I'm a psychotherapist. I have a client, "Alvin," whose father abandoned him when he was two. How does a two-year-old grapple with that abrupt disappearance?
A few years later his mother remarried to a man who had previously lost his own son to a dreadful disease. He was so wounded by this loss that he could not take the chance of developing a bond with Alvin and risk losing another son. He remained distant and unaffectionate, hardly acknowledging Alvin's needs, or even his presence. Alvin remembers trying to win his step-father's love, but nothing worked. How else does a child explain that to himself except by deciding that he must be unworthy of that love and attention.
As an adult, Alvin found himself in relationships with two kinds of women. The first were distant, aloof, and emotionally unavailable. The second were warm, nurturing and attentive. Those in this second group were too easy; he didn't have to prove his lovability, and he would lose interest. The first kind were challenging, and Alvin made great efforts to win their affection.
Erica was indeed a challenge. He met her at work. On the surface she was attractive and desirable, but underneath she carried the baggage of a painful past and was reluctant to take the chance to be close. And Alvin did things that exacerbated her fears. Because he was desperate for love and approval, he was especially sensitive to the opposite criticism. When criticized, he would withdraw in hurt and anger, and Erica would feel abandoned. She soon grew distrusting of Alvin's capacity to stay connected, and she herself withdrew, and finally ended the relationship.
The fact that they worked together made it especially difficult for Alvin. In her presence, he would become nervous, wanting to make a good impression in the hope of winning her back. He became overly self-conscious, trying to do the right thing and say the right thing so he would regain her favor. It had the opposite effect. She felt his desperation and the pressure to respond to him in a positive way, and she became even more distant.
Alvin tried to relax, and just be himself. Erica reminded him that her initial attraction was to a man who was just being his normal, natural self. Trying to relax was not effective-it just reminded him of how tense he was. Occasionally, without effort, he would just "drop into myself" and be "authentic," When he did, he was comfortable, at ease, and a pleasure to be with.
"Trying" to be authentic was like trying to relax. He just felt more contrived. I suggested to Alvin that another way to be authentic was to acknowledge when he was not. That is, when he was tense and nervous and needing to be liked, to let himself be exactly that way, to be authentically tense, authentically nervous, authentically insecure. As odd as that sounded, he understood the rationale behind it. It reminded him of when he would drive the slick, icy roads of a cold Oregon winter. He learned that when his car lost traction, and started to skid out of control, the best tactic was to turn into the skid, even though that was not the direction he wanted to go. If he fought it, and tried to turn away from it, he completely lost control, and created a very dangerous situation. It took a few practice attempts, but Alvin was able to turn into the nervousness and anxiety instead of away from it, and when he did, lo and behold, he began to relax. He didn't have to practice letting go - it let go of him. By allowing his experience to be what it was, instead of trying to change it or fix it or improve it, it became exactly what he was looking for, and more.
In our next session, Alvin reported that when he was sharing with Erica some feelings he had about the relationship, she accused him of being "worse than a chick." This stung. She, and other women, had claimed that Alvin was "too sensitive" and "too needy." It triggered negative beliefs he held about himself, namely, that there was something wrong with him, and that he must be undeserving of love. How could he turn those beliefs around, and affirm that he was attractive, desirable and lovable? What is the antidote to destructive, debilitating, negative self-talk?
I suggested that instead of attempting to eradicate those beliefs, he allow himself to feel fully the experience and consequence of believing them. What does it feel like to believe that I do not deserve love? Feeling into an uncomfortable feeling is counter-intuitive. It's like turning into a skid.
We have a myriad of strategies to avoid unpleasantness, to convince ourselves that it is a foolish, even dangerous, to feel what is uncomfortable. Notice how the mind wants to re-direct our attention right now, as we read this, rather than stay with any discomfort. The mind wants to distract us from the experience, not trusting that it is safe to enter it. But it is. It is actually more than safe...it is the doorway to freedom.
So Alvin remembered the lesson he learned on the road and in our last session, and dared to feel into his experience instead of trying to escape from it. He discovered that as he opened to his experience, it opened to him, and changed from being threatening to alluring.
Alvin used to be a devout Christian. Though he has relaxed his religious beliefs, he is reminded of one of Jesus' most compelling teachings: The Truth shall set you free. When we acknowledge the truth, align with the truth, tell the truth, and allow what is true to be exactly what it is, we set ourselves free.