Saturday, July 30, 2011

Emotional Detachment vs. Relational Cutoff

I was reading through a list of acronyms Alcoholics Anonymous uses to remember concepts and was most struck by one in particular.

DETACH – Don’t Even Think About Changing Him/Her.

Sometimes during counseling, a client will ask for clarification on what “loving detachment” looks like (a solution CODA suggests). Explanation is needed because it is often inaccurately interpreted as “emotional cutoff”. Emotional cutoff is an extreme measure not to be used except in the most toxic of circumstances.

Loving detachment can be most easily described as the emotional distance required to keep from being negatively triggered by another person. When I have found that degree of separation, I can remain nonreactive to their behavior and as a result not build up resentments towards them. I am protecting both of us – me, from their maladaptive actions or manipulations, and them from my angry or inappropriate responses. When I find that “right distance” I can love them despite their harmful behaviors.

Emotional cutoff, as opposed to distancing, is a total shutout of connection with the person. Dr. John Gottman calls this “stonewalling” – not allowing anything said by a person to have any effect on me whatsoever. (All your words are thrown against a stone wall – an impenetrable barrier.)

I could describe loving detachment as an effective filter, letting through only the useful content to maintain a healthy relationship, whereas emotional cutoff filters out all incoming information of a feeling nature.

Jesus called for us to love our enemies, not to hate them. (Matthew 5:44) When we are locked in an emotional struggle with a person, even someone we care for deeply, they can feel like an enemy. It makes it very hard for us to love them. But we are still required to do so.    

I know that I am at the right distance when I no longer feel the need to try to control them. At that distance I can accept them (not their behavior) and I give up my false belief that I have the power to change them. At that place, I have freedom in a new way. I am no longer slave to the relationship, and I will not sit down to breakfast with a bowl of resentment and regret.

So when that urge comes to try to change someone, you are too close. DETACH!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Great Friend

As I study to improve my skills and understanding as a counselor, it always leads me into a place of self-examination. If I cannot allow the things I learn to affect my own life, how can I expect it of others? It would be kind of like listening to a sermon in church and constantly elbowing the person next to you.

There is a passage in the Bible that is generally considered to be one of the core instructions for being a counselor, but I think it also could describe the qualities of a great friend.

The passage is from 1 Thessalonians 5.

14 Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are lazy. Encourage those who are timid. Take tender care of those who are weak. Be patient with everyone. 15 See that no one pays back evil for evil, but always try to do good to each other and to all people. 16 Always be joyful. 17 Never stop praying. 18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.

The skill set required to be a good counselor can also apply to being a good spouse (although I strongly suggest that you not try to be your spouse’s therapist).

Attending – Provide undivided attention when your spouse/friend is speaking. Maintain eye contact without staring, keep an open posture, lean forward and give small gestures to assure the person you are present.

Empathic response – Respond to the speaker in a way that assures them that you are connecting with the emotional content of their story (not just the informational content).

The interpersonal qualities of a good counselor are the same as a good friend.

Genuineness – You need to be the kind of person that you would want your friend/spouse to be. For example we cannot ask for kindness from them, while treating them in a harsh or demanding way.

Warmth – This is an essential quality for a therapist. Without it there is little chance that a trust-bond can be formed. The same can be said in other relationships. Without warmth there can be no relaxing.

Positive regard – This is treating the person with respect and care as a person made in the image of God. This does not mean that you always agree with them, or that you do not see a need for change.

Supportive and challenging – As a friend I must be able to give strong support to the person even though I may not be able to support their behavior at times. Knowing how to hold that delicate balance means I must be in communion with God.

As I strive to be a better counselor, I also want to endeavor to be a better person, friend, and spouse.

Can you agree?    

Saturday, July 16, 2011


A friend this week asked me to write about accountability. It’s a word that is thrown around a lot in both Christian and recovery circles. What is implied and how should one respond if asked to be in an accountability relationship?

In recovery terms, it is a more formal relationship, where a person volunteers to be a ‘sponsor’ to a less recovered individual. In moments of weakness, the sponsor is the ‘go to’ person to talk them through the temptation to slip back into destructive behavior.

In the church community it is usually a voluntary relationship between two or more individuals to help support a desired behavior, such as purity or some other form of self-discipline. It can be a ‘one way’ relationship, but it is often mutual. Sometimes accountability is a required relationship as part of a restoration process, imposed by an authority, such as a church board.

I would suggest a few things be considered if asked to enter into an accountability relationship.

First, are you entering into this relationship voluntarily or do you feel compelled or obligated to participate? You must have the right motivation and attitude to be authentically helped or helpful. You must feel free to say ‘no’ if asked.   

