Friday, June 21, 2013

Extremes, Exaggeration, Cut-offs, Boundaries and Homeostasis

Or: How Failing to Establish Boundaries, thus Needing to Cut Someone Off, an Exaggerated and Extreme but Sometimes Necessary Measure, Can Be Avoided 

(1) Extremes and Exaggerations

There was a Jewish sage, the Rambam, I think, Maimonides, who lived in the twelfth century. A doctor, (they didn't specialize then) he recommended that if you want to change something about yourself, your life, then err on side of extreme. If you are shy, exaggerate working the room. Act social.  Make yourself talk until people are bored listening to you. (All this my interpretation of a distant memory, probably wrong.)

If you are angry, become the Dalai Lama.

If you are late, strive to make every appointment really, really early.

Pushed too far it is ridiculous. If you are old, work at being young. If you are sick, make yourself well. Exaggerating doesn't work for everything, and surely the Rambam knew that.

The chachma (Soft "ch" not like the "ch" in "chuck", but sounds like "chuck", roughly; means wisdom in Hebrew or Yiddish or both), the chachma is that if you try to exaggerate a behavioral trait, if you over-shoot, aim for much more or much less, you are likely to fail, to miss that faraway objective. But the arrow will fall center, and you will be in a better place than before you tried.

I'd add, keep those expectations low (he may have said that, too). We all lose weight, then gain weight, then lose weight, then gain it back, hundreds of thousands of times in a lifetime, and the goals are usually unrealistic. Expect less, try for just a little success, and be grateful that on occasion you still enjoy eating.

Over-shooting works in that we improve, if only temporarily. Systems are homeostatic, especially behavioral systems, depressingly predictable. And yet: if we can handle failure, adopt a benign pick yourself up, brush yourself off, start all over again mentality, then at least we won't completely go to seed. We'll succeed some of the time. The job is to keep those times coming with practice.

Rambam's cognitive-behavioral therapy is useful in that way. The problem, of course, is that someone who is too shy to walk into a room isn't able to work one, not right away, not even for a day. So most behaviorists suggest baby steps. We'll get to those.

But first, what about the hocus pocus of The Secret, that book I never read but heard about from at least a dozen patients when it made the rounds and spotted right away as a great visual cognitive therapy.

The idea, seemingly, is that we all want to be different, better, but before we shoot off our new great idea, or buy new clothes, or invest in a weight-loss pill, maybe even get therapy or a lottery ticket, before doing anything to improve, best to imagine the change.

Start with a vision, a picture of more of a good quality, a picture of less of an undesirable one. If we mentally focus on the new me (rich!) and do it often, spend significant amounts of time imagining what change looks like, we are likely to wear it. In that Iphone video in your head, you are the star:
 No thanks, I'll pass on the cake.  
First you see yourself saying that. There you are, passing on the cake.

As opposed to everyone's favorite lyric, a send-off on a maudlin, yet wonderful Les Mis song, A little drop of rain can hardly hurt me now, that spawned my family's concessionary joke
A little piece of cake can hardly hurt me now.It's here, that's all I need to knowwww.
Better: See me. See the cake. See me taking the classic pass on the cake.
No thanks, I'll pass on the cake.
Too extreme for some people, and too time consuming, all that imagining, if it is going to be effective. And there may be something about depending upon the spirit world and who knows how that will go? Thus many of us recommend moderation.
I'll have just a little piece of cake. Please.
Moderation is the go-to strategy, most likely, of every great philosopher. (All of us don't make it through Philosophy 101, so I really don't know.  But probably even the Rambam loves moderation in another chapter of the same book, or a different book. Ask a scholar.)

So that's good. But as I said, I like Baby Steps, made famous in some movie or another. A toe in the water, then the entire foot, ankle. Take it slow. No need to do everything in a week, no need to accomplish everything in a month, think the year. The New Year's resolution but break that puppy down. Don't swim every day, not at first. Don't jog every day. Don't eat well every day, you won't anyway; why beat yourself up about it. Plan only your next step. Even with religion, slow it down. Baby steps.

Get used to the water.

It's all good, any attempt at change is good, but the extremes get us into trouble if we go there directly. The problem with extremes, even wanting to go there, is that they are so extreme. Never eat chocolate. Never get angry. Can we battle homeostasis, a law of nature? Hardly. The consequence of never get angry is blowing up out of context, scaring the daylights out of everyone.

