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Your Emotional Default Setting - 8/30/2013

Sybil was terribly upset. She pulled and twisted her hair and her eyes teared. Then she looked at her husband and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be the way I am. I get angry for no reason, and I become critical and rude. I hate it when I act this way. It’s what I heard as a child, and now I do the very same thing. But it’s not all my fault. Last night, I climbed into bed next to you, to do some work on my laptop, and you were so absorbed in the television, you didn’t notice me.  Then you shouted when I asked you about this weekend. You accused me of asking questions just to  annoy you. That’s why I started crying.”

His response was, “That's what you always do. You burst into tears after you’ve annoyed the hell out of me. Then I feel guilty and scared you won’t love me. That isn’t how I want to feel. All you had to do was look and see that I was watching a program, but you kept interrupting.”

Her response was quick, sharp, angry and defensive. “What am I supposed to do, analyze what you’re doing? I just asked you one question and you started screaming. What should I say, ‘Oh my dear Johnny, I’m so sorry to bother you when you’re watching tv, but can I please ask you something?’ That isn’t me.”

He shrugged his shoulders and, under his breath, said, “So be it.” His force field descended and nothing she could say would penetrate his shield.

This vignette is only one example of the way Sybil and John have interacted from the day they married. It  will probably continue until they die, divorce or, hopefully, find an alternate way to deal with one another. But the only way that will occur for Sybil, John, or anyone in a similar relationship is for each party to stop the blame game and look at themselves, not their partner.  In Sybil and John’s case, neither is a bad person, nor are they actively trying to hurt each other; although in their eyes, I’m sure that doesn’t appear to be the case. Under stress, their reaction is to fall back to their emotional default setting, which is established in every one of us by the  age of 5 or 6.

For example, early in her life, Sybil learned two lessons. One, if you desire any attention, you need to annoy or upset someone to get it. It always worked with her mother, whose typical responses were negative; i.e., “Leave me alone, can’t you see I’m busy? Why are you always bothering me? Why can’t you take care of yourself?” Two, the world is hostile and rejecting. It’s no wonder she reacts to John as she does.

In contrast, John’s home, at least on the surface, was a safe, supportive environment. He was mother’s favorite, the one she leaned on emotionally, and the one who readily responded to her needs. In return, she doted on him. His father was the opposite; quick to anger, and equally quick to criticize. No wonder John saw his problems as stemming from his father but, in fact, his problem originated from the unrealistically safe fantasy world created by his mother, who used him as her surrogate emotional spouse. That’s too heavy a responsibility for anyone, let alone a child, who would later feel inadequate and guilty when he couldn’t alleviate her upset. It’s the same way he now reacts to his wife.

Before Sybil or John can move forward in their marriage, they each have to:

1. Recognize their emotional and behavioral patterns.

2. Own them.

3. Forgive them. Recognize that everyone has a five-year-old little kid inside them, who needs to be controlled, not condemned.

4. Learn to laugh at themselves. To take life and the mistakes they make less seriously.  

5. All of which will enable them to love themselves in spite of these faults.

These steps aren’t easily followed. Your little kid will want to blame others for any behavior, feelings, or thoughts you perceive as politically incorrect or weak. But the truth is, every individual must learn to accept responsibility for themselves, control their inner child, and forgive their mistakes or shortcomings.  

If you can follow these steps, you will be amazed how much more constructive your life will become, how much more pride you’ll have in self for being in control, and how much better your interactions with others will become.

Even as I write this, I can think of an incident that occurred months ago, which still lives with me, and which exemplifies exactly what I’m saying. Few of you will ever have as much therapy as I.  After all, I sit in therapy ten to twelve hours a day, listening to the adult in me teach others how to develop an emotionally healthy life. Despite that, my little child frequently slips out, embarrasses me, and reinforces the notion that we are all products of our DNA, environment, and childhood experiences. I’m a guy who likes to please. I’m also a guy who’s married to a woman who hates change, who would leave everything exactly as it is, and where it is, for the rest of her life. This is difficult for someone who constantly wants to change things. Six months ago, I saw a home that I desperately wanted to buy. I looked to my wife who doesn’t like change, and who responded out of her dislike. “The place isn’t exactly right; the master bedroom’s too small; this won’t work, etc., etc..” Let me add that it was a wonderful time to buy a house - prices were down, interest rates were low, and I should have immediately signed a contract, but I didn’t want to upset her. Several days later, I realized my error, but it was too late. The home had sold. For the next six months,  every time I felt bad, I criticized her, I found fault, talked about her rigid behavior, her lack of appreciation for me, and her not caring about my happiness. I knew better, but the alternative was to look at myself, to see my lack of a backbone, my fear over spending that much money, and my need to have her support to do what I was frightened of. It still doesn’t feel good. I hate looking at that part of me.  But, remember - you have to recognize, own, accept, forgive, laugh at and love yourself, in spite of your shortcomings, i.e., your default systems, which are invariably excessive, childish and laughable.

There you have it. None of us are immune to this type of behavior. We justify, lie to ourselves, and blame others whenever it’s too painful to look at ourselves and accept responsibility for who we are. Nevertheless, we must look inside, in order to see and accept ourselves for the imperfect  people we are and to recognize that, despite our failings, we’re worth being loved.

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