Argue With, Not About, Emotion

Most couples will initially present relationship difficulty as “a communication problem.” Many workplace conflicts will be “resolved” by a commitment to better communication. Stacks of volumes have been written about communication in all sorts of relationships and settings. In this little postlet, I want to highlight the role of emotions in contentious discourse. Reversing course, let’s start with the solution.

compassion

Doctor Patient Partnership – Regina Holliday

  • Do not justify how you feel or that you have some right to feel the way you do. Your emotions are not debatable. They are your truth. They may spring from cognitively shaky ground; they may arise from outright delusions. Yet emotions are happening and they are part of, and sometimes most of what we simply call “experience.” Just report on them. Voice them. Wave your arms or shake your fists about them. Definitely make faces. Most importantly, own them. They are yours, only yours. Try to let go of the idea that something or someone “made you feel” this way, like you have no freedom. That you feel, however, is a simple fact and if somebody wants to understand your experience, s/he will accept this fact and look further. You cannot persuade a person of the nose on your own face. Do not try. It needs no justification.
  • Do not try to undermine someone’s emotion. Do not attempt to demonstrate or argue that s/he “should not” feel a particular way, that s/he has “no basis or right” to express this or that emotion, or how “nobody would” have such feelings. See the first point. Feelings are not right or wrong, just or unjust, deserved or undeserved. They do not exceed or fall short of some mythical standard of appropriateness. They are neutral information. You can either use the information or discard it. What part of his/her memory, which internal script, which cognitive construct leads to this emotion? What is its precise flavour (what are the lesser affects mixed in)? What was the trigger? To begin to answer these questions is called empathy and the sharp point of an emotion is a sign leading you in the right direction. The volume and intensity of the emotion is proportional to the visibility and urgency of the sign (from the smallest fine print to the largest neon billboard). Do not argue about the sign.

“Heated” arguments are fueled by emotion and become self-perpetuating and never-ending when the content becomes the emotions themselves. We assume that the negative emotions of others are direct messages to us conveying that we are doing or have done something wrong. Their emotions are heard as our put-downs. (Technically, this is shaming and therefore most verbal/emotional fights are shame battles.) Probably this interpretation is the strongest and hardest to counter in couples’ conflicts, because the stakes are higher than in all other relationships. To counter this offense, I attack what I see as the source, the other’s emotion. Your feeling is wrong! How dare you!! (express that offensive feeling with no justification). Your “behaviour” is totally unwarranted. I have just invalidated the other person’s experience. S/he will definitely not like that (also highly shaming). When I say “attack,” I of course mean with anger. Then the process reverses and we are in an infinite loop.

Arguments about emotions are false from the premise and so there is no winning. Each thinks they can win by a better justification of their feelings and a more effective undermining of the other’s feelings. Such a communication strategy only inflicts a mutual emotional beating.

The effective response to someone’s emotion is empathy. The better response is compassion. The best response is mercy.

Everybody Needs a Creation Story

For mental security, you have to know whence you came. In the disintegration of shame, in the free fall of self-worth, in the evaporation of self-confidence, there must be some kind of backstop, a place past which you can descend no further. Beyond the backstop is the abyss, a word used in ancient scripture for pre-creation (Gen 1:2). The backstop is thus creation itself and to make it real and “sensible,” you must have a story around it. Creation is a big deal, so your story must be grand.

The Creation of Adam (detail) – Michelangelo, c. 1512

Here is my creation story. I rely heavily on it.

My creation story is an appropriation from, and an expression of, my chosen spiritual tradition, which shares its basic outline (the philosophia perennis) with the mystical branches of most of the world’s enduring religions. Starting from Aristotle and continuing through Thomas Aquinas, I believe in the “ultimate source, first cause or unoriginated origin,” which has many names or no name, but which I will simply call “God.” God is infinite and ultimate. From these qualities we can distill the more practical values of goodness, truth and beauty.

God is abundant and overflowing. God wants to express Godself. The known and unknown universe is God’s self-expression. God speaks and creation happens, not just once but in every moment. Some call this God’s Word (Jn 1:1-3), but perhaps “encyclopedia” is also a useful term, because the universe covers all that God wants to say. Just on this planet we are amazed by the plenitude of flora and fauna. Occasionally there is a news story about some new creature discovered at some remote location. Another entry in God’s encyclopedia.

jelly-fish

 

Not just forms and species have entries in the big book. Every instance of every species has a separate entry. God’s expression has a different nuance in this jellyfish versus that jellyfish versus the one that lived a million years ago. And so it is with human beings.

