Shadow

by Pat Cochran, PsyD

“. . . [F]or the inferior and even the worthless belongs to me as my shadow and gives me substance and mass.  How can I be substantial without casting a shadow?  I must have a dark side too if I am to be whole, and by becoming conscious of my shadow I remember once more I am a human being like any other.  At any rate, if this rediscovery of my own wholeness remains private, it will only restore the earlier condition from which the neurosis, i.e., the split-off complex sprang.  Privacy prolongs my isolation and the damage is only partially mended.  But through confession I throw myself into the arms of humanity again, freed at last from the burden of moral exile.  The goal of the cathartic method is full confession–not merely the intellectual recognition of the facts with the head, but their confirmation by the heart and the actual release of suppressed emotion.”  (Problems of Modern Psychotherapy, CW16, para. 134)

This quote of Jung’s is meaningful in a number of ways, but foremost among them is the way in which Jung focuses on the positive, or purposive, aspect of the shadow.  I grew up believing the “inferior and worthless” things about myself were shameful and therefore needed to be hidden from others.  But here Jung speaks to how engagement with the shadow is necessary for wholeness, and further, that when one gains an emotional connection to those unwanted parts, the result is a restoration of relationship to one’s self, others, and indeed to all of humanity.  The cathartic method he speaks of here is the process of analysis, through which I have personally experienced such a restoration, and in being an analyst, have been honored to witness my analysands’ journey into wholeness and relationship as well.

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Children in Polyamorous Families – Part 2

by Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE

In the first part of this series on children in polyamorous families, I explained how these kids have age-dependent experiences and why they appear to be doing so well in general. This second blog in the series details the advantages and disadvantages that children report in my study of polyamorous families.

Advantages
Children and young adults in the study mention a range of advantages associated with growing up in a polyamorous family. These include both practical and emotional advantages.

Practical
Kids of all ages from poly families emphasize the practical advantages above other aspects of having multiple adults in their lives. Small children enjoy the treats, toys, and trips to the playground that often come with adults who are trying to contribute positively to family life. Tweens appreciate the rides home from practice or the movies, as well as the help with homework. Teens also value help with homework, in addition to the option to ask a trusted adult — who is not a parent — for advice or assistance. Tweens and teens also appreciate the communication skills they see modeled and are able to practice, as well as the honest information they get from the adults in their lives.

All of the children enjoy the possibility of getting $5 from someone else when mom or dad did not have cash on hand. Children in each age category like the increased chance of fun pets that come with the various additional adults. Best of all, these kids get more birthday and holiday gifts because they have multiple adults (and potentially several sets of grandparents attached to these multiple adults) to shower them with goodies and take them on fun events.

Emotional
The kids and young adults I have interviewed often mention the emotional benefits of having multiple adults in their lives. For small children, it is the glee of having new people to play with and fresh adults with extra patience to play some of the games that their parents have long since grown tired. Tweens like having people home when they get home from school, rooting for them at sports competitions, and clapping for their performances in plays.

Teens value the different role models that multiple adults demonstrate in family life, and find the communication and emotional intimacy skills they built up as part of the polyamorous family style to be especially useful in creating meaningful connections with peers, lovers, and friends. They also value the emotional intimacy and trust they feel with their parents, something they see starkly lacking in many of their peers’ relationships with their parents that seem (to the kids from poly families) to be filled with suspicion, tension, and anger. Kids from poly families are also tense and angry sometimes too, but they feel that they can have conversations with their parents that would be unthinkable for their peers, and that level of honesty allows them to feel closer to and safer with their parents – even with the usual teenage angst.

Young adults view those emotional and communication skills as the greatest advantage to growing up in a polyamorous family, because they feel they are able to establish emotionally intimate relationships wherever they go. This provides an important buffer to the pain and loneliness that can sometimes come with leaving home for the first time. Even if they do leave home, they often retain emotional connection with their parents, and some of them return to a parental home after moving out for a while.

Disadvantages
In addition to advantages, kids growing up in polyamorous families mention a range of disadvantages as well. These include emotional disadvantages like social stigma, complexity, powerlessness, and practical disadvantages like too much supervision.

Practical
When polyamorous families with multiple adults and children combine to share living space, the children sometimes feel like they do not get enough privacy. Kids, and especially teens, complain that the adults get rooms to themselves — often with a bathroom attached — while the kids must share space and most likely do not have their own bathroom. Household overcrowding that can come with blending multiple adults and children works, so these kids feel, to the disadvantage of children who must share space.

Children growing up in a home with multiple adults have more people to watch out for what the kids are doing. Also, in polyamorous households, the adults are frequently in constant communication, so the child of poly parents who is trying to tell one adult a lie must be extra careful to tell the rest of the adults the exact same lie or the kids are likely to be discovered in their deceit. Too much supervision and the inability to get away with anything sneaky was at the top of many children’s lists of discontent with poly family life.

Emotional
Like children of other sex and gender minorities, kids with polyamorous parents sometimes have to deal with others’ reactions to their parents’ sexual relationships. Unlike children of parents in same-sex relationships, however, kids in poly families can very easily hide their family status, so they do not have to deal with it that often. Because polyamory is still fairly little known, members of the general public often do not recognize a polyamorous relationship in their midst and do not hold the children accountable for it. When people do recognize the poly family as a unit, however, it can create some problems for the family when that recognition then translates to stigma or discrimination. While it does not happen a lot, some children mentioned adults asking weird or probing questions that felt uncomfortable. One girl remembered her friend could not come over to play anymore, but thought that might be because her mother was a practicing Pagan rather than the polyamorous nature of the family which was not clear.

Some children disliked the complexity that came with their poly family, and a few expressed a desire to just be normal. Complexity came in a number of forms for these families, from having to think about who might be home before inviting peers over to the house after school to adults in the family who are distracted with their own relationship dramas. Extended family members sometimes notice complex interactions among adults in the poly family and, hesitant to ask the adults themselves, sometimes ask the children questions about what is happening in their household.

Like children in general who do not have the ability to control their own lives, some children in polyamorous families with they could exert more power to make their own decisions. The ones who wish for normalcy wish they could decide to be in a normal family. Others feel upset at no longer having contact with people who used to be in their lives and have moved on.

No Unique Disadvantages, Some Unique Advantages
It is important to point out a common theme in my findings: Polyamorous families experience disadvantage that appear in many other kinds of families. Families of all sorts experience parents that split up, friends who move away, people who die, household overcrowding, emotional complexity, kids who don’t have control over what the adults in their lives do, and managing sensitive information about the family. None of those are unique to poly families.

