“I want to control what other people are thinking,” the patient explained.
“How do you think you are going to do that?” the therapist responded.
The 11 year-old brainstormed but couldn’t come up with a solution.
Finally the therapist interrupted her thought process and said, “Do you know what you CAN control?”
“What YOU are thinking.”
The young girl paused to think.
“No, that’s not good enough.”
I laughed when I heard the story. As an adult child of an alcoholic, I especially have difficulty when someone doesn’t like me or approve of something I’m doing. And if I like and respect that person, the pain is even deeper. It feels as though the floor under me has disappeared, that I have no grounding or security, and I’m free falling to an unknown landing spot, where wild animals will probably eat my body.
I’ve had enough years of therapy to know that it is a leftover wound from childhood crap. The discomfort and panic that I feel at times doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with the person that doesn’t like me or approve of me as much as it does that I was never truly loved unconditionally as a child, and therefore spend so much of my adult life trying to win love and approval of everyone, including baristas, mail carriers, the women at the deli, the guys at the blood lab, and, of course, my doctors.
I call it my knee scab—the pain I feel at times when someone doesn’t like me or approve of something I’m doing. It’s an old wound that is vulnerable to being opened whenever I start to have a difficult conversation, whether it is in person, on the phone, or online.
When I was in the fourth grade, my left knee stayed bloody the whole year because I kept on falling on it. I’d think I could finally put the Band-Aids away when, bam! Again the same spot. The Law of Attraction people probably would say that I wanted a bloody knee and therefore attracted my accidents. But I think the spot was just tender, so any accident I had—and I was very clumsy—would break open the scab. It never had a chance to heal.
Yesterday I had another bloody knee. I felt the floor beneath me disappear again, and the rush of painful emotions from years past came over me. I lost my breath and my appetite, as the panic of not being loved or approved settled in. The night previous I was as authentic as possible in an email exchange with someone, sharing from my heart as best as I know how, and the response hurt my feelings. It was a little like the scene in Star Wars when Princess Leia yells to Hans Solo, “I love you!” And he responds, “I know!”
Harriett Lerner, Ph.D., writes in “The Dance of Connection”: “Truth is, nothing you can say can ensure that the other person will get it, or respond the way you want. You may never exceed his threshold of deafness. She may never love you, not now or ever. And if you are courageous in initiating, extending, or deepening a difficult conversation, you may feel even more anxious and uncomfortable, at least in the short run.”
That’s right, being courageous or authentic can create even more anxiety. However, to hide behind my truth isn’t an option. Lying makes me depressed because it causes all sorts of guilt. Remember, I’m Catholic. Although authenticity is more difficult in the short-term, I will get over this hollow feeling and scabbed knee. However, if I duck from all kinds of difficult conversations, I’m moving toward becoming a wuss. A depressed, guilt-ridden Catholic wuss.
As I was trying to breathe through the difficult emotions yesterday, I asked myself, “What would happen if this person absolutely hates you, despises your whole being, never wants anything to do with you again? Think worst possible scenario: you respect her, but she thinks you’re scum. Can you live with that?”
I imagined the two people in my life who love me unconditionally—who would love me even if I robbed a bank tomorrow or was on the news for completely losing it, riding a horse in the middle of the mall, wrecking all the Easter decorations, yelling profanities—my husband and my foster dad/writing mentor, Mike Leach.
I closed my eyes. I held on to a glove with each hand that I imagined was their hands. Together we walked up to the person who I think doesn’t like me. She spit on me. Mike said to me, “It’s okay.” I grabbed the gloves tightly and I felt their love over me. The unconditional love that was absent when my little brain was forming and I’ve been desperate to get it ever since.
I was okay. Forehead a little moist. But I was okay.
I was loved.
Eventually, if your recovery is going in the right direction, self-help experts say you don’t need to clutch gloves filled with imaginary hands because you have enough self-compassion to fill that place in your heart. Well, I am not there yet.
I’m ahead of the 11 year old. I have accepted the fact that I can’t control what other people think.
But I still have to nurse a bloody knee every now and then.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
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