Saturday, October 22, 2011

Emotionally Available

Have you ever spent a good deal of time with someone and then left feeling like you have no deeper knowledge of them? Or have you shared a vulnerable moment with someone and afterwards you have no clue as to what they are thinking or feeling, and that your story did not “move” them in any way?

You may be with someone who is emotionally unavailable.

Or perhaps I may be describing you.

Emotional availability is the ability to monitor your own feelings and then communicate them to another person. It is also the ability to read other people’s verbal and non-verbal cues accurately, and then respond appropriately (emotional intelligence).

 I want to emphasize the word “appropriately” here. There can be a tendency to overshare in an attempt to connect with someone, or to withhold out of fear or anxiety. Oversharing may drive a person away because they might interpret it as neediness on your part, whereas holding on too tight to your feelings may lead them to believe you are emotionally cold.

I suggest a layered approach where you reveal your deeper feelings a little at a time, testing to see how they respond. With each new “layer” you should risk a little more and then see if they are also willing to risk in return. If they cannot, then stop there. If you continue to share after that point with nothing in return you will eventually become hurt and resentful.

I have observed that there is a tendency in some people to consider oversharing a virtue in the name of authenticity and transparency. They want to let a potential candidate for a relationship know all the emotional baggage that they carry, even before that person has a chance to discover all the positive benefits of being in a relationship with them. If this happens on a first encounter, I would be very apprehensive.

But on the other hand, people that are unable to share their deeper feelings (both positive and negative) will probably not be able to sustain a relationship because their partner will feel alone. This is where guessing and mind-reading may enter the picture, often with disastrous results. It takes a lot of frustrating work to pull feelings from an emotionally withholding partner. And you may never know if they are really being honest or just placating you.

So would I advise you to run from an emotionally unavailable person? It depends.

In a dating relationship I would suggest proceeding cautiously and not attempt to take them on as a project. If fear is holding them back and they open up as they relax, there might be potential.

In a marriage, it will probably be necessary to enter counseling as soon as possible to prevent further damage.

How about the person who tends to overshare and parade their emotional damage to you?

Again, in a dating relationship I would be careful not to engage in “rescuing” and take them on as a project. Are they engaged in counseling and recovery and being successful in healing the hurt places in their life, or are they stuck or unwilling to get help? Are they growing in maturity both spiritually and emotionally?

You will probably know when you are with an emotionally available and healthy person, because you will feel connected, but not smothered. You will feel relaxed around them, but not bored. You will feel energized, but not find yourself frequently in the middle of a drama, walking on eggshells.

Any thoughts or comments?  

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Being Right or Being in a Relationship?

J was the mother of two good children and the wife of a decent guy. From the outside everything looked like a happy family. But behind closed doors it was anything but. J’s overpowering need for everything to be right (according to her standards) was driving everyone away. And the worst thing about it was that she couldn't see it. Her interpretation was that she was saddled with a lazy and ungrateful family. But the truth was that her overly high standards and the rigid way in which she kept them were crushing her family.

And so she went around feeling bitter and disappointed and often isolated and alone, because her family tried to steer clear of her and her minefield of unrealistic expectations.

At work she got accolades from her boss for her high level of performance, but her co-workers felt that she was not a safe person, that anger was just below the surface, and so they did not engage with her like with other fellow employees. She just thought they were jealous and beneath her. But still, she was alone.

Diagnostically, we could come up with a whole list of possible pathologies¸ but the Bible would probably label J as hard-hearted or un-yielded or stiff-necked. And that would be true. Her own personal emotional and spiritual journey needs to include recovery from this un-loving attitude towards others.  

But as much as I feel for J’s family and co-workers, I also feel deep compassion for J. Her life is not easy. As hard as she may drive others, she feels intense pressure to drive herself even more. She is constantly seeking validation that she is worthy, but never feeling completely at peace about it.     

What do you do if you are J’s family?

You speak the truth in love – a lot of love, not backing away in anger or frustration. J’s husband, who has, but often does not feel power in the relationship, must especially hold loving boundaries.

What if you are J?