Other blended families also experience some of the same kinds of advantages found in poly family life. Grandma can provide a trusted companion and source of loving support, siblings from other parents can feel like full siblings regardless of biology, and families routinely adopt close friends as “aunt/uncle” even when there is no biological relationship. These wider family networks can provide support that is similar to what children from poly families experience.

What does appear to be unique to these families is the sense of emotional resilience and relational richness that comes from an honesty- and communication-intensive family life. This is not to say that other families do not have emotional intimacy or honest communication, but to underline the ways in which polyamorous families and communities can contribute to a unique set of skills, norms, and values that can prove quite useful in navigating life as a young adult.

In the third part of this series on I offer a sneak peek into my preliminary findings from my current and ongoing round of data collection for the 20th anniversary of the study.

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Green House Experiences & Insights

Jo Flannery, AMFT, leads the LifeWorks staff in playing the (Un)Becoming Game for her Green House final creative project (2016).

We are now accepting applications for the Green House 2018 Cohort. Launched in 2016, the Green House is LifeWorks’ postgraduate psychotherapy training program. Participants join us here in Chicago for 12 months of tuition-free learning and real-world clinical experience centered on self-development, individual supervision, and cultural competency.

Wondering if the Green House is right for you or someone you know? Get insight from those who have participated before (Informational Meeting on July 29 – get more info here). We spoke with several members of the previous years’ cohorts to learn firsthand about their experiences with the Green House—here’s what they had to say:

Sarah Hemphill, LCSW & Meryl Morris, LCSW of Green House Cohort 2 (2017).

Financial compensation for client hours: “I don’t know of any other program that provides that.”

With a plethora of training and mentoring options available to new therapists, what sets the Green House apart? According to participants, the difference lies in the program’s emphasis on creativity and individualized attention, as well as the fact that Green House clinicians engage in real, paid work with clients.

“The Green House pays those of us in the program for each client we see,” said one participant, who added:

“I had been searching for a way to hone my therapeutic skills without having to pay a school a small fortune or quit my full-time job. The Green House was able to meet that criteria and allow me to be a part of a team of dynamic therapists in a progressive practice. I am getting one-on-one weekly supervision, small group weekly training, and the chance to have a caseload of clients; I don’t know of any other program that provides that.”

The program’s compensation model, weekly supervision meetings and in-service training help newly licensed clinicians feel empowered and supported in their roles. One Green House member commented that her supervisors treat her “more like a colleague than an intern,” and that, as a member of the LifeWorks staff, her “voice and opinion matter.”

“The Green House gave me great supervision that’s really altered the way I function as a clinician, and helped me deepen my relationships with clients,” she said, and remarked that in addition to payment for client sessions, the Green House also provides participants with stipends and opportunities for ongoing learning at conferences and retreats.

2016 Green House Cohort 1: Ally Burque, LCSW; Jo Flannery, AMFT; Natalie A. Hock, LSW; Brandon Haydon,, LCSW

Multifaceted commitment: “Be ready to jump in with both feet.”

Participants are expected to commit to an average of 10-12 hours per week. This part-time obligation allows members of the Green House to ease into their clinical careers instead of fixating entirely on building a full caseload from day one. Nonetheless, said one participant, applicants should be ready to “jump in with both feet” and allot their time carefully in order to make the most of the program. Time management is essential if you also have a full-time job.

In contrast to other training opportunities, the Green House is designed to identify and celebrate clinicians’ unique identities and to enhance personal aptitudes and skills from within a depth psychotherapy perspective. The program does not prescribe a single model or approach for all participants to follow, but rather encourages intimate self-exploration of one’s own feelings, beliefs, biases, limitations, and strengths. Participants delve into these topics with their supervisors, as well as through assignments such as the year-end creative learning project.

The experience of self-exploration, a Green House clinician told us, was both exceptionally rewarding and emotionally challenging:

“The culmination of our development was a creative project to encompass our learning. It was really challenging, because it was creative—I had to challenge myself to share something expressive and also convey my professional identity. We shared these things with the whole practice, not just with peer group. It was a perfect blend of being seen as individuals and also underscoring who we were as therapists. Everyone’s project was dramatically different.”

Rami Henrich, LCSW facilitates a discussion on therapist identity with the Green House Cohort.

Building confidence and cultural competence: “If you’re here, you can do it.”

Created by LifeWorks Psychotherapy Center, the Green House curriculum reflects the practice’s deeply held values of inclusion and diversity in all its forms.

The Green House explicitly helps participants develop specific therapeutic skills and cultural competence with clients in marginalized communities. Clinicians learn to deepen their understanding of issues affecting those who actively identify as or are exploring sexual identities such as lesbian, gay, and bisexual; gender identities such as trans and genderqueer; relationship configurations related to non-monogamy (e.g. open, swinging, poly affective, and polyamorous relationships) and erotic identities such as kink and BDSM.

Many of the program’s participants identify or have had experience with one or more of the populations mentioned above, but extensive prior knowledge of alternative sexuality and minority identities is not a prerequisite for applicants. Clinicians of all backgrounds and levels of experience are welcome.

Differences notwithstanding, Green House participants have at least one attribute in common: a desire to learn, grow and contribute personally and professionally.

“Don’t underestimate what you have to offer because you’re in a fellowship,” one clinician said. He advised applicants to “open to the process” and “be ready to run into your own biases and limitations, and also to engage with those of your peers”:

“Everyone who comes in, regardless of their level of experience, has something to offer to the group.”

“Coming in, you feel really nervous,” another acknowledged. “Am I a real therapist? Am I working with clients? If you’re here, you can do it.”

Learn more about the Green House and apply for the 2018 program here.

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Assertive Communication 101: Finding Your Voice

by Morgan Concepcion, LCPC

I am passionate about interpersonal boundaries, and in my experience to have good boundaries, telling others about them is imperative! 

Assertive communication is crucial to being able to set, clarify, and protect your boundaries as well as consider the impact of boundaries in relationships.  I am passionate about assertive communication. I speak to clients about it regularly and wanted to reach a broader audience with some of what I have learned.

Can you recognize assertiveness?

Below are different examples of the same words, each expressing a different communication style. Which, do you think, is most assertive?

  1. Could you pass me the salt?
  2. Pass the salt.
  3. Can you share the salt over, here, please?
  4. Please pass the salt.

(Body language, including gestures and tone of voice, is also key to assertiveness and I will include these points later in the article.) 

Key to Assertive Communication

Notice how you might react to each of these statements.  For most people, each elicits a slightly different feeling and and response (when spoken or heard). That is because at a subtle level they are communicating the same request slightly differently.

