This question appeared in a comment at the Commandments of Men in response to the discussion of life graphs and how to chart emotional responses. I read it and thought it seemed like those intimidating essay test questions that say “Define the universe. Give examples.” Of course, these are the kinds of questions that come at the end of the test with only limited time to complete answer. I have so much to say on the subject At some point, I suspect that I've said this all before somewhere on this blog, but perhaps, not all at once, woven together in this way. But I'll give it a go!
The part about extremes of emotion, and people from dysfunctional families feeling like something is wrong if there's no big terrible drama, reminds me a lot of what I've heard about people who have serial dysfunctional romances. They're attracted to someone who will take them through the highs and lows of drama--even abuse--because those are the emotions they associate with love. They don't know anything else.
It makes me wonder, once you are addicted to those extremes of emotion, how you really get out.
I did recently and briefly talk about the relationship effects HERE.
The short answer is simple. First, one must remove the root of the problem, or at least, de-bulk it as much as possible so that energy can be directed at healing and living. Then one must start following and living in healthy ways. For the person who grew up in a dysfunctional home, this means nearly everything about their whole life has to change, and first, they have to learn how to be healthy and how to be comfortable feeling healthy.
But here's the good news. Speaking from personal experience, I can say with confidence that a person can “really get out” of the extremes of emotion. I turned most of my big conflicts inward and experienced depression and health problems instead, though I have relationship carryover, too. My extremes tended to manifest in other kinds of drama, at work and in chasing the promises made by the Word of Faith movement.
I had to empty my sense of toxic and undeserved shame, find a healthy sense of worth (an internal locus of control), and learn how to be healthy (I didn't know what aspects of that really looked like in practice, though I knew what the endpoint looked like). Then, I had to put healthy patterns of living into practice. When I arrive, I won't be able to let you know, because I'll be dead! I'm still working on all of those things, and I have to constantly come back to my commitment to emotional health, reaffirm my dedication to it, and then work at it, but I've acquired lots of tools that I can use to do that and now have a lot of experience with them. I also have to be very aware at the factors that derail my determination so that I can avoid them, and I have to work on determination, too, just because of the way my personality fits together. I still have plenty of vital work to do.
How then, does one attend to these wounds and “really get out” on a practical level? What is the process?
I glean from the wisdom of the experts, and most of them write the best books on dysfunctional relationship. That's why I wrote the series of posts dealing with the unhealed wounds of childhood and how they can set us up to be both abusers and victims, discussing the core message that they identify. After years of working with the adult problems that arise from the wounds of childhood, those who treat them find that they cluster around a predictable set of issues: value, vulnerability, imperfection, dependency, and immaturity.
Removing the Root Source (It's usually grief and shame.)
If you're happy and healthy, and you go about life doing things that life requires you to do, your reactions and responses to things should be fairly predictable. But imagine that you have a wound that no one can readily see, or imagine that you have a wound that you don't want to admit that is hidden. When life inadvertently jabs you or knocks you around, when you have no hidden pain, your responses are limited, but when you carry around the extra baggage of wounds and their pain, your responses are exaggerated. This is why we don't send wounded soldiers back out on the field of battle until they've healed physically and sometimes emotionally, because their attention is diverted and their responses to threat and pain become exaggerated. They can't do their jobs because they're (rightfully) focused on their injury. And when the pain is great, people look to extraordinary or dramatic ways of coping with pain.
The goal with emotions and old emotional wounds is very much the same. If you find the root cause of the inflammation and pain, and you help the person desensitize to the pain by resolving the dilemma of the past, the person will eventually abandon the extremes, much like a person whose physical wound has healed. It takes a great deal of energy to bounce between extremes, and when it is no longer needed, people will find rest and ease in the middle zone of response instead of poorly controlled reaction to ongoing and relived pain when it is triggered, long after the initial injury. Poking the old site of an old and healed injury likely won't be pleasant in the future, but when it happens, the healed person will be able to express their needs, but they won't feel like their life is at immediate risk because their pain is so great that they lack self-control. They don't have to expend energy to care for their wounds, and they will eventually and naturally come into balance. The extremes are too much work.