Who are you? You are a unique expression of God. What God has to say in and through the totality of you has never been said before, is not being said elsewhere, and will never be said again. Even the human embryo that spontaneously aborts before the mother even knows she is pregnant was a unique, once-and-for-always piece of God’s self-expression. All of this, seen and unseen. And yet, the world is finite; the universe is finite; neither will ever fully express the infinite God.

Everybody’s default creation story is their family of origin – mom, dad, siblings, whoever your early caregivers were. The trouble with this story is that it is at best, wounding and at worst, toxic. We are all wounded by our families because they, like all people, are wounded themselves. In more severe cases, the wounding amounts to developmental trauma and chronic shame, causing significant personality and relationship issues in adulthood. How can you hold yourself together if your mother always tore you down or your father abused you?

Interestingly, adopted children, even those in best-case families, eventually want to know about their biological parents. They have an unshakable sense that a foundational chapter in their creation stories is missing.

The causality of how I got here obviously runs, in part, through my mother and my father. Maybe my “self” would not have existed without them and the random events that brought them together. They are my “entry point into history.” However, God was clearly going to express “me,” one way or another. God is intentional. Thus, I am not primarily my mother’s son or my father’s son, and my children are ultimately not all about me. The greater truth is that my father is my brother and my daughter is my sister, all gazing back to the One who speaks (more specifically, loves) us into existence.

“God does not love you because you are good. You are good because God loves you.” God, the infinite source of goodness, is the necessary and sufficient condition for your goodness. Contra Descartes, it is not “I think, therefore I am.” It is “God loves me, therefore I am.” This is what is means to be “created in the image of God.” If God doesn’t love you, you are not going to hell; you never existed in the first place.

A unique image of God, like a facet of an infinitely cut diamond, is your True Self – who you really are. We spend our lifetimes trying to buy into this ultimate reality. Our False Self, which is not bad (more like sad), seems to be both the means and the obstacle to our self-realization. We wrestle and struggle with it. Sometimes it feels like we are losing (the False Self feels more real). Compassion and mercy are always needed to cope with the low points. The question of your goodness, your worthiness, however, is a fake question if you have an adequate creation story.

 

12 Step Recovery: In Giving That We Receive

  1. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

In the early years of what would become the 12 Step program, the originators worked one-on-one with suffering addicts, trying to help them gain sobriety. Their efforts largely failed – in terms of those receiving help. The people giving the help, however, soon realized that their efforts were instrumental in keeping them sober.

conversation-degas

The Conversation – Edgar Degas, 1895

You keep sobriety by giving it away, a paradox that all-or-nothing thinking can never countenance. You are only ready to see the wisdom in the 12th Step once you have gone through all of the other steps, including the contemplative mindset of the the 11th Step. By this point you realize that you are not in control and that recovery is happening in you and through you by a Power not your own. This “spiritual awakening” is what moves you to let it happen.

An important and parallel psychological process is also at work. By carrying the message, you gather and process all of your recovery experiences in the left brain. Early on, neither addiction nor recovery make much sense. You are consumed by the experience itself, like “breathing underwater.” To completely internalize and own an experience, you have to understand it at some level using reason and language. Words symbolize and organize, creating insight. The resulting message reinforces the integration and the integration strengthens the message. Old-timers in recovery have a deep wisdom.

This anchoring of experience is not just conceptual, but also practical. We further try “to practice these principles in all of our affairs,” a broadening of the 8th, 9th and 10th steps.

Communicating and practicing with “these principles” indicates not only recovery, but also transformation. I would say that a person who is sober in emotion and behavior is transformed beyond typical consciousness, which is why these folks make such valuable and wonderful friends.

12 Step Recovery: Illumination

  1. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Some say that the Eleventh Step is the least attended in the whole program. Once you’ve passed the Ninth Step, you may be restored to sanity, including emotional sobriety. Then the Tenth and Twelfth Steps appear to be the ongoing practice to hold on to your gains. Perhaps I might have reversed the last two steps to get the most natural ordering, but that would have just made the Eleventh Step even easier to ignore. Why is this step so vital?

The Good Samaritan Window (panel 4), Chartres Cathedral

The Good Samaritan Window (panel 4), Chartres Cathedral

The Eleventh Step is the doorway out of the Twelve Steps and into the broader spiritual journey. In the ancient Christian tradition (and in the Perennial Tradition, I would say), this path was described as having three stages, states or “ways:” purgative, illuminative and unitive. Recovery is mostly about the purgative way – the purging of the demons of addiction (all kinds). To move fully into the illuminative way, we need “prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God.”