Here are the keys to defining different communication styles: 

Passive: uses conditional language, could, just, might, would. (Statement 1)

Aggressive: gives a command, often “tells” instead of asks. (Statement 2)

Passive-Aggressive: implies a feeling along with the message, think “double-talk/over-asking for the obvious”/ “smart-aleck.” Of course a person has the ability to share table salt. The hidden question is, “Will they give it to you now?” (Statement 3)

Assertive: a request or statement that is polite, clear and to the point. (Statement 4)

Why does assertiveness matter?

Many of my long-standing clients will likely know this answer: 

“It helps you get what you want without provoking an unwanted reaction in the other person.”

Assertive communication includes a clear statement of:

1) What you want and/or how you feel

2) What happened to cause the desire or feeling

3) The reasons why this matters in the relationship.

Example:

 “I want you to put your dirty clothes in the hamper instead of on the floor, because the last few times I picked them up, I started to feel over-worked and resentful.”

Stating directly and politely what you want may be difficult. You may not ask directly for what you want out of fear that you will hurt someone else’s feelings or be aggressive. 

Here are the differences between assertive and aggressive communication: 

Assertive Communication:

  • shares your view while allowing for the other person’s as well.
  • is open to compromise. 
  • shares equal power and responsibility for communicating. 

Aggressive Communication:

  • forces one view as the dominant view of a situation.
  • wants to win: the other side has to lose.
  • leads to an abuse of power and bullying. 

How to tell the subtle difference between styles: 

  • Aggressiveness posing as Assertiveness: “I hate that you’re always late.”  

Using words like always & never, begins the process of generalizing and often turns into aggressive or passive aggressive communication.  An assertive version of this statement might be: “I hate that you are late tonight.”

  • Passive-Aggressive: “I want you to be on time for once.”

This one starts assertively, but ends with a bite.  Said assertively, “I want you to be on time.”

  • Passive Communication: “I just want you to be on time for me.”

Using words like ‘just’ turn an assertive statement into a plea or passive statement.  Here’s the same phrase without the word ‘just’: “I want you to be on time for me.”

Equation for Assertiveness: 

  • Person + Action:
    • “When you were late in picking me up” / “After I saw the dishes on the counter”
  • Descriptive Feeling (version of MAD, SAD, GLAD, HURT, DISGUST):
    • “I felt angry and hurt” /  “I was really annoyed”
  • Reason Why It Matters:
    • “Because the message that sent to me was: ‘You’d rather do something else than be here on time for me.”   / “Because I asked you to do the dishes and you didn’t. 

Assertive Body Language Tips

  • Standing tall vs. slumping: How you carry yourself can send a message of confidence or uncertainty. Sitting instead of standing can help you feel and convey  confidence.
  • Loud or soft voice tone vs. clear and distinct voice tone: People need to hear your communication.  Speaking in a loud voice may suggest to some that you are angry. Speaking softly may be read as ignorance, shyness or fear.  Speaking a in a clear tone of voice at a moderate volume makes it easier for people to focus on what you are saying, the content or message.   When you speak quickly, hesitantly, softly or loudly people automatically focus on the unintended communication and will form perceptions of your emotional state or motives instead of what you are saying.
  • Facial expressions: Are you smirking, looking down and to the side, or looking someone straight in the eye with a calm and interested facial expression? Again your facial expressions communicate unintended messages that your listener then blends into your stated message. 

Choosing assertiveness takes active awareness and regular practice. Communicating assertively won’t guarantee good behavior from other people… that requires Interpersonal Boundaries! 

There is much more that can be said about assertive communication, and in particular with regard to setting interpersonal boundaries. You can read that in my next installment about boundaries: 

How to Set Boundaries : Define and Defend What You Want

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Children in Polyamorous Families: Part 1

by Elisabeth “Eli” A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE

Eli Sheff is considered a leading expert on polyamorous families with children.  She has written three books on the subject including  The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, Stories from the Polycule: Real Life in Polyamorous Families and When Someone You Love is Polyamorous: Understanding Poly People and Relationships.  Eli is the CEO and Director of Legal Services at the Sheff Consulting Group, a think-tank of experts specializing in diverse subcultures and under-served populations.  The following is the first in a series of five articles she wrote for Psychology Today about children in poly families.

As public awareness of polyamorous families has risen over the past 20 years, so has concern over their impact on children. In order to (at least begin to) answer some important questions about polyamory, this series of blogs reviews the findings from my 20-year study of children growing up in polyamorous families, gives a sneak peek at the findings from the fourth and current wave of data collection, and explains the issues relevant to custody of children from poly families. The Polyamorous Families Study began in 1996 as my dissertation research for my PhD in Sociology, and since then I have collected three more waves of data and written a book summarizing the first 15 years of the study – The Polyamorists Next Door (2014).

Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, details Sheff’s findings from the first 15 years of the Polyamorous Families Study.

Overall I have interviewed 206 people in polyamorous families, 37 of them children. Some of them have participated in multiple interviews, and some have just spoken with me once. In 2016 I began the fourth and ongoing round of interviews concentrating on children and young adults – some of whom I met when they were in preschool and are now graduating from college, and others who are participating for the first time.

 

 

Born to Polyamorous Families
A brief note about when children join or come to realize they are members of a polyamorous family: The data in this study reflect primarily the experiences of children who have grown up in polyamorous families, rather than those whose parents become polyamorous once they are adolescents or adults. Because I am following these families across time, most of these children have known about the polyamory nature of their families for quite a while.

Age Dependent Experiences
As with many children, the kids growing up in polyamorous families understand their families in the context of their own experiences, and those experiences are largely age-dependent.

Young Children 0-8
Small children do not think about their families in comparison to other families, and indeed do not even think of other people as separate from themselves for a little while. Developmentally, small children are self-centered and view the world through the way it relates to them. For instance, a three-year old child who had visited a friend at home for a play date returned home to excitedly report to her mother that “Tasha only has two parents! Just two of them!” The child from the polyamorous family took their family for granted as simply the way things are, and other people’s families seemed weird in comparison.

By the beginning of elementary school, children from polyamorous families are beginning to understand that their families are different from their peers. Even though they probably don’t understand the true nature of adult sexual relationships, they know that there are more people around their place than in many of their peers’ homes. Rather than being bothered by it, these kids from poly families generally find the extra adults to be advantageous in a practical ice-cream and new toy kind of way.

Tweens 9 – 12
Developmentally, middle school and junior high bring the first glimmers of puberty and a much wider social world beyond the confines of the family. Kids from poly families also become more aware of their social environments and their differences from others’ families. Their peers occasionally notice the poly family differences, but are easily derailed from discussing polyamory because they have short spans of attention and are easily distracted. Tweens still tend to see parents’ partners as positive resources in life, useful for rides home from the movies and $5 for an after-school activity or a quick swing by the ice-cream parlor. Kids in this group may begin to develop an inkling that something beyond friendship is happening among some of the adults in their lives, but they generally do not fully understand or want any details.

