When I was 13 my sister married. A male family member photographed the wedding. I, as a member of the bridal party, sat at the main table, in the middle. The wedding cake sat nearby, on the table, in the middle. The photographer had a grudge against me and was determined to hurt me and so made sure I was in very few of the photos by making sure that the angle of the photos put the wedding cake in front of me. The photographer had higher standing in the family than I did. I knew that complaining got me—got any of us in the family—nowhere. So I said nothing. I still remember the helpless, hopeless feeling I had at that wedding.
The more such slights affect us emotionally, the more we can suppose they have been used against us in the past—sometimes in such a distant past that we have no recollection of it. This is especially true if we were inculcated into this freezing out technique when we were very young. Also called the Silent Treatment, to ignore or overlook a child is extremely cruel when applied by a parent, caregiver or person in authority.
A child is someone who does not have a fully developed ego, identity or sense of self. It is this undeveloped state that we consider precious. A child MUST HAVE reflection and validation to develop a sense of self—or even HAVE a sense of self. To ignore a child is to deny that child a sense of self. To ignore a child—to not include them, to overlook them, or intentionally freeze them out—is equivalent to psychological murder. The silent treatment, when applied to a child, is abuse.
And, again, we can likely tell if we ever received the Silent Treatment or were overlooked or ignored if that technique causes us anxiety and distress as adults--whether we remember experiencing it or not.
The Silent Treatment and Anxiety
A few years ago I was involved with a man whose mother came to visit. The three of us spent the weekend together and our interactions were pleasant. A few visits into the weekend I began having anxiety and anxiety attacks. I had had them a few years previous and I was horrified to have them back. What on earth was causing them?
I turned to my favorite solution to my own psychological mysteries and journaled and meditated and then journaled again. Then the three of us went out in the evening, I had a glass of wine, and to my shock and horror and the shock and horror of my boyfriend and his mother, I said something completely out of character and extremely inappropriate. Mercifully, I don’t remember what it was, although I do remember that it was sexual in nature. My boyfriend stared at me, stunned. I went home and journaled some more.
And then it clicked: his mother had never looked at me! For about two days, she had never actually given me eye contact. Ah-ha! There it was! And, apparently, that caused me anxiety and, apparently, I would do anything, including embarrassing myself, to get her to look at me!
What About Eye Contact?
I had, years before, realized that, as a child, I had been the victim of the Silent Treatment. The technique had found its way into some of my intimate relationships as an adult. A component of the Silent Treatment is a lack of eye contact. A truly adept passive aggressive person chooses a stealth form of the Silent Treatment with what I now believe is its most effective component: to effectively deny another person eye contact.
With relief I continued to participate in the weekend and was able to see that, indeed, the woman couldn’t look at me. And her bland responses to me were only there to make it seem as if she were being courteous. And now that I knew what was going on, I could go into observer mode. I probably continued to journal with a great deal of enthusiasm but my anxiety disappeared and I made no more compulsive remarks.
Eye Contact Is Crucial
In the years since, I have become more and more conscious of the presence—or absence—of eye contact. I sometimes see casual social interactions between two people where someone isn’t giving eye contact and the other person, apparently thinking it is a positional thing, tries to move into the line of sight of their conversation partner—usually with little success. I notice that I have relationships that include eye contact—and when they don’t, the relationship ends.
How about you? Can you begin to be conscious of your desire for eye contact? When you get it and when you don’t? And could there be a hidden cause of anxiety in your life?
We can find clues as to what might have happened in our childhoods by understanding what some people call the Old Paradigm for relationships. The Old Paradigm is what I grew up with. It’s where little is addressed directly or openly among friends and family members, where we’re each supposed to know and anticipate what the other is thinking, feeling or wanting in order to spare them the awful task of actually expressing their thoughts, feelings or desires directly. The Old Paradigm dictates that we say, “Are you going to eat that last brownie?” rather than, “Wait! May I please have that last brownie??”
ROLES BASED ON GENDER AND POSITION
The Old Paradigm dictates roles based on gender, position in the family, or social and business position. It is based on conditioning and what is called Object Referral: I know how to act based on cues you give me for my behavior. Or my behavior is guided by established, often unspoken, rules and traditions. Self Referral says I know how to act based on how I feel, what I want and need, the experience I am having and—WAIT FOR IT—clear, direct, communication from me and from whoever I am interacting with.
The Old Paradigm relies on passive aggression. The best definition I have ever learned for passive aggressive behavior is this: behavior that causes someone else to feel MY anger. We can go further and say that any feeling I don’t want to feel—anger, hate, fear, anxiety, shame—I will do my best to pass on to you through my hostile (disguised but still hostile) actions.
A favorite passive aggressive technique is to freeze someone out, give them the cold shoulder or even, worst case, the Silent Treatment. I can act the innocent while you suffer. “What? I didn’t do anything!”
