The Ego and You

Relationships can be very rewarding, but, truthfully, they can be difficult.  This is true for everyone regardless of any residual issues you might face in terms of family of origin, trauma, and relationship history.  This makes personal development in terms of interpersonal effectiveness, perspective-taking, validation, and empathy development all the more important.  Why? Well, a proper development of empathy and perspective-taking enable us to dismantle a lopsided ego when it may, under pressure, take its edification from the disempowerment of others in order to empower itself, and that pursuit and process can be extraordinarily subtle.  The question I often ask of myself is this:

Is your ego driving you, or are you driving your ego? 

In order to continue to develop a more integrated identity (eg0) and increase interpersonal effectiveness and emotional maturity, it is vital to develop insight into our own behaviors and drives and the behavior of others (empathy):

As James Mark Baldwin aptly stated, “Ego and alter are born together”. What he meant by that is our sense of self emerges in close relationship to our sense of others (and how they treat us). Indeed, because our “selves” exist within interdependent networks of other people, because we initially understand ourselves through the lens of mirrored others, and because our identity is very much about narrating and legitimizing our actions to others, a key aspect of ego functioning is the capacity to understand others in a complex manner. Whereas insight refers to the capacity to understand one’s self, empathy refers to the capacity to understand others. So central is this ability that a recent, modern psychodynamic treatment is called mentalizing, which teaches individuals steps for developing more complex, richer, less judgmental and reactive narratives for describing and explaining the actions of others.  (The Elements of Ego Functioning)

Note this idea: “we initially understand ourselves through the lens of mirrored others….”  This concept explains, in part, why family of origin trauma is so significant in personal development.  If we initially understand ourselves through the perceptions of others, then our budding identities could often be founded upon distortions and extremities when we hail from abuse.  Furthermore, this would be normalized because this is our starting point in life and often the cornerstone for our core beliefs.

In my experience, remaining at this developmental stage is often the cause for interpersonal difficulties and suffering.  When we continually remain in a state wherein we understand ourselves through the reflective lens of other people we fail to develop insight or even a more developed empathic response towards others because we are functioning from a deficit.  What do I mean by that? When you are continually looking to understand yourself through the experiences of other people, your reference point for all your experiences becomes, oddly, self-referential even though you are looking externally for your legitimacy and validation.  The mechanism underlying this is the need to consistently legitimize and identify yourself rather than already feeling existentially or ontologically legitimate, and that need is internally driven.  It is the ego driving you.  The extreme version of this is narcissism.  In that context, a person is looking to others for “narcissistic supply” which is:

“a psychological concept which describes a type of admiration, interpersonal support, or sustenance drawn by an individual from his or her environment. The term is typically used in a negative sense, describing a pathological or excessive need for attention or admiration that does not take into account the feelings, opinions or preferences of other people.”  (Wikipedia definition)

Essentially, you are building an identity with borrowed or even stolen bricks and repairing a wounded ego by the same means.  You are not building, maintaining, or developing a sense of self through an internal process of growth.  While it is absolutely necessary to experience support, love, and validation from other people in order to experience a rich and meaningful life, it is important to note the difference here.

We have to ask important questions like: Who is responsible for meeting my needs? Who is responsible for making me happy? Who is responsible for my well-being and sense of personal significance? How do I build a meaningful life and experience rewarding relationships that enrich me and the other person while promoting growth? How do I continue to grow personally even in the midst of a social and emotional drought? How do I feel good about myself when there is no one around to make me feel good about myself? How do I learn to validate and motivate myself?

Why does this matter? Well, on a truly fundamental level, what might happen when you are faced with criticism? It becomes an attack on identity instead of an opportunity to generate growth and listen to another person’s legitimate perspective which may strongly differ from yours.  Why might that be the response? If my sense of self is perceived and developed through other people’s experiences of me rather than a solid understanding of myself, then criticism would be, of course, devastating.

What if you are confronted with a hard truth about how you relate to other people? What if you hurt someone’s feelings? What if you have bad relational habits of which you are not aware? Or, what if your sense of self is still largely founded upon what your family believes about you or even an abusive ex-partner? What if deeply rooted core beliefs are dictating the functioning of our egos? What if your sense of self is founded upon social convention, wealth, or meeting expectations and, suddenly, you lose your standing? All this is to say that it is imperative that we devote time and effort to developing insight into ourselves so that we become not only more empathetic but also more integrated in order to be more interpersonally effective.

What might ego-driven behavior look like in terms of personal relationships? We experience this often, and we certainly feel it.  The sting of a wounded ego is very particularistic.  I’ll give you a more extreme example to illustrate the point:

When my ex-husband and I would try to work out relational issues, it almost always failed.  His self-assessment was largely based upon his professional life and success, therefore, my experience of him created an inescapable dissonance.  Whenever I told him how I felt or even my experience of him he would say something like this:

“No one complains about me.  I have asked other people if I’m like that.  I’m not.  That hurts my feelings that you even think that about me.  I think that you are a broken person because of the things that have happened to you, and maybe you don’t perceive reality as it is.  That’s what is happening here.  Besides I don’t even remember what you’re talking about.”

This is an ego-driven response.

