Killing Me Softly: The Narcissistic Injury of the Mirror

We have all heard the phrase “I know you better than you know yourself.” Even though the idea that someone knows us better than we do can be irritating, I imagine that it is also true, at least to some degree.  For example, I’ll bet my friends and family know things about me that I don’t know, and perhaps would resist knowing. They likely see parts of me that I am completely blind to, and parts that I would adamantly deny exist (although they do). The idea that others see us better than we see ourselves presents us with a dilemma:  on the one hand, we want to know how others see us; on the other hand, it can be very hard to hear how we come across to others.

I’ve been thinking about the dynamics of how we mirror each other, wondering: how do we learn things about ourselves that we would rather not know? How do we show others whom we care about parts of themselves that they can’t see, but that impact us? How do we do this in the presence of self-protective defensiveness? And how can we use this kind of feedback-mirroring in a way that is helpful and not harmful to ourselves and others and our relationships?

It strikes me again and again that giving someone feedback has to be done with exquisite sensitivity and respect. We need to recognize that it can be hard to bear it when someone reflects us back to ourselves, when they hold up a mirror and ask us to look at ourselves. I see this in my office as well as in my personal life. There may be things that I see or sense about my patients and friends that I would not say to them unless the time was right and unless they were in a position to hear it. Psychologists are trained, for example, to interpret their patients’ behavior in order to give clarity or to shed light on why a person does what they do. While I see immense value in a person coming to know themselves deeply in therapy, I have grown increasingly sensitive to the impact of interpreting someone. As my mentor Nancy McWilliams has said to me, interpretations are narcissistic injuries.  (In other words, it hurts our self-esteem to be told how we are or why we do what we do; someone holding a mirror up to us can hurt.)

The 1973 Roberta Flack hit “Killing Me Softly,” which was remade by the Fugees in 1996, describes this phenomenon well. She describes the pain of hearing yourself (and your story) be reflected in someone else’s words:

I felt all flushed with fever, embarrassed by the crowd                                                        I felt he found my letters, and read each one out loud                                                         I prayed that he would finish…but he just kept right on
Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words                            Killing me softly with his song, killing me softly with his song                                       Telling my whole life with his words                                                                                    Killing me softly with his song
He sang as if he knew me, in all my dark despair                                                            And then he looked right through me, as if I wasn’t there                                              And he just kept on singing….

The pain described in Roberta’s lyrics reminds us that we need to be careful, gentle, open, and curious when we tell someone their story, or show them how they are being, or let them know how you think their story has shaped them.  Although she doesn’t do this this in her song, it’s my hope that the listener, the one who is being mirrored, can tell us how they feel hearing our words.  And if they say it’s painful for them to hear, then we need to find a new, more sensitive way to communicate.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind as you consider the dynamics of giving/receiving feedback:

On the giving end of the dialogue: As you decide if you want to give someone this kind of feedback, it’s important first to wonder why.  Considering why will help you to clarify your intentions and to imagine in advance how your words may be received.  Why do you want to show this person something about themselves?  Is it because they are hurting you? Is it because they are inadvertently hurting themselves? It is because you want to give someone a “piece of your mind”? Or because you want to show off what you know, and boost your own ego? It’s important to wonder “why” because your motive matters. If you want to show off, for example, then that is probably not a good enough reason to tell someone how you see them.  If, on the other hand, someone’s behaviors are hurting you, then finding a way to communicate that in a way that can be heard is critical.  No matter what, always be respectful of someone’s defenses–they are in place for a reason, and they serve the critical function of protecting the self from emotional harm.

On the receiving end of the dialogue: Even though it can be difficult to receive feedback from others, how others see us can be very useful information. It can help us to learn about ourselves and to grow, and to change behaviors that may be challenging or even harming our interpersonal relationships.  I try to encourage my patients to not be overly-defensive when they are getting feedback from others about themselves.  Keep in mind that being open and willing to hear how we impact others can fortify our relationships and build insight about ourselves.  However, if the message is too hard to bear, is triggering too many defenses, or is not being given in the right tone or at the right time, it’s important to let the other person know.

I think that people can always find ways to manage and shape relationships, to see others clearly and to be seen clearly by others, and to communicate more effectively.  Giving and receiving feedback is part of the art of communicating that we can each create.  If we put a little thought and care into how we share our experiences with each other, no one will be “killed softly.”

