Archive for the 'emotions' Category

Different people

November 17, 2014

I had this conversation with my mother that started off about customer service departments and whether part of the hiring criteria and training focus is to keep customers at bay.  The occasion was the good news that finally her health insurance transition has been accomplished.  We were also noting that the same benefits department that had made this transition take about 6 weeks of intensive work had also made mistakes on other of her benefits.  I will note that the news of the health insurance accomplishment was relayed to me by a doctor’s office (which was trying to submit a claim), not by the employer benefits department responsible for arranging the insurance.

We ended up talking more generally about whether people who have caused damage but present an impervious demeanor really do harbor a sense somewhere of having done something they at least regret and a feeling of feeling bad about that, however much they may wall off such senses and feelings.  (If they are too successful, I think they may find it difficult to get back in touch with that part of themselves that handles such things.)

I mentioned that I have thought on some occasions when someone has caused me physical and/or emotional harm that it is easier to be me on the receiving end than I think it would be for me to be on the delivering end.  I would probably feel worse.  She replied that that thought had never occurred to her and that it never occurs to her to think about what it might be like to be them in the situation — she said she just feels anger about it, for years on end.  She also thinks more people really do not have that sense of regret and that feeling of feeling bad that I imagine almost everybody has somewhere at some level of their being, even if they are pretty disconnected from it.

Sometimes I think different people are in some ways living in different worlds, as if we are in a sense speaking very different languages of the psyche.



“I empathize with you”

September 8, 2014

I was trying to get someone I know to understand the difficulty of something I had gone through, and her response was, “I empathize with you.”

Only I was pretty sure she didn’t.  I didn’t challenge her assertion until she repeated it later in the conversation, at which point I said, “Do you really put yourself in my shoes and feel the feelings that I have gone through, feel what it was like to go through what I went through, like an actor putting themselves into a role, or do you just feel bad in reaction to hearing about what I went through?”

She agreed it was the latter, that she felt bad on my behalf.  But she volunteered a step further in her admission.  She said, “I don’t allow myself to go there, to try to feel what another person may be feeling, either I won’t let myself or I can’t actually do it.  I only appraise the situation through my intellect, I don’t feel it in my [gut].”

I thanked her for saying that, it helped me stop trying to get bread at the hardware store, as they say.  (I think the “bread” I was looking for was acknowledgement of a certain kind.)

But it is too bad that it is the case, both for me and, I think, for her, that she doesn’t put herself in another’s shoes emotionally.  For me, because it means she’s like the person who doesn’t feel pain and burns herself without realizing it, only she does it with respect to others, such as me.  For her, because I think it helps to experience somebody else’s pain or joy, for example, not just to understand what they are going through, but also to learn that all states of emotion, even “our own,” are transient.  It helps with learning detachment, I think.



August 11, 2014

I was having this conversation last night with someone, about some arrangements we have for a trip which includes a bunch of business and logistical tasks I will help them with.  They told me that maybe the arrangements would be different from what we had planned together.  Some of the differences arise out of circumstances beyond their control, some not.  In neither case was I asked for my views or response to the impact on me of the changes, and they did not even acknowledge that there would be a negative impact in both cases.

So I took issue with the lack of acknowledgment.  I observed that they did not seem to take into account what it was like to be in my shoes.  They did not deny it at all.  They went on about how they do what they want and just “express [themselves] as the spirit moves them.”  I suggested as politely as possible that adults are expected to edit themselves, and especially their behavior.  And they said that they don’t because their mother made them feel like a puppet.

I knew their mother.  She never made me feel like a puppet, but then again I wasn’t her child.

The detail behind “feeling like a puppet” was something about be expected to feel about a thing the way the mother felt about it.

So I actually got interested in the explanation in a way that distracted me from my irritation with the behavior that had sparked the discussion;  I was fascinated by the explanation that not putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is the response to feeling forced to see things and feel things the way another does.

My interlocutor sees cause and effect, and maybe it’s there, but I can see simple repetition of the same pattern:  the “I” does not take others into account as full-fledged human beings.