  1. “No one complains about me.”  His sense of self and his behaviors are understood through others.  Were they not, then he would not have used other people’s perceptions to minimize or dismiss mine.  Furthermore, this response conflates his experiences with other people and our experience in relationship together.  People can and do behave differently with others and within the contexts of different environments.  It is not unusual at all to find out that a person, for example, has a bad habit, addiction, or even profound personal struggles “behind closed doors”.  To the shock and dismay of their friends and colleagues, everyone says, “I would have never guessed.  S/he never gave any indication that they struggled in that way.”
  2. The presence of blame.  Blaming is a way to externalize discomfort, distress, and anger.  As Brene Brown puts it, “Blame is the discharging of discomfort and pain. It has an inverse relationship with accountability.”  Once the blame sets in, shame follows quickly.  To quote Brown again, “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged and healed…Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
  3. The absence of empathy and validation.  “That’s what is happening here.”  Speaking in terms of omniscience, as if he is the expert on my experiences and heart, shows a lack of empathy, personal insight, and compassion.  There is no interest to learn and grow.  There is, however, a strong desire to be right as well as another desire to deny.
  4. The presence of gaslighting.  This is an example of perceptual manipulation which defines gaslighting, and it characterizes ego-driven responses.  Basically, one must manipulate, suppress, and force change upon the perception of the other person in order to mold it to one’s own perceptions since one’s self-perception is dependent upon others.  It is vital for underdeveloped or dis-integrated ego survival that external supply is consistent because dissonance, which spurs growth, is not allowed.  Growth is often very painful, and survival and pain often don’t make friends easily.

When you experience something like this in life, and you will, understand that this can be the mechanism behind behaviors like this.  Does it hurt to be a part of this kind of dance? Yep.  It is much easier to process, however, when you understand the process, and it’s also a wonderful reminder to tend to your own ego and growth process.  It’s how we heal, grow, and become people worth knowing.  We become better people, and that’s a journey worth taking.

For an outstanding article on ego functioning, read this:

The Elements of Ego Functioning

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Healthy Assertiveness

Eight years ago after I had completed my epic three-year life and personality overhaul aka three years of psychotherapy, my therapist, a certified life coach in addition to being a therapist, changed his approach.  We left the therapeutic approach behind and entered into coaching, a starkly different experience.  I likened it to being slapped in the face for thirty minutes once a week.

The cognitive work was done.  I knew what I needed to know.  The remaining trauma work would have to emerge as life happened.  It was a weird feeling, at the time, to know that my foundation was complete.  I could go on to build something.  Finally.

For the record, life coaching is 100% harder than therapy because it’s all on you.  It was a very difficult paradigm shift but a worthwhile one.  I recommend it to everyone.  One of my goals in life coaching was to better learn assertiveness.  I am still working on that goal.  I am pleasantly assertive on behalf of other people, but I still find it a struggle when I must assert myself on behalf of myself.  Asking for a divorce, however, is most likely the most assertive thing I’ve ever done, and that changed everything for me.

During my marriage, I tolerated a lot of bad behavior and mistreatment.  Even abuse at times.  What I have discovered is that when you are in a dysfunctional system, it is extremely difficult to get a proper perspective on your identity, your capabilities, reality, and possibilities for your future.  The truth becomes skewed, and you become turned around.  It’s akin to getting lost in a labyrinth.  One day you look up and around and wonder how you got there, and then the panic sets in.  How do you get out? Can you get out? How can you self-advocate when you don’t even know where you are anymore? How can you fight for yourself when you don’t even know who you are within this family system and dynamic? Everyone seems to have a point of view and doesn’t mind telling you what you should do.  “Leave.”  “Get a lawyer.”  “You’re a battered woman.”  “You’re complicit in your own abuse.”  “You’re passive.”  I’ve heard all these things, and, in the meantime, you can’t hear anything but the sound of the metaphorical water drowning you.  You are just trying to survive and figure it out while people come at you with accusatory, pointing fingers.  “You aren’t good enough.  You are a bad example.  You are too much.  You are not enough.”

Once you begin escaping the oppressive dynamics of dysfunctional family systems and relationships, it becomes much easier to see where you have been victimized in big and small ways.  Even aggressive advice-giving by well-meaning people can feel like added victimization because it is, at a minimum, invalidating and undermining.  Men, women, and children in abusive environments need support rather than judgment.  The ‘should’ statements do not validate or assume competence:

  • “You should not be tolerating that.”
  • “You should be leaving.”
  • “You should be doing better than that.”
  • “You should be making better choices.”
  • “You should be a better parent than that.”
  • “You should be learning from those mistakes.”

What if, as my therapist posed, one is doing the best that one can in a situation but is also aiming to do better? This is a DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) assumption: I am doing the best I can right now, but I also need to learn to do better.  This allows for validation in the now and room for growth as well.  It is a present/future mindset rather than a paradigm rooted in regret and constant looking back.

What I have found is that I am much more aware of relational bullshit (RBS), so to speak, now that I am leaving my marriage than I was before.  Oh, I knew that it was there.  I just didn’t know what to do about it.  I was already tolerating so much RBS in my relationship with my husband that I had little energy left to deal with it in my relationships with other people; and this, I think, comes into play when we are faced with being assertive.

A great example of this is my experience with the Grumpy Barista.  I order a fancy coffee drink, and Grumpy Barista not only makes it improperly but also refuses to correct her error.  I stammer and fidget all the while attempting to ask for her to do her job while she gives me the Death Glare.  That’s one end of the Assertiveness Spectrum.  The other end might go something like this: “You will make my coffee properly, asshole, because I paid for that coffee, and you are paid to make my coffee! So, don’t you stand there and look at me like I just asked you to babysit my kids.  You go back there and make my drink the right way, you understand me?” What might the middle of the spectrum look like? “I did not order this drink.  Would you please correct your error and make the coffee drink that I paid for? Thank you.”