There is probably a complex spiritual and emotional battle going on inside of you. It is a jumble of issues related to your family of origin, temperament, and experiences of loss. The results are a foundation of fear and anxiety with its attendant coping mechanisms, one of which is not to acknowledge the fear and anxiety, but to externalize the problem.

This is where understanding God’s unconditional acceptance of you is crucial. When you feel His acceptance, you will begin to accept yourself and others. Grace, rather than critical judgment will flow from you, which will attract others to you like moths to a flame.

This is a journey you cannot attempt alone. It requires spending time in a healing community as well as spending time in solitude with God.  It means surrendering your belief that you have a right to share your opinion or be heard above all others. And that will feel like sacrificing and suffering – because it is.    

You can be right, or you can be in relationship. But you can’t have both. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Word Pictures

I was just thinking how Jesus talked in parables – stories, in order to communicate at a deeper and perhaps more memorable level. Often these parables were able to trigger more intense emotions, like the workers who got paid the same whether they worked one hour or all day.

He also used symbols, like water (drink of THIS living water and you will never thirst again). 

In a similar way we can also communicate with each other by using word pictures to get our point across in a more emotionally connectable way.

What is a word picture? It is a figure of speech used to compare two things, basically a simile, so that there might be greater clarity. It is very useful particularly between men and women, who as we all know tend to speak different languages.

Here is an example of one word picture I heard in counseling (from a woman):

“When you hug me often and hold my hand I feel like a well-watered plant. But when you forget, I start shriveling up and dying.”

I can tell you that this was much more effective than the criticism. “You’re not affectionate enough!”
Another example comes from a man with a nagging wife:

“I feel like a child who is constantly being scolded by his mom for being ignorant of what he is supposed to do. I feel small and inadequate.”

He could have responded in a contemptuous manner “You’re a nag and have always been a nag” but I can tell you that his word picture was much more effective. His wife was able to feel some empathy for him and was able to come alongside him rather than become defensive or combative.

Even more dramatically I have heard clients use metaphor to get a point across. One woman declared “That was a knife to my heart, cutting it out, and then stomping on it.” Wow! But he got the point.

I must admit that it is not easy to do in the heat of a conflict. Often, it requires a good measure of that ugly word “maturity” to stop and think before responding.

I suspect that the right-brain, creative types have an easier time with this kind of communication, but wouldn’t it be worth developing this kind of tool if it could get your point across in a more receivable and kinder way?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Notes From 30,000 Feet

These last four days Nan and I have spent at a Christian counseling conference in Nashville, Tennessee. In some ways it was overwhelming: travel stressors, change of sleeping conditions, meals caught when practical, unfamiliar surroundings, etc. And then there was the sheer quantity of input of information, sound, crowds, and the size and scope of the venue.

But on the flip side were expected and unexpected gifts: new and useful information, spiritual uplifting, connecting with old friends, and chance conversations with people we came into contact with. I think it is that last item that is particularly dear to me as well as troubling. I wonder how many times over the years I have been too self-focused to take advantage of the “human resources” that were right around me. 

I have always blamed introversion and anxiety over making connection with strangers for this failing. It has made me really admire those that did not suffer as I did. But still, I lament the missed opportunities to get to know people that are precious to God.

I wonder if you are like me. Have you let fear hold you back from reaching out and being salt and light in a dark world?

I kept telling Nan this trip that I was practicing extroversion. I was intentionally noticing people. I was smiling at people every chance I got. I was deliberately engaging people in conversation. I was not going to fail to grow in an area of weakness and challenge.

But maybe your fears are different from mine. Maybe you are afraid of being known. Or possibly you are afraid of being ignored or unremarkable. Perhaps you think you are too much for people, that you will overwhelm them with your emotions. Maybe you don’t even like the direction of this conversation.

In our men’s group at the end of each year we talk about the potential tragedy that we are facing once again: that of remaining stagnant spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, or relationally. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we got to the end of the coming year and no growth had taken place?

But risk and discomfort always seems to accompany growth – and no one likes pain, especially if avoidable. And so we tend to shy away from it, even when we know it is the right thing to desire.

Whatever your fears might be, would you be willing to join me and take some chances? And then, would you be willing to tell me about it? I would love to applaud you.