Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Bomb Squad

Terry's wife, Crystal, was more than willing to see if conversations dedicated to empathy might help him with his depression. In fact, when I told Terry about how those conversations might go, he said, "Wow, she already does that naturally."

One night the week before he had gone in to put their three year old son, Carter, to bed. She'd heard Carter saying, "I want to go to bed by myself!" Terry walked out of the room thinking, Fine! Makes bedtime easier for me. But he couldn't help feel a pang in his heart. He told himself Carter was just a little kid trying out his independence. Despite that reasoning, the emotional hit lingered. "Unfortunately, sometimes interactions like that throw me off for the rest of the night. A painful interaction with Carter is sometimes the beanbag that’s right on target, dropping Terry's into the dunk tank of his depression.

When he walked into the bedroom Crystal said, "Sounds like he's in fine form tonight. You okay? Want to talk about it?"

Terry had responded. "No, I just need a few minutes."

That's the way he usually dealt with hurt feelings: take a few minutes alone to re-gather himself, and then get on with life again.

"Kind of like an animal licking its wounds," I said. Terry nodded.

"But I go away from that kind of exchange with Crystal knowing that it could have been deeper, I just don't know what else I would have said. We've talked about the issue of me feeling a lack of acceptance from Carter, and how it pushes all my old rejection buttons. But we've talked about it enough now that I don't know that there's anything left to say about it. She understands where I'm coming from, and I know she cares, so why rehash it?"

"And yet it feels like she steps toward you and invites you to engage with her at a level of emotional intimacy that is deeper. And it seems like you're somehow unable to meet her there at that same level."

"Yeah. I don't know if she senses that. I've thought it was just a male/female difference. She talks that way with everyone: her mom, a couple of her friends, her sister, even her brothers. I've never really had that depth with anyone in my life. My interactions with her come the closest."

I encouraged Terry to think of his distressing emotions as an improvised explosive device. Just like an IED or any other bomb, it has a bunch of parts to it. Separating out its components can defuse it. Once dissected, an emotion, just like an EID, becomes more benign.

Terry and I practiced right then and there to prepare him for the next time he had the chance to talk about his feelings with Crystal. We sorted through his emotion in an attempt to identify these five facets: situation, thought, impulse, feeling, sensation. Here's what he came up with:

Situation: Abruptly dismissed by son I'm putting to bed
Thought: "I know he's a three year old, but ouch"
Impulse: Walk out and give the door a little bang shut.
Feeling: Rejected
Sensation: Sinking in my chest, deflated

The first initial from each of these words spells STIFS. I complimented Terry on successfully dissecting his feelings into STIFS and encouraged him to try out the same process over the next few weeks as he talked with Crystal about hard experiences for either of them.  

A couple of months later he said he was feeling more connected with Crystal, and it seemed to be helping relieve his depression. “I'm becoming more poignantly aware of feelings of un-acceptance and just how painfully I experience those emotions. When I work through those feelings alone, it's less productive. When I share my feelings with people I care about, it's much more effective. Using the STIFS has helped me do that."

A few times each week I send out by text an example of STIFS to about 70 people, most of them clients. Quite a few have told me that it helps them become more aware of their emotions. Not only that, it also helps tame those emotions in a way I don't fully understand. I know that from experience. Somehow putting feelings into words must wake up the language cortex of the brain and other affiliated regions where our more mature mindsets reside. Perhaps those mental muscles then act as a sort of caring older sibling to our brain's limbic system, where our strong feelings do their work.

If you're interested in receiving STIFS examples from me a few times a week, text "add me to STIFS" to my cell phone: 801-564-7566. If you end up not wanting to receive them anymore, you can text “stop” at any time. (Recipients' only see my phone number, never those of other recipients.)

Whether or not you decide to receive examples from my by text, next time you find yourself in a state of distress, be it mild or intense, see if you can identify these five facets of your experience: the situation, your thoughts, your impulse (what you feel compelled to do), your feelings, and the sensations you are experiencing in your body. You might find it very interesting to do. Then, if you keep practicing the process again and again over a period of weeks, you may discover that it gets both easier and more helpful over time.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Emotional Jackpot You Can Give Your Spouse Today

Bells go off and coins clang as they fill up the tray of the slot machine. You hit the jackpot.

That's how it feels emotionally when your spouse can tell you're having a hard time and, instead of turning away and leaving you alone in it, they connect by empathizing on a deep level. You can tell by what they say, by the look in their eye, or by the way they squeeze your hand or hug you that they're letting in some of what you're feeling. They get it, or at least they're trying to. 

Suddenly, you're not alone in your distress anymore. And just as quickly, that distress isn't the same anymore, it's somehow more bearable. And even in that bitter moment, the connection you feel with your spouse is sweet. 

That's what it's like to hit the emotional jackpot.

You can get better at providing this kind of profound experience for your spouse. In fact, they will bond to you more securely than ever as you become their most reliable and potent way to hit the emotional jackpot. 

Here's how to do it:

Look for opportunities to encourage your spouse to talk about a time that was upsetting for them.
  • When they bring something up, encourage them to talk out the hurt rather than trying to quickly move on from the uncomfortable topic. 
  • Proactively ask about an event you know they found painful. 
  • Explore in a general way what experiences from the past still eat at them, whether or not those experiences involve you. 
If you have the courage to run into the fire of their feelings instead of fleeing their distress, you are giving them an incredible gift. You can't rewind time and take away their suffering, but now they have the opportunity to no longer suffer alone!

As they recall the events, listen for what it was like for them emotionally to go through that experience. If they don't spontaneously mention how they felt at the time, ask. Check to see if they're feeling some of that same emotion now as they think back on and talk about that time. Also ask what they were feeling in their body at the time and where they felt it. Was it in their chest? Their gut? Somewhere else? Are they feeling some of those same sensations now?

This gives you all you the raw material you need to practice deep empathy. Do it by letting into your own heart and body some of what they went through and are going through even now.

Let them know you've let in what they're feeling in any or all of the following ways:
  • Let yourself make an "ugh", "ouch", or "mmhh" noise that goes along with what you feel.
  • Let your face--especially your eyes and mouth--convey the pain and compassion you feel inside.
  • Give some other form of physical comfort such as holding or squeezing their hand or embracing them and holding them tight (if it seems they're receptive to that).
Ask them what it's like to be on the receiving end of deep empathy. Did it feel like an emotional jackpot as I predicted?

After you've tried it a time or two, share this post with them and ask them to return the favor. What's it like for you to be on the receiving end?

You and they might find that it's harder to implement than it sounds. But it's certainly something worth practicing to improve as a skill.

Let us know how it goes for you--and please pass along this post along to others. Every single one of us, as human beings, is walking around too lonely in our suffering. There's not a soul I know who couldn't use more empathy, especially deep empathy of this sort.