When all of your energy is being used to survive your primary relationship, self-advocating goes out the window.  Becoming a doormat feels like the only option.  Or, conversely, letting your amygdala rule the show is the other option because some part of you needs to step in and provide protection since no one else will.  Consequently, you end up with extreme behaviors.  You either bend over and take it (like I tend to do), or you dish it out before anyone can even blink twice at you.  This makes it very hard to have healthy interactions, healthy relationships, and engage in truth-telling and truth-seeing.

One of the goals of a good therapeutic and life coaching relationship is to learn at what places in your life you are occupying extreme positions and then move to the middle.  For me, I was reactionary due to PTSD; I would freeze.  I did not know how to properly self-advocate.  I would see the improper behavior but not know how to respond.  Some people come out with both guns blazing.  I would appear to do nothing.  I would take it.  This is why those toxic, judgmental ‘should’ statements are so damaging.  Oftentimes, people say them to attempt to motivate others to take action: “You should do something!” What is not understood is that perceived passivity is often an honest reaction.  It is the sympathetic nervous system’s response to stress manifesting itself as a freeze response or even a flight response.  Not everyone has a fight response.  I do not when it comes to self-advocacy.  I do, however, for other people.

We unlearn our latent freeze/flight/fight responses over time and practice true self-advocacy through mindfulness and in validating environments and relationships.  Dismantling the sympathetic nervous system’s tyranny over our mind and body is as simple as learning deep breathing exercises and as complicated as utilizing that skill every time, and this requires a developed self-awareness and sense of safety that come with increased safe relationships in our lives accompanied by a sense that we are capable of making good choices for ourselves.  We are capable.  We are strong.  We are competent.

Healthy assertiveness comes, I believe, as healthy relationships increase and validating environments grow.  We are allowed to try and fail, and then try again.  The good news here is that we have so much more influence over these elements than we probably ever believed we did.

Resources:

Relaxed and Contented: Activating the Parasympathetic Wing of Your Nervous System

Categorizing Behaviors

I had my third therapy session yesterday.  My therapist decided to make a client-centered approach part of my treatment plan.  I bristled at that.  I’ve never progressed in a client-centered therapeutic environment.  What? Just sit there and talk about what’s bothering me? I could kvetch all day! There were goals, too, which softened the blow.  My goal-oriented self needed something to accomplish.

So, what did we do yesterday? Well, he brought forth the legal pad.  He made a chart.  He said, “Let’s divide your husband’s behaviors into different kinds of behaviors, okay? We need a category called Abuse.  Under Abuse we will put behavior that is intolerable always.  It is never to be tolerated.  It is destructive.  Then, there is behavior that is classified as Rude or Mean.  Then, we will put a category of behavior BETWEEN Rude/Mean and Abuse.  This is clearly dysfunctional behavior that is on the verge of abusive.  We can simply call this Dysfunctional.”

And we went on like this until we had a chart.  Here are the behavior categories that we listed:

  • Clueless
  • Unwilling
  • Entitled
  • Arrested in Development from childhood
  • Rude/Mean
  • Dysfunctional
  • Abusive

This was a very good exercise because he was able to go back and categorize some of the behaviors from situations that I had discussed with him.  Two were clearly abusive.  He was very forthright about it.  There was no denying it.  He said it a few times.  “What he did there was abusive.  There is no justifying it.  That was abuse.”

When he said that to me my jaw started to hurt.  He spoke particularly about an event that involved an area around my face where my husband had hurt me.  When he looked at me and named the event as abuse, pain in my jaw bloomed.  I started to feel pain in my head.  By the time I left I was in tremendous pain.  I could hardly open my mouth.

It may have been too much for me to accept in the moment.  I can intellectually agree with him, and I can remember the event with great clarity.  I cannot yet connect emotions to the event.  If I were safe to do it, then I think I would.  At the same time, hearing that kind of validation–“That was abuse.  You have a reason to feel what you feel.”–is powerful stuff.

This is an excellent exercise because it helps you see your own confusion and where you’ve fallen victim to crazymaking.  When you can’t decipher behaviors anymore because you’ve been exposed to them for so long, then it’s time to get outside help.  There were behaviors that I’ve witnessed for so long that I could no longer recognize them as abusive.  After we discussed them, we came to the conclusion that they were to be categorized under Abuse because they were emotionally abusive.  The other issue at play here is my Resiliency Spectrum.  I intellectually know what healthy behavior looks like, but my limbic system does not.  I don’t get a response from my body anymore unless someone yells.  If he were to yell at me, then I might get a clue.  At the same time, is it ever appropriate to yell? This is a question for my therapist.

What was more unsettling than the chart was my therapist’s hypothesis.  He told me that he knew that he was only hearing my narrative.  He had not met my husband.  Keeping that in mind, he also believed me and felt it necessary to ask me if I was prepared to look at this chart in terms of what behaviors could be shaped and modeled through therapy and modeling and what behaviors would not change.  He went on to say that my capacity to love was great and his capacity to love might be lesser.  My intellectual, emotional, and spiritual “IQs” were very well developed, and he may be lesser in those areas.  He may not be a good match for me simply because of his unwillingness to change.  What’s more, he may never be able to meet me where I’m at.  My desires may always go unmet, and I may always be a target for some sort of abuse through his behavior.  What was I prepared to live with, and what was I not prepared to live with?