Teens 13 – 17
Teens have a much more sophisticated understanding of social life than do their younger bretheren. By the time kids in poly families are in their teens, they are usually well aware that their families are different from many others. Because their peers are also more socially sophisticated, it can become increasingly difficult to hide the polyamorous nature of the family from friends and others at school or on sports teams. In addition to navigating the complexities of coming from an unconventional family, these teens must decide what it means for their own budding sexuality. Even with their increased awareness of their parents’ romantic relationships, these teens are far more concerned with their own lives and invested in their own social worlds. Like many teens, they do not spend a lot of time thinking or talking about their parents’ lives outside of how it impacts them directly.

Young Adults 18 – 25
Many children from polyamorous families go to college after high school, though not all of them finish their degrees. Others go traveling, get jobs, or go in to the military. Especially for those in college- – but even for those who are not — a general practice of “hooking up” among their peers often means that young adults from polyamorous family backgrounds do not have to take a serious stand or even make a choice about whether to practice monogamy or not. For the most part, they can go with the social flow that allows multiple casual hook ups and the occasional more serious relationship to coexist without a lot of energy spent on definitions or labels.

Moving out of the parental home often requires young adults to establish new social circles to provide some of the support the used to get from parents and high-school friends. Young adults who have grown up in polyamorous families report that they have practiced the communication and negotiation skills that allow them to defuse conflicts with room-mates and establish supportive relationships that provide emotional intimacy where ever they live.

In Great Shape – In Context
The children and young adults who have participated in my research are generally in great shape, by which I mean they are articulate, intelligent, thoughtful, and capable young people. Although their lives are not perfect, they largely feel equipped to deal with life’s challenges – both with their own internal resources, and with support from others.

Volunteers
As in almost all family studies, my participants are volunteers who must decide to participate and wish to continue, and they can stop at any time. In practice, that means that mostly “healthy” families (ie. families that are not abusive, drug addicted, murderous, or pathological) volunteer for research. Inviting a researcher in to the family home to ask questions, observe family interactions, and interview children is far too dangerous for families with something to hide, so they generally do not volunteer for research.

Race and Class Privilege
Characteristic of the organized mainstream polyamorous community in the United States and abroad, the people who volunteered for my research are mostly white, middle class, and highly educated. When children are born into race and class privilege it is easier for them to be well educated, articulate, confident people because they experience a culture designed to keep them comfortable and safe.

Lots and Lots of Attention
In addition to race and class privileges, children growing up in polyamorous families enjoy the benefits of having an expanded social safety net. Both children and parents repeatedly mention the many advantages they find with having extra adults around, from help with homework and a trusted adult to talk to when they didn’t want to talk to a parent, to someone else around to get up with the baby in the middle of the night when someone needs to get to work in the morning, or a someone to step in and take over when the toddler or teenager has frustrated the parent beyond their ability to cope effectively. Practical, emotional, financial, and logistic benefits accrue for family members when they can draw from a wider range of people to seek assistance.

In the second blog in this series I detail the advantages and disadvantages these children identify as part of polyamorous family life.

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The Conflict with Conflict in Poly Relationships

Cindy Trawinski, PsyD & Rami Henrich, LCSW

Cindy Trawinski, PsyD & Rami Henrich, LCSW

by Cindy Trawinski, PsyD

Ever had conflict?

Most people have had more conflict than they care to recall. Conflict is important to everyone and every relationship but when you are in a multi-partnered relationship good conflict skills become even more critical. On May 6, 2017, Rami Henrich, LCSW and I presented a workshop on applying the principle of deep democracy to everyday conflicts in relationships at the 1st Annual Chicago Consensual Non-monogamy Conference.

What is deep democracy?

Deep democracy is Arnold Mindell’s idea that all voices in relationships, families and communities are important and needed for the wholeness and well being of the of the larger group. Deep democracy “addresses the perennial conflict of marginalization by emphasizing the value of all viewpoints and the necessity for them each to find expression.” 1 In other words, deep democracy means being open to all viewpoints, experiences, and emotions, not just the ones that we agree with, but also those that are uncomfortable, unknown, or frightening. This is a difficult thing to achieve, but it is worth the effort because “if change occurs by devaluing one state and throwing it out in favor of another, the part that has been thrown out may come back to assert itself and sabotage what has already been accomplished.” 2 Ignoring one viewpoint in favor of another only polarizes the two sides and moves them farther apart, but deep democracy tries to honor “that special feeling of belief in the inherent importance of all parts of ourselves and all viewpoints in the world around us.” 3

Conflict in Everyday Life

Many of us notice that we fall into a pattern of response to relationship conflict that recycles again and again, without providing an opening to approach our partner(s) from a new perspective or with new feelings. Gaining a fresh awareness of ourselves and our partner(s) in conflictual situations helps relieve the tension and brings in new possibilities.

Mindell’s work with conflict has evolved overtime but central to his approach is the idea of finding momentary common ground and personal resonance with our partner(s). In his recent book, Conflict: Phases, Forums & Solutions, he describes four phases of conflict. The illustration below captures some of the thoughts or feelings we may have in different phases of conflict.

One way we commonly look at conflict is to think of it as a struggle between incompatible points of view, needs or wishes. We may have a tendency to focus on the issue instead of our experience and our partner’s experience. Or we may focus on our own or partner’s psychology instead of the experience we each may be having. These approaches can lead to polarization, trying to convince, compromise, cajole or argue our way to a conclusion or solution. And sometimes that satisfies us. But when these strategies don’t satisfy us, we need another way of thinking about conflict and new skills for creating resolution together.

The 4 Phases of Conflict

 

These phases don’t always follow each other sequentially and we may experience some only fleetingly.

PHASE 1 may be associated with being happy.   This phase is often what our culture focuses most on attaining but it is only a temporary state. In Phase 1, we don’t seem to have problems, disagreements or tensions.

PHASE 2 is what many people identify as conflict. In Phase 2, the tension surfaces.  arguments, disagreements, frustrations, etc… arise here. We tend to lose sight of the phases that precede and follow this phase of tension and upset. When you are stuck in Phase 2, you may want to get some help or support (i.e therapy) but you could also work on the situation yourself (see exercise below).

We often sense that “role switching” of PHASE 3 is needed or wanted but have trouble being able to deeply understand and feel into others’ experiences of the conflict we are in. Role switching is imagining or feeling how another sees and experiences the problem and embracing (even if briefly) their point of view.  This often relieves the tension momentarily and allows us to find common ground or approach the other from a less polarized point of view.  We sometimes need outside help or support (therapy, counseling, meditation) to reach this phase but there are tools and skills we can learn and develop to help ourselves into this phase (the exercise below is one way).