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Stop Chasing Love 

People often talk to me about relationships.  Lately, I have been hearing a theme of people either chasing or feeling chased by others.  This dynamic, often called the “pursuer-distancer dynamic,” happens in both friendships and romantic relationships, although it is more commonly discussed in the latter.  What I find frustrating about this dynamic is that (1) there is often a subtle power play involved and (2) it blocks intimacy between partners.

I imagine that the label “pursuer-distancer” makes you recall certain relationships of your own. You probably know what I am talking about…it refers to a pattern where one person is pulled into chasing another person, who remains withdrawn. You may even know which role you typically play–do you tend to pursue, or withdraw?  Do you crave connection, or space?  Of course, even though we may lean toward one role over the other, we can change roles depending on the particular relationship and what it stirs in us. Of course, this is a complex dance, since it takes both people to create the dynamic. A pursuer cannot chase unless their partner flees. A distancer can’t flee when their partner doesn’t chase.

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One thing about this dynamic that is hard to bear, in my opinion, is that it has an inherent power dynamic. The distancer is usually the one in the more comfortable, more powerful position, since they are not caught up in wanting anything from the other person.  The tend to feel ok on their own, and may even feel relief at the idea of personal space.  On the other hand, the less-powerful pursuer is often filled with anxiety, akin to separation anxiety, about being left or rejected.  They crave connection with their partner.  The pursuer may feel desperate to catch and hold onto the distancer, while the distancer may feel annoyed or trapped by the pursuer.

Although I’m certain that this dynamic is not entirely new, I imagine that today’s methods of communicating make the feelings it engenders more intense. (Check out my earlier post on perspective flipping for some more thoughts about how this happens.)  For example, when a person feels eager to remain connected to a love interest, they will likely text them. If the love interest does not reply quickly, this may stir anxiety in the person, causing them to try again. The lack of responding on the part of the love interest puts the person in the one-down position of “pursuer.”  On the other end, the love interest may wonder why the other person is “blowing up their phone.”  They don’t always understand that their slow reply felt like a possible rejection to the other person.  Their lack of responding, innocent as it may have been, puts them in the more powerful “distancer” position.  Because today’s technologies allow for quick communucation, and we are used to being able to reach someone instantaneously, I think these dynamics are more common and more stressful than ever.

So, when we are caught in this dynamic, how can we get out of it?  The answer is simple: it takes communication, sensitivity, and mindfulness.  If two people want to be together, they can each describe their experience. The pursuer can let their partner know they fear they are being rejected or abandoned. The distancer can describe feeling suffocated. If each person can understand the other with sensitivity, they can mindfully change their behavior. The pursuer can back off, and the distancer can become more responsive. If each partner makes a conscious effort to behave differently, then the power in the relationship can become more evenly distributed.  When this happens, both people can stand together (without chasing or being chased), and an intimate connection can form between them.

However, if the dynamic can’t shift because either communicating, empathizing, or capacity to mindfully change are not possible, then the relationship becomes toxic. In my opinion, it’s best to let these relationships go. That way, you can each move on to find a more comfortable match.

If you find yourself consistently in the same position in your relationships (always the pursuer or always the distancer), the spending a little time working on it in therapy can make a big difference. My personal observations tell me that people who frequently pursue can benefit from building their self-esteem and becoming more independent.  Distancers, on the other hand, can often benefit from being less avoidant and becoming more open to connection with others.  If this describes you, then working through whatever history or feelings lead you to continually pursue or distance will greatly expand your capacity to have a healthy, gratifying relationship.

© 2016 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

Pain and the Capacity to Love

“Our capacity for whole-heartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted.” -Brene Brown

I recently listened to two different NPR interview podcasts. The first was an interview of Brene Brown, who researches and writes about vulnerability. The second was a discussion with Tich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk, teacher, author, and advocate for peace. Both interviews shared one common theme: that suffering is necessary for meaningful human connection. Tich Nhat Hanh said, quite plainly, “I would not want to live in a world without suffering.” Why? Because, he said, there can be no compassion without suffering.

Recently, a supervisee of mine made an astute observation. She was reflecting on the work we do as psychologists, and remarked that one thing that sucks about our shared career is that our own pain is a requirement of the work. It is impossible to help another person to heal if you have not suffered yourself.  What she meant is that we relate better to people’s pain by having felt our own.  When we can bear our own suffering, it is easier to endure another’s.

Of course, this is true outside of the consulting room as well. When I am having a hard time, it is only people who have allowed themselves to feel their pain who help me to feel better. People who know suffering, those who have not shied away from it but have let it move through them, are the ones we know we can turn to when times are tough. These brave and strong souls always have the courage to walk with us through our hardest times. You can rely on them. They know pain. They do not fear pain. They know pain is a part of life. They know pain is never permanent. They know that pain makes us stronger. And they sympathize with a strength you can trust.