Much ink has been spilled throughout history describing the illuminative way. I will not attempt a coherent synthesis of the traditional sources but instead give my own intuition. First I note that illumination is a word close to the Buddhist word, “enlightenment.” That might be a coincidence or a clue that by this point we have to get out of our doctrinal forts, hence, “as we understood Him.” For me, illumination starts by leaving the dualistic mind (all or nothing thinking) and learning to see “what is,” … and keep seeing, delaying any judgment or self-interested evaluation. Then illumination continues by seeing, and seeing some more, God-in-all-things. In everything and every situation, something of the goodness of God is revealed, and the more I look the more I realize that God is better than I ever thought.

This step ends with an intention to desire only God’s will for us. The discernment of God’s will is a topic for a whole other series of blogs. Personally, I do not think that divine will is a specific and predetermined script for our lives. If I can be cryptic, I would say that God’s will for us is God’s will, period, in this particular situation, using our particular set of gifts and wounds. How to get this specific application of God’s general will is the matter of discernment. For now, I will just end with the Ignatian Suscipe (Receive) prayer, one of my favourites.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

12 Step Recovery: Mindfulness

  1. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

Steps 10-12 are the so-called maintenance steps because they have to be practiced everyday. The previous nine steps are revisited from time to time, as the addict matures into ever-deepening levels of sobriety. The last three steps, however, are the way of life that sustains our connection to the source of our recovery, our Higher Power.

painting-font-b-art-b-font-girls-font-b-beautiful-b-font-sexy-font-b-women

The old tendencies covered in Steps 4 and 5 remain, but, now exposed, they lose their absolute power. Going forward, they are being watched and in Step 10, we are doing the watching. The recently popular term for this form of self-monitoring is mindfulness. In the 12-Step language it is called taking personal inventory. We watch ourselves, either “live,” or in a mental instant replay, but no later than a daily review.

What was my intention in that behavior? Does it remind me of anything in my Step 4 inventory? Was I overly responsible or not responsible enough? Was I too selfish or selfless? Did I adequate respect the dignity of the other? These questions have to be asked seriously but also kindly. The purpose is not to beat myself up but only to promptly admit what was discovered. Pulling anything from the darkness into the light is more than half of the solution.

You can afford to admit dubious intentions only because of the first nine steps. With an adequate Higher Power, no number of wrongs are too many! Just catch them and admit them. No shame, grudge or lasting judgment is needed.

Another term for Higher Power might be Absolute Ground. The root meaning of humility is “ground.” Now you can see why it is possible to be humble (noting and admitting our wrongs) day in and day out. There is nowhere to fall from the Absolute Ground.

12 Step Recovery: Right Relationship

  1. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  2. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

“Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (Jas 2:17). Up to this point, except for “to another human being” (often one’s trusted sponsor) in the Fifth Step, this journey of emotional sobriety has been internal, in one’s head, heart and gut. You have to start there to act authentically, but you cannot stop there. Inner experience has to be fully realized (made real) by outer experience.

forgivness

What counts as outer experience? We meet the world in every breath, ray of light and grain of sand, but we encounter the world most fully through fellow human beings. Before emotional sobriety, our relationships were smeared with manipulations. How can I get you to do what I want in order to fit my program for happiness? In recovery, we regard and relate to others in their full dignity. The philosopher Martin Buber calls this form of address “Thou” as opposed to “It.” Two people who say “Thou” (a respectful “you” present in other languages but not English) are in right relationship.

The suffering addict is in wrong relationship with a great many people. The “praxis” (practice, action) of our new way of being starts with these folks, usually our family, friends and co-workers. We have to go to each one of them and admit that we were wrong, that we caused harm and that we want to make whatever possible amends that can reset us into right relationship. These encounters make sobriety real and interpersonal, not just personal and private.

Of course, there are often no amends that can revert all of the harm, or certain types of harm. The point of the Eight/Ninth Steps is not to pay off debts, though that could be part of it. These steps continue the necessary humiliation of the ego that has been taking place since the First Step. Put more crudely, you are practicing not being full of yourself – again, not to make you good (you were always good), but because you no longer need to prove your goodness. Your dignity and worthiness are guaranteed by your Higher Power, so you can afford to take as much blame as is necessary, even a tad more.