December 4, 2011

The Painful Self ~ JJ Roitman


Recently I heard another psychotherapist talk about the mistake people often make, interpreting how they feel to mean they are good or bad.

She spoke of this mistake as if we have a choice.

As if our emotions and physical sensations flow in a river inside us and we have the option to crawl out of the current and watch without identifying with what we experience.

Over this Thanksgiving weekend I attempted to discover the point where this occurs. How does this happen? When do I mistake my emotions to be a me? And what does it mean to uncouple my view of myself from a feeling I am having? In fact, what do I do with ‘who I am’ without having judgements to hook on to?

One of the terms for this identifying with is called ‘coupling’ in psychotherapy. (It actually has many other terms depending on the approach.) This ‘coupling’ can now be seen on EEGs as pathways created in our brain, like little armies of thoughts that keep traversing the same terrain over and over. These pathways may become strong beliefs, which over time can form the reality we live in.

This doesn’t have to be something we reject, like a bunch of ugly highways creating traffic in our mind. This might also look like an ancient deep cave where water has dripped from the same spot for hundreds of years creating long sharp glittering crystals.

It’s just that sometimes this ‘coupling’ can have a very painful effect. I once had a client who had an overbearing mother. He felt trapped in the relationship because she financed much of his living expenses. Whenever I leaned in to hear what he had to say (because he often mumbled inaudibly) he would arch back, turn his head to the left and peek at me from out of the corner of his eye. We soon found out that this turning of the head was a way to shield him from the yelling he experienced as child. My leaning in meant harm and that he was bad.

When I go to scary movies I put my hands up to my face and look out through the cracks of my fingers. I feel safe enough to watch this way. I think this gesture has happened for years and years, beginning with the infant in the back seat of the car witnessing a raging father turn towards her.

I had a fairly eccentric graduate school teacher compare coupling with the example of dogs mating. Sometimes the male’s genitals can get stuck in the female because she has clamped down on him and cannot release. We were all pretty disgusted by this example, especially when our teacher laughed as she gave us the image of the connected dogs wandering around unable to let go. But I have to admit, this might be an appropriate metaphor to describe the process by which we attach a belief to a feeling or physical sensation to the point of a painful outcome that can hinder the way we get around in life.

In Buddhist psychology the ultimate, most painful ‘big daddy’ of overlaying a belief on our inner experience, is the conclusion that there is a self to actually judge as good or bad. According to Buddhism we have taken a conglomeration of associations or ‘couplings’ for generations upon generations and called it me.

When I was a child I used to wander into the bathroom and slowly walk to the mirror. I would put my face as close as it could get without losing focus. I would look into these eyes and try to find someone, possibly me, possibly someone else. I would smile and frown, hoping to expose her, then walk away and jump back in front of the mirror real quick attempting to capture what was inside me looking out?

“As long as there’s a self, I think eventually we discover that there will be a sense of badness.” This is what one of my supervisors once said, as if he were naming some small detail in life. And I still feel this statement pointing around in me like a probe, seeking what I haven’t discovered yet but that could possibly set me free.

Thanksgiving was a perfect time to catch this process of coupling loud and clear. There is ample opportunity to feel bad during the holidays. Usually I walk around with a sensitivity that dangles out my chest. Much like the turkeys waddle I imagine it tender and pink.

This holiday I found that I was sad. There was no logical explanation for this except that sadness for me sometimes comes with the holidays as distant background music. Not enough to distract me, but enough to pull just slightly at my ability to wholeheartedly enjoy. One of the five-year olds in the group kept disappearing under the table. Everyone assumed he was playing, but I wondered if he was just taking a break.

So there I was feeling like a bad person because I was sad on a holiday where everyone should be happy. I decided that this was it. This was the time I was going to capture the ‘coupling’ device, grab it and shake it, and tell it to find a different mate.

I left the crowd and went into the bathroom. I sat on the countertop, closed my eyes and looked for the thing that attached feeling bad for the belief that I was bad. I don’t know, I guess I was hoping I could locate the hinge and remove it. But like when I was young and looking in the mirror, I could not find what I was looking for.

What I did find was space. Space around my sadness. Space around my body. A distance between my thoughts about what I was experiencing and what I was actually experiencing. I found a swirling of identity and lack thereof. I found a figure wearing lipstick who calls herself woman with drops of salty water in the corner of her eyes. And most importantly within this ability to self-reflect I found a choice.

As I looked in the mirror I still could not identify what was looking back, longing, reaching, familiar features, a presence, but not necessarily a me I could pinpoint and call bad or good. I had a choice.

And perhaps that’s what we are trying to wake up to, not only the fact that coupling occurs, but the space that sees all the possibilities.




For the purpose of this article I am using pseudonyms for both myself and my clients, so as to protect the trust and confidentiality that is the foundation of the work we do as therapists. I graduated with a Master’s degree in Contemplative Psychology Counseling, and have been a practicing Psychotherapist for over five years. Every session I face the possibility of losing control, not feeling useful, and not being good enough. And each session I have to get out-of-the-way and let insight occur from somewhere beyond my own conjuring. I have been a writer since I was very young, inviting sentences and paragraphs to accompany my life as a way to let my questions live and to find a voice for this human journey.

To read more from this author please visit blissfullyhonest.com.
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