My therapist tells me that when one tries to control another’s behavior, he’s merely passing shame. Shame is an emotion that is so devastating to all of us that, rarely, are any of us capable of actually feeling it. Instead, we pass it back and forth like a continuous game of hot potato. One person tries to control another person’s behavior thereby passing shame onto her. Not being able to handle the shame, she passes it back via a defensive attack. And thus we fall into a spiral, crawling out of which is nearly impossible.
Here’s an example. My boyfriend confesses that he feels humiliated when I call him “Poopoohead” (roll with me, this is a hypothetical). Instead of responding as he wants with something like, “Oh honey, I’m sorry that that name hurts you; I will never use it again,” I give the wrong response, something like, “Why are you so sensitive about it? It’s my endearment for you; it means I love you.” Regardless that I am not trying to hurt him, that I have merely misunderstood his need and innocently do not understand the import of his request, he feels humiliated anyway, and now, also, dismissed. And so he attempts to control my behavior by shaming me with something along the lines of, “You’re being insensitive.” If I can’t hold that shame, I get defensive and pass it back to him usually through an attack, like, “Well, I wouldn’t call you that if you acted more like a man.” Ouch. My initial intent be damned, I've been shamed and I will defend myself, even if my only available weapon is untrue. Part of the point of the attack is to hurt him, but mostly the point of the attack is to get the shame off me - I’m a bad human being because I’m insensitive - and back onto him – all of this is your fault because you’re not manly enough. 15-all, the score is tied. Whose turn to serve? But there exists no response to a defensive attack that can prevent the spiral from deepening.
However, if I can simply sit in the shame and remember that its origin - the humiliation my boyfriend felt first - had nothing to do with me or my behavior, then (drumroll please) I get to feel like shit for awhile (rimshot). Shame feels like shit. But I idiotically sign up for this crappy deal anyway because I want to be the master of my life. Instead of looking at the world through the lens of unexamined childhood beliefs and allowing those beliefs to decide the direction of my life and then spending all my time retroactively fixing the destruction that those beliefs wreak, I want to react and decide my life on the basis of the truth as it actually exists in front of me today - the truth without the lens, the way the world really is, the truth of my adulthood. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
So, during the fight, I remembered what my therapist had told me, and when my boyfriend told me for the second time that he felt invalidated by me - I. Shut. Up. (gasp!) I was angry. Sad. Scared. Defensive. All of these feelings rose up to try to remove the shame that I was feeling as well. The space between my shoulder blades clenched up. My sinuses swelled. My neck ached. My forehead pounded. My eyes felt sticky and irritated. In short, I felt like shit, but I kept my mouth shut anyway for the whole four-and-a-half hour drive home. No defensiveness. No attacks. And I swam in old memories like the butcherwoman one.
It. Totally. Sucked.