, but of particular interest to me was an old journal from 1987. Reading the entries was sometimes amusing, sometimes intriguing and occasionally heart breaking. It was not so much the circumstances I was writing about that impacted me, I’ve long since come to terms with those – but more the way I wrote about managing those circumstances. My heart went out to younger me and her passionate desire to change her circumstances and live a happier life. While reading  I easily identified patterned ways of thinking, feeling and reacting that were alive and well in 1987, but it was a wake up call to realize I still carried some of those with me today. Sure I manage them differently and am impacted in different ways, but some of the themes remain.

Keeping a journal is powerful in the moment we write – it allows us to put our thoughts and feelings outside of ourselves and get a little objective distance from them. Sometimes writing in a journal is a way of processing or purging a difficult circumstance – we feel lighter and somehow cleaner on the other side of our writing. Keeping a journal also highlights our successes and triumphs – our good days, good times, good relationships.  In our journals {if we keep them honestly and faithfully} we find the best and worst of ourselves and our lives.

Although critical reflection, might not necessarily be the impetus for journaling, it’s a fairly natural by-product of the activity. Imagine then what we might learn of ourselves if we were to pick up an old journal – a year or five years or 28 years later! Most of us would like to think that we’d have triumphed and moved on from anything that was troubling us but I think many of us would be surprised at how enduring life themes and patterns can be.  We might also be surprised how limited our coping repertoire is.  It’s amazing to check in with yourself down the track and learn that not only are the same sorts of problems with the same people, or sorts of people, still happening – but also, we may find we’re still dealing with those things in the same sorts of ways.

Yep, there’s a darn good chance that at least in some areas of our lives, we’ll find we continue to do the same ol’ things, in the same ol’ way and there we’ll be however many years down the track, wondering why we’re still dealing with the same ol’ problems.

Reading an old journal {or reviewing any older creative endeavour} can be a serious reality check. We like to think we grow, we get wiser, we move on – but do we? Have we? It’s powerful to have someone who will honestly and compassionately challenge us – but its perhaps even more powerful when our former self does that challenging and talking through the very words we put to paper.

It’s very hard to hide from the truth as we know it and told it. If of course, we’re willing to tell the truth and hear it.

 

 

I Don’t Mind the Problem, It’s the Solution I can’t Handle

Photo by Joshua Earle“Because if you were the problem, chances were you could also be the solution. The only way to find out was to take another shot.”
― Sarah Dessen

I’ve been busy reading research again and thought I might share something that has been rattling around in my head across the last week or so. There’s some interesting, recent research (2014) about why it is that people deny problems {sometimes very big problems}. Researchers Troy Campbell and Aaron Kay of Duke University wrote an article, Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief, to address their research on this topic.

We propose a motivation behind the denial of many of today’s problems that is rooted not in a fear of the general problem, per se, but rather in fear of the specific solutions associated with that problem. 

 It turns out that contrary to what we might think, sometimes its not the problems people are resistant to facing, but rather the solutions to those problems. Campbell and Kay aren’t addressing estrangement or relationships at all,  they are addressing serious national and global problems like climate change, health epidemics and crime – but it occurs to me that their observations can just as easily apply to people problems, relationship problems, estrangement problems. Campbell and Kay point out

The solution aversion model predicts that certain solutions associated with problems are more aversive and more threatening to individuals who hold an ideology that is incompatible with or even challenged by the solution, and this increases skepticism of the problems’ existence. 

You might be wondering how this works for relationship and estrangement problems. Let me give you an example.

Darla and her Mom

Darla has been talking for a long time about how messed up her mother is. No matter what Darla does or doesn’t do, her mother is never happy. From time to time Darla’s mother cuts off their relationship, which is a source of great pain for Darla. During these cuts offs she expends enormous energy working to connect with her mother and maintain her relationship. To date Darla’s mother usually comes around and the relationship is restored – but the relationship is a fraught relationship that exhausts Darla. Darla feels anxious, waiting for her mother to “go off” and close off the relationship again. She feels she is “walking on egg shells” waiting for the next argument. She is angry and resentful because she “gives everything to her mother and the relationship” and gets nothing but “abuse, indifference and emotional distance.” Darla frequently says that she has to bottle up her thoughts and feelings and certainly wouldn’t share them with her mother because “who needs the drama”.

Darla thinks her mother has a problem {and she’s undoubtedly right} however, Darla’s mother is not the only person with a problem in the above scenario. Darla is content to spend enormous amounts of time researching and speculating about what is wrong with her mother, and what the solution is to her mother’s problems {what her mother needs to do differently, the assistance her mother needs to change etc}, but isn’t nearly as interested in considering her problem. It’s not that Darla doesn’t know that her behaviour allows the opportunity for the drama with her mother to play out over and over again – it’s just that Darla doesn’t want to look at, or follow through with what she will need to change to rectify the problem, her problem. She redirects exploration of the problems in her relationship with her mom,  back to her mother. In Darla’s story her mother is the problem, and the solution is for her mother to change.

Darla is solution aversive. 