In some ways, if there is cause and effect, my interlocutor is claiming, in a sense, that their mother turned them into Pinocchio, a wooden puppet.  I find that fascinating, because I had previously thought of that story as showing the need for passing through developmental stages in a positive direction, starting from a difficult spot.  I had not thought about Pinocchio as representing a phase arrived at through regression, which is what my interlocutor seemed to be claiming:  they could take others into account but they did not, in order to demonstrate (I think to themselves) that they had their own feelings.

This may be common knowledge in psychological circles, but it was an eye-opener to me, experiencing the not taking of others into account as a way of making the self more visible, or as even a protest.

As I said, maybe it’s objectively true, that the person got squelched as a child by their mother.  I experienced this person’s mother as much warmer than this person themselves, but I’m not sure what that means.   I also didn’t know this person when they were a child  —  perhaps they really were different back then, before they began to feel like somebody else’s puppet.  I think I am somewhat suspicious of the narrative this person uses to explain how they got to be the way they are.  But I would very much regret claiming it wasn’t so, since for all I know it could actually be an accurate description of what happened.

When I feel as though my voice is not being heard and I am not being taken into account, I don’t feel the urge to not take others into account and not to listen to them  —  I think, rather, when it comes up, “Let me listen, because I know how it feels not to be heard, let me think about how things are for the other person, it’s so painful to be treated as if one were of no account.”

Why do some people seem to turn to wood and some people seem to have a different reaction?

I think about Apollo and Daphne and I think about people feeling they have lost their voice and become immured, turned to wood.  I have wondered what all that represents.  I have wondered about the different survival mechanisms different people develop when they intuit in situations that trying to insist on being heard is not safe.  I know I have my own.  I guess where I come out on all this is that recognizing a survival skill for what it is may help us move beyond that behavioral response in new situations in which our survival is not at stake.


Shame and humiliation, embarrassment, guilt, and hurt

June 22, 2014

This is a just a brief addendum to my previous post, before I head out to take on digging out invasive flowering plants from one of my gardens.

It’s about what I think is correlated with people falling prey to addiction, or not falling prey to addiction.

I am wondering whether people who are prone to addiction feel shame where other people might feel embarrassment or guilt, and feel humiliation where other people might feel hurt.  My sense is that a primary emotion is transformed into another sort of emotion because a tint of a negative view of the self is added.  So instead of, “I messed up, I am so embarrassed and want to put things right,” we get “I screwed up, I am so ashamed, I think I’ll just deny and/or hide.”  Or, “That experience was really painful and I feel hurt and I am not sure how to make myself feel better” turns into “I feel humiliated and it confirms my worst thoughts about myself.”

Because I suspect that a key difference in the two outlooks is how the person views themselves — lovable but flawed, or unworthy and in need of perfection.  The problem, as I see it, that people who view themselves too harshly actually “mess up” more than people who find a way to manage their flaws and deal with their secondary consequences more constructively.  Harshness I think digs a hole where a more gentle approach encourages improvement.

I am not advocating that people not take responsibility for their mistakes and misdeeds, but that we use a framework that actually leads to constructive action instead of to paralysis and corrosion.


January 5, 2014

For me, keeping my bearings is about remembering who I am and not getting sucked into being someone else, including someone another person thinks I should be.  How do I get some idea about who I am?  Through opening myself up to the universe and being in touch with my insides, going all the way down as deep as I can go inside myself.  And easy beginning exercise can be, “What do I feel like wearing today?”  or, “What do I feel like eating?”  It’s about “What am I in the mood for?” not in a superficial hedonistic way (although the answer may be that I am in the mood to indulge myself hedonistically), but in terms of discerning my true mood.

Eventually the answer in the case of clothing becomes, “Whatever is easiest and simple,” and so, too, with food, but in between beginners’ steps and getting beyond ego needs comes a lot of ups and downs, a lot of frustrations and a lot of choices that lead to difficulties we didn’t want, but from which we learn, including learn about who we are.  We don’t leap frog to wanting to put away these issues in the sense that they are no longer the focus of our lives and we want to put our energy elsewhere, we get there step by step.

I think a key is being open to listening to what a situation has to teach us.

