Katherine is a stoic, bright, professionally successful individual, in her mid-30s, who throughout her life has found it difficult to form intimate relationships with others. To illustrate, when I first saw her in therapy, she was openly abrasive, rude, and verbally hostile towards me. However, the truth, which I only learned later, was that pushing me away was her way of hiding that she liked and cared for me. Those duplicitous emotions depict the nature of the relationship we’ve maintained ever since. For example because she lives almost 3,000 miles away, she justifies only contacting me when she is acutely stressed. But, the very fact that she does call indicates that there is a relationship between us that she trusts and depends on. Therefore, after not hearing from her for almost a year, I wasn’t surprised when she called. What was surprising, however, was the subject of her call. She said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do about work. I’m still doing well, but the company merged and they fired a lot of people. I think I need a change. But, before I rush into an impulsive decision I thought I should talk with you.”
I asked, “Is anything else troubling you?”
She said, “No, everything is fine.”
The next time we spoke, it was “same song second verse.” Despite how assured she sounded, it was evident that everything wasn’t fine. Consequently, I said, “Imagine that when you wake up tomorrow, you see yourself in a world where nothing is beyond your reach and you feel totally free of fear. What would you want to do?”
She hesitated; then said, “I’m not answering because I’m taking your question very seriously. The answer is I would write my mother.”
I should note that from that time on, I’ve heard nothing more about her job, or her need to look for another place of employment. Instead, we began to discuss the real issue: her relationship with her mother.
Katherine’s behavior isn’t crazy. In fact, many more of you, than you may realize, deal with painful situations in a similar fashion. Essentially, you unconsciously lie to yourself. You set up smoke screens, which obscure and alter reality. As a result, you don’t have to face those things that are most disturbing, upsetting, or emotionally frightening to you. Think, for example, about how many times in your life you have said, “I feel like I’m spinning my wheels. My mind keeps going over and over the same issue to the point that I can’t concentrate.”
In the course of spinning your wheels, you are essentially doing the same thing as Katherine. In some instances you will go so far as to unconsciously create a problem with work, school, family members or a spouse in order to avoid facing your real issues. Over the years I’ve seen some of you have a car accident, fall and injure yourself, get sick, or even create severe financial problems in order to avoid dealing with your real problem or concern that you’re too terrified to face.
Let me state that not two hours after my conversation with Katherine, I received a draft of a letter to her mother. It was sincere and right to the point. She expressed her love and fear of seriously damaging their relationship. She went on to say that the previous weekend, she and her boyfriend, of more than five or six years, went shopping for an engagement ring. That it was something she desperately wanted to share with her mother, but she was frightened of her mother’s reaction. Several days later, Mother responded in an equally candid manner. She stated that he wasn’t someone she wanted as a son-in-law or thought her daughter should settle for. That his work ethic was lacking, he couldn’t support Katherine on his own and that their backgrounds were radically different. Even more, she believed Katherine deserved someone more ambitious, who could afford to support her in the manner she was accustomed to and deserved.
I suspect most of you and I would share many of her mother’s wishes. I also believe that Mother only wants the best for Katherine. At the same time, she never questioned her daughters love for him or his for her. Nonetheless, she was adamant that he wasn’t the groom she or her husband would have chosen for their daughter.
You might ask, Is he the right man? I don’t know. Should they marry? Will it work? I can’t say. Will Mother’s concerns serve as a problem for this young couple? Of course, but every marital relationship experiences problems by virtue of diverse backgrounds, financial issues and the emotional baggage people bring into them. Fortunately, these problems can, to a great extent, be mitigated by the support and love a couple receives from their family, friends and community. On the positive side, I do think Katherine loves this man. Although, I’ve never met him, it’s noteworthy that he has stayed around for more than five years and that he’s the one who pushed for marriage. I also believe that as a result of their relationship, Katherine has grown tremendously. I now see her as better able to hold her own, in so far as standing up for her views and desires than ever before. There is one additional question that needs to be asked. Does Katherine have the right to exercise her own decisions, to go after what she believes she wants and even to make her own mistakes, if that proves to be the case? Of course, that’s her choice, but from here on out, we can only wait to see what the future will hold for Katherine.
More important, however, is that there is something very valuable that you can learn from Katherine’s dilemma. To start, focus on Katherine’s attempt to avoid dealing with or facing her real issues. Whether you’re male or female, married or single, or whatever issue you’re facing in life, it is essential to realize that you will never resolve your problems by avoiding them. Consequently, I’d have you run toward your problems not away from them. I’d have you acknowledge, own, and forgive them, no matter how much anxiety they cause you. After you identify and face them, I promise that you will find it easier to cope with them, than you ever imagined.
So, on those days when you feel anxious, confused, angry or depressed, and want to stay in bed, avoid people, drink excessively or take pills to erase your pain, ask yourself, “If tomorrow, I were to wake up free of all fear, what would be the first challenge I would like to confront? Once you determine the answer, run in that direction. It is difficult to do, but it’s much easier if you recognize that your fears are of your own making and that if you created them, you are also able to eliminate them.