PHASE 4, the feelings of relaxed detachment and sensing how the universe moves you, is not only a phase but also the background of openness and acceptance behind all the phases.

Why 4 Phases?

Recognizing all the phases of conflict is especially important to people in non-monogamous relationships for at least 3 reasons:

1. It helps us recognize that each of our relationships are in different phases. One relationship is not better or worse than another.

2. It reminds us that these are fluid states or phases. They are changing, not fixed. This can reduce tension and frustration and give us a sense of what to expect.

3. If you are providing support to others in Phase 2, knowing there are phases may help you remain neutral and facilitate all parties.

So, the next time you find yourself in Phase 2 conflict and tension, try remembering it is a part of bigger process and then practice role switching or use the exercise below to try to find a new perspective.

Exercise: 5-Minute Communing Practice

To reduce and resolve conflict in your relationship(s), practice this process alone or with a partner.

A. Choose a conflict and ask yourself, or your partner, coach your partner on how to play the “disturbing one” — the person with whom you have conflict. What do they do or say that upsets you? What is it that bothers you about the situation or relationship?

B. Now, identify and appreciate the real-world differences between you. How are you different from the “disturbing one”? Imagine defending yourself and/or getting encouragement to defend your viewpoint.

C. Now “commune”; feel and dream into the other (the disturbing one) until you can be them, until you understand the other’s feelings as feelings you recognize in yourself. Sense how you are “disturbing one.”

D. Remembering this “communing” experience, commune-icate with the “disturbing one” (or your partner playing them), sharing your similarity to them and understanding of where feelings come from.

E. Finally, ask your partner to give you feedback about your ability to “commune-icate.”

With practice, this 5-minute process can reduce conflict. If this process takes more than 5 minutes, repeat the exercise until you can do it more easily, and more quickly.

THIS EXERCISE AND OTHERS CAN BE FOUND IN CONFLICT: PHASES, FORUMS & SOLUTIONS BY ARNOLD MINDELL (2017)

1 Menken, 2001, p. 14
2 Diamond & Jones, 2004, p. 36
3 Mindell, 1993, p. 5

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More to Love: Polyamory in the Real World

On May 30, 2017, LifeWorks partner Rami Henrich, LCSW was part of an interview for Chicago Tonight which aired on Chicago’s PBS station WTTW regarding polyamorous relationships.  In the on air interview, Rami shares her experience of being in a polyamorous relationship for over 34 years.  She is joined in the interview by Caroline Kearns of Chicago Polyamory Connection who talks about her polycule and Jennifer Rafacz, PhD of the Family Institute at Northwestern University who brings her perspective to the conversation.  Below is a supplemental interview with Rami.  For the full post, please visit the Chicago Tonight website.

A 2016 study by the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy suggests that as many as one in five single Americans report having engaged in consensual non-monogamy, or the practice of having two or more romantic partners.

Indeed, non-monogamy is experiencing a cultural moment in media recently, showing up as the subject of New York Times think pieces and as a plot driver in television dramas. Proponents of polyamory say that it’s simply about bringing more love and honesty into their relationships.

But when those relationships bump up against everyday life, does more love mean more complications?

Below, Q&As with Rami Henrich of Lifeworks Psychotherapy.

How would you describe your family and how it came to be?

Rami Henrich: I have been in a poly relationship since 1983. I was married in 1976 to a man, and I met my partner, who is a woman, in 1983. My husband was okay about opening the relationship to include my partner. Over a period of some time, we decided to all live together. We have lived together for 26 years. I think in the community, we’re kind of seen as the elders because we’ve really made it work. And ours is a very specific constellation – we have a more or less monogamous poly relationship – none of us goes outside the three of us. None of us is interested in that – but if any of us wanted to do it, we’d talk about it. I have my primary relationship with each of them, and their primary relationship is me. So we three have raised children together. My husband and I birthed two children. My partner Cindy isn’t considered a parent, but a family member. We raised two kids together but I didn’t know anything about polyamory. We were slashing through the institutionalized bushes together, school issues, how do you tell the kids, family, friends. It was a big coming out process over the years.

Probably like the early ‘90s was the first time I heard the word “polyamory.” It was really interesting to me to find out there was a community doing something similar to what we were doing and we weren’t alone. We joined a Chicago poly meetup group, and after I had gone to a book club or two, I saw something on their site saying they were looking for a therapist to facilitate a support group. My partner and I started facilitating that group once a month now for eight years, and we had 1,000 to 2,000 people come through that group. I was shocked the first day that I said that I would do it, within 24 hours we had 20 people signed up with a wait list of 10. Over the years I would say somewhere between 25 and 45 people a month show up for those meetings. It’s created an extraordinary community – before Lifeworks became Lifeworks, some of those people started seeing me in my private practice, so it was a natural direction to go in because the poly community created a demand for support. I had always wanted to find a way to help marginalized communities. It found me.

How did you realize you wanted a poly relationship?

RH: For me personally it was that I loved somebody other than my husband – I thought, why do I have to choose? I’m kind of a deconstructionist by nature – I would think to myself, why do I have to choose, who says I have to love my father more than my mother, my sister more than I love my brother? Some people come to that early in life – why do I need to say no to this one and yes to that? Who makes up this binary system around our loving? I found myself wanting to be with more than one person – I did early in my life come to a group in Boston where it was allowed and was accepted – I was a hippie, what can I tell you – it helped to shape the way I thought later.

What was the coming-out process like?

RH: In the beginning I was very cautious about who I told – I had a difficult time letting my parents know about it, because I thought they might try to take my children from me, which they didn’t. My mother at the time said “good for you that you have all this love in your life.” It was such a gift. My father didn’t understand what I was talking about. My siblings in particular, they were open but they still took a long time to wrap their heads around what was really going on here. If we didn’t tell people in our lives, our friends, our neighbors, they wouldn’t know – they saw the three of us coming and going but nobody ever really asked us what’s going on. I say that in our neighborhood we all have “white picket fences,” but ours is quite crooked. It wasn’t until I was interviewed for a north shore magazine where I spoke professionally about  what was going on, that our neighbors were like, oh, so that’s what’s going on. And I think we’d be surprised to find out how many crooked fences there are.

What are the relationship problems poly relationships face that monogamous relationships don’t?

RH: One of the biggest things is opening up, if one party is really open to it and another is being dragged into it, how to negotiate all the things like jealousy, time, the legitimization of certain relationships like those who are married vis a vis those who aren’t, the primacy of relationships, the marginalization within the relationships, who gets the most of a partner, who gets the least, opening up to their families, how to deal with being poly and having children.

