We’ve been noticing that emotionally and/or physically cutting off from tense relationships is a natural reaction in the human species. We’ve also been noticing that the work of bridging those cut-offs when we become aware of them has the by-product of automatically improving our solidity in current relationships.
What I’d like to address in the next few posts is what it means and what it doesn’t mean to bridge cut-offs in early relationships–what it entails to define oneself (AKA differentiate) in the context of a relationship.
Let’s first explore what it doesn’t mean, because that’s easier to describe.
What It Isn’t
Defining oneself is not characterized by reactivity. A person who defines him- or herself does so without defensiveness, dogmatism, anger, in-authenticity or emotional excess. The individual simply states a position or behaves in a non-reactive way that reflects a position.
The other day, for example, my mom presented her view on a particular issue–a view that I don’t share. Because conformity is a high value of my mother’s, I was immediately aware of tension inside–less than there used to be, but still there. At this point, I had options, such as:
- Being curious and asking about her position
- Informing her that her understanding of the issue was limited
- Getting angry about what I experience as a habit of her viewing the world from simplistic lenses and coming to erroneous conclusions
My response was to ask for clarity first (non-reactive), and then follow up with something reactive: I suggested that it’s easy to be fooled by appearances, so her assumptions may be leading her to an inaccurate conclusion. Ugh. Not a shining moment.
What It Is
After seeking clarity, defining myself might have sounded more like: “Hmmm. I see it differently.” Or I could have stated that I see it differently and let the conversation drop there. Or if she asked what I meant, I could have stated how I see the situation without any need or requirement that she see it my way. Or I could have chosen not to respond at all, as long as that response wasn’t about establishing emotional distance in an attempt to escape tension.
So why, after a brief moment of curiosity, did I react? Apparently, my mom’s simplistic view of the world still triggers me. It was one of the factors that led to the cut-off in the first place, when I left home at 18 for college in another state. Now, 30 years later, I have to do the work that I avoided back then. I have to confront my reactivity and complete the developmental step of defining myself as an adult in relationship with my mother. I didn’t do it very well the other day, and I’ve been working at this for many years now.
It’s A Process
First, bridging that emotional and physical cut-off required that I identify that there even was one. Then I had to understand its meaning. Next I had to heal from the wounds with which I had emerged from childhood. Then I had to figure out who I really was, rather than who I was supposed to be, as defined in my family of origin. Finally, I had to take myself back into the relationship with my mom in a way that reflects who I really am, not who I was expected to be.
If this sounds easy or quick, I haven’t described the process very well; if you’ve done some of this work, however, you know what I’m talking about. The level of encouragement you had in your family of origin to become the person you truly are plays a large role in how much the reaction of cutting-off characterizes your relationships in your family of origin and in other close relationships today. It also plays a large role in how difficult it will be to bridge those gaps and define yourself without reactivity.
For those of you whose early life relationships included trauma, abuse and/or neglect, I’ll talk tomorrow about building bridges in especially chaotic early life relationships.