Tensing up

January 7, 2013

Faced with an unknown dog or a bee on the arm, if we remain quiet and relaxed, we don’t escalate the likelihood of harm.  When we want to float in the water, relaxing our muscles and ourselves allows us to.  When we encounter hurt within a human relationship, if we stay with the initial emotion of hurt and don’t transform it into a defensive (tense) posture, we can also remain in an open (here, emotional) posture.  It’s about, I think, being able to tolerate feeling the hurt.  And that, paradoxically, both allows us to pass through the situation (and to let it pass through us) and also not to become more (and more permanently) damaged.

There are times when we cannot tolerate the hurt, and when that happens, I think we use a coping device to attenuate it.  The coping device has its own cost.  Here’s an extreme example:  my boyfriend breaks up with me and I swear off dating altogether.  Maybe for some people this is a stage they have to go through, putting up an impermeable protective wall to assure themselves they won’t be hurt again.  But that impermeable barrier also, obviously, cuts them off from the possibility of a (healthy) new relationship that does work out.

Some people don’t, to use the example above, actually foreswear the dating market, but rather re-enter it using a detached persona, a self separated from their heart.  This looks like a strategy that allows for both relationship and protection, but I think it is actually much worse than withdrawing.  For one thing, without having one’s heart in the game, one is hugely likely to do real damage to other people, because the ability to generalize empathetic feeling I think resides in the heart; if a person is trying to understand other people’s perspective through the intellect and not the heart, I think that understanding will be piecemeal, like particles instead of waves.  It will likely fail to be accurate in a new situation it has not yet encountered, and hence will not be a helpful guide for what to do and will instead be more likely to give rise to behavior that damages.

But walled-off people do conduct relationships that endure, and what about them?  I think they wobble, less so when the other partner knows how to compensate for the missteps taken by the protagonist.  There are some people who are emotionally willing and limber enough to try to compensate in their part of the partner dance for extreme missteps by the protagonist.  Not only are these dances and relationships painful for others to watch, but they often end in the collapse of the compensating partner.  Here’s an example:  primary person doesn’t want partner to have outside secondary relationships (of the platonic sort) and/or makes it difficult for them to have them, and then the primary person complains that the partner has become too emotionally dependent on them.

My main point here, though, is about trying to stay with the initial feeling of hurt and not transform it into something else.  In its original form it can be completely processed, I think, whereas in a transformed state, there will be a residue that clogs up the heart and weighs us down.   If we stay with the original hurt with an open emotional stance, the feeling will pass through us and we through that stage of feeling.  It may take time, but I think it is far preferable to do than to wrap the hurt up in anger and bitterness, for example, and be left with a foreign object within us, or rather, with an outer shell walling us off.

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