For example, suppose we meet a person we want to make a good impression on, and our idea of what will make a good impression is being articulate.  The other person may actually not give a hoot about whether we are articulate or not, so, for starters, our sense that articulateness is key is not about some objective truth.  But if we are left with a sense of disappointment in ourselves when we have not been articulate, what can we learn from that?  Articulateness may be our way of navigating the world and using our muscle to achieve our goals.  Perhaps not being able to engage in it is a way of letting a person know that such tools are not always what is called for.  Trying to befriend a stray dog in order to get it to safety will not involve articulateness, it will involve making clear a friendly invitation.  Comforting a distraught child is likewise not about being articulate.

Even meeting a fellow grown-up may not be about being articulate.  It may be about being open to the moment, unforeseen, and that moment may be about something else, even if that moment occurs in the context of a heated conversation.  It may just be about getting to know the other person — or deciding that one does not wish to get to know them.  It could be about choosing to take a risk and make a change in one’s usual modus operandi, and do something not so obviously helpful to one’s career, instead of doing the same old, same old and chatting up the more powerful and higher status people in the room in the pursuit of material benefit.

It makes a difference what one is ready for on the inside.  If one has devoted oneself to articulateness, there may be little developed in terms of risk-taking or comfort with the less conventional.  And in the moment when articulateness fails, one probably can only decline the opportunity to take the risk or pursue a less-trodden path because one is just not ready.

So the moment passes, for both people.  Although one may process it as having been unfortunately inarticulate, it probably wasn’t the case that one should have been more articulate, the moment was probably more about experiencing the limits of the skill of being articulate, that it will only get you so far and may not be available or apt in some situations, and what do you have then, what will take its place?  Indeed, one may actually have been extremely articulate in communicating, although not with spoken words, “No thank you, I really don’t want to take this opportunity, I am here for something else, and you make me very uncomfortable.”  If one remains caught up in the articulateness issue, one is then not taking yet another opportunity presented, the opportunity to integrate the inner self with the self one presents to the world — and to one’s self.  Maybe one is just not ready to do what that would take, either.

The other person may not process the passed moment as having been about articulateness, they may have processed it as having been about readiness.  They may be just kind of surprised, and disappointed, by the reality of the other person’s state of readiness revealed in the moment and its contrast with other indicators of what it would be.

I didn’t want to take the time to write this post this morning.  I have a lot on my plate, I have a lot of stuff with deadlines that I need to take care of, I generally feel better about that kind of stuff when I am actually working on it — knowing it’s there and needs to be done, being aware of it and not working on it, have a negative impact on me.  But I wrote this anyway (even did some light editing, which I most surely did not want to take the time to do), because I had the sense that that was what this moment called for.

New Year’s resolution

December 28, 2013

About a week ago it occurred to me to make a New Year’s resolution, and to resolve to work on trying to be more pleasant and less reactive under stress (in situations I find stressful, that is).

The universe gave me an opportunity to work on this the other day, even before the New Year begins, when I got my telephone bill and it contained a price increase.

My phone/internet service arrangement had come up for renewal and renegotiation this past August, and the matter had been a protracted mess, in part because somebody working for the company had made an unauthorized change to my services.  It took a lot of lengthy phone calls to get things sorted out.

I had not thought I would have to revisit my relationship to my carrier until next August, but they raised the price for my internet service, apparently, in this latest bill.

This blog post is going to be about reactivity and pleasantness, but let me first sketch out that, long story short, the phone/internet service provider actually had given me a price guarantee for a year, back in August, and now they are saying they will honor it (although I won’t see that they are following through on this claim until my next bill — in the meantime, they did give me a credit on this bill for the difference in prices, though).  The guarantee was for a slightly higher price than what they had been charging me, because they had also given me promotional coupons for a year, but I was willing to budge on that issue because, quite frankly, I wasn’t sure why I had ended up with that lower price.  The guaranteed price is below what they were billing with the new, increased price on the bill I most recently received.

Anyway, back to my reaction.  I was indignant and upset that I would have to spend time on this issue again so soon, I wanted to push it off my plate and I resented that someone had plopped it on my plate.  So when I encountered the first scripted response of “We can do this, you don’t have a contract,” I felt frustrated. And I felt the asymmetry of the relationship, I felt I was being “done to,” and I felt victimized.  When that happens, I think I tend to express anger in my tone of voice and I tend to interrupt.  I think I did all that.

