This post was written by Constance Malloy, who resides in Milwaukee living out her two passions: dance and storytelling. She is the author of the recent book Tornado Dreams, featured recently in Bending Genres. You can follow her here.
Here is my equation for overcoming dysfunction. It’s not a new idea, it’s not even my own (although I don’t know if it’s ever been put in an equation before), but it does simplify a very complicated process.
Recognize + Own = Overcome
In other words, you can’t own what you don’t recognize, and you can’t overcome what you don’t own. In our western world, we are very comfortable with the recognition (intellectual) part. In fact, we firmly want to believe that’s all that is required to overcome our dysfunction. But the reality is, I can meditate day and night, and go to Yoga 5 days a week, but without recognizing the emotions driving my behaviors, and owning how those behaviors affect myself and the people in my life, none of my behaviors are going to change.
What does this mean practically speaking? I will use confronting my fears of abandonment, which stem from father, as an example.
I can still remember the day my therapist suggested that I had a fear of abandonment. It was a result of many complaints I had lodged against my boyfriend for not calling me as often as I called him. And, I was quite frustrated by his habit of abruptly ending calls. I prided myself on being the more caring of the two in the relationship, because I always called to wish him a good day. (This was 1989, in a world without texting.)
My therapist’s suggestion puzzled me. I knew what abandonment was, but the fear of abandonment was not something I could wrap my head around. My intellect knew I had been abandoned by my father; however, outside of my surface, cerebral understanding of being hurt by his actions, I had no deeper understanding of my emotions nor how the effects of his abandonment shaped my identity. Therefore, I had no clue of how I walked through the world as an abandoned person, and how this identity informed every relationship I entered into.
After pushing back on her suggestion, my therapist gave me an assignment. One I embraced eagerly, as I prided myself on being a good student. Plus, I was too naïve to the process of therapy at the time to see the bait.
My assignment seemed simple: do not call my boyfriend for one week, and pay attention to my feelings.
Well, I made it through the week, but not without several panic attacks, and a dying need to know if he still liked me. I came up with many creative reasons to call him, but I held strong. Then, mid-week he phoned, and for about ten minutes I felt relief, until he abruptly ended our phone call. The following day I was a wreck, believing that I had said something that had ruined our relationship. Unable to call him, my panic attacks continued, but I did as my therapist asked, and I continued to pay attention to my feelings. For the first time, I had to acknowledge my panic attacks were tied to my fear that he no longer liked me, and that fear was the engine driving my need to incessantly phone him. Not, as I was more comfortable telling myself, my desire to wish him a good day.
The greatest gift a therapist can give us, if we allow them to, is a mirror that shows us, not the reflection we desire, but the reflection that is our truth. By the next session, something inside gave way and I was able to look in that mirror. What I saw was not pretty.
I saw a person who attracted attention through passive aggressive behaviors. I saw a person who told half-truths, afraid the truth would create more abandonment. I saw a person who was attracted to people who were abandoners, and who rejected those who were not, even though she was crying out to anyone who would listen about how much she desired to be in a loving and trusting relationship. I saw a terrified person, who was fighting with everything she possessed to not feel her truth: she was hurt and angry in her deep core from her father’s abandonment, and as a result, fearfully walked around in her adult life recreating that relationship over and over again.
Once I recognized this person as me, I let go of my ego (my shame), and owned this was my truth. Only after owning my truth, was I open to learning new truths, allowing me to overcome my fears of abandonment, and to acquire better tools for establishing healthy relationships, of which I enjoy in abundance today.