As I have thought more about this, it strikes me that one of the great outcomes of our own suffering is that it builds our capacity for love.  The more difficulties we endure and overcome in our own lives, the more patient and compassionate we become with others.  Our pain helps us to relate.  This thought brings me a great peace of mind, for it means that our hardships, awful as they may be, can lead us to greater connectedness with each other.  If we do not run from our painful feelings, but instead experience them, we will help each other to heal.

This is the wise message of Brene Brown and Tich Naht Hahn.  And it is deeply true.  Don’t flee your pain.  Instead, allow yourself to feel it and to heal.  Because your healing heals us all.

© 2015 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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Minding Your Mind, Perspective Flipping, and Three Things You Don’t Get to Know

In my psychology practice, I have been seeing an increase in people struggling to figure out what others think of them. Sometimes they want to know if a person is romantically interested in them. Sometimes they want to know why their friend did not respond to a text. Sometimes they want to decipher what another person’s ambiguous message or Facebook post meant. In all of these cases, the person is trying to get into the other person’s mind.

This I-wish-I-knew-what-you-think-of-me phenomenon is not new. I am sure that people have been curious about each other’s minds and emotions for all of history. And I am sure that they have always been especially curious about someone when that person is vague or elusive. What I think is different now, though, is that people are operating under the illusion that, with enough internet searching and message deciphering, it is possible to figure another person out. And when this doesn’t work (which it rarely does), people can become preoccupied with the other person, as though that person’s mind is a puzzle that can be solved (which it often can’t, not without direct communication). I blame many aspects of technology for propagating this illusion. Texting and social media give us all small snippets of another person’s world, but we obviously can’t get the complete story. We get a little tease of information that we elaborate for ourselves. Think of what it is like to have a live encounter with someone vs. seeing their posts on Facebook or texting with them. When you are physically together, you can feel the person’s vibe, ask for elaboration, and relate in real time. You use your empathy and attunement and social sensibilities to know what is happening within them and between you. You can feel how they are responding to you. When you see a post on Facebook, however, you are left to make meaning of it for yourself. You can project your own wish or belief onto the post. For example, if someone who is on your radar posts a drawing or a quote, you may personalize it when, in fact, it may not have been posted with you in mind at all. (But you can’t know that for sure without asking.) Or if you see a photo of that person out with friends, you may assume they purposefully left you out. (But you can’t know that for sure without asking.) Similarly, you can infer a snarky tone in a text message because of your own sensitivity in the moment, when the other person may not have felt snarky at all. (But you can’t know that for sure without asking.) When the information we get is ambiguous, we start to fill in the gaps with what we think the other person might mean. In my opinion, this draws us much more deeply into the mind of the other.

I talk to my patients a lot about the downside of trying to get into someone else’s mind, a phenomenon that I call “perspective-flipping.” When you flip into someone else’s perspective, to try to figure out what they mean or what they think of you, you abandon your self. You no longer occupy your own perspective. In your effort to know what he thinks about you, you quickly lose sight of what you think about him. I can’t tell you how many people I have seen become totally preoccupied by being liked by Mr. Someone, when, on closer examination, it turns out that they don’t even like Mr. Someone themselves!

The way for us to really know each other is to communicate. If you want to know what someone means or thinks, you must ask.  Only they can tell you.  I know this is totally obvious, but from what I can see, direct communication happens less often these days. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this scenario: rather than tell you that they are not interested in continuing a relationship with you, many people simply quit texting or unfriend you on Facebook. No explanation. No conversation. No goodbye. Just *poof* they are gone…leaving you guessing what went wrong, and in many instances blaming yourself.  Sound familiar?

Plus, when it comes to connecting with each other, our current popular modes of communication miss the mark. They leave out elements that are critical to successful relating (such as voice intonation, inflection, facial expressions, physical gestures, and touch).  This makes me nervous.  I feel some concern for how relationships will evolve when people aren’t really reaching each other.  Miscommunication feels inevitable when we start to think we know what the other person means, without getting the word from them directly.

With that said, if you invite someone to communicate openly with you, and they opt not to communicate, then you absolutely must let it go. It is tempting to be drawn into a guessing game, and to try to piece together and make meaning of the bits of information you have. But, from what I see, this is a trap. You will end up trying to be in someone else’s mind (which is IMPOSSIBLE and feels AFWUL), while you neglect your own.