I suspect it’s sort of to compensate for feeling I have a lack of effective tools at my disposal to fight back with.  I was indignant about a mid-year-ish price increase, and my argument was about how I had not been aware that my price could go up and had understood that it wouldn’t for a year from the deal we had agreed on.  I think I tried for a bit to argue from general principles about why I didn’t think I should be subject to this increase, but all I got was scripted responses and a list of new options, none of which I liked.  I did subside and said I would need some time to think over my options, and the conversation ended pleasantly enough, but I had gotten testy in the middle of it, I believe.

Later that day I went back to look at my notes from the August negotiations and I saw that because I had been “put into my bundle by a manager,” the price was guaranteed for a year even though there was not contract.

When I called back at that point, I got a representative who was even more scripted, but I had the right lines;  her script allowed her to respond to my manager’s guarantee by going to her supervisor, and we got back to my guaranteed  price and to “yes” — in part because their file notes showed the guarantee and in part, apparently, because of what my deal had been before August, information they actually had to ask me to supply them with.

I learned from this that had I not reacted with such emotion to the fact of having to deal with this at all, I could have gotten all my ducks lined up before I made the first call and possibly gotten the matter settled to my satisfaction with one call and without getting testy.  That I didn’t has something to do with getting too drained by my work on behalf of my dad’s estate and on behalf of my mother, and on behalf of my children.  In all those cases, I seem to be the only one available to help, and while I don’t take on every aspect of the tasks — I avail myself of professionals and I insist these other family members do, too, like financial managers, social workers, academic advisers, etc. — it leaves me too drained to take things, like straightening out the telephone bill, with equanimity.

So, part of the solution, in theory, is to take better care of myself so I am not on the verge of being too frazzled when a new issue comes along for my attention.  Part of it is to at least train myself to put in a pause and take time to observe that yes, I am reacting and not taking the time to address the issue methodically and calmly, in my hurry to just push it away.  Part of it is to train myself to use tools other than my tone of voice — I think I resort to tone when the content of my words does not get through the first two or three times I try.  Part of it is faith — to have some faith that the issue will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in terms of making my workload impossible, that I have some support even if I have no spouse or relatives to provide respite help to me with what’s on my plate.

The bill is, as I said, supposedly being revised to meet my price guarantee, Jonas has lined up a new place to live in the spring, Jordan has chosen new spring semester courses, my mother has accomplished her transaction before the end of the calendar year, the estate has been largely settled.  I don’t have nothing to show for my efforts (in these and other current matters), but my “serenity” has taken a hit.  And that is what I want to figure out, how to accomplish this stuff with less “drag” on the system.

Reinflating trust

October 13, 2013

My last post in a way was about turning love outwards after there has been a loss.  The context was love for a child.

I am thinking about the equivalent for a loss in which the context is loss of a romantic partner.  I think this is a more complicated situation because, whether this is rational or not, trust seems to be involved as well as a lost opportunity to love.

I think we think that when adults are involved, more free will has been exercised and therefore there was more room for things to turn out differently if this or that person had only made different choices using their free will in the situation.  That makes it harder to trust that people will exercise their free will in ways that will not be painful to me, the other person.

So, I am pondering what the counter-intuitive emotional response to that situation might be that will counteract it.  I mean, clearly one can move on, there are other fish in the sea, another bus always comes — lots of metaphors for maintaining hope that there will be another opportunity and the possibility for a better outcome.  But what is the emotional posture that facilitates the resurgence of trust in other adults and potential partners?

I want to put in a brief aside that feeling abandoned through death of a partner gives rise to a different complex of emotions, I think, from what happens after a relationship that in theory could work out doesn’t.  The bereft may fear a repeat of the abandonment, but it doesn’t involve the same kind of mistrusting others; the use of free will I think can result in situations that are painful in a much more searing way than biology and Mother Nature produce.  People, especially those who have trouble putting themselves in the shoes of the other, can make choices that leave the other person in a more emotionally untenable situation, I think.  For example, offering a life saver and then knowingly withdrawing it.  Nature may do something that looks similar, but any imputation of intention or animus, I think, is purely a construct of our own.  Nature is not willful.