Well, that’s some kind of question.  He asked me this directly.

“What are you prepared to live with in terms of this behavior, and what are you NOT prepared to live with?”

Do you know what I heard myself say?

“Well, he doesn’t abuse me that often…”

Oh…my…god…

He just looked at me.  Then, I said, “Did I just say that out loud?” to which he replied, “Yes, you did.”

“Clearly, I need help,” I said.

I was trembling when I left.  The right side of my face felt like it was going to slide off my skull it hurt so badly.  I didn’t go home because he was there.  He’s always there.  I am never alone.  He’s always hovering.  So, I went to drink coffee alone and read a book.  I highly recommend decompressing after a therapy session.  Don’t dive back into your life.  Transition.  Do something nice for yourself.  Be kind to yourself because this kind of therapeutic work is grueling.

So far, I really don’t like it, but it’s necessary.  Sort of like a tetanus shot.

And, I really hate those.

Affective Deprivation Disorder and Alexithymia in Marriage

I have written somewhere in here that my marriage has been difficult.  If you’re married for nearly two decades, then I think, at some point, there will come hard relational times.  It’s inevitable and normal.  I am someone who doesn’t like to put up with hard times.  I feel driven to fix them.  I want to know what’s behind the problem.  If I am experiencing what I feel is pointless suffering, then I will do whatever it takes to either end it or, at least, add meaning to it.  I am the opposite of passive.

I seem to be married to my foil.  If I am a hare, then he’s a tortoise.  Nay, a rock.  I run around him.  Over and over again.  This can be good if it creates stability in a relationship, but it has created inertia and so much more.

After a while, one must ask: What is going on? Why am I in such pain? Why am I sick all the time? Why does he say that he’s happy when I feel like a black hole has opened up in my chest?

Let me introduce you to Affective Deprivation Disorder:

Affective Deprivation Disorder (AfDD) is a relational disorder resulting from the emotional deprivation sometimes experienced by the partner (or child) of persons with a low emotional/empathic quotient or alexithymia.

Coined by researcher Maxine Aston, AfDD was first applied to partners of adults with Asperger Syndrome, many of whom showed disturbing physical and psychological reactions to the lack of emotional reciprocity they were experiencing in their relationship. Maxine was later to broaden AfDD‘s applicability to include disorders other than Asperger’s such as depression, eating disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, and substance abuse disorder in which the same low emotional intelligence or alexithymia is a key relational factor.

To qualify for a diagnosis of AfDD some or all of the following indicators in each category must be present:

One Partner must meet criteria for a diagnosis of one or more of the following:
• Low Emotional Intelligence
• Alexithymia
• Low Empathy Quotient

Relationship Profile includes one or more of the following
• High relational conflict
• Domestic abuse: emotional and/or physical
• Reduced marital or relationship satisfaction
• Reduced relationship quality

Possible Psychological Symptoms of AfDD
• Low self esteem.
• Feeling confused/bewildered.
• Feelings of anger, depression and anxiety
• Feelings of guilt.
• Loss of self/depersonalisation
• Phobias – social/agoraphobia
• Posttraumatic stress reactivity
• Breakdown

Possible Psychosomatic Effects
• Fatigue
• Sleeplessness
• Migraines.
• Loss or gain in weight.
• PMT/female related problems.
• ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis).
• Low immune system – colds to cancer.

Similar symptoms experienced by the SAD sufferer, are experienced by the AfDD sufferer. Yet there is an even more damaging effect for the AfDD sufferer insofar as it is another human being, they probably love, who is unintentionally responsible for their emotional deprivation. Emotional reciprocity, love and belonging are essential human needs, if these needs are not being met and the reason why is not understood, then mental and physical health may be affected. Awareness and understanding can eliminate this.

AfDD is a consequence of the relational situation a sufferer is in, therefore it is possible to find ways to rectify this. Just as sunlight restores the balance in SAD – emotional input and understanding can restore the balance in the person affected by AfDD. Relationships when one partner has alexithymia can work if both partners work together to understand their differences and develop a better way of communicating, showing emotional expression and loving that works for both of them.

The following treatment issues can be explored with those suffering AfDD:
• Rebuilding Self Esteem
• Having a voice
• Looking at negative responses.
• Looking at self image.
• Building confidence.
• Becoming assertive.
• Attending a Workshop.

Finding Self
• Identifying Parent – Child roles.
• Changing learned helplessness.
• Rebuilding self.
• Rebuilding family and relationships.
• Rebuilding a social life.
• Finding support.  (Maxine Aston)

What is alexithymia?

Alexithymia/ˌlɛksəˈθmiə/ is a personality construct characterized by the sub-clinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self.[1] The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating.[2] Furthermore, individuals suffering from alexithymia also have difficulty in distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unempathic and ineffective emotional responding.[2] Alexithymia is prevalent in approximately 10% of the general population and is known to be comorbid with a number of psychiatric conditions.[3]

Alexithymia is defined by:[9]

  1. difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal
  2. difficulty describing feelings to other people
  3. constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a scarcity of fantasies
  4. a stimulus-bound, externally oriented cognitive style. (online source)

My husband is alexithymic.  He also has crippling anxiety combined with what looks to be disturbances in his personality.  He has low emotional intelligence to be sure and poor cognitive empathy.  He cannot name his emotions, and he has no idea why he does things.  We are not able to have meaningful discussions about anything.  We have never been able to do this.  When we were in the first year of our marriage, I thought he was being difficult.  I had never encountered another human being who could not name their own emotions.