When I see my patients start to flip their perspective, I have started to tell them that there are three things that they do not have a right to know. The list is simple:

(1) You do not have a right to know what someone else thinks about you.

(2) You do not have a right to know how someone else feels about you.

(3) You do not have a right to know what you mean to another person.

This information is the strict property of the person who holds it.  It belongs in their mental space.  You can know what another person thinks and feels only if that person decides they want to share their inner world with you.  And that is not up to you.  And their choice to share or to not share has nothing to do with you.  So, if the person is not sharing, then stop wondering.  As tempting as it may be, don’t flip into their perspective.  To do so is a voluntary surrender of your own mind, and relinquishing your mind never, ever feels good.

So, if you really want to know what is in another person’s mind, quit guessing, quit deciphering, quit internet stalking…and start asking.  And if that person opts out of sharing, then move on.  Let it go, and remain the center of your own world.  That way, the rest of us can feel your awesome presence!

© 2015 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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When Texting Violates the Moral Third

There are no rules for texting.  To my knowledge, there is no established Emily-Post-style socially-accepted etiquette for how to text.  As a result, people (several of my patients and myself among them) often feel frustrated, confused, and even hurt by the erratic rhythms of texting.  You must know what I mean.  There are times when texting is satisfying:  it goes back-and-forth in a predictable manner, and stops with a sense of closure, a clear goodbye, maybe even a little waving-hand emoticon.  Yet there are other times when texts are simply not responded to/get ignored.  And then there are times when your text-partner disappears from the exchange, dropping you.  It is these latter patterns, text-ignoring and text-dropping, that I want to discuss here.

I am not interested so much in the ignorers and droppers themselves (who may have good reason for not responding), but I am interested more so in the felt experience of being ignored or dropped in a text exchange.  I know from my own and my patients’ experiences that when texts are ignored or dropped, it can feel terrible.  And it can feel especially terrible if you are already in a one-down position (e.g., you are already feeling worried or depressed, or you are in a vulnerable or one-down position relative to the person you are texting.)  What I have wondered is this:  What is it about being text-ignored or text-dropped that feels so awful for some people?  Why can it be so painful to be left abruptly or not acknowledged at all?

Jessica Benjamin, a pioneer of relational psychoanalytic theory, describes a concept she calls the “moral third.”  The moral third refers to patterns of relating that we come to expect and rely upon in relationships:  the give-and-take of mutual communication.  Think about the natural back-and-forth way a mother relates to her baby; that is an example of complying with the moral third–there is room for each partner in the exchange.  Just to be clear, Benjamin calls it the “third” because it belongs to neither person in the interaction, but exists as a phenomenon they create together, a third-entity of sorts.  What makes it “moral” is that it necessary, an unspoken law of relating.

Here’s how she describes it:  “The idea of the moral third relates not to morality as commonly understood but the idea that patterns of engagement are necessary to human interaction, and when things go well create the sense of a lawful world in which intentions are recognized and ruptures in expectation are acknowledged. Acknowledgment means that even when individuals fail somewhat in satisfying or recognizing the other, the lawful quality of experience is upheld. This makes attachment positive rather than a source of terrible pain and anxiety.”  (Benjamin, 2009)

She also writes “The moral third refers to those values, rules, and principles of interaction that we rely upon in our efforts to create and restore the space for each partner in the dyad to engage in thinking, feeling, acting or responding rather than merely reacting.” (Benjamin, 2009)

I would argue that texting lends itself especially well to violations of the moral third.  It is easy for someone to feel hurt or rejected when their text partner does not comply with a back-and-forth text rhythm.  Even though texting is by nature sporadic (someone may not be in a position to text you back, or something in their living experience, which you can’t see or hear on text, may have interrupted them), we can easily feel rejected, lost, or invalidated when a text exchange stops unexpectedly or a text goes unanswered.

Of course, people are endlessly complex, and a person’s reasons for feeling wounded by texting can, like everything else, be determined by a whole host of factors.  But I think that there is something about the nature of the text message that in-and-of-itself contributes to bad feelings, especially when the text exchange violates the moral third.  (Of course, there is also the issue of projection, but I’ll save that for another blog.)

So the next time that you receive a text or are in the middle of a text exchange, remember the moral third.  Think about how it might feel to the other person if you abruptly leave or don’t respond.  Even if you have good reason in the moment, be sure to get back to the person later so that they are not left hanging, so that they know you held them in mind.  If Emily Post were writing about text etiquette, I am certain she would agree!