Okay, so what do I do when I’ve been through one, or more, of those situations, with adults exercising their free will in ways that cause me damage?  I could try to become more manipulative and hence not be so vulnerable to the pattern.  I could withdraw my self from the interactions and use a false self.  I could give up on adult human beings and play with animals, children, and God.  I could embrace the process of emotional damage followed by healing and not shy away from it.  I could focus on the assumption that these experiences serve a greater good and that the individuals involved are just playing a part (analogous to forgiveness for the executioner).  I could observe the situation from a remove, and note, “Yes, people can do that.  Isn’t that interesting.  And yes, it does hurt to be on the receiving end.”  That actually leads me to more of the sort of posture I think I am looking for:  “That’s what that relationship was like.  I wonder what the next one will be like.  Not knowing gives me the opportunity to look forward to finding out — my fellow human beings are interesting creatures and this will, if nothing else, be interesting.”

I, personally, am a sucker for the “interesting,” so this posture may work for me.  It may not work for others.  But maybe the process by which I arrived at it could be helpful to someone else.

In a way, it’s an end-around rebuilding trust — it says, in effect, don’t re-enter into a relationship on the basis that it will work out, only on the basis that it will be interesting.  I will learn something more about other people and about myself, and, no matter what happens, I will be okay.  That last part is faith, which for me is faith in God and the universe.

This approach to dealing with loss — loss in a relationship between adults — is much less obvious to me than my knowledge that I needed to nurture a child, described in my previous post.  This post is more of a trip through my current state of mind.  But I am quite sure that when I have hit unexpected brick walls in relationships I had emotionally invested in, I have thought, “Well, okay, I am quite surprised and hurt that this is not going to go the way I thought it was going to;  I wonder what the universe has in store for me instead.”  In a way, my trust in the universe obviates a need for trust in individual human beings that they be more reliable than they are or can be.

The point of commonality with what I wrote in my last post is that looking forward to a new relationship on this new basis allows me not to lapse into bitterness and closing myself off.

Awakening compassion, developing a shell, or becoming overwrought

October 4, 2013

I apologize for trying to stuff the whole point of this post into its title — it’s my version of writing  notes to myself.

My point of departure is actually my witnessing the hawk yesterday morning capturing its food.

I have a thing for hawks, I don’t know why.  I love them in a way I can’t explain, love their feathers, love their body shape, love their coloring, really love the way they fly, especially when I catch sight of one gliding overhead.  Cue the song lyric:  “A single hawk in God’s great sky looking down with God’s own eyes.”  That’s from Richard Shindell’s “Reunion Hill.”

Watching one do what it does in order to eat and sustain itself I found upsetting.  My cognitive apparatus explained why it must be accepted, my emotions felt protective of the critter in its vulnerability.

When we humans encounter the scene of humans preying on other humans, or a system developed by humans preying on other, more vulnerable humans, what do we do?  Strengthen our shell?  Collapse in hysteria?  Take the step of feeling compassion, regardless of how we can help, and also going through a process of discerning if and how we can help and following through if that’s what we are being called on to do?

I’ve had people in my life decline to take up their social roles for reasons I have never truly fathomed.  They would say, “There’s nothing I can do” when there actually was and when it was something society actually expected them to do under the circumstances.   (To me, it’s a version of the “empty promise” theme I find running through my life, which I’ve written about before.)  Some of them had taken a fall earlier in life, perhaps too early for it to awaken compassion.  Instead they seem to have been so overwhelmed by their emotions that they found ways to shut them down and wall them off subsequently.

I think it takes a certain combination, or combinations, of scenario, emotions, and access to resources with which to process the scene for such an experience to awaken compassion.  Too much intellectualizing and it supports callousness, too much emotion and there’s hysteria.  What I think it needs, in addition to some amount of intellect and some amount of emotion, in order to awaken compassion, is access to the “mountain lakes” the widow in “Reunion Hill” refers to as her source for the water in her streams that feeds her deep well.

This has been said before — Shindell inhabits his narrators in his songs seemlessly, whether they share his personal attributes or not.  (If I could remember where I read that, I would cite it or them.)  He does this when he sings “Reunion Hill,” and I think there’s a lesson in there, too.  Who we are may not be apparent from our surface attributes, some of us are pretty well-disguised.  But ultimately, I think, we are all some combination of “divine spark” and human.