“How do you feel?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I understand not being sure about something, but…”

“No, I mean I don’t know what I feel.”

He couldn’t identify or describe any of his emotions outside of feeling “depressed” or very angry.  He had constant feelings of getting sick (somatic complaints).  He lacked empathy, and he didn’t understand why I expected him to be able to anticipate needs or intuit things.  I assumed that he was capable of that.  As an example, when I was pregnant with our first daughter, I was put on bed rest for the last few weeks of my pregnancy due to an inability to walk from pelvic instability.  I had no friends where we lived as I hadn’t lived there very long.  I was, therefore, unable to go to the kitchen and prepare food.  I would have to sort of slither up the hall on my side to make it to the bathroom.  I literally could not walk or stand.  I was famished when he would get home.  He was never able to remember that I was home and unable to meet my needs.  One evening, he came home with food and ate in front of me.  He didn’t ask how I was, talk to me, or even engage.  He just sat there, glazed over, and ate his food while playing computer games.  He rarely greeted me.  I was so frustrated and angry.  He looked at me with wide-eyed innocence and asked, “What’s wrong with you?”  Obviously, nineteen years later I can see the flaws in my much younger self’s hidden expectations.  Just call him and ask him to bring food for you, younger self! He can’t read your mind! The point I am making is that he was completely unaware of the “other” in almost all circumstances.  Pregnant wife on bed rest unable to walk? He just didn’t get it or understand why that had anything to do with him or why he had any responsibility there.  It bewildered him.

That is, however, a typical interaction.  It has played out over and over again in different contexts over the years from him not visiting our baby and me in the hospital when she was thought to have meningitis to his bringing the Lord of The Rings trilogy to my labor and delivery because, “There will be a lot of waiting around.”  It ranges from the comical to the spectacularly hurtful.  For years and years, our daughters and I have observed this very obvious lack of emotional response and wondered why he didn’t like us.  What had we done wrong? My oldest daughter has spent the last six months coming to me in tears over her feelings of loss where her father is concerned.  She has wondered if something is wrong with her.  She has asked the classic question:

“If he loved us, then why doesn’t he try?”

Last night, I sat on the edge of my bed and cried.  I felt like I was crazy.  It is so hard to describe what it feels like to be married to this.  I told myself yesterday that if I could make myself more like him, then maybe it would be better.  If I could remove all emotional desire from myself, then I would be able to do this.  I actually asked God to make me like Spock.  That has to be one of the weirder prayers to ascend.  Like some warped psalm.

“Oh God, make me like Spock.  Purge me of emotion.  Oh my soul, shut the hell up so that only my brain will speak and my heart will sleep a thousand years.”

Poetic but not possible.  I found a better thing to ask.  I asked for a sense of being accepted and validated by someone.  I felt so misunderstood.  Like not one person understood the exact nature of what I was experiencing, and this was so isolating.  This sense of isolation is intolerable to me.  This morning, I found all this.  I just stumbled across the word ‘alexithymia’ and AfDD.  I then immediately found a paper about AfDD.  Read this:

The lack of empathy in these relationships is one key to their impacts. A lack of empathetic attunement disables the individual’s ability to recognise, interpret and to verify subtle emotional signals expressed by intimates and contributes to an impoverishment of emotional interaction. The interaction becomes further compounded when the unverified partner or family member reacts negatively to feelings of being misunderstood or neglected. In this sense the affective deprivation experienced in such relationships refers to the deprivation of emotional-attunement, emotional validation, and intelligent emotional responding. To the extent that people look to their significant other for validation, the lack of such validation can corrode their sense of self and lead to a discouragement of self expression whereby large portions of the individual’s emotional repertoire become deleted from the relationship (Goleman, 1996b). In Asperger’s relationships this tendency to eradicate emotionality and take on Asperger’s characteristics has been labelled becoming “Aspergated” (Stanford, 2003). The failure to understand and validate legitimate emotional experiences or behaviours of the other typically creates or exacerbates negative emotional arousal in the invalidated individual/s, potentially leaving each member of the relationship displaying some measure of dysregulated affect (Fruzzetti, A.E., & Iverson, 2006). (Affective Deprivation Disorder: Does It Constitute A Relational Disorder?)

This phenomenon does not just apply to intimate relationships with certain people on the autism spectrum.  This would apply to other contexts as well.  I cannot tell you how validating this paragraph was for me, and I see just how important my being in DBT with my daughter was.  I was there to learn to self-validate.  The notion was introduced to me two years ago in David Schnarch’s landmark book The Passionate Marriage in which he says that self-validation is the key to differentiation in marriage and, thus, success particularly if there is gridlock.  That struck a chord in me then.  I learned how to self-validate in DBT.  I learned on a much more practical level how to be mindful, how to suspend judgment, and how to be effective in relationships without sacrificing self-respect.