This paper I wrote speaks specifically about the unique issues of poly clients. You have to deal with more than one relationship – some of the constellations are much bigger than us – having to manage their time, their energy, their money, their place in the world, all of those kinds of things get exponentially more difficult with more people in a relationship.

Some people that have come in for therapy try to get me to say they’re poly to legitimize screwing around. And I tell them, I just think you want to have a lot of affairs and you want your wife to say okay. I wouldn’t say it happens a lot but I have seen it. But I think that it is for most a serious endeavor.

Do you think this generation will embrace poly life?

RH: I think the young people are really latching on to it – but there’s something about the culture of being poly where everything is based on a principle of openness and honesty, so everyone knows about one another. I find the endeavor very truthful and sincere. Some people identify being poly as being hard-wired and others are endeavoring to live a poly lifestyle. There’s a wave of more acceptance around alternative lifestyle, so I think it gave more room to endeavor to be poly.

Do you think that poly life is accurately portrayed in the media?

RH: Mostly what I see on TV is they’re kinda oddballish – I think that there are many people on the fringes who are practicing poly but there are many mainstream – being poly is not exactly mainstream. I may not be paying attention to a lot of it but I think the things I have seen try to oversensationalize the sex part of it. When somebody called me to televise our poly relationship for a reality show, I said, you would be bored watching the three of us watch TV.

 

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Shaming Methods in Popular Psychology

by David Bedrick J.D., Dipl. PW

David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW, is a speaker, counselor, attorney, and teacher.  He is the author of the acclaimed Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology and the forthcoming title Revisioning Activism: Bringing Depth, Dialogue, and Diversity to Individual and Social Change (Belly Song Press, 2017). The following article is posted with permission from David Bedrick, J.D., Dipl. PW.  The original can be found here.  

The role of a therapist is to elicit a response from their client that indicates greater self-knowledge and freedom to live authentically, which, in turn, will enable the actuality of healing. With the need for psychology, as a means to make sense of the modern world, at an all time high in the Western Hemisphere, it is imperative that therapists, no matter which school of thought they originate from, be a positive conduit for an individuals’ personal change.

The process of psychology by which true and deep healing can occur, in the lives of many, hinges on a profound connection between the client and that which they wish to change. This sought after change is directed, and enabled by a therapists’ communication style. It is, therefore, imperative to understand that employing a communication style that mirrors society, in order to appear relevant and understood, may not be a therapeutic response to a client’s needs. For example, Dr. Phil has a method of psychology that he readily disseminates in an immediate fashion on his show, that I believe is not in keeping with the intricacies of the healing process as a whole.

By making an authoritative and somewhat condescending remark like, “What are you thinking?” in the context of another’s attempt at healing, he automatically takes a negative parental role, one that often creates shame.

Using shame as a tactic for healing might be considered a dramatic tool in the healing process because it is a recognizable trait (to most), that potentially has the power to motivate, or, to be used as a catalyst in the healing process. However, at what cost to the client’s psyche is this use of shame in the process of rightful and positive change?

To be able to lead a client into the throws of healing is to take an inquiring and learning mind in the treatment process. To stress to a patient “What are you thinking?” means to make them believe that they are in need of correction, that they are ill equipped to understand their own process of healing, they are inferior, incomplete.

This method of psychology may seem instrumental and important on the air, as television audiences are in need of being entertained, and the process of actual healing may be lost in the need to please viewers, but, true and lasting change must happen outside the need to ridicule, or insult the person in need of healing.

This concept might seem over simplistic, however, shows like Dr. Phil’s are enormously popular, and govern (to some degree) how the public believes psychology is administered, so, for this reason, it is important to counteract Dr. Phil’s methods, by highlighting the weaknesses in his ‘popular’ psychology skills. Further, most people have internalized this same paradigm, learned either at the hands of parents or educational systems, that their suffering is a result of their deficiencies, lack, or brokenness.

The art of deep listening is an important key in psychology. This form of action can be used by anyone: therapists and others alike. This process merely asks an individual to really listen to their client, with an open heart, without judgment, without ‘trying to fix the person who is speaking,’ without formulating what your response will be, or, how you will treat this client in the future.

It further requires that we listen to what is said; what is available to the conscious mind of the client, as well as to what is unsaid, expressed in body language, dreams, relationship difficulties, habits, disturbing feelings, and more. By merely listening with your whole being, in this manner, a great deal of healing can occur as the client feels heard, validated, safe and known in ways that they didn’t even know heretofore. All that is necessary to engage in this method of healing is the willingness to move away from shaming techniques that cause an ongoing flux in the client/therapist dynamic and the willingness to learn one or two techniques to access less conscious information.

Using Shame to Address Smoking
Let’s take the above concept and apply it to an actual situation. If a person requires professional help to stop smoking it is important to understand why they smoke, their relationship to smoking, as each smoker will differ in their reasons for taking up the habit. Using shame to identify the cause of why they smoke will not be of use here. I could say, “Don’t you read the warnings on the pack? Don’t you know they are bad for you?” Or, common Dr. Phil phrases, like “What are you thinking?” or “How’s that working for you?” This method of communication causes shame to take hold. Not only is it an obvious observation (that oversimplifies and compromises the intelligence of the client), but, it insinuates that if they are willing to hurt their health, there must be no deeper reason for sustaining their habit. This is just not true.

Each smoker is acutely aware that the habit is not good for their health, and if shame is used as a catalyst to move away from the need to smoke, a negative result will occur. The client is already feeling bad about allowing this habit to form, or they wouldn’t be seeking help to eradicate it, now, if they continue to be shamed, they will most likely feel even more resistant to changing their habit. This shaming attitude will only keep the client from the freedom of thought needed to deeply inquire into their desire to smoke and keep them from the integration necessary to release themselves from the habit.

Using Shame to Address Anger
The process of psychology is to uncover what is hidden from the client
, utilizing deep listening techniques, so, they are free to make choices as prompted by their deeper understanding of their personal and authentic needs and desires. Objectively anyone will tell you that anger as a form of communication is unpleasant, detrimental even. I am not claiming that anger is good for your health, but, when activated, I believe uncovering and understanding how, and why it occurs, then working through said anger can have a both profound and healing effect on an individual.

Using shame in relation to one’s need to express anger can be an insidious undertaking.

Dr. Phil might suggest eastern modes of ‘dealing’ with anger: meditation and breathing techniques. These approaches to healing anger are not incorrect, but, they are incomplete. Psychology is about exploration, so, in that vein, I say let’s explore anger, get behind it, examine it, allow it to manifest to its fullest capacity. That way we embrace anger, accept it, then we are not afraid of it, and more, importantly, our actions are not ruled by its force, because we were able to uncover, then demystify its origins by allowing it to manifest freely in a safe environment. When that happens, clients invariably find that hidden inside their anger is often needed energy, power or insight bout the ways they are being poorly treated inside of themselves or in the world around them. If people do not gain these insights, the anger is likely to reoccur- the healing intervention will not sustain.