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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Ugly Feelings

Yesterday, I attended a lecture given by renowned relational psychoanalyst Jody Davies. Her talk focused on what she calls “the dark side of psychoanalysis.” In it, she made the point that therapists can only help their patients to heal when they are able to accompany them into their darkest places and resonate with their hardest feelings. And this can only happen, she said, when the therapist herself knows and accepts her own darkness; only then is she able to help her patient face and overcome his own.

While I was listening to Dr. Davies, I started to think about how this is true in all relationships (not just therapeutic ones). I wondered: what impact does it have when Person A views herself as only “nice” or “good” when she is in a relationship? What does it do to her partner, Person B, especially when they disagree or argue? From what I have seen in my life and work, Person B is left in a terrible position. When Person A denies or disavows her bad or mean parts, then Person B is stuck with all of the negativity and blame that can’t be shared between them. But, when Person A comes to accept her own negativity or destructiveness, the picture changes. Once this happens, no one is only nice, and no one is only mean. Things even out. And the relationship typically improves.

Being familiar with our darker selves unburdens our relationships and connects us more deeply to each other. For this to happen, though, we need to allow ourselves to feel tough emotions such as anger, fear, envy, greed, sadism, irritation, contempt, and disgust (to name a few). Only through experiencing and owning our so-called “ugly feelings” (Ngai, 2007) will we be able to bear and forgive them in others.  (Owning them also prevents us from acting them out destructively!)  And, what is more, experiencing and accepting our own dark ugliness makes our relationships more equal and free.

My mentor, Nancy McWilliams, frequently reminds me and her other mentees that “we all have the capacity for all of it.” What she means is that we are all capable of having any kind of feeling, be it good, bad, easy, or painful. It is this capacity that makes us human, after all. And I would argue that the more we know and accept this truth–that we all can feel all of it–the better we will get along.

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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Relieving Relational Poverty


              “It is our nature to nurture and to be nurtured.” -Bruce Perry, MD, PhD


In his book “Born for Love”, Dr. Bruce Perry describes a form of poverty that impacts us all, regardless of race, gender, age, or socioeconomic status: relational poverty.

Perry’s “relational poverty” is just what it sounds like; it is a deep lack of the connectedness with others that we all need to survive and to be well. Perry describes how modern American society, with its technologies, impaired values, financial obsessiveness, broken social structures, and self-centeredness has created a massive, massive problem for people’s ability to relate to each other.  And, according to Perry, relational poverty is “a form of poverty far more destructive than economic poverty.”

Perry writes:  “Simply stated, the human brain is not designed for the modern world–despite the fact that the modern world is a ‘product’ of the human brain’s remarkable capacities for invention, communication, and adaptation.  We are now living in a world that is disconnected from the rhythms of nature (i.e., climate controlled, light-dark manipulated, overstimulating to our auditory and visual senses); we raise and educate our children in social environments at once more complex and demanding on our social neurobiology (e.g., hundreds of day-by-day interactions with acquaintances or strangers) yet oddly impoverished of complex somatosensory-rich, relational interactions (i.e., touch, holding, rocking, conversation, or intergenerational interactions).”


“You might have 100 friends on Facebook, but you might not have one single person to have dinner with.”                                       -Bruce Perry, MD, PhD


This is bad for us, he says, because we humans need relationships to “survive and thrive.”  Relationships with each other are critical not only to our own individual survival and wellbeing, but also to the survival of our species.  Perry also argues that relational poverty is wrecking our ability to empathize with each other, which further alienates us from one another.

So, what can we do about this?  I propose that we, as individuals, we can diminish relational poverty by ramping up our emotional generosity.  

By “emotional generosity” I am referring to a willingness to be kind and giving to others, even when you’re not in the mood.  You are being emotionally generous when you smile at your barista, even if it took a while for her to make your latte.  You’re emotionally generous when you give a surprise compliment to a stranger.  You’re being emotionally generous when you make time to take another person’s perspective, and feel for them.  You’re being emotionally generous when you find a way to calm your tantruming child, or offer help or sympathy to a mother whose child is tantruming.

Our society is flooded with connection-wrecking technologies, many of us live far away from or have damaged relationships with our families-of-origin, and our lives are busy and time is in short supply.  We can’t necessarily change those things, at least not easily.  But what we can do is look each other in the eye, offer a kind word or a smile, hold the door, and be understanding.  Through these small gestures, we can replenish each other.  It’s that simple.


                   “A healthy human being is a related human being.” -Bruce Perry


 
©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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