A friend of mine also uses the analogy that people pack all of their pain into a suitcase (which is like one loaded full of stinking excrement), but people identify with this emotional baggage so strongly that they will guard it as their most prized and precious possession. Just like a cumbersome suitcase that is full of stuff, it's heavy and takes energy to drag around. Then there is the effort one must make to hide the smell. But people get the idea that if they discard the suitcase, it will mean that the events that it represents may not have happened or that they will forget the lessons they learned from whatever it is that they packed away. They loose perspective because they identify with the pain and not what they learned from an experience. It, too, is like a wound to them which they guard and protect through their emotional connection to it. With events that can't be resolved or when a good outcome can't be realized, it becomes even hard for people to let go of the handle of that suitcase. Freedom could be as easy as putting that suitcase on the curb for the trash truck to pick up, and the person could be free, but they have to be ready and willing to abandon it in order to move forward.
I went to several sources to help learn how to get out of the patterns and accumulated a whole toolbox full of tools that I've used and continue to use on my journey. Though my reading and study has been an essential part of my change for the better, in hindsight, I did the most healing when I saw a skilled counselor. I journaled about shame using Chris Thurman's advice which was essential (I'll talk more about it in an upcoming post), and I read the books like Love is a Choice (along with many others on this list and more). Removing the thorn of shame and grief makes the whole process of finding stability easier, and a person who can serve as not only a “sounding board” but also a coach can make all of the difference.
There is also the issue of whether or not the person desires to be healed. The Gospels note that Jesus asked people whether they wanted to be healed before He laid hands on them. Not everyone wants to be relieved of their wounds and their pain, and sometimes, they are not read to relinquish the struggle, especially when they equate their woundedness with feeling alive.
It is one thing to want to be free of pain, but it is another thing to want to be well. A person can get a lot of what is called “secondary gain” out of being a certain way. If you are sick, you have an excuse not to work, and when you are well, you have to start working again. Getting to do what you want as a result of your illness is secondary gain. If you are immature and irresponsible and you commit to growth, when you develop maturity and responsibility, you can no longer hide. Growth requires the commitment to be willing to step into the next phase where new the new, uncharted territory of health leads us. This can be a scary thing if a big chunk of your identity comes from being immature or believing that you are shameful and incapable, or perhaps, without worth.
For me, I committed to certain things that would “keep me in the zone of balance.” I set goals that would ensure that my life would not blast out into the extremes. I wrote those things out on paper and determined in my heart and mind that I would stick with the process. I wanted to change, that change would involve focus, and I had to commit to a goal and a measurable endpoint. I drew and continue to draw a great deal of encouragement from the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Because of my tendency to extremes, I had to learn to be satisfied to focus on the single bites, trusting that I would get there. Maturity works at a steady pace and has learned how to stay focused and at peace. Immaturity looks an an elephant and says, “There is no way I could ever accomplish my goal.” So I had to draw on past experiences of meeting smaller goals to apply that same ability to be determined to the goal of managing my own life. I wrote all of these things down in journals, going back to them to evaluate my progress.
Know Thyself (And Thy Patterns)
Sometimes a life graph is a good way to start and can be a tool to help people really identify either their early pains in life that may be at the root of problems in their adult life. Sometimes it can also help them see the patterns in relationships or on the job. I use graphs and other visual things to help me to understand my relationships.
I've also identified certain struggles and emotional reactions that I've had regularly with certain people in my life using a graph. You don't always have to chart your lifetime, and you can stretch out that timeline to a single day or a few hours if need be. Long story short, I was able to identify key, repetitive patterns in a specific relationship which always turned into a conflict. (I'd plot out a period of a month instead of a lifetime.) I used that graph which noted our interactions to see what was happening so I could change individual elements of it, and to evaluate myself, too. It gave me insight that gave me options – new approaches that I could try to either avoid or perhaps resolve conflict. I didn't have to do what I'd always done before, once I'd seen the pattern and looked at my own behavior.
Unfortunately, because this relationship was very dysfunctional and the other party desired conflict because they didn't know what it was like to relate to me without it, a whole different kind of conflict developed. I eventually chose to detach from the conflict. When I felt like I'd exhausted all of my choices, all aimed at resolving conflict or never getting to the conflict to start with, I had to bypass it and agree to not give conflict any opportunity. That was hard, because this person was important to me and I dearly love them still. But the relationship was a very draining DRAMA. I could not afford to get stuck in the drama anymore. It just took too much from me, and the other party didn't want to change. I couldn't relate to them apart from drama. I don't believe that I would have seen that, had I not gone to the trouble of looking at the patterns of how we interacted.
