Rupture and Repair in Relationships

Relationships are interesting things, as there aren't really a ton of consistent markers you can point to across multiple relationships that indicate whether one is good or bad. Different people communicate in different ways and for different reasons, and what works in one relationship doesn't work in another. However, there is at least one that seems to be pretty consistent across the board, and that is the idea of rupture and repair.

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Gray Clouds and Blue Skies

When I first moved to Seattle for my graduate program, I was aware of the stereotype that everyone knew. There was supposed to be a never ending supply of rain falling from the skies, a city weeping at its lack of sunlight. I found the weather to be very close to what I was expecting, although instead of constant rain I found it was a steady drizzle falling from a concrete sludge of gray clouds. 

I remember the first time I flew out of Seattle after moving here. I went to visit my then girlfriend as she prepared to walk in her undergraduate commencement ceremony. The plane took off, and I watched out the window as the drab gray got closer and closer, then swallowed us up completely. Suddenly, and almost without warning, the window filled with light and I had to look away to shield my eyes. When my vision had adjusted to the new luminosity, I realized that we were above the cloud cover, and the sky was a dazzling shade of blue. Almost immediately after that, I realized that the blue had always been there. I just couldn't see it.

As we go about our daily lives, it can be easy to only notice the gray, the thick, the dark. It is certainly easy enough to find if we look around for it, and once our eyes lock onto it, finding a way to refocus can be extremely difficult. I would say, however, that sometimes it is not only important to change our focus away from the gray, but it is entirely necessary. But how can we do that? What can we realistically do when the gloom feels overpowering?

In life, it can be easy to only see gray. I found very quickly that a large part of where a person looks determines what they see. One of the things that I found worked for me while in school was to look at the sky and find the holes and breaks in the clouds, little patches that betrayed the bright sky just beyond. On a more symbolic level, I would try to find the patches of light in my life I remembered existing before. I made time for good music, I indulged in a video game or two, I made sure I talked with my girlfriend every night, and I did my best to keep in touch with my close friends. 

I would add a word of important caution. There is danger in being overly optimistic in the face of sadness. If we are doing our best to be happy and positive in trying situations but still feel sad and depressed, that might be an indication of something that needs more attention than we can give on our own. It is in times like these that seeing a therapist can be most important and healing. However, there is a difference between admitting that things aren't perfect and focusing on things that aren't perfect. It was very easy for me to only see gray, and that's because it was all I expected to find. When I started to look for the reminders of the blue sky, I would see it peeking out, a little here, a little there. I came to realize that being able to see a little blue meant that the whole sky was blue just beyond my sight.

As I write this, I am sitting next to a window, and I can look out and see a rainy day, thick clouds overhead and water splashed over every surface outside. However, just slightly Southwest of where I'm sitting is a crack in the celestial concrete, and just behind it is a swath of blue. The sky is actually entirely blue, and it always has been. Sometimes, you just need to look a little harder for it.

The important difference between guilt and shame

As we interact with the world and people around us, we form connections and understanding that are based on a shared language. The words we use allow us to create shared meaning with our friends, family, and loved ones. Each word has a unique flavor, and that flavor is what we use to build how we understand the world.

In Russian, part of the flavor of some words includes an implied direction. For example the verb идти means to go, having no specific direction implied. However, the verb войти means to walk into. There is one direction, and that direction is "in". There is another directional verb, выйти, which means to walk out of. Both of these verbs are built off the same base with the added prefix completely changing the direction. These differences are tiny, but crucial when accurately trying to describe what direction you're heading. 

In English, we tend not to think of our verbs as directional. Generally, we use modifiers to designate what way a word is going. For example, we would say "I walked into", or "she walked out of". There are some words, however, that have a hint of direction to them, insinuating an important and fundamental meaning to their usage. 

Guilt and shame are two such words with an important directional meaning folded in. When we talk about guilt and shame, there might not seem to be any difference between the two. Colloquially, we can say that we feel guilty for cheating on our diets or ashamed for getting a large combo at the restaurant and not experience the two sentiments as being particularly different from one another. After all, both involve a negative feeling associated with a decision or outcome, and both can greatly affect one's choices in similar situations moving forward. The directional difference between these two words, however, is key to understanding how these ideas flavor our individual experience of the world.

Guilt starts inside and moves out, and comes from not living up to things we believe to be true. It motivates us to bring our actions in line with our beliefs and understanding of the world. A fair comparison exists between guilt and a stomach ache from eating too much sugar. Both are natural responses, signals our body sends out saying, "you know, you might not want to do this again." It hurts for a reason! Your body, your inner self, is trying to reinforce an idea that you believe in, keeping you safe from the negative consequences that can come from doing things you know to be wrong. Ultimately, guilt can be a good thing, a powerful motivating force that comes from inside and encourages movement towards better places.

