A few days ago, I was scheduled to work with someone who rubbed me the wrong way. I have no problem with this young man, it’s just that a piece of me was easily irritable with him.
One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned about myself was from a book titled “Spiritual Divorce,” by Debbie Ford. Through many different exercises one of the main points was: The things that bother us about someone else are usually unhealed wounds within ourselves.
“To understand this concept more clearly, imagine that every quality on the planet is represented as a button on your chest. One button is labeled “loving”; another says “sensitive.” There is a button for “arrogant,” “manipulative,” “joyful,” “controlling,” and “honest.” The qualities within you that are healthy and healed have electrical cover plates over them. They are neutral, free from charge, and have no energy coming forth from them.
For example, if you see someone being rude and rudeness is not an issue for you, you’ll notice their rudeness, but no negative energy will rush through you. You’ll be informed by their behavior, but not affected by it. But the qualities in you that are unhealed – that have been denied, hidden, or suppressed – have energy coming from them. If lying is an issue for you, hearing someone tell a lie will trigger an emotional reaction in you, sending a jolt of negative energy throughout your body.”
“The only way to heal this reaction and put a cover plate over this hot button is to understand what you’re affected by in your partner is really an unhealed part of yourself. The emotional energy surging through you serves as a guide, showing you where you are wounded and separated from yourself. These garmented parts act out to get your attention and remind you that they have not yet been healed. Your job is to reclaim and integrate these parts of yourself and extract the wisdom they contain. Only then, can they become part of your whole being. And only then, will these unconscious hot buttons lose their power over you.”
-Debbie Ford (Spiritual Divorce)
Emotional energy surging through you serves as a guide showing you where you are wounded. Click To Tweet
Ok. So, what is it about me that I see in this guy that is unhealed about myself. Sometimes looking inward at our own shit is very difficult.
- He talks too much. Crap, that’s the complaint my ex had about me. A wall of words. My daughters tune me out. When I start talking, sometimes I just can’t stop. If you’ve kept up with my blogs thus far, you know exactly what I mean. KISS (keep it simple stupid) is something I struggle with.
- He searches for validation constantly. Ugh! Another thing I don’t like about me. A week ago, my ex responded to one of my emails by telling me she was done with me ending every story I told her about “how much better I am than before.” She told me to let her make her own judgments by my actions, not by me trying to fish for validation.
- He critiques himself harshly and puts himself down constantly when he makes mistakes. Perfectionism has been another hard trait to overcome. In fact, during family week six years ago, my ex loved an assignment I was given. I was to purposely make three mistakes in the evening and then share about my experience in the morning. Trying to think of something “wrong” to do was incredibly hard for me. My ex suggested that I leave my dinner tray on the table and let someone else clean it up. “Oh, heck no! I can’t do that.” She had joyful time watching my anxiety over not being perfect.
This person I was working with was a mirror image of the person I’m trying NOT to be. And those character defects are a large part of why I am getting divorced!
I was just talking to Solomon the other day. Oh wait, you haven’t met Solomon.
Solomon, meet my Fledglings.
Fledglings, meet Solomon.
Solomon is another friend I turn to for wise counsel. I had to give him the name Solomon, because, you see, Solomon is a proud atheist and has no problem getting into religious (and political) debates. When one says, actions speak louder than words, Solomon holds higher morals and values than many people of faith; he just doesn’t believe in a supreme being. During a Thanksgiving feast with close friends he invited two young Mormon men who were on mission to join us for dinner. We had such a wonderful time!
Solomon doesn’t judge or discriminate, he just holds different beliefs. And no, Solomon does not have hundreds of ladies; only one woman holds his heart.
Anyway, since Solomon is considered one of the wisest men in the bible, other than Jesus of course, I thought I’d play it up and use that as my atheist friend’s pseudonym.
Try saying that five times fast!
Solomon started talking to me about mirror neurons.
What the heck are mirror neurons?
I’ve learned how addiction works, how neurons fire in our brains, and how our behavior follows the path of least resistance. I’ve learned that one of the steps towards recovering from addiction is to create new pathways in our brain so that we develop new habits. Hence, 90 meetings in 90 days and going through the withdrawal of stopping the addictive behavior as the first step towards recovery.
But mirror neurons?
Solomon states, “I was listening to a podcast and learned something interesting today. Have you heard about mirror neurons?”
