Now, let’s talk about an important concept and another theme of this book: Feeling small AND looking big.
I’ve been a therapist for twenty-nine years and I am well aware that the key to my livelihood is my ability to listen well and understand what others are yearning to have understood about their lives. I am also acutely aware that it took me about ten years to hear something fundamental about what I was being told. I hadn’t truly grasped something that people wanted me to know.
I’d had the privilege of hearing people talk about their most cherished and most intimate relationships, with their soul mates and sexual partners, their parents, their children, or other members of their family. Often, the more important the relationship, the more troubling and upsetting the story was. They all involved the theme of extreme and unfair tension and the need for relief, which was clear. But there was also a very simple and basic dynamic aspect I had missed. It was really about size.
Feeling Small AND Looking Big
It finally hit me after ten years that all of these trusting and vulnerable people were hoping I would understand how small they were feeling (depressed, anxious, helpless, useless, misunderstood, abused, dismissed, threatened, incompetent, unwanted, judged, undesirable, confused, frustrated, terrified, etc.). They also wanted me to understand how big the other important person in their life looked (controlling, scary, powerful, distant, pressuring, silent, hostile, angry, inconsiderate, abusive, uncaring, dismissive, manipulative, addicted, etc.).
Trying to do something about this disparity is daunting. I hadn’t addressed this distortion or quite understood it before. I needed my own solution, first. When I understood it was about size, it occurred to me that something crazy and confounding, but perfectly normal, was happening. I was being asked to understand that both people felt small and both people looked big, all at the same time. What if this was simply the truth, that something that sounds crazy was normal? It would explain why people came to me seeking help, and how easy it is to get emotionally stuck in the dynamics of a relationship. How elegant. I didn’t need to magically “fix” it because I could simply declare that is was normal, like being on a boat or looking through a kaleidoscope.
I decided to try out my new understanding with couples, asking them to each tell me how big they felt when there was a tippy moment on their boat, and how big the other person looked to them. I started getting my expected confounding answer and pointing out that they both couldn’t be small and big at the same time. Or could they? What if it is a “crazy normal” distortion?
I began to sense the relief and gratitude felt by couples when something confusing had been made understandable. I pursued the idea further, holding a pillow, or whatever was handy that had four corners, between the two people and suggesting that there were four distinct things going on as they experienced the quadrangle between them: both people feeling small at the bottom corners of the pillow and both people looking big at the top two corners. There was some resolution in suggesting that this distortion was normal and we could expect it. It didn’t need to be fixed or made it disappear—I could build from this understanding, instead.
It might have been adequate to give couples a boost with a dramatic illustration of this crazy normal distortion. Couples clearly left with something different to think about. But, I had also learned in ten years of therapy that people also wanted action, solutions, and direction—not just insight and explanation.
I was very fortunate that the next step did not take ten years, but only a few days. What occurred to me first was that much of our behavior is motivated by a need to get things more under control (see Chapter 5). Perhaps we would all benefit from getting this distortion under control and being able to experience that as satisfying, while doing healthy things for our relationships at the same time.
As I was already offering a visual aid and handling the distortion as a square, I took my own cue and wondered how each of the four corners could be more under control.
I also realized the wisdom of the “Serenity Prayer” about the difference between what we can control and what we can’t control. More importantly, we need to know who we can control in our partnerships—and that the better choice is to control ourselves. Trying to control something about the other person leads to too much frustration and disappointment. Not a good choice. Our odds aren’t as good.
What might we control about ourselves at each of the four corners of this crazy normal distortion?
My partner is felling small. I can control whether I remember that they are feeling small and that will help me listen to them and not be defensive.
Developing empathy through listening with more attention can lead to a sense of satisfaction and serenity because you have actively focused your awareness on your partner’s feelings.
I am feeling small, and it is my responsibility to catch myself, understand my feelings, and claim my needs and wishes. That way, I won’t feel so small.
Claiming your own feelings through genuine statements about yourself can lead to more self-esteem because you are taking responsibility for your own mental and emotional process.
My behavior is making me look big to my partner. I am in control of how I sound, what I am saying, and all aspects of the way I am behaving, especially when I feel small.
Modifying your own behavior so that it is less grandiose can lead to a sense of accomplishment because you have controlled your own reactions to feeling small and your impact on your partner.
My partner is looking big but I can’t control their behavior. I can control my perception of it, my memories, and what I am associating with their behavior. I can be mindful and “in the moment” and I won’t feel small so fast.
Reducing the associations with your own memories can stall the process of feeling small when your partner looks big because you have interfered with the “transference” to your own past experiences.
They are real and valid and need to be talked about carefully, using skills that reduce tension; or at an appropriate time, perhaps in a therapy session. They are not happening right now. At worst, only this injustice is happening right now.
This is enough. For your own health, you don’t want to have all of the control and you don’t want to be trying to control something you can’t control.
It is, but in a good way that calms both of you.
It feels good to control something.
Satisfied people who have a sense of self-control appreciate each other more.
When I am at my tipping point and I want the situation to feel like it is more under control, how can I make myself:
1) Remember that they are feeling small; or
2) Be clear and resourceful about claiming that I am feeling small; or
3) Get a grip on my behavior that looks big; or
4) Be more in the moment so they don’t look like people and situations I am remembering, and so that I don’t feel so small in comparison?
How can I discipline myself and then appreciate that I have controlled something about myself?
Take time to have this kind of conversation with yourself. If you start to find answers to these questions, you’ll like yourself more and be an increasingly valued partner.
I had discovered that there were four ways to control the craziness of a normal distortion while picking the right person to control, and doing no harm to the relationship. When I realized that psychotherapy had always emphasized these four things (clinically speaking, 1) empathy; 2) self-esteem; 3) behavior modification; and 4) transference) I felt that I had not actually strayed from my training or my professional perspective, but had found another way to frame it.