Have a Very Meh Holiday!
Grandiosity is the enemy of happiness.
“My wife is the sweetest person in the world,” Joseph tells me. We hear this a lot here in our treatment program for abusive partners, some version of “I’m married to the most beautiful woman in the world.” Joseph often thinks of his wife Gina this way. She’s “the sweetest” and “the most beautiful” until the moment that she’s not.
I’ve never met her, but I know that Gina is not “the sweetest person in the world’. I think she’s probably, like the rest of us, a mixed bag of generosity, love, pettiness, irritability,shame, self-knowledge and defense. This is not a criticism of her.
Joseph spends a lot of his time fronting, not purposely or even consciously. Inside, he’s an anxious guy with a fair amount of shame, uncertainty, worry, and disappointment but that’s not the Joseph you are likely to see. The Joseph you know is a large man full of bluster and confidence. He has a firm handshake and a booming voice and his opinions carry the weight of certainty.
There is a significant distance between the outer Joseph and the inner Joseph and that distance accounts for the ease with which Joseph feels hurt or offended. Picture a balloon. The more air fills a balloon, the thinner the latex is stretched and the more it stretches, the more fragile it becomes. Joseph’s fronting self protects an uncertain and vulnerable inner self.
Picture Joseph in a fight with Gina. In this fight, his voice booms and he brooks no possibility that he’s done anything wrong. She says something unkind and because his false self is so inflated, he is easy to hurt and offend. Now she is no longer “the sweetest person,”. Later he will tell me that she “always criticizes him” and “won’t let anything go”. In this moment of injury, she is no longer good, now she’s bad.
When we talk about this in session, we will want him to start to tolerate the idea that both he and Gina are just two regular people. She can be petty and harsh just like all people. This doesn’t mean that she isn’t also generous and kind.
One of the other men in group with Joseph said, “it’s like the idea of something tasting bittersweet, right?” Bittersweet is not often a taste that children appreciate. Children like things to be sweet. The capacity to savor complexity must be developed.
We’re entering the time of year when people of many faith traditions and none celebrate their traditions. As happens frequently with our clients, Joseph, who celebrates Christmas, is determined to make this the best year ever. He is planning amazing gifts for Gina and the kids and a big party for the New Year.
If Joseph wants to improve his relationship with his partner, there are a couple of things he could choose to work on this holiday:
Be humble. Joseph isn’t the best. Or the funniest. Or the life of the party. He’s just a guy who gets anxious and sad and hopeful and who wants to be loved and appreciated. He doesn’t always know what he thinks about things or what the right thing is to do. If Joseph were able to tolerate this as a truth, it wouldn’t hurt so badly or be so uncomfortable when he experienced evidence that people were angry with him or hurt by him.
Take his partner off her pedestal. Putting Gina on a pedestal doesn’t allow for Joseph to have a real relationship with a real woman. It means he is bound to be disappointed by who she is, and it means she doesn’t get to have a partner who see her, understands her and loves her. And this is tragic for both of them.
Not expect his experiences to be perfect. Joseph is too prone to cover his anxieties with lavish gestures. He doesn’t think of a merry Christmas; he sets out to create the merriest Christmas. People can be more at risk of acting abusively during the holidays because they have more expectations that can be disappointed. Joseph can’t wait to give Gina the gift he picked out for her and imagines that she is going to be incredibly excited. The problem is that it’s rare for our actual experiences to live up to our fantasies. It may turn out that Gina likes the gift that Joseph picked out, but also worries that he spent too much. Or is distracted by the fact that the kids aren’t feeling well. When that happens, Joseph’s overblown fantasy of her excitement and gratitude sets him up to be hurt and deflated. When Joseph’s inflated self is burst, he is more likely to act out by punishing Gina.
In group we are trying to help Joseph tolerate his own frailties. He comes to therapy every week on his own steam to try to figure out how to do better by Gina and his kids. He’s an imperfect human being who is trying. Me too. You also probably. Gina for sure.
Source: Ryan McGuire/GRATISOGRAPHY
If Joseph can start to say to himself something like this, “I’m not so great but I’m also not so bad and neither is Gina and we’ll do the best we can to be decent and gentle with one another but we’ll probably mess up here and there,” he will have a chance to have a real relationship
As group let out last night, we wished one another the traditional holiday greeting in our offices:
To you and yours, here’s to a very meh holiday with your flawed families. Be gentle, stay small and walk softly.