Acknowledging that she is miserable and unhappy and the relationship with her mom feels terrible, isn’t an issue for Darla. The issue is if Darla wants things to change, if she wants to feel better, she’s going to have to look at herself. She is going to have to make some changes, possibly some very big changes that don’t only involve changing the way she does things, but may also challenge her most heartfelt beliefs about herself and her family {family is for life, mothers should love their daughters, daughters should love their mothers} about herself {I am a really good, caring, generous person, I deserve appreciation and gratitude from my mother} and about her behaviour and motivation for her behaviour {I’m doing everything right, this is not my problem}.

I don’t believe this is my problem!

There’s heaps of evidence that what Darla is doing in her relationship with her mother isn’t working. The stories Darla tells go back many years and there are a lot of them. The relationship themes are impossible to miss. Still Darla does the same things over and over, and wonders why she is still dancing the same dance, still experiencing the same suffering. Darla is even able to identify the patterns, the things that she does that don’t work and ultimately create unhappiness – but she’s not willing to see the problem as hers. Campbell and Kay refer to this as “motivated skepticism”, basically, in brief, “judgments of evidence are not independent of desires or motivations.” Darla might for instance say, “why yes sometimes what I do doesn’t work, but the problem is my mother’s behaviour”.

What does this mean for Darla? Well in the words of Campbell and Kay, “depending on how the circumstances threaten or support one’s respective ideologies and intuitions” will determine our willingness and ability to deal with the problem. The way we think about a problem is not only about what we believe, but is also related to our personal and social identity. It’s very difficult to move from an “other focused” understanding of a problem, to opening to see ourselves as part of that problem. It’s challenging to think that all the “good stuff” we are doing and giving, is not always motivated from a healthy place, or the not so good decisions and things we’ve done aren’t a matter of necessity, but are more a matter of choice.  It’s hard to consider that the person who really needs to change is us.

Why do we do this?

We can be gentle with ourselves here. It’s hard work to confront intractable problems and the suffering that go along with them. It’s confronting to have to look at the ways we engage with our problems that actually keep them going. There’s nothing quite as challenging as realizing that we have done the same thing over and over and over, looking for a different result – or seeing a pattern or theme and realizing that it might have been a part of our life for many years, or even, all of our life.  It can be shattering to realize that a problem we have blamed on someone else for a very long time, actually has a little {or more than a little} to do with us.

Are you solution aversive?

So a challenge for you. Think about the problems you are sitting with. Think about what it would mean if you were responsible to change those problems. What would the solution to your problems be, if the only person you could control was yourself?

Hint: The only person you can control is yourself.

Father’s Day: If Estranged Men Talked


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“When we share those stories we’ve been scared to share, voicelessness loses it’s wicked grasp.”
― Jo Ann Fore

There is much discussion of motherhood and the experience of estrangement. Maybe women are more tuned into relationship and the break of relationship. Maybe we think about it and write about it more. Maybe as women, we tend to focus our discontent on our same sex parent … and everyone knows that everything that goes wrong is a mother’s fault.

But what of fathers? What about men’s experience of estrangement? What about children’s experience of absent daddies. And adult children’s experiences of estranging and estranged fathers? Of this we hear so much less.  In an easy reversal, perhaps men have less space to think and write about fatherhood and estrangement. Perhaps it’s an emotional consideration and men are not given the space to speak emotively. Maybe estranged sons, think as much about their absent same sex parent, yet have less inclination or public permission to share their thoughts and feelings. Maybe its about the uneasy social tendency to blame absent fathers on present mothers, on feminism, on the disintegration of religion and “family values”.

I wrote about the absence of the male estranged voice in a post, Is Estrangement women’s work and said:

I know for a fact that men experience family estrangement in roughly the same numbers as women. I know this because women’s stories tell me this is the case. Women are estranged from father’s, brother’s, uncles, nephews, sons, grandfathers – and this means men who are father’s, brothers, grandfathers, uncles, nephews and sons are also estranged. I don’t for a moment think that men are unaffected by estrangement as an issue, and I know this in part to the men (however small the ‘sample size’) who have stepped forward as former research participants, post commentators, email writers and clients, to share their stories.

There are estranged men, estranged boys, estranged fathers without their children and children without their fathers. I know this matters. I know boys benefit from the presence of fathers who love and care for them, and I know with equal surety that girls do too. But just as the mother’s we are searching for and trying to be, need to meet the grade of “good enough” mothers, we also have a standard for “good enough” fathers – this is the father that we may or may not have had, and it may also be the father we may or may not be. We’re all trying to measure up.

Today, on Father’s Day, I’d  like to once again acknowledge the lack of male voices speaking about the experience of estrangement. I’d like us to remember that just because we don’t hear male voices as regularly as we do those of women, it doesn’t mean men aren’t estranged or their stories don’t matter. I’d like to pause for a moment to acknowledge the fathers who are estranged from their children (whether estrangee or estranger} and the children {adult children too} who are estranged from their fathers {whether estranger or estrangee}.

If estranged men talked, what might they say?