This has been my greatest downfall.  I have slowly given up pieces of myself.  I truly have deleted large pieces of my emotional repertoire in this relationship because of repeated rejection.  How can one not do that? Knowing, however, that I am not the only person to experience this is tremendously validating.  Knowing that there is a white paper written about this very dynamic tells me that there is a common experience out there, and common experience means that I’m not isolated.  I am part of a group.  I may not know anyone else who is experiencing this, but I now know that others know exactly what I know.

The interesting thing about alexithymia is this.  It is a trait that can be comorbid with other psychiatric disorders:

Alexithymia is considered to be a personality trait that places individuals at risk for other medical and psychiatric disorders while reducing the likelihood that these individuals will respond to conventional treatments for the other conditions.[6] Alexithymia is not classified as a mental disorder in the DSM-IV. It is a dimensional personality trait that varies in severity from person to person…

Alexithymia frequently co-occurs with other disorders. Research indicates that alexithymia overlaps with autism spectrum disorders.[8][41] In a 2004 study using the TAS-20, 85% of the adults with ASD fell into the impaired category; almost half of the whole group fell into the severely impaired category. Among the normal adult control, only 17% was impaired; none of them severely.[41][42] Fitzgerald & Bellgrove pointed out that, “Like alexithymia, Asperger’s syndrome is also characterised by core disturbances in speech and language and social relationships”.[43] Hill & Berthoz agreed with Fitzgerald & Bellgrove (2006) and in response stated that “there is some form of overlap between alexithymia and ASDs”. They also pointed to studies that revealed impaired theory of mind skill in alexithymia, neuroanatomical evidence pointing to a shared etiology and similar social skills deficits.[44] The exact nature of the overlap is uncertain. Alexithymic traits in AS may be linked to clinical depression or anxiety;[42] the mediating factors are unknown and it is possible that alexithymia predisposes to anxiety.[45]

There are many more psychiatric disorders that overlap with alexithymia. One study found that 41% of Vietnam War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder were alexithymic.[46] Other single study prevalence findings are 63% in anorexia nervosa,[47] 56% in bulimia,[47] 45%[16] to 50%[48] in major depressive disorder, 34% in panic disorder,[49] 28% of social phobics,[49] and 50% insubstance abusers.[50] Alexithymia also occurs more frequently in individuals with acquired or traumatic brain injury.[51][52][53]

Alexithymia is correlated with certain personality disorders,[54]substance use disorders,[55][56] some anxiety disorders,[57] and sexual disorders,[58] as well as certain physical illnesses, such ashypertension,[59]inflammatory bowel disease,[60] and functional dyspepsia.[61] Alexithymia is further linked with disorders such as migraine headaches, lower back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, nausea, allergies, and fibromyalgia.[62]

An inability to modulate emotions is a possibility in explaining why some alexithymics are prone to discharge tension arising from unpleasant emotional states through impulsive acts or compulsive behaviors such as binge eating, substance abuse, perversesexual behavior, or anorexia nervosa.[63] The failure to regulate emotions cognitively might result in prolonged elevations of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and neuroendocrine systems which can lead to somatic diseases.[62] Alexithymics also show a limited ability to experience positive emotions leading Krystal (1988) and Sifneos (1987) to describe many of these individuals as anhedonic.[5] (online source)

I’ve discussed personality disorders at length on this blog, but I’ve never discussed alexithymia.  I have never had a therapist discuss this with me either.  Many of us leave families where there has been abuse or trauma with symptoms of AfDD, but those clusters of symptoms have never been named.  It’s all been lumped together under depression, or anxiety, or PTSD, or “Stop whining and get over it.”  I would like you to read this:

Emotional reciprocity, love and belonging are essential human needs, if these needs are not being met and the reason is not understood, then mental and physical health may be affected. (Maxine Aston)

Yesterday, I asked someone if it was normal to want reciprocity and belonging in a marriage.  I didn’t know if that was a normal thing to want.  I felt extremely confused.  Was it something that was bad to want?  Reading this statement this morning has been a powerful validation for me.  It has been the plumb line that I have needed so that I can see where long-term exposure to wrong thinking and unhealthy behaviors and beliefs have landed me.  I also asked these questions when I was emerging from my family of origin.  You will find yourself on shaky ground if you are in a relationship with someone with a Cluster B personality disorder.

If any of this rings a bell for you, I encourage you to look through the resources at the end of this post.  One of my takeaways has been that I didn’t get here riding his dysfunctional coat tails as it were.  I helped.  I participated in creating the current atmosphere, and I will be the one to rebuild my own happiness.  It has always been this way.  Knowing, however, that my experiences have names is powerful.  Knowing that what I want is legitimate is equally powerful.

Validation is healing.  I hope I have provided some for you should you need it.

Post script: This post has numerous comments some of which are very brave and personal.  I would ask that people who comment refrain from judgment and psychoanalysis.  The comment section is a place to share thoughts, ideas, and common experiences.  It is not a place to “concern shame”, judge, and go on the offensive out of a defensive posture.  Thank you for civil and kind discourse.  Remember, everyone is trying to heal.  So, let’s contribute to that process–not hinder it.

Resources:

Endnote: As of 2016, I have been separated from my husband; we are divorcing.  An excellent resource is Lundy Bancroft’s book Should I Stay or Should I Go: A Guide to Knowing if Your Relationship Can–and Should–Be Saved.

Related blog post: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Self-Validation and Recovery of the Self

Circumstances never wait for us to be ready.  Some circumstances happen suddenly, and some, looking back, have been simmering for a long time.  It’s not a surprise when they boil over and make a mess.  Why do we then feel surprised? Is it denial? Is it avoidance behavior? Were we hoping that the situation would resolve on its own? Were we like one of those parents who assumes that their young child will grow out of their apparently autistic symptoms?

