What you’re “supposed to feel”

No matter what kind of family or culture we were born into, we got instructed on what we should feel under this or that circumstance. Some of the instructions came in the form of admonitions (“Of course you love him, he’s your father!”) and some in the form of role modeling. As children, we learn a lot from the behaviors we observe being demonstrated by those around us.

Real love is rooted in a naturally-occurring feeling we have for another person, but love is institutionalized in a variety of ways. New mothers are “supposed to” love their babies, but this isn’t always the case. It may be a hormonal thing, as with post-partum depression, or it might be that the child was conceived by rape; but a mother who doesn’t spontaneously feel love for her newborn is usually judged or blamed. Children are “supposed to” love their parents, but not all parents are worthy of their children’s love.

We all have feelings about our feelings. We may feel ashamed for having been afraid, or angry at ourselves for being depressed. A number of people I worked with over the course of my career felt terribly guilty for not loving a parent or other close relative who had neglected and/or abused them. We can’t choose what we authentically feel about anyone, and nobody has the authority to tell you what you’re “supposed to” feel. Real loving feelings either arise spontaneously, or they don’t. It’s not something we owe someone just because we’re blood relatives.

Gestalt guru Fritz Perls said that most people are socialized to be phony. Ideally, a kiss is a genuine expression of affection or love. But many times in some families, children are told to hug and kiss a relative because (s)he’s kin, whether or not the child feels affection or love for that person. Kissing may become a hollow social ritual, performed because it’s expected. In some family situations, a child may be expected to kiss someone who has abused or neglected them, or whom they find “creepy.” In some cultures a child may be required to kiss a dead relative at a funeral. This sort of thing can be a traumatic experience. It can be a perversion of what a kiss is meant to express. You can’t make yourself love someone any more than you can make someone love you. But you might be put in a position where you feel you have to fake it. When Perls called a behavior phony, he wasn’t judging the client; he was observing that the behavior wasn’t an authentic expression of feeling.

I’ve worked with couples in loveless marriages who reflexively claim to love one another, because that’s what’s expected, when they haven’t felt love for their partner in a long time. It’s not always black and white, however. Observing my father’s parents as a youth, I came to understand the term “love/hate relationship.” Love and hate can be closely allied, and it’s been suggested that the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference.

Relationships can be emotionally nourishing or, at the other end of the continuum, they can be toxic. People can change, and family systems can change. Often the goal of family therapy is to change the family system and to promote reconciliation between family members. But this isn’t always possible. Bad marriages can be terminated by divorce, but your parents will always be your parents – for better or for worse. I’ve worked with people who’ve tried time and again to reconcile with family members, only to find that the relationship remains toxic to them despite their best efforts. If a client had gotten to the point where they’d concluded that a family relationship would never be anything but painful for them, I’d suggest that she had the option to “divorce” that relative. It’s a sad happenstance, but it’s sometimes necessary for healing to begin.

I’ve also suggested that not all “kinfolk” need be blood-related, that you might have brothers and sisters you haven’t met yet. There are several people in my life that I consider “found” brothers and sisters. Someone who was abused or neglected by a parent might later find a nourishing relationship with an “other mother” or with a man who feels like the father he wishes he’d had. I’ve seen it happen. The mere fact of blood relationships doesn’t necessarily confer lifelong obligations, and certainly not the obligation to feel a certain way about a member of your birth family. We feel what we feel, and there’s no “should.” Rational thinking can free us from the tyranny of “shoulds.”

The paradox of identity, Part 2

“Authenticity” is one of the most important words in the lexicon of gestalt therapy, and it’s an essential component of intimacy. I’ve described intimacy as “emotional nakedness” with another person, but that doesn’t imply a sexual relationship. Sexual intimacy is just one kind of intimacy. People in authentic relationships don’t put on acts with one another. They aren’t afraid to be seen as they are, warts and all.  Unfortunately, authentic relationships are hardly ever modeled by characters in TV dramas and soap operas and sitcoms, because it doesn’t make for good drama – which relies on conflict to keep things entertaining.

Dr. Fritz Perls, the reigning guru of gestalt therapy when I was in grad school, wrote a lot about how we’re socialized to be “phony,” in the guise of politeness. He said that it was the job of the gestalt therapist “not to let go unchallenged” any inauthentic expressions by a client in a therapy session. The client of a skilled gestalt therapist often finds himself “sitting on the hot seat,” even in individual therapy. There are some highly effective gestalt techniques that disarm the client’s typical, often reflexive, defenses, leaving him to experience his own “unedited,” authentic here-and-now feelings. Perls said that past and future are fictions; we live our lives in the here-and-now.

If a client started to relate a past unpleasant experience, the gestalt therapist would ask her to relate it in the present tense, to bring it into the here-and-now of her experience. If the client made a statement couched in generalized terms, i.e.”You know how it is when someone gets on your case…” the therapist would ask her to make it an I-statement, i.e. “When somebody gets on my case I ____.” The therapist might interrupt a rationalized response to a question about a thorny issue and say, “Are you aware that you’re  clenching your fists?” This call to be present in her body in the here-and-now disarms the client’s intellectualizing.

When a client “protesteth too much” an inauthentic feeling or response, i.e. “It really doesn’t bother me anymore when my father tells me I’m stupid.” the therapist might say, “Say the opposite. Tell me that it really bothers you when your father calls you stupid.” “But it doesn’t!” “Say it anyway.” Having the client repeat the opposite statement – usually more than once – often produces an authentic emotional response (sometimes tears or rage) and a moment of insight. Probably the best known gestalt technique is the “empty chair,” where you have the client face an empty chair and visualize her father (mother, boss, lover, molester, etc.) sitting in that chair. “Now I want you to tell him what you just told me.” “But he’d never let me!” “He has to listen. He can’t interrupt. Tell him what you’ve always wanted to tell him.” This technique often elicits powerful, authentic responses that the client has typically repressed.

In my last post I wrote about people pleasers and their phony (inauthentic) behaviors. Another mindset that engenders phony behavior is that of the “con,” the bullshitter. Like the people pleaser, the con tries to read you and puts on an act; but unlike the people pleaser, the con wants to get something you have. If he wants you  to like him, it’s only a means to an end. A con is always onstage, performing. Cons and people pleasers pay the same price: they deprive themselves of the opportunity to have an authentic identity. Most of us want to be liked for who we truly are. People who can’t or won’t be authentic in relationships can never know who they truly are. If someone seems to like or admire them, is it really them they hold in esteem, or their act? They can’t come to know the real person behind the masks they habitually wear. It can be scary to enter into a truly intimate relationship, whether with a therapist, a new friend, or a lover. But the more intimate relationships we have in our lives, the better we know who we uniquely are.

“Autonomy” is another important word in the gestalt lexicon, and increased autonomy is a frequent goal of therapy. In my experience, the best marriages and friendships are characterized by intimacy and a mutual respect for one another’s autonomy. This ideal of intimate relating is captured in Fritz Perls’ “Gestalt Prayer,” which was a very popular poster back in the days of hippies and encounter groups:

“I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.”