Loving in a Love-Starved World

A few weeks ago, I bought a very small but deeply impactful book: “How to Love” by Thich Naht Hanh.  In case you haven’t heard of him, the author, Thich Nhat Hanh, is a wise Buddhist master, scholar, and teacher who has written dozens of books aimed at reducing suffering and bringing joy into people’s lives.  Of all his books, this one strikes me in particular because it is a very digestible, readable little tome that tells us, in small bites, the simple, basic truth of how to love and honor each other.

“How to Love” offers a small tidbit of wisdom and instruction on each of its 100 pages.  Thich Nhat Hanh interweaves into his teaching the importance of loving and honoring oneself, in order to have a greater capacity to love and honor another person, helping them to suffer less.  He goes back-and-forth between the importance of healing your suffering and helping others to heal.  I read his book with enthusiasm, because I have felt lately that our capacity to love and to heal each other has diminished, especially as our society becomes more and more technologically “advanced,” and we are increasingly stressed out, short on time, traumatized, and emotionally malnourished.  These circumstances set us up for living in a more narcissistic, self-serving manner and being so caught up in ourselves that we can’t take into account the needs of anyone else.  Nhat Hanh offers hope that we can each get enough emotional fuel within ourselves that we can begin to help others to regenerate.

“Each of us can learn the art of nourishing happiness and love.  Everything needs food to live, even love.  If we don’t know how to nourish our love, it withers.  When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love.  That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness. ”                        -Naht Hanh, “How to Love”

In my psychology practice, patients often tell me that they have discovered that someone they know or love is a narcissist. Often, they want to talk about this because he/she has hurt them, and they want to find a way of understanding what happened.  Typically, they have read descriptions of narcissism on the internet and are certain that this person “has it.”  In this situation, my aim is to eventually help my patient to understand that narcissism, while it looks like a problem of excessive ego, is actually a problem of diminished self-worth.  At their core, people who could be described as “narcissistic” are deeply insecure and emotionally starving.  In their own lives, their healthy narcissistic needs have not been met and for a complex set of reasons, they have developed a defensive coping style that protects their wounds but makes them seem ego-driven.   (Of course, like any other character trait, narcissism exists on a continuum and people vary in terms of degree and severity of narcissistic qualities.)  I’d like to argue here that our society is becoming increasingly narcissistic not because people are becoming more into themselves, but because they are increasingly emotionally starved.  And as people’s healthy narcissistic needs remain unmet, they get hungrier and hungrier.  And this leads to a world that Thich Nhat Hanh might warn us against:  a world where we are all too love-starved to be able to offer love to each other.

For many years now, I have felt that the only way to heal problems of excessive narcissistic hunger is with emotional generosity.  (I wrote about this in my 2014 blog, Relieving Relational Poverty.)  And this seems to be the same idea espoused by Thich Nhat Hanh.  Love, he tells us, has the profound ability to heal suffering.  He offers us straightforward directions, too, for how to use love to have better relationships.

Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person.  Understanding is love’s other name.  If you don’t understand, you can’t love.                -Nhat Hanh, “How to Love”

In a world where, for a variety of complicated sociological and political reasons, people are becoming more emotionally hungry as their healthy narcissistic needs are met less and less often, I invite you to read and practice the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh.  Don’t look at the selfish and harmful actions of others in your life as representing a narcissistic disorder; instead, try looking at them as manifestations of unacknowledged suffering. This is not to say that you have to stay in a close relationship with someone who is actively hurting you, but if you practice patience, understanding, and deep love, in addition to coming to know, accept, and heal your own suffering (on your own or with the help of a therapist), then there is the chance that your relationships can be transformed.

From time to time, sit close to the one you love, hold his or her hand and ask, “Darling, do I understand you enough?  Or am I making you suffer?  Please tell me so that I can learn to love you properly.  I don’t want to make you suffer, and if I do so because of my ignorance, please tell me so that I can love you better, so that you can be happy.”  If you say this in a voice that communicates your real openness to understand, the other person may cry.  That is a good sign, because it means the door of understanding is open and everything will be possible again.”                           -Nhat Hanh, “Peace is in Every Step”



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.”


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.



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.