As children, we take what people say and what happens within our environment very personally. Our sense of attachment and security depends on our reading of what is going on around us.
So often our interpretations of what is going on around us are not an accurate depiction of the situation with which we are trying to cope. As children, our immature cognitive and emotional development does the best it can to make sense out of what is going on around us.
When Mommy is angry or Daddy is distant, we attempt to make sense out of what is taking place. To cope, we create storylines to make sense out of our experience. We come to identify who we are in terms of our storylines. Our “inner critic” is a manifestation of these storyline conclusions that we arrive at as we go through life.
Our inner critic’s behaviour
There is an ongoing negative cast to what the inner critic tells us. “I’m not good enough” or “I should be other than I am” are common themes that all of us encounter some time in our lives. I know someone who was told that if only they would change and “fit in,” the family would be a happy place.
The storyline associated with this was that “I am responsible for our family’s problems.” The inner critic put its stamp on this person by saying, “You are the cause of other people’s upset.”
To the extent that this goes on within us and to the extent that we are unaware of these dynamics, and clueless about their origin, we are at the mercy of our unconsciousness and lack of awareness about such things. To a certain extent, we are all stuck in the past, anticipating that the future will be a replay of what we have already experienced.
All of us have this process going on within us. We all carry our baggage around within us and we bring our various sensitive nerve-endings into every relationship we experience. If someone invariably touches one of our sensitive issues, we will react.
All too often, we see what our partner has said or done and we attribute to them the cause for our reaction and upset. As difficult as it may be, at first, to separate our partner from our reactions, to do so is the first step in correcting this pattern within ourselves. All our partner is doing is unknowingly setting us off in some way.
To be sure, once they realize that their words are serving as a trigger for our reactions, they need to be mindful of what they are saying to us. That is something that they have control over. Our being triggered and our reaction are ours to own and to deal with.
If you say something to me and I react to what you have said, that is my issue. If you become aware that saying something to me causes me to be upset, that becomes your issue. In both instances, we both need to become aware of what is taking place between us.
It is also essential that we realize that, apart from medical and hormonal issues, it is our thoughts that cause us to feel the way we do at any particular time. What we think determines how we feel.
Applying this to a ‘real-life’ scenario
For example, you are in a lane of traffic that is forced to merge to the right to get to the tollbooth to pay your toll. You dutifully follow the directions to merge to the right and are slowly moving towards the tollbooth.
Then, you see a red sports car, in the lane that is being closed, moving up to the front of the line and merging in just ahead of the tollbooth. What kind of thoughts do you have about this driver’s behaviour? How do you feel about this behaviour on the part of the person who cuts into line? In our Couples Classes at Kaiser, the class members universally felt resentment and anger.
Then, you find out that the driver had just received a cell phone call telling him that his five-year-old daughter had been hit by a bus and was being taken to the emergency hospital, and that her condition was serious. How do you feel about his cutting into line now?
Our class members uniformly showed compassion and said that they would have, without hesitation, pulled to the side of the road to let him pass. Again, our thoughts determine how we feel.
Practical applications of not taking things personally
Instead of falling into the trap of taking things personally, in our commitment relationship we need to affirm that we are a team, and as a team we form a partnership to work together to address whatever concerns we might have. We are, in our best moments, allies and not adversaries.
How to keep our focus where it belongs
We would be well served to focus on the actual problem. We need to be in the present, in the now of life, not rehashing the past or rehearsing for the future.
Is the problem not having enough money? Is the problem not having enough time or energy for intimacy? Is it that our work schedule interferes with family time? Is the problem that one of our mothers is ill and needs our assistance, and by providing that assistance, we have less time available for one another? Or, is the problem that there are more demands on our time during the day than we can keep up with?
With such factors in our lives, we can easily begin to simply drift off in our own world of frustration and isolate ourselves from our teammate. The need is to realize that no single team member can take responsibility for how the team attempts to relate to those demands that involve both of you.
The need is to identify the exact nature of the problem that you’re facing. If it is your financial situation, have you ever looked at what could be adversely affecting it?
- Is the amount you’re spending on eating out more than you can afford on your budget?
- Do you even have a budget that takes into account all of the financial demands that you face in a given month?
- What about rent or mortgage payments and insurance expenses?
- What about child care demands, the costs, the logistics of getting our children where they need to be, when they need to be there?
It really helps to actually see how much your utility bill costs, how much your communication devices cost, how much your gas bill for the car is each month, or what your commuter costs or your grocery bill are on a monthly basis.
There is a huge benefit to having a couple’s business meeting on a weekly basis, where the two of you deliberately set time aside to review what the week holds for you financially and logistically.
Solutions to stress
Stress is created by the belief that you have inadequate resources to cope with the demands that we face. The more isolated we feel in being confronted with the challenges with which we feel inadequate to cope, the more stress we experience.
What is the solution to such stress?
- Realize that you are a team member and need to work together with your partner to relate with problems that impact both of you.
- Specifically identify a problem.
- Set up a plan that facilitates addressing the specific problem or problems that are causing you upset.
The weekly couple’s business meeting allows you to sit down together and review what is possibly going to happen during the week, along with making plans and actually setting up a schedule to address what needs to get done.
- Who is going to go to which store to shop for what?
- Who is going to pay what bills?
- How much are you going to pay on your various bills?
- Who is going to take the kids to childcare?
- Who is going to pick up the children from childcare?
- Who is going to make the appointment for the doctor’s visit?
- Who is going to make the breakfast or pack the lunches or be responsible for the dinner preparation?
- If you’re going to get take-out for dinner, who is going to order, pay for and pick up the order? Out of which account is the money for the dinner coming?
- Who is going to do the dishes and clean up the kitchen?
- Who is going to be responsible for doing the laundry?
- When do you think you will want to be intimate?
In this way, you will not be caught by something that has not been factored into your attempts to take care of business. You will not find yourself faced with the need to pick up a child at daycare that you forgot about, or the sudden need to finish shopping for tonight’s dinner.
Such unexpected or unplanned-for demands can send shockwaves through your nervous system and make life much more stressful.
Stress and fatigue are two of the forces that will often interfere with a couple’s interest in sharing sexual intimacy. If you don’t see yourselves as allies who are working together as a team, but instead feel like adversaries at odds with one another, being close and intimate can be the farthest thing from your mind.
When you’re working together and feel a sense of shared effort, often sharing intimacy will happen, and it will serve as a means of deepening the partnership that both feel as a result of working together.
Read another chapter from Compassionate Commitment here»