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You must know what’s broken before you can fix it - 3/3/2017

It will be difficult to fully understand what I’m presently trying to convey, unless you recall my previous article about Ellen and Robert, a couple whose argument during one therapy session resulted in a verbal free for all – one that could well be described as vicious, hurtful and destructive.

But, despite the hurtfulness of their exchange, I ended the article by saying their interaction could prove to be constructive to their long-term relationship. Why? Because, I hoped that the noxious behavior they exhibited would not only cause them to become aware of the intense emotional pain they each harbor, but would help them to recognize the hurt they create for themselves and others. Not because they’re bad people but because they both perceive their world as emotionally threatening. As a result, they feel a heightened need to be on the defense.

But, sadly, their defensive behavior only serves to reinforce their own feelings of insufficiency and abandonment.

The problem is they aren’t aware of this. But, let’s face it, seeing oneself introspectively is extremely difficult. The saying is, “a dog can’t smell his own feces,” and perhaps the same should be said about most human beings. No matter how great the stench, unless something overwhelmingly catastrophic forces you to, you, similar to Ellen and Robert, are more likely to point your finger at and blame someone else for the pain you experience.

That’s the reason I so frequently hear patients say, “I wouldn’t have said or done that if he/she hadn’t pushed me to it.” The truth, as I see it, however, is that “If the hurt, rage or anger isn’t inside to begin with, no one can draw it out of you. Those emotions are created early in life. They then are stored in your unconscious reservoir and become a part of your basic makeup. Other persons or events can elicit them, but they can’t create them.

Think about it this way: Hypothetically, there are two individuals who have an infectious disease. It’s been there since childhood but is never diagnosed. However, during the time it’s been there, the disease causes other problems: fatigue, pain, cardiac problems, emotional stress and/or angry outbursts, etc. Over time, each seeks help for the symptoms associated with these problems. Some of the treatments work for a period of time, but none ever reveals or deals with the primary cause, i.e., the infection.

Well, the same process can take place in an individual who experiences early emotional trauma, which I’ll term an “emotional infection,” one that isn’t visible to the eye – but, later in life causes him or her severe anxiety and/or depression. To combat or treat the problem, the individuals develop defense mechanisms, i.e. coping techniques, which enable them to avoid, mitigate or obscure the original problem but prove detrimental to their everyday life.

Imagine that both individuals were rejected and abused as a child. One resorts to an avoidance of emotional involvement by actively pushing others away. The other adopts an excessively compliant attitude, in order to avoid confrontation or hurt.

On the surface, their defenses appear different, but emotionally they’re the same. They both are frightened individuals who hide behind anger. One’s feelings are displayed overtly and the others passive aggressively. Both individuals enter therapy to deal with their inner anger and resentment. But, treating their symptoms alone won’t necessarily help the original problem, i.e. their basic fear of additional hurt and rejection.

For a while, one individual’s emotional outbursts may be tempered. The other may show more backbone and less compliance, but after a while, their old symptoms inevitably return. The end result is neither person ever gets better, and they, along with those persons living with or interacting with them, experience continued emotional pain. Worst of all, these symptoms are contagious. They serve as role models for their children to emulate later.

To a great extent, this accounts for the fact that you can look at family histories and see generations of individuals with either hostile, depressed, perfectionist, fearful, alcoholic or suicidal patterns of behavior. That’s not to say that some personality characteristics aren’t inherited. To the contrary, DNA plays a big part in our lives but, whether learned and/or inherited, dealing with symptoms alone isn’t a cure.

To get to the root of your problem, you have to go inside and search for the cause. People readily accept this notion medically, but most individuals with emotional problems prefer to look anywhere but inside. Instead, they choose to minimize the notion that what happened to them as a child, 40 or 50 years ago, contributed to their present feelings and behaviors.

In Ellen and Robert’s case, their prognosis will be determined by whether or not they are willing to see themselves and to own their emotions and behaviors. Only time will determine which direction they choose. In Ellen’s case, it’s either continue to play the victim or look at the source of her insecurities. In Robert’s case, it’s remaining the innocent person whose hostility is only evident when he is provoked by someone, versus searching for the origin of his anger.

To help you to look inward, I’d have you recognize the following notion: The degree to which you demonstrate excessive behavior, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, sex, sleep problems, anger, controlling behavior, or even being too good a spouse, parent, employee, businessman, etc., is the degree to which you have a problem. It doesn’t matter whether your actions are antisocial, well-intended or politically correct, excessive behavior is a telltale sign that you are attempting to avoid dealing with a childhood “infection.”

As I said in my original article, understanding the source doesn’t justify or excuse unacceptable behavior, but it explains it. In this instance, knowledge is power, i.e., understanding the source of your behavior can help you to better accept, forgive and live with yourself and your actions.

However, to alter behavior you must emotionally revisit the source. The problem is that exposing yourself emotionally can be very painful. It’s similar to seeing a physician for a yearly examination who notices a large boil under your arm – one you’ve learned to live with despite occasional discomfort.

The doctor says, “Let me fix it.” He then, lances it. The pain is excruciating and the pus that runs out of it is ugly to the point of making you nauseous. But, several days later it’s gone, and you have far more use of your arm. It’s the same when you deal with emotional “infections.”

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