I've also done this with jobs and with my involvement with special causes and church involvement. Though I hated to see it, my patterns were predictable, and sometimes, they were seasonal. As part of my growth in my profession, I wanted to leave a particular job after about six months, but to build my integrity and to “face the music” which became a daily mantra which was followed with “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” I stayed in the job for an additional year, though I really did want to be free of it. I waited for an excellent opportunity to come along which met my needs and goals, and I would have never been qualified for it if I had not made he decision to wait, far beyond my desire to bail out first set in. I also spent that time preparing for the new opportunity.
I've found that delaying a response in the interests of wisdom and patience (though both of them seemed far from me at the time) was another tool that I use to foster self-control, and I use that in relationships, too. I may want to burst out with a comment or even a well-meant word of encouragement or feedback to say “I don't know if you've noticed or know this but...” It seems very unnatural in the moment to keep from offering unsolicited advice, but I'll put time limits on my comments and commit to them, just to keep myself grounded by waiting to say them. Quite often, those things I would have liked to rush into or out of resolve on their own, and the things I wanted to blurt out become obsolete. Saying them would have done nothing but put the other person ill at ease with my “unsolicited advice.” In hindsight, I can see my initial impulse as a lack of self control, my sense of immaturity which ultimately goes back to my own sense of woundedness, making my responses about me and not really about the situation that was at hand. Looking at a graph of the patterns helped me understand myself, like looking into a mirror, giving me the option to change that which I didn't like. Waiting is a big tool and a mechanism of self-control that I use often.
For help getting an idea of weak points for yourself, though I'm not big on the checklist stuff, I have found two that I like best. One is featured in Harriet Braiker's book, Who's Pulling Your Strings. Most books concerning dysfunctional relationships have some kind of checklist which helps you focus in on your problem areas if you have difficulty, and you can focus specifically on those items.
People who grew up in emotionally healthy homes that didn't model extreme behavior or driven lives take for granted that those who didn't never saw health and stability modeled for them. A dysfunctional person can look at a healthy one and identify them, saying, “I want my life to look like theirs.” But how do they get there?
It takes a lot of study, and that study is usually followed by at least some trial and error. I liken it to something a Christian friend said to me about living as a Christian convert to the faith as an adult. I take for granted all of those hours I spent in Sunday School and all of the hours my mother spent reading Bible stories to me, long before I can even remember them. I had to learn how to be functional instead of dysfunctional, and I did a lot of that through reading about the stuff most people take for granted. Today, there are more books than a person can read which can help them learn from the experiences and the instruction of others. Self-help books can be great and some are essential, but great literature and biographies of people who have lived through similar struggles to your own offer instruction, too.
I think that this is where wise friends come into play, and the wisdom of people who have weathered lots of painful things in life can encourage us. A situation in life can seem like the end of the world until you can talk with someone who has lived through something similar or far more troubling. This is where I also gleaned much from a counselor as a sounding board. I've also attended free groups like Emotions Anonymous (EA) who offer group meetings for those who have the problems of addiction without the use of substances. A good group (that doesn't become its own type of escape or new type of extreme) can be a helpful resource, especially if you don't have a lot of resources to pay for a counselor. You can enlist this type of volunteer group of peers and friends who understand your struggles, because they're struggling along with you. You can even get a sponsor through EA, and even some famous people have attended.
The funny thing about learning health involves the realization that what is healthy usually feels very abnormal. I don't struggle so much anymore with this in my relationships, but I struggle with it in other areas of my life that I'm working on as I continue to develop my maturity and deal with the deficits. I also remember when getting into new relationships, what feels most natural to me usually is not in my best interest, so I should be cautious and patient to see what unfolds instead of jumping in with all abandon quickly. There's something about that which feels very wrong, but that is force of habit and not health. This was a very difficult thing to learn, and aspects of it don't feel natural at all. But I've learned to know that my “radar” works against me in certain circumstances, so I've worked to compensate so that I can be mature and balanced. (There is a part of me that sings loudly with caution, but I was taught to ignore that part of me in favor of habit when I was growing up..) What feels right can be very wrong. I have to follow health.
Journal, Journal Journal!
That's a subject that deserves its own post which I talk about but have not spent much time explaining on this blog. In a post later this week, I plan to write a bit more specifically about how I journal. I still use it to help me stay on target by not only through the catharsis of writing but by sticking to a method that brings me back to my goals and my commitment to be a functional person instead of a dysfunctional one.
Finally, link HERE to the post on journaling, a few days late!