“Not at all,” I reply. “What in the world are those?”
“Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that automatically fires, not only when you perform an action, but when you see someone else perform the same action,” Solomon explains. “Scientists are finding that while they once believed we used logical thought to interpret and predict other people’s actions, they are coming to believe that we understand others through feeling. These mirror neurons not only allow us to ‘simulate’ someone else’s actions, but also to ‘simulate’ the intentions and emotions behind those actions.”
Mirror neurons allow us to 'simulate' the intentions and emotions behind someone's actions. Click To Tweet
“Ok, Solomon. You lost me. Can you explain?”
“For example,” Solomon continues, “If you watch someone stub their toe, you feel their pain. Or let’s say you’re watching a close race, you feel your own heart racing with excitement as the runners get closer to the finish line. Someone smiles at you, and you feel joy, but when someone glares or doesn’t answer to a polite, ‘hello’, you may feel judged or think they’re being rude.”
“Of course, we understand how others feel,” I interject. “That’s human nature.”
“But, psychologists are finding it goes deeper than just understanding. They are starting to believe that there is a neuro-science based answer to why we respond at a gut level to other people’s actions. It’s how we understand so instinctively their thoughts, feelings, and intentions.”
“I heard that people who’ve had Botox receive a lack of empathy from others,” I exclaim proudly, able to contribute to the conversation.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ve heard that people who’ve had Botox done on their face aren’t able to show the full spectrum of emotions. We respond and have empathy with others when we see their non-verbal body language. But, if they can’t show the emotions on their faces like they used to, others will have trouble relating to them.”
Solomon laughs, “I just had a vision of the Joker in Batman. You nailed it Phoenix! That’s the mirror neurons. And because of these mirror neurons, scientists are having more insight into how and why we develop empathy for others.”
“Or for those of us who are hyper-vigilant,” I add. “I’m constantly scanning my environment trying to interpret the meaning behind other people’s non-verbal language.”
“Through this research, scientists are finding that we all scan and react to our environment subconsciously.”
If you’d like more information about mirror neuron, here’s a great Ted Talk:
The Neurons That Shaped Civilization
Back to the Story
If I have an unhealed part of myself that I see in someone else, it makes sense I may feel irritated or agitated by that person.
In addition, if I am unwilling to look deeper at my own stuff, I will instead most likely complain, gossip, or get angry. Hence, I will project what I don’t like about myself onto that person.
Well, that’s all fine and good. I cognitively have figured out why this coworker annoys me.
I have empathy for my ex (sorry honey). She didn’t have to deal with my traits for only three days; she dealt with them for 16 years. Crap! She’s still dealing with them through the divorce and as we co-parent. I’ll figure it out one of these days!
I also realize it isn’t my job to change my coworker. It’s not my job to point out the things he needs to work on.
It’s my job to put boundaries around myself and take care of me. I still have a long way to go when it comes to maintaining proper boundaries.
Let me rephrase that. I am changing old behaviors and creating new habits (new neuropathways that will someday be “the path of least resistance”).
Just like learning to drive a manual speed, it takes a while to remember to put the clutch in and release it with just the right amount of gas so you don’t stall or jerk the car.
Let me tell you, if my recovery was like learning how to drive a stick shift, I would have already gone through numerous clutches by now.
Recovery and growth takes time.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Knowing how I handle my own issues, I believe that if I call my coworker out on any one of these three traits, he’ll internalize it, take it personally, and, if he’s anything like me, will continue to put himself down and become even more hyper-vigilant around me.
I also know, that if I open my mouth and try to explain my thoughts, I will either go into “lecture mode” or possibly “victim mode.”
Instead, I decide to keep my mouth shut and work on taking care of myself.
What happens when one has an unexpressed emotion that they are trying to keep a lid on?
Ah, yes! Anger bubbles out sideways.
I start to get passive aggressive. Of course, he doesn’t see it.
I’ve got years of experience smiling while throwing out the jabs. I easily make sarcastic comments which he has no clue that he’s under attack.
No wonder my ex can get triggered within such a short period while being around me. Years of this type of behavior and she quickly knows I’m not smiling, but punching. It’s like my coworker is in a boxing ring drinking coffee while I pulverize him, and yet, he’s oblivious of the bruises that start to pop up.
Ok, it’s not that bad. Years ago, it could have been. But, these days I’m more aware.