And as long as we're rambling and losing focus something else happens when we deny our anger. We lose self. Nobody knows who we are. We lose such a huge piece of ourselves, our passion, we become unidentifiable, blend in with the sofa.

We have to manage anger, obviously, but losing it altogether is like losing salt and pepper. The food is missing something and we're not interested. We're not even going to discuss chocolate.

(2) Cut-offs and Boundaries

A social cut-off is extreme. Doing it feels extreme, and being cut-off is sometimes a call to panic. No one there to tell you, No need to freak out. Homeostasis.

Years ago a friend told me that her father-in-law was such an impossibly insensitive man, he said so many insensitive things, that she couldn't be around him, had an averse response to just being with him. Panic attacks at family dinners. Her therapist suggested she cut him off. She called the dad-in-law "borderline."

As if this is a reason to cut someone off. Understandable, but extreme. There are books about difficult people, understanding why a person is difficult. I prefer the word, complicated.

But it happens quite often, therapists recommending cut-offs, usually when someone won't respect boundaries. Figuring that out, how to set a boundary, and keep it set, is an objective of many therapies. Loosening boundaries to open up to more intimacy, is another.

Not going to lie, it is healing to cut off  contact for awhile with particular people, maybe for months, even longer. But it should be discussed. Anyone with the chutzpa to blast through personal boundaries can handle our labeling their behavior. And it shouldn't be forever, the cut-off.

It is easy to cut people off by moving away. Too busy to call anyone back, hoping the needier, more dependent, or difficult individuals will lose our scent, it is a lovely, expensive way to emotional relief.

Inconvenient and cowardly. Better to assert, label the hurt, the criticism, the panic attacks at the sound of criticism, the negativity dripping from that someone's mouth, even when it is negativity about others, not us, when the negativity is about the universe, or one of the protected classes, those gays, those whatever.

All of it, label it all. Make a splash in a calm, assertive, no need to get emotional fashion.
I disagree, why bring yourself up by putting other people down? 
Not that this will necessarily work. But we script it in therapy. Nothing to lose. Nothing. (We're not talking about physically abusive relationships).

Those who are cut off seek help, too.They are sad, don't like that they chase and lose. They are often seeking intimacy, ironically.

That's why it is so admirable when a person doesn't want to be the bad guy, when we want to say, in so many words, Don't call me anymore, don't visit, and I'm de-friending you on FaceBook, when we want to do this, say it, but don't. We just can't bring ourselves to it. To survive, we make an occasional process comment like the one above about putting people down, or we're straight about why we don't spend so much time with the other person.
I'm a conflict avoider, and you're really negative, a lot.
Such strength to say those words. Feels impossible. It isn't.

People who don't cut off difficult others (again, a disclaimer, not talking about sociopaths or even almost sociopaths) have learned that when there is a reunion, a party, when backed into a corner, our boundaries about to be seriously compromised, we need an exit strategy or a magazine, a puzzle, a game, something to rip out and use to disappear.

You know that cutting someone off is shooting them in the heart.

How do we mend that particular broken heart when it is our heart and we have been cut off?

Best to assume that the one who cut us off is self-protecting, setting a boundary. Most of us, if we rationally examine our behavior, can see our own faults. If we can't, we should ask someone who knows us well. We may not think our words or actions are hurtful, but if someone isn't talking to us, then they may have been hurt. Apologies upon that epiphany, what we did wrong, sometimes work, but are no magic bullet. And if someone doesn't take our apology, at least we tried.

And if rapproachment, or detente, never happen? If the relationship stays disengaged, cut off, a seeming non-relationship (as if there ever could be a non-relationship) wait.

Have it in mind, always, to wait. In the interim, both of you grow, become infinitely more interesting, funnier, smarter, wiser, less-judgmental. Deeper. Not always, but often.  When people change, there's nothing quite like it. We want to be their friend. They want to be ours. We have to respect those boundaries until that happens, even after we have grown.

Those who cut off, who set what feels like an impermeable boundary, can only hope that the ones shut out will still want to be with them by then.



GG said...

Thank you for this post. It's helping me understand boundary issues I have with others and why I'm willing to wait. It's a tough way to love and be loved, but there we are....

Mound Builder said...

I've read this post several times, have a hard time knowing what, or how, to remark on it. What you wrote connects in so many ways, as I think I have been on every side of this, the one who has been cut off, the one who has cut someone off.

