Sunday, July 2, 2017

The defense mechanisms of "weak" and "strong"

Here are just a small couple of points that I’m sure most therapists have grasped. But they’re worth making explicit and adding to. We have a lot of women clients who are very confused about themselves. They say they have always been strong, or were always “the strong one” in the family. But now in their thirties or forties or fifties, something has happened: This strength has suddenly disappeared. They don’t know where it went, they usually don’t know when it left. Some of these women feel they are now falling apart. Others find they have something similar to the PTSD “foreshortened sense of the future”: Their hope and energy have gone; life feels that it is essentially over, there is nothing left to want or accomplish.

We have men and women clients who do not want to cry in session because they know it is “weak,” and they could not stand to feel this worst kind of weakness. Women are often in this place, too, usually the ones who became “strong” through their adolescence. In a world of coldness, parental immaturity and neglect and abuse, they became the toughened and suppressed carrier of responsibilities, the guarantor of the family’s or the siblings’ survival. Or in Child Protective Services and foster care, batted from place to place, they shut down but for anger and self-medication and a wounded form of selfishness or selflessness. They lost their child feelings, their silliness, hopes, they lost their ability to breathe easy or excitedly like a kid and now breathed with tension or deliberation. I’ve read (Dutton, I believe*) that men in Domestic Violence groups often look like sitting corpses. One can’t see their respiration. Beaten and debased children, they came to hold their feelings of fear, betrayal and rage inside by tightening their chest muscles and suppressing the “breathing of their emotions” in the moment when feelings would be the deepest weakness: the collapse of their heart, their death by shame.

Of course, the women were never really strong. They were just tight, lost, and they pushed themselves. As Claudia Black observed,** they had diversions and struggles through the up-slope to middle age, but then when the challenges were met or had burned out, they “plateaued.” The emptiness they’d lifelong been trying to both fill and run from re-materialized. Mother-naturely codependents become angry then. Selfless women become incompetently selfish: They can’t keep serving entitled people, but there’s not enough self to do for.

We tell the men and women that what they call “weakness” is just touching the truth of who they are, the deep pain of themselves. That’s theory and fact, but it’s not the reality in their bones. That says to cry is to break the shell of their adult, to lose themselves, become the child who is no longer there. But look: Since that’s their singular roots, and because it’s to face the pain of irrevocable loss, to cry is the most astoundingly brave, strong thing they can do.

I rarely think of strength and weakness in myself. I would cry as much as possible, knowing that if I were to break through the deepest barrier I would become the infant who did not survive for the most part. I’ve always been too weak to save money. I am so terrified of the fast-skittering, translucent-brown roaches and water bugs that prowl the sidewalks at night that I do a pink-out*** sissy-dance when I see two or more of them. But I own tragedies that I fear will still kill my mind in the last moments of my life – a really terrible fate – and I contain them with a terrible acceptance. I’d protect my wife from all danger, and perversely enough would relish it because I disdain my old cowardice. I accept that I may be working into my eighties, still five days a week. I believe I have no false hopes. For me, strength may mean nothing other than facing my oceanic flaws and injuries and finding, by luck, some good feeling nevertheless. And choosing that.

When we have a client who decries her loss of “strength” or who avoids feeling “weak,” we may say you shouldn’t have had to be strong like that. We may say it’s not weak to be real. It is true: We are asking them to become different from the person they did become. This is why therapy can be such an absurd adventure.

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* Donald G. Dutton’s The Batterer

** Claudia Black’s It Will Never Happen To Me

*** A legitimate variation of a dissociative black-out or a domestic violence perpetrators red-out, as cited in Duttons book.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.