Second, do you have the time? It will require being available on a regular basis for the process to be effective, whether you set up a scheduled time of connection, or on an ‘as needed’ basis. It is necessary to set the parameters of the relationship up front so that there are no unspoken expectations.

Third, are you inadvertently setting up an unwanted parent-child relationship? Peers should remain as such. Is there a risk that a dependent bond will be formed and you are opening yourselves up to potential resentments because of the imbalance?  You must ask yourself “Is this the right accountability partner?”

Fourth, if the relationship is to be one of mutual accountability, do you trust the person? Will you feel safe? If not, you will not be completely honest and the arrangement will suffer. In our men’s group we put confidentiality and safety as the highest value. It is an area that cannot be compromised.

Accountability can be a good tool in our desire to be formed into the image of Christ. It can be part of our process to develop self-disciplines such as prayer, fasting, simplicity, celebration, service, solitude, study, meditation, submission, confession, worship, and guidance (from Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster).

Some friendships need to remain just that, with no added burdens. In others, a deeper intimacy can be achieved by opening ourselves up to examination and correction.

Proverbs 27:6 (NIV) Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Control and Chaos

In the mid to late 1960’s was the television comedy show “Get Smart” (yes, I was a teenager). The plot was basically spy vs. spy – with the organization named “CONTROL” being the good guys and “KAOS” being the evil opponents. I think it is a great metaphor for what many people might believe – that control is good and chaos is bad.

Why would I think that control is good? Simple – it appears to eliminate risk and makes me feel safe, whereas chaos could be defined as the lack of control and the author of insecurity. But is this polarization really true in a relationship?
Chaos in a relationship might actually be the result of an attempt by one person to maintain control over another.
If I fear abandonment I will pursue you with intensity any time you seem to be withdrawing from me. Even if the distancing is reasonable and healthy, I may feel threatened and react by trying to control you. When you feel my control you will likely react by trying to create more distance.  I will pursue harder, and you will run faster and the relationship will be in chaos.
So is the controller at fault? Not necessarily.
On the opposite end there are those that live an undisciplined life creating difficulties and pain for all who associate with them. Their need for freedom and lack of restraint makes them unpredictable and unreliable.    
People at both ends of the spectrum are unsafe people.
So what is the goal? Balance!
In other words, structure with flexibility. It is a mature standing within a relationship that will produce a connected, but not enmeshed one.  I will feel both safe, and free to have a separate identity. 
So how do we achieve this? We have to manage our fears.
When I feel like controlling another person, I must self-soothe my anxiety and ask kindly for what I need. When I feel like running, I must stay connected and ask kindly for what I need. Both must seek compromise, a middle ground. It will likely be difficult at first. But don’t give up!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Feelings vs. Emotions

Early in our marriage Nan and I were really good at conflict. Well, let me restate that. We had a lot of it and it had a lot of energy. The problem was, not much of it got resolved, or at least got resolved without a lot of hurt feelings and lingering wounds. Why? We failed to see a distinction between our feelings and our emotions (along with a whole list of other things related to our immaturity and family of origin baggage).

As one of the basic concepts I use in counseling, I like to define the difference between feelings and emotions and how it leads to making different choices during conflict. Most people use the words interchangeably, but I believe it is valuable to separate them. It is an important distinction when making the decision to talk out rather than act out our issues.

We can think of feelings as an inward process and emotions as an outward expression of those feelings. I encourage people to feel their feelings, but to control their emotions.

If we do not allow ourselves to acknowledge our feelings, then we will not know what it is that we need. But if we move directly from our feelings to expression (action, behavior) we may end up in sin and regret. The step in between is called processing or evaluating.

Because feelings (no matter how intense) do not necessarily reflect reality (because I feel it, doesn’t make it true), I must not be led by them. Instead I must be led by my values. For those of us who are Christian believers it means we must be led by the Holy Spirit. Galations 5 says:

22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.

I must decide in advance what my values are so that I can know if my behavior during a conflict is consistent with them.

If I can remain congruent (my emotions reflecting my values) then the result will be righteousness and no regrets. It may not feel as good (the flesh wants satisfaction), but the soul will be at peace.

Once I have been able to process my feelings and determine what I need (it often requires time away from the conflict), then I can bring a “sanitized” version to the struggle, and hopefully talk out the problem in a calmer way. Then I can ask for what I need instead of making demands or resorting to other maladaptive behaviors. Even if only one person is able to do this, it will still be progress.

Sometimes when I preprocess my feelings with the Lord or another individual, I find that my interpretation is inaccurate or exaggerated and I no longer need to bring up the issue at all, and thereby avoid unnecessary conflict.   

Galations 5: 19 When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, 21envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

  24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. 25 Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. 26 Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another.