It was an odd coincidence, the timing of your post, or the timing of when I happened to read it. I had, on that day, collided with someone I have tried to keep a distance from for years, an old, and long term, relationship that I ended. I didn't know the words to use for what was wrong in that relationship, as it was too long ago; I didn't hear certain phrases about qualities of a bad relationship until more than 20 years after I ended that one. Every few years, the person seems to pop up in my life, make an appearance, make an effort to be in touch. I have made it clear that I don't want contact, and I am bewildered as to why the efforts to contact me. I was not expecting to see this person in the place, or the occasion, where it happened. I am suspicious that it was orchestrated and there was too much damage done a long time ago for me to want to trust this person. I don't need to. I moved on long ago. You said that only in the case of dealing with a sociopath does it make sense to maintain a permanent cut off. And what if you didn't know then that might be the word for what was wrong? How to know now? I maintain the cut off because it seems safer to me. And the fact that this person continues every few years to try and make contact when I've said I don't want it is part of what makes me not ever want to let my guard down, in that particular direction.

I also think of this topic, cut offs, in terms of family members. One of those I understood perfectly well, though came to regret, and when an opening presented itself, I was glad for the way the other person made an effort. As it turned out, it was the beginning of repairing and things have been great ever since. I knew that particular cut off was not aimed at me, specifically, just that I got swept up in something about family dynamics I understood well.

Do people ever cut off, because they need that space, that boundary, and then can't quite figure out how to let it go, when it might really be appropriate to let it go? Like painting themselves into a corner and simply not knowing how to get out again?

SW at SW Guide said...

I love Maimonides! His eight rules for giving is one of the most beautiful philosophies---a poetic rendering of something that everyone can relate to. I think about it every day.

There is a LOT here---and I love all of it---but for whatever reason, this stick out for me: "Such strength to say those words. Feels impossible. It isn't."

There are so many things I do that others would say are courageous, and so many things I avoid that others would say I am cowardly. For all those things I avoid---the fear is so real! And yet, once conquered, that fear becomes a strange memory. An "I can't believe I felt that way."

Thank you for writing---I think I'm going to read this a few more times.


And, if I remember correctly---the "baby steps" movie is "What About Bob?" with Bill Murray and Richard Dryfus.

therapydoc said...

G.G., the waiting, if you get into it, is really the best part, imho, because we gain control over our neediness in the process(or the need to be apart, if we are the one rejecting). It is all in how we perceive it.
Either way, if we aren't married to someone, or if a relationship suffers a huge hit and we suffer a breech of trust that feels irreparable, then it may make no difference whether it might be hard for someone, if it feels safe (and MOUNDBUIDER you would relate to this) then we don't owe anyone our time. MBUILDER, imho, partners and family deserve explanations, I think, and very good friends, too, unless we just don't have an explanation. But if a relationship never made it to very good friends, then why sweat the need for a boundary. Lots of us, by the way, paint ourselves into ridiculous corners but there's no need to stay there. When it makes no sense, being stuck in "cut off" talking will either work or it won't, but being uncomfortable and saying nothing is wasting a potential opportunity. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Buck up if rejected. A person can only try, can lead the proverbial horse to water.
Sometimes we are merely avoiding a person who is more interested in us than we are in them. Honestly, rather than become mean or say the wrong thing, it is healthier to avoid, again, just saying.
SW at SWGUIDE, what a lovely comment, thanks so much, and I will read the 8 rules. I think you're right! It is What About Bob, isn't it?!

Anna said...

I have been through this process, clearly defining space and creating distance for the benefit of both of us. It can be good, even though it is difficult. Ultimately, it helps to have someone outside the situation (if not a therapist, a trusted friend) who can keep you grounded and help you see things clearly.

I also have a close relative who appreciates the emotional manipulation involved with the cold shoulder. Almost always, she's back without a word about what happened, what upset her in the first place. This last time, she came back with maturity- explained that she was still hurt, but understood that she wasn't gaining anything by keeping it up. We're still building bridges, working out the kinks. I am going forward with a shorter rubber band- I am not willing to give as far as she's going to snap back (again) eventually. That's okay, too.

Anonymous said...

I had a therapist do this to me once. "I think we need to set a boundary and agree that our work is over and we will no longer be seeing each other," and, "the theory is that you need to believe I don't feel anything for you." All while I bawled my head off, mind you, and tried to get clarity on why she no longer "wanted to be" my secure attachment anymore, as she had said just a week early, but then conveniently couldn't recall saying anything remotely akin to such a thing, much less discuss it.

Thanks for calling a cut off a shot in the heart.