I discuss Dr. Phil here, not to critique the man, but because he is a straw man for the application of shame as a common response to the question of healing, leaving people with nothing more than a superficial version of what the healing process actually entails.

Systematic healing derives from helping people learn about their deeper needs, impulses, and natures, not from negative shaming tactics, a version of psychology Dr. Phil has chosen to embrace.

Lastly, in the spirit of inclusion and fairness, let me acknowledge the contribution Dr. Phil makes to the understanding of psychology as well as to me, for if his paradigm did not exist, I would not be able to counter it, and, therefore, the world would not experience the diversity of opinions and thoughts to assimilate and choose from.

To learn more about David Bedrick’s alternatives to shame in psychology and his critique of Dr. Phil, see his book Talking Back to Dr. Phil: Alternatives to Mainstream Psychology.

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What Basson’s Sexual Response Cycle Teaches Us About Sexuality

by Jo Flannery, AMFT

The following article has been adapted from “Taking a Closer Look at Basson’s Model of the Sexual Response Cycle,” Jo Flannery’s article for Sexology International. It has been edited from its original format. To read the original article, click here.

 

There is no one reason people choose to have sex. Rather, human beings become aroused by various stimuli and have diverse motivations to engage in sexual activity.

In (very) simplified terms, that is how Dr. Rosemary Basson would like us to understand our sexuality. Basson’s nonlinear model of sexual response seeks to more accurately depict the components of desire and the underlying motivational forces that trigger it.  Her work has focused particularly on women in long-term relationships.

In contrast to the traditional model of human sexuality put forth by William Masters and Virginia Johnson (who you may know from the fictionalized portrayal on the television show Masters of Sex), Basson’s model is circular and more complex: it acknowledges that desire can be responsive or spontaneous and that it may come either before or after arousal. This model recognizes that orgasm may contribute to, but is not necessary for, satisfaction, and that relationship factors can affect one’s willingness and ability to participate in sex. Another unique aspect of Basson’s circular model is that a person can enter the cycle at several different points.

Understanding Why People Have Sex
What makes someone want to have sex? People have varied, differing motivations—some obvious, others unexpected. Often, people have sex for the predictable reasons: to feel emotional intimacy, because of attraction, to engage in physical pleasure, and to express love. These are called approach motivations. They focus on positive feelings and desires such as affection and enjoyment.

Not all motivations to have sex are positive, however. There are also avoidance motivations, which are characterized by a desire to stop or prevent something. A person may choose to engage in sexual activity, for example, to stop a partner from leaving the relationship or for fear of not being loved.

Staying Mindful of Sexual Stimuli
Certain stimuli may turn someone on—that is, increase their interest in having sex. A sexual stimulus may come in the form of a kiss or touch from a partner. It could be something visual, or perhaps a smell or a sound. Regardless of their form, these stimuli are what initiate sexual arousal when all other conditions are met, including one’s willingness to engage in sex and commitment to remain engaged in the act. In other words, people have all kinds of different turn-ons, but turn-ons alone are not always enough for a person to have sex.

According to Basson, the context of a sexual encounter and a person’s state of mind may be the most important parts of the sexual response cycle. Context refers the current situation or environment in which sex could happen.

The predominant context is a relationship: for instance, a relationship characterized by trust, emotional connection, and flirty playfulness is much more likely going to increase the strength of a person’s sexual response as opposed to a relationship that is in turmoil and rife with resentment, contempt, and conflict.

A person’s mindset matters, too. One’s mindset includes all of their inner psychological processes, such as emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. If one is feeling calm, confident, attractive, and secure, they are more likely to become aroused and desire sex than if they are feeling anxious, unattractive, distracted, or unsafe. Sexual scripts—what one thinks sex looks like, or should look like—will also have an impact. If someone has a particularly negative view about sex, that person may feel closed off and be less likely to approach sex openly.

A Person’s Sexual Response Can Be Ignited at Any Phase in the Cycle
Not all sexual encounters begin with spontaneous sexual desire. It is common for partners to feel desire at different times, especially in long-term relationships. However, if someone is open and willing—and has the ability to stay mindful and engaged—they are likely to feel desire with appropriate sexual stimuli and context.

A rewarding sexual experience, which may or may not involve orgasm, usually encourages a person’s willingness to engage in sex in the future. On the other hand, a pattern of negative experiences may decrease a person’s interest in sex overall.

Spontaneous sexual desire manifests in the sense of sexual urgency, passion, or “horniness.” In Basson’s model, feelings of sexual urgency can happen at several points during a sexual encounter, and are particularly evident at the beginning of relationships, when sex is frequent.

However, spontaneous sexual desire is not necessary to become aroused and have fulfilling sex. Responsive sexual desire is equally as powerful. Responsive sexual desire occurs when one is willing to engage in sex even when they do not initially feel desire or arousal. With sufficient sexual stimuli—and in the appropriate context—one can move from a place of neutrality to feelings of arousal and desire.

Knowledge of Your Sexuality Is Power
Are you aware of and comfortable with your own sexuality? Just as there is no universal reason or motivation to have sex, there are many different ways people identify with and express their sexuality. The frequency and intensity of sexual encounters vary person by person, as does a person’s number of sexual partners at any given time. You may choose not to engage in certain activities during sex, or abstain from sex entirely. Additionally, your sexuality and feelings about sex may shift and evolve throughout the course of your life. There is no right or wrong way to have sex—or not have sex—or to define your sexuality.

Understand that sex may or may not be a component of your intimate, romantic relationship(s). Some relationships center on sex; others involve it very little or not at all. The sexual components of a relationship typically change over time.

Regardless, mutual happiness, fulfillment, and consent among partners are necessary ingredients in all healthy sexual encounters. Significant problems at any stage of the sexual response cycle can lead to conflict in relationships, as well as physical and mental difficulties and dysfunction. No matter what, it is important to know your mind, body, and areas for growth regarding intercourse, arousal, and desire.

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How to Create Fulfilling Relationships After Experiences of Abuse

by Niyati Evers, MAPW

We are pleased to share this article by our friend and colleague, Niyati Evers, MAPW, and diplomate in Process Work. Niyati is a sex-positive therapist with Alchemy of Eros, a Portland, Oregon-based professional counseling services organization that seeks to create a welcoming, non-judgmental space where people can explore issues around relationships, intimacy, power, passion, desire, sexuality, life transitions, and personal transformation.

This article has been edited and condensed from its original version.