So when we encounter pain and suffering, either initially or for the umpteenth time, where do we go in our mental processes, how do we respond?  Build the walls higher?  Rationalize?  Explode or implode?  I think it’s most helpful to mix together emotion, reason, and that third strand, the water from the mountain lakes that allows us to perceive the world (and universe) as it is.

And how we learn to do this is not going to be just a matter of reading the dots “in the book.”

Empathy or “member of the wedding”?

September 17, 2013

I was explaining last night to someone that her tendency to get, as she admitted, “all wound up” in the troubles of a particular troubled person was draining to me.

One of her defenses was that she was “empathizing.”

I responded that I don’t think it’s empathy but rather overly identifying with the other person and then emoting a lot about their situation.

Sympathy is one thing, understanding what it is probably like for that other person to be going through what they’re going through is some thing, too, but pouring forth lots of distress as if one were themselves going through the situation, and going through it without much of a healthy perspective, is a third thing, and something I think is not helpful and in fact harmful.  Including to interlocutors like me.

So I brought it to her attention, pointed out that some of her previous interlocutors were more impervious and dismissive of her emoting than I am, and also less prone to being concerned about whether there really is an emergency occurring that requires a lot of time and energy.

I have no idea whether she will handle the next “crisis” any differently.  My own concern is how I will handle my own response to however she does handle it.

I use the “member of the wedding” phrase as a shorthand for this sort of phenomenon, based on my hazy recollection of the book The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers, and its use there.


September 15, 2013

My son told me on the way home from grocery shopping that the cashier had called me a swear word under her breath.  I had asked about an item on sale in two different ways, and how to qualify for the second discount.  When I learned I could qualify for it, I ran off to get the item while the rest of our order was being scanned and bagged.  I estimated how much time I had, and would have aborted my attempt if I had thought it was taking too long.  One of the requirements for the second discount was having an order of at least $25.00, so I couldn’t finish my first order and get the item as a separate order and get the second discount — and with both discounts, it was $9.00 off an $18.99 item, so I thought it was worth a try.

I admit that running off to get the item could be annoying to a cashier.  Sometimes they’ve actually encouraged me to do it, though (“Honey, don’t you realize there’s a ‘buy one, get one free’ special going on?  Go get yourself another one.”), or the item has gotten damaged, maybe even during the check-out process, and I’ve had to get another one (like a leaking milk container).

The item the other day was near the check-out counters, and yes, I got back in time — our order was still being processed, there was no loss in time.

So I was surprised by what Jordan told me.  I didn’t think someone would curse me out for doing what I did.

It’s kind of like the opposite of paranoia — I had no idea that the person thought that ill of me.

I’ve had this before, sometimes on behalf of my children, especially when they were quite young and they had done nothing that could be reacted to negatively.  I had no idea someone thought so ill of them, but I discover that the person does.  I’ve also experienced it when I’ve tried to follow through with someone who was quite friendly to me from a distance, for example, online.  I meet them, and I encounter behavior that seems to communicate, “I don’t really like you, I am only willing to interact with you enough to derive a benefit to me from a distance.”  And I’ve experienced a third variety of this, when I’ve heard gossip repeated back to me that was hurtful, or intended to be hurtful, even if it was inaccurate, in the context of a community I am a part of.

I feel hurt when this kind of stuff happens, hurt in a bewildered kind of way.  I can find a way to look at the situation with some detachment, and move on.  It’s harder when circumstances are such that I have to continue to interact with the person.  I suspect politicians are good at this, but it’s a skill I don’t have.  I usually try to deal with the situation by seeing the other person as someone who is damaged themselves doing the best they can.  But it usually alters the way I interact with them.  And if I think they actually can do better than they are, I have to look at that, too, as a product of their damage.

In some ways, I would rather not know.  I would also prefer the person not to think ill of me or of my children if, in turn, their doing so causes us harm, harm beyond hurt feelings.  But I’ve learned that there’s not much I can do about changing what other people think and do, that people can be impervious and deflect feedback.   All I can do is to try to keep them in focus and to see them as they are — which may include their being a person who judges me ill.

I can’t think of a word specific to the phenomenon of thinking people aren’t feeling negatively about one when they are.