  • “Oh, just leave it.  She’ll grow out of it.  She’s just young.”
  • “Oh, I know he can’t read now, but he’ll catch up.”
  • “Sure, he flaps when he’s anxious.  All kids flap.”

I have learned that every circumstance provides an opportunity for personal development.  It is one of the best ways to move through a situation that may be fraught with pain and actually get something out of it.  I don’t want to feel helpless.  I don’t want to feel like life is happening to me, and that’s often how I feel when I feel out of control.  I can’t control anyone else even if I try to do so.  I’ll only find myself manipulating them and violating my own code of relational ethics.

So, what are we supposed to do? Isn’t that a great question.  I suppose that question needs a context.  I’ll use my marriage as an illustration.

I’ve never had a great marriage.  I can admit that now.  I have a strong tendency to play the caretaker, and I am intimidated by strong displays of anger.  Just read my blog and you’ll figure out why that is.  I am by nature nurturing.  I am hospitable.  I enjoy serving people in my home.  I do not like to see people suffer.  I will go the extra ten miles to make sure people have what they need.  Pair me with a spouse who is the least bit entitled and what might you get? Well, it ain’t good.  It’s just that it was so much better in comparison to the relationships in my family of origin that I didn’t know that it wasn’t good enough.  In retrospect, I should have done more than ask for more.  I should have pushed harder sooner.  Alas, I can only learn from the past now.

Passive aggressive behavior is toxic.  Compare passive aggressive behavior to a raging, violent mother, and that passive aggressive spouse starts to look like Mr. Emerson of Room with a View.  I simply didn’t recognize it for what it was until…

I began attending longterm therapy.  I simply woke up one morning and realized that my head wasn’t screwed on properly.  I needed a brain pan overhaul.  Four extraordinary years later, I had new eyes.  I was a completely different person.  I wanted more, and I began to see that there were dynamics present in my marriage that were harmful.  Seven years later? It’s worse, but I can see even more clearly than I could before.  I also see that I am part of the problem.  

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Click the image for the link

Because I grew up with a borderline personality, I know that I left home with codependent tendencies.  I am no longer codependent, but I do have caretaking habits.  They are alive and well in my marriage.  Reading this book has been eye-opening, and I recommend it to anyone who lives with a “high maintenance” spouse be it passive aggressive, emotionally unavailable, highly anxious, overly attached, not attached enough, or even high-functioning autistic.  Recognizing where and how we caretake is the beginning of recovering ourselves.  Learning how to stop is another step closer, and, boy, is that uncomfortable.

The other issue that I see in my life and the broader life experience is the notion of validation.  I read this earlier today:

“Be faithful on the playing field God has given you, no matter how small, and let God validate you in His time and in His way.”

How many women have heard statements like these from well-meaning people? It inadvertently promotes feelings of helplessness and disempowerment.  I propose that we are not meant to sit in painful circumstances and wait around for validation.  We have brains.  We can learn to validate ourselves.  

Before we learn to do that, it’s important to discuss validation.  What is it? Validation means “telling someone that what they feel, think, believe, and experience is real, logical, and understandable…it helps our relationships go better, and it calms intense situations so that we can problem solve.  Validation is like relationship glue.  Validating someone brings you closer.”

How do you validate? Well, the first thing to understand is that validating someone does not mean that you agree or approve of their behavior.  Validation is a non-judgmental way of communicating that you understand their point of view.  Here are some validation techniques:

  • Focus on the inherent worth of the person, whether it is yourself or someone else.
  • Observe by listening carefully to what is said with words, expression, and body.  Listen with intention.  Be of one mind in that moment.  If you are self-validating, then honor your experience by sitting quietly with it, knowing it for at least a few moments.  IF you are validating someone else, use good eye contact, nod, and focus on them.  Don’t focus on what you are going to say next.
  • Describe by non-judgmentally stating the facts of the situation.
  • State the unstated by noting the presence of feelings, beliefs, etc. that have not been voiced: “You seem to feel angry but also hurt by what that person said to you.” If validating yourself, then identify your primary emotions.  If anger is obvious, then explore your feelings of hurt, disappointment, or shame that may be hiding underneath.
  • Search for what is valid and true about the experience and note it.  Without feeling that you have to agree or approve of the experience, find a piece of it that makes perfect sense, and validate this.  If validating yourself, then perhaps you realize that the thoughts you are having might be irrational; however, you validate that they exist and are powerful in the moment.  If validating someone else, even if you disagree with their behavior, find something with which you can empathize: “When you get that angry, I can see that you want to strike out at someone.  Your emotions are very powerful for you.”

Self-validation is vital because it tells us that all feelings are informational.  Self-validation occurs when we are able to quietly reassure ourselves that what we feel inside is real, important, and makes sense.  Emotions, thoughts, and sensations are all experiences that we sometimes doubt in ourselves so we ask:

  • DO I really feel this?
  • SHOULD I feel this way? (Does this emotion match the situation, even if it inconveniences someone else?)

Learning to self-validate quiets defensive and fearful emotions so that we can problem solve.  It allows us to let go of the pain and exhaustion that constant self-justification and self-doubt require.