Many people experience abuse and trauma. Abuse may occur in adult life, during childhood, or through experiences of war and other traumatic events, and can take many forms, from physical and sexual abuse to emotional and psychological forms of abuse. If you are currently in an abusive relationship, experiencing recent trauma, or need immediate help, click here for a list of resources.

What Constitutes Abuse?

Process-oriented Psychology defines abuse as a situation where one person consciously or unconsciously misuses their power over another person, and where there is a power differential that makes it impossible, dangerous, or extremely risky for the person who is being abused to defend themselves.

Having lived through an abusive relationship myself, I know firsthand how hard it can be to come to terms with these experiences and the scars they leave behind. It can be challenging to navigate those inner scars and painful memories when trying to create new and fulfilling relationships.

Past experiences of abuse often reverberate in the present, and triggers may show up in a person’s bodily sensations.

Past trauma may manifest through visceral, physical responses that don’t seem to make sense or correspond to the current situation. The circumstances that cause these responses are sometimes called triggers. My personal triggers often involve some kind of sudden or unexpected noise. One of my triggers, for example, is a loud knock on the door—it can send my heart racing as I catch my breath in my throat.

It’s difficult to get rid of these triggers. They seem to get embedded in memory during a time in your life when you needed to be on high alert because your physical, emotional, or mental survival was at stake. Triggers function like an internal warning system, letting you know that there’s danger ahead.

In abusive situations, a watchful, high-alert mindset often becomes second nature. Having lived with a partner who could suddenly change from charming, gregarious, and playful into a vicious and violent monster, I learned how to watch for and read subtle signals that indicated imminent changes in his state of mind. This was my way of protecting myself from the abuse that would inevitably follow his mood shifts.

Sadly, as many of us know and have experienced, abusive behavior frequently repeats itself. My previous partner was a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. After living through war and violence, he too was deeply traumatized.

Knowing that it’s not easy to change our triggers, and that these negative feelings do not readily disappear, how do we navigate life after trauma without repeating cycles of abuse? How can we transform our experiences in ways that allow us to have healthy and happy relationships?

 

  1. Know Your Triggers

Triggers differ from person to person, depending on the kind of abuse each person experienced. Your trigger may be a sudden, loud sound; or the feeling of being approached too close, too fast; or the way someone touches you, or where they touch you. Your triggers are specific to you and your history.

Knowing what triggers “set you off” is helpful in many ways: This knowledge can help you put your own reaction in perspective and differentiate it from what’s actually happening in the moment.

By letting a partner know what your triggers are, you can help them understand where your responses are coming from. This can go a long way towards preventing painful conflicts between you and for your partner(s).

  1. Get to Know Your Triggered State

Knowing how you tend to behave, feel, and react when you are triggered can deepen your understanding of yourself and your relationships. It allows you to have constructive and supportive conversations with your partner(s) about what’s going on and what each of you needs, rather than responding from a reactive, defensive standpoint.

One of the ways in which I behave when I am triggered is that my “lawyer mind” tends to take over. I withdraw emotionally and I question my partner’s behavior from a place of suspicion. My current partner has told me that, when this happens, he feels like he is on the “witness stand,” that he’s being interrogated. Recognition of this pattern gave me the awareness to explore the feeling behind my reactions.

  1. Learn to Set Boundaries in Direct and Constructive Ways

If you have lived through an abusive situation, you may find it overwhelmingly difficult to connect with personal power after trauma. Your relationship with power may be colored by very negative and destructive experiences. You may feel a great deal of fear when using your body or voice in a way that could affect another person.

One of the major challenges for people who have survived abuse lies in their relationship with power. Abuse often undermines a sense of personal power.  If you cannot connect to your own power, you may inadvertently bury your aggression and rage, causing these feelings to emerge in passive, indirect, harmful ways in your relationships, such as

  • ignoring a partner
  • withdrawing emotionally
  • blaming or guilting a partner unfairly

In its most essential nature, power is neutral. It is energy—energy you can use in positive or in negative ways. The good news is that positive power builds its own momentum: the more positive experiences you have of using your power in your relationships in constructive and direct ways, the safer you’ll feel to keep connecting to and expressing your power.

  1. Understand Your Inner Abuser

People who have experienced abuse may repeat the cycle inwardly, against themselves. Your inner abuser may shame and blame you for what happened, using any kind of “lesson from the past” as a way to criticize you: “See, if you had only listened to yourself better or stood up for yourself more. You brought it on yourself by not being stronger and speaking up.” While it seems like the “inner abuser” wants you to protect yourself better, this voice perpetuates the abuse by blaming you while ignoring the circumstances and power differentials that surrounded the abuse.

The inner abuser also doesn’t allow you to experience the real feelings and real losses that follow abuse. In our culture, there is a tendency to view victimhood negatively—and while each of us can get stuck in feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, that doesn’t negate the facts of abuse. In an abusive situation, you were the victim. To heal from trauma, you need to make space for feelings of loss, grief, fear, and rage—feelings you couldn’t feel at the time because, in situations of abuse, it is often unsafe to show any feelings at all.

  1. Let Go of Impossible Expectations

Letting your partner know about your triggers does not mean that your partner will never trigger you. To expect that of anyone is not only unfair to the other person—it also creates a dynamic of over-cautiousness where the other person may feel like they have to “walk on eggshells” around you.

Yes, you have every right to expect that your partner(s) treat you with respect. At the same time, it is important not to hold your partner responsible for your triggers. Your triggers are part of your history. It’s critical to learn how to distinguish between when abuse is happening or repeating itself (and your reaction is appropriate to the actual situation); and when your reaction emerges in response to a trigger and from your sense of your own history.

At the same time, communicating about your triggers will help your partner understand why you may have seemingly “disproportionate” reactions. Meta-communication, or naming what you are noticing or experiencing in the moment,  is one helpful tactic. Meta-communicating with your partner may sound like this: “I’m triggered—I need space to process this. I will come back into the relationship later, but right now I need to come back into my own skin first.”

The Power of Sensitivity

Knowing you have lived through an experience of abuse doesn’t turn you into “damaged goods” or make you a worse partner. On the contrary: the sensitivity and awareness that people who live through abuse develop by necessity can be a huge asset in any relationship. If you have experienced abuse, you will pick up on information and see signals others may overlook. Your experience often magnifies your ability to empathize with others’ feelings.

Know that having lived through the abuse of power can potentially make you an expert and teacher in how to use power in ways that heal rather than hurt, nurture instead of demean, and deepen instead of destroy relationships.

Read Niyati’s full article, or listen to the podcast, on the Alchemy of Eros blog.

To read more LifeWorks blogs about Trauma, use the search box to the right, under Articles by Topic.

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