Freezing out probably originated in the family of origin but can show up in present day family and social relationships. We might be left out of a social event or overlooked in a conversation. We might suddenly, and with very little explanation, be denied use of a vehicle or building or a piece of furniture. Any kind of slight will do. Freezing out can happen in the workplace, as well. Someone might leave us off of an email chain or fail to invite us to a meeting—even a meeting of our own department. Oops!
Anybody feeling cold??
If we narrow and generalize—stay with me here—women, as I said, are often conditioned to be more or less boundaryless WITHIN THEIR RELATIONSHIP and men are often conditioned to be walled off—often, it seems, because of or in spite of their relationship status. In this game of social conditioning, single women are wild cards, as are red Aces.
Some people lend themselves better to conditioning that says they should be boundaryless to the outside world, being available for many different people and purposes through their job, their family, neighborhood or social group or their church. They may set a boundary because their partner insists upon it, “She/He doesn’t like it when I go out on weekends,” or “She/He insists I spend Saturdays with the family.” But the person themselves may not actually set the boundary without prompting from their partner. And, in fact, they might use their partner as an excuse to set the boundary rather than setting the boundary themselves.
The empath may be vulnerable to further conditioning and manipulation through guilt, being ignored or frozen out of interactions or the simple awareness of someone else’s pain. The person who has walled off—denied their empathic nature—may work to either protect their partner or exploit their partner to meet only their needs or the needs they approve of, or both.
What happened in the childhoods of those of us who were not raised to understand or practice the process of setting boundaries? What happened to those of us who retained our ability to be empaths and those of us who somehow gave up or denied the empathic nature we had as very young children?
Although we may have received conditioning around our roles and social behavior we more than likely did not learn how to set boundaries. Instead—and I realize this is probably overly broad and somewhat exaggerated—both men and women were expected to be walled off regarding interactions with the opposite sex. That is, until they met Mr., Mrs. or Ms. Right. Then, miraculously, the walls developed doors, love would reign, and only the Right One would be allowed entry. The two would become one and the wall would now circumscribe them both.
WHO HAS THE POWER?
Because no one had set expectations, no one had articulated boundaries, no one had practiced making direct requests for closeness and intimacy or for separateness and space THAT MIGHT CHANGE OVER TIME, the new couple’s life would be dictated by social convention and whoever had the power. This was usually economic power although power might be held by the person who wanted sex the least or by the person who could produce the most anger or disapproval or by the one who could be silent the longest or by the one who could become ill or who had the most powerful or economically well-off parents or …
The key is that the individuals themselves had not set the rules through a process that was created by both people using clear language to make direct offers and requests. In other words, by setting boundaries.
Without boundaries both men and women will have difficulty maintaining their empathic natures. A common result of this is one person might become walled off and the other person becomes boundaryless. They may even arrive at the relationship that way, having been schooled in childhood and early adulthood. Perhaps one person, the empath, is in charge of asking, “What’s wrong?” and the other person, the one who has learned to become walled off, is in charge of saying, “Nothing.”
This state of boundarylessness or being walled off can become established across the board or the couple can have different roles in different situations. One person can be boundaryless at home and walled off out in the world—or vice versa. Or one person can become boundaryless under the influence of alcohol and walled off the rest of the time. Or one person is boundaryless with their mother or father but walled off with their spouse. Or any number of variations.
The conditioning I received and see the most is that women are encouraged to be boundaryless and men are encouraged to be walled off. Women who dare to set boundaries can be called demanding, difficult, particular, hard to get along with. They can even be called bitches or ball busters or even worse. Men who retain or retrieve their empathic nature are called sissies, wussies (I actually don’t know how to spell that), whipped and worse. Women who become walled off can be called cold. Men who become walled off can be called, um, men.
PROCESS, PROCESS, PROCESS
The point is that there is no shared process. There is no way, usually, to update what we want or need in most traditional relationships. How many of us simply choose not to bring something up? How many of us know what we can negotiate and what we cannot? How many of us resort to bullying or being bullied because, again, we have no basis for a shared process?
What if I ask my partner not to wear a particular scent? How many cycles am I going to go through as I think about how I ask this because I don’t want to hurt his feelings? Maybe I said I liked it—ten years ago. Is there a process for revisiting this?
I see many people who do not have a process in their first marriage (or long-term relationship) who have such a process in their second marriage (or long-term relationship). Is it a sign of the times? Did we have no such process in the 50s, 60s, 70s and on but, now, maybe, we have such a process?
What about you? Do you have a process with your partner? Friends? Colleagues? Family members?
Another problem—perhaps the most real and pressing problem—is learning to allow our empathic nature while learning to set boundaries around when and where and how we respond to the information we receive empathically.