The thoughts are there, but they aren’t being vocalized.
However, even though I may not be saying anything, my energy is still there; like static electricity in the air.
What I do explain to my coworker is that I have some things I need to do (which I did), that it’s not him (which it is; well not really, it’s me), and not to take it personally if I was busy doing something else (which I meant).
Did I lose you?
Unfortunately, I didn’t address my own issues. I wasn’t forthright and truthful to him. I didn’t set clear boundaries about what I needed or wanted.
Empathy and Compassion
By the third day we were talking and he said, “If you knew my story growing up, you’d wonder how I survived.”
My irritation level was probably about an eight at that point. I was deep in writing a blog and didn’t want to stop my “creative juices from flowing.” But then I realized the irony. Here I am, wanting to blog to the world about connection and helping one another. I’m blogging about having two ears and one mouth.
So, why don’t I get over my fucking biases and take a few minutes to practice what I’m preaching?
I close the laptop, take a deep breath, look over at him and ask, “What happened when you were little?”
“My mom and dad married five times.”
“Five times each?”
“Yeah. My dad had five wives and my mom had five husbands.”
“Wait? Your dad married five different times when you were little. And your mother also married five separate times when you were growing up?”
My irritation level dropped to a one and my empathy and compassion peaked at a high 9.8. I know what my life was like growing up; the abandonment, the pain, the loneliness, and the amount of childhood trauma work I’ve done trying to climb out of it. I’ve heard “don’t compare,” but it’s hard not to when I hear someone else who has struggled more than I have.
“I am so sorry! I make up that both your mom and dad were trying so hard to find someone to heal their wounds, to make them complete, that they kept making the same mistakes in relationships. And if they spent that much time in the “newness” stage of a relationship all the way through the pain of separation, loss, and failure again and again, that they had no time to parent you; that you were pushed aside and not seen. I can’t imagine such abandonment and such pain.”
Everything about his personality now makes more sense to me. I could see more clearly.
My coworker needed to talk to have connection. He needed validation because he never got it. He was highly critical striving for perfection because of the belief that if he was perfect, then he could prove he was worthy not only to someone else, but to himself. It was that need for acceptance that drove his actions.
No wonder he irritated the fuck out of me! He was a mirror into my own soul.
Looking Into The Mirror
I look into my mirror. I see a man who feels a void, a hole, lost without one person. This man has a belief that he needs her to feel complete. That no matter how hard he tries, it’s never enough.
She’s the one person I continue to prove my worth to. The one person I make up that I need acceptance from. The one person I want to see me and love me.
My ex has told me over and over that actions speak louder than words. She has said that she can’t explain it, but I still make her feel like I’m controlling or manipulating her. She has said that my pursuing is annoying.
Just like my coworker, I am oblivious to my actions and how they affect her.
I know the pain I personally feel can be overwhelming, but the more I try to explain that, the more I make it about me and not accept the pain I caused her in our marriage. The more I try to prove myself worthy of her love, the more faults she ends up seeing instead. The more I want to be seen, the more I force her to turn away from me.
I create what I fear.
Repeating Rafiki’s famous phrase, “Awareness is the first step towards change.”
My wound is healing and it is getting smaller. YAY! Celebrate and be grateful about the good.
Yet, I still have that neediness, that “energy” that continues to radiate out of me. Of course, my ex is the one most in tune to that.
To truly heal myself and to allow her to heal, I need to let her fly. I need to let her go.
My ex has said, “You never know what the future will bring. I will not say you will be in my future. I will not say you won’t be in my future. What I need now is to find me. All I ask is for you to be my friend.”
That has been so hard to do when I trip about the future and have no control of the outcomes. It has been so hard to do when I am drawn to her like a moth to a flame. When we spend time together I feel peace, but the minute we separate, I feel torn to shreds.
It’s a leap of faith that my Higher Power will give me what I need when I need it. That life will get better.
Wait, my life already IS better!
My coworker and I talked for a while about his life and I felt my energy level go down many notches. I understood him on a different level. He was finally heard, and in a way, no one had ever taken the time to do that. He no longer had the need to continue to prove or search for validation and he was accepted just as he was. And both of us could relax and enjoy each other’s company in quietness.
And I could blog what I’d learned in peace.
Man in the Mirror
– Michael Jackson