Shame, on the other hand, starts outside, originating from someplace else, and moves in. When shame comes in, it spreads like a sticky virus, infecting and harming everything that it comes into contact with. It can damage self-worth, wearing down resolve to improve, and leave a person feeling hollowed out and empty. Shame is a learned feeling, something handed down from the outside world and taken in. If guilt is the stomach ache after sugar, shame is the stomach ache from being punched in the gut. Shame doesn't encourage or uplift, and it certainly doesn't inspire. Rather it breeds fear of judgment by breaking down, immobilizing, and condemning the person who feels it. 

Learning to taste the difference between guilt and shame is important as we try to become better people. We may find ourselves wondering why the spice of life tends to be so bitter. In attempts to overpower the negative taste of shame, we might try to bury it under the seemingly sugary sweetness of distraction, the strong citrus of work, or the saltiness of exercise. Eventually, however, we will come to realize that shame is too powerful a taste to wash over or ignore.

What do we do with shame once we are aware it's flavoring our worldview? A good first step is recognizing it for what it is - an outside force trying to change who you are to fit an outside ideal. Once we recognize that what we are feeling is shame instead of guilt, we are in a position to change our recipe and drive its taste out of our lives. Examine the things that make you feel bad or guilty and ask yourself: do I feel bad because someone or something is encouraging me to feel bad, or because I am acting in opposition to what I believe to be true? If you feel you are being compelled to dissatisfaction, give yourself permission to really look at what makes you feel dissatisfied in the first place. Sit with the feeling and try to recognize the direction it is coming from. Understanding where your feelings are coming from can open up new ways to move forward in life, either to the better version of yourself encouraged by guilt, or away from the toxic mire shame is holding you in.

Why should I see a therapist in the first place?

I recently received an email from a friend of mine who had questions about my practice. He was curious about what sort of issues I help people with, what a typical session looks like, and what the costs were. There was one question that really stuck with me though: What results can realistically be expected?

When I wrote him back, I answered all of his questions, telling him that, realistically, results depend on a few things. The person in therapy has to be willing to approach and face their difficulties. Therapists can't affect change in the life of a client if the client isn't willing to do work outside of the session and apply what's been talked about. It also depends on the severity of the issues, and how much time is spent working on issues.  I explained that it's not necessarily a quick process. A lot of people want to cook a good roast, as it were, but they want it to take as long as grilling a burger. Sadly, it just doesn't work that way. I've seen things happen in as little as two months, but usually it takes anywhere from 4 months or a year. If the issues are severe enough, it can be several years, or even a lifetime. 

Since answering his initial questions, I found that I had been thinking a lot about his question of realistic expectations, and I think that the underlying question he really had was what is actually the benefit of therapy. 

The benefit of therapy is simply that you have a chance and a place to really talk, to say your fears and joys and hopes and sadness, and to not be judged for it. The value is in being able to admit out loud that you feel ashamed of yourself, or you hate your parents, or you like Barbie dolls too much, or whatever it might be, and then to have someone there who wants to help you with your problem without making you feel like less of a person for having one in the first place.

Realistically, therapy can take a long time, but that doesn't mean there aren't immediate benefits. Conversations with a therapist are an hour long by design, a design giving you enough time to really mine out the ore of your challenges, and then letting you go home and digest the experience. That's the weekly cycle, and that's a real benefit.

After a few months of therapy, you might find that you've mined and processed all of the ore, and now you have a big cavern you can fill with other things. Or you might find that you keep uncovering more and more that needs to be mined out. Either way, it's important to keep mining until you feel you've reached a good end point.

Additionally, sometimes it feels good just to get things off your chest. There is something to be said for the catharsis of saying out loud something you hadn't been able to say out loud before. With that catharsis comes relieved pressure, and with that comes more freedom to move and change.

Seeing a therapist can be hard because it leaves you vulnerable, and in that vulnerability you can be uncomfortably aware that you're not the only one witnessing everything. That vulnerability is where the most important work lies, and there is real worth in sitting with a professional who can help you with your vulnerability without taking advantage of it.

If you have questions about whether or not seeing a therapist could be right for you, don't be afraid to find one and ask! Most therapists are happy to have a brief consultation without charging you, and during that time they can get a sense of what your needs are and how therapy might benefit you. 

Of course, if you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch with me, and I'll do my best to answer.