There is a difference between setting a boundary and walling off. Setting a boundary is a process. It may include things like intention, negotiation, the flow of information, permission and change. On a date, I may have one set of boundaries on the first date and another set on a subsequent date. The nature of the social event, that it is, in fact, a date, is set through intention and through the convention of dating. We, as a society, have decided what dating is and this varies among different ages, classes, religions, ethnicities and other factors but we can probably agree that there is some kind of agreement about what dating is. We are often nervous because we are trying to figure out if our idea of a date matches the other person’s idea of a date.
The dates themselves are a form of negotiation that is revealed through eye contact, body language, words, and tonality. Each date is like some agreed-upon opportunity for change, for further permission to interact more deeply—permission that can be granted or not, depending on each participants’ desire.
A BILATERAL PROCESS
Again, through intention, negotiation, the flow of information, permission and change—through a process based on interaction—we set boundaries. The process itself is bilateral—it goes both ways. Either one of us might participate in very little of the process before setting a boundary. Or, if we both agree, often through agreeing to see one another again, we might participate in the process for a longer period. We might event revisit the process at another time.
Of course, any social interaction qualifies. I’ve used the example of a date but anything from an exchange at a convenience store to a sales meeting to a diplomatic negotiation over a border tax qualifies.
Walling off is the refusal or inability to participate in a process. It is based on not allowing participation—on either person’s part. If I am walled off, I refuse to participate in a process with you. I make a decision on my own—a unilateral decision—and “stick to my guns.” I deny the process. If you are walled off, you do the same. There is no process, no participation, no allowing, no flow of information, no exit or entrance.
REJECTION AND PUNISHMENT
Boundaries are necessary if we are going to allow and develop our empathic nature. Boundaries retain a flow of information of all kinds. Walling off prevents the flow of information, including empathic information. Walling off feels like refusal, deadness, rejection—even punishment—to an empath.
There are several problems that we can experience until we better understand our empathic nature. The first is that we try to limit our empathic nature, we make it conditional: I will be empathic with you but not him. Perhaps this describes the world we live in right now, where we and those around us have to qualify to receive empathy.
You might say, “But I want to block certain feelings I receive! I want to block that person’s fear or anger or be ready to block any aggression that comes from them!”
You get to take care of yourself—I promise. But there is another way to do this without walling off and blocking your ability to receive emotional and felt-sense information. And without necessarily judging the other person.
Imagine, instead, that you understand your empathic nature, that you learn how to stop and feel whatever you are feeling, and notice if it makes sense to suppose that the feeling originates with you—or originates with someone near you physically or someone you are thinking of. You might be guessing at first but that’s okay. Being certain to actually feel the feeling is the most important step.
Set a boundary
Then, notice if you need to set a boundary. Maybe you need to defend yourself or respond in some way or get away from that person or, on the other hand, give them a hug. Whatever you do, do it without judging. Instead, you discern: does what you feel from them feel good? Or not? This can inform what you do.
Send light and love
Then send them light and love. This blocks whatever they are sending you. It also makes it harder for them to see you, identify you as an appropriate victim, unless what you were picking up from them in the first place was the same, light and love, acceptance, allowing.
And, yes, sometimes this is not quite enough because we aren’t able to love certain people. “He hurt me!” “She hates me!” Yes. So that is the challenge, isn’t it? Learning to love ourselves enough to let ourselves feel our feelings and sense whatever we are sensing and take care of ourselves and, sometimes, love other people. But not cut ourselves off from others and not block our own ability to receive powerful and important information through our senses and through our empathic nature.
An empath is someone who is aware of the feelings of those around them. This can range, on one end of an extreme, from literally taking on the feelings or even the conditions, symptoms or illnesses of those around them, to feeling the feelings of those around them to, on the other end of the extreme, simply being aware of the emotional climate of their situation. An empath can extend their awareness into the mental realm and be more or less aware of the thoughts of those around them.
A neurologically and psychologically normal and healthy infant and mother pair are naturally empathic. That is, they each feel the other’s feelings. A mother—again, a neurologically and psychologically normal mother—is biologically attuned to her infant; her infant is attuned to her. This is how nature causes a red, squalling, smelly little creature to get its needs met by someone who, temporarily, thinks they are precious.
It may be that we naturally grow out of that more acute attunement—or it may be that we are conditioned out of it. Even so, some of us retain that empathic nature. We can make wonderful partners, we often become healers in one form or another, or we become simply really well-attuned co-dependents.
Empaths benefit from developing greater sensitivity to what they are feeling. This may seem counterproductive since they are feeling their feelings as well as the feelings of others. But taking time to feel—truly feel the physical sensations they are feeling—allows an empath to begin to discern the feelings that are theirs and the feelings that belong to someone else. Once an empath is able to discern the difference—or even be able to be curious about whose feelings they are experiencing—they can begin to set boundaries.
A simple boundary is just the awareness of where the empath begins—in their core—and where they end—at the far reaches of their personal energy field. The next step is to notice the near end of the energy field where another begins. The empath may be able to feel the other’s core, as well.