This part is important: Many of us may have grown up or grown accustomed to invalidating environments so we may habitually look around us and try to guess what other people in the same situation feel or what others expect us to feel.  When we are told that we should not trust our inner experiences, we have been invalidated.  We learn to trust other people more than ourselves.  We have learned to self-in-validate.  We spend a lot of time and energy trying to prove to others and ourselves that our experience is real and makes sense.  This often results in conflict or crisis.

Learning to self-validate then becomes an exercise and practice in recovering yourself because self-validation teaches you to trust your inner knowing rather than making others your authority for what is right or wrong for you.  You will regain your empowerment.  You will learn to attend to your feelings and validate the information that your feelings give you which will give you a deeper sense of self-worth and self-esteem.  Why? Because you are no longer beholden to others in the sense that others have to validate you.  You can do this for yourself.  Validating yourself is like glue for the fragmented parts of your identity because it teaches you to accept and understand who you are which leads to a stronger sense of self and better skills at managing intense emotions.  

Self-validation puts us in our own metaphorical boat so that we can begin choosing which direction to take rather than being tied to someone else’s boat, which may or may not be sinking.

Is it easy? Hell, no, it’s not.  It feels foreign and weird.  We are made to receive validation from others because we are social beings.  We are supposed to receive acceptance, understanding, and approval from the people in our pack, but we should not be held back in life and disempowered when we do not.  That’s the point.  Furthermore, I do not believe for one second that we were designed to sit and wait around for a visitation from God so that He could validate us.  He is a creative force.  He creates opportunities.  If we are made in His image, then we were made to do the same thing.  Self-validation does the same.  It creates opportunities for us to move forward even if the very people that we love…won’t.

 

**Some of the material in this post was taken from handouts given in DBT Skills Group, but there are not source citations on the handouts.  

DBT 101

I’ve stated that my daughter and I started a 25-week Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills group.  There are five other teens in the group with their parents so it’s not a big group.  Most of the kids seem to struggle with “target” behaviors on a regular basis.  Target behaviors are cutting and high-risk behaviors.  My daughter has cut twice, and she doesn’t engage in high-risk behaviors.  I requested DBT because she has problems emotionally regulating.  I wanted to give her the skills now before it was a bigger problem–before she needed to engage in high-risk behaviors to regulate or organize her emotional experiences.

So, the major premises behind DBT are:

  • DBT is an effective treatment for people who have difficulty controlling their emotions and behaviors.
  • DBT aims to reduce problem behavior and increase skillful behavior.
  • DBT helps people learn to better understand and value themselves and others.
  • DBT helps people create a live worth living.

Dialectical means:

  • Two opposite ideas can be true at the same time.
  • There is always more than one way to see a situation, and more than one opinion, idea, or dream.
  • All people have something unique and different to offer.
  • Considers a life worth living to have both positive and negative aspects including happiness, sadness, anger, and peace, and all these aspects are necessary and valuable.

Problems (Behaviors to Decrease)                        Skills (Behaviors to Increase)

  • Confusion About Yourself  (Do not know what you          1. Mindfulness                              feel or why you get upset)
  • Impulsivity (Acting without thinking it through)              2. Distress Tolerance
  • Emotional Instability (fast, intense mood changes,         3.  Emotional Regulation          or steady, negative emotional state)
  • Interpersonal Problems (pattern of difficulty                   4. Interpersonal Effectiveness  keeping relationships steady, and getting                                                                          what you want)
  • Family Dilemmas (Extreme thinking, feeling,                  5. Walking The Middle Path acting, e.g. all or nothing “black/white” thinking)

The bio-social theory behind DBT states that there can be a biological vulnerability to emotions which can cause people to be sensitive, reactive, and slow to return to baseline.  In addition to this, some people have an inability to regulate their emotions effectively.  This is the biological part of the bio-social theory.  The social part of the theory states that when we are in an invalidating environment (IE) that communicates to us that what we are feeling, thinking, and doing are inaccurate, inappropriate or wrong, the result is that rejection and punishment are communicated through the IE causing us to feel ‘less than’ which often leads us to invalidate ourselves with thoughts like “I’m so stupid!” or “I don’t understand why I’m getting so upset,” or “There must be something wrong with me.”  Sometimes there is a poor fit between the individual and the environment.  Over time this leads to multiple problems like confusions about the self, impulsivity, emotional instability, and interpersonal problems.

The DBT approach then is to teach validation and self-validation skills so that the IE can be changed or so that the individual can learn to self-validate regardless of environment as well as learn resiliency so that skills are increased in the areas of impulsivity, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.

This is the bird’s-eye view of DBT.  Frankly, no matter who you are, you can benefit from it because we all engage in invalidating behavior, and we all have experienced an invalidating environment.  Learning to self-validate is an excellent skill, and learning what true validation means is key to maturing and learning kind, effective communication.  Emotional regulation is the other key piece of DBT that I really like.  I don’t know anyone who doesn’t struggle from time to time.  Lastly, interpersonal effectiveness is something we will all need until the day we die.  Ideally, we will want to grow in our interpersonal effectiveness over time rather than stall out and stagnate, but that’s what I see many people do.  As we get older we stop challenging ourselves and feel entitled to our way of doing things rather than find humility and desire wisdom.

**information cited above has been adapted from Linehan’s skills training manual.

Resources:

Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Multi-Family Skills Training Group Manual, Miller, Rathus, and Landman (1999)

Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder, Linehan, Marsha (1993)