Mirror, Mirror: The Power of Perseveration

mirror-mirror-on-the-wall-1436523-1279x1607I have the most fabulous conversations when I’m alone. Driving, exercising, flossing my teeth, I offer opinions and advice that would change the world, if only the people I’m talking to were actually there. One day I’ll laser-focus on a particular client, telling her exactly how to dump her awful boyfriend and develop some self-esteem. The next day I’ll masterfully elucidate how a friend should raise his children, or help the president better handle the media. So great are my powers of persuasion that I can go back in time, intercept Virginia Woolf as she heads out to drown herself, and help her resolve her issues so she wants to live, live, live! Also make her subsequent novels a little less weird!

I think most people engage in this sort of mono mano a mano from time to time. I’ve spent countless hours listening to clients explain what a loved one or coworker needs to hear—so many, in fact, that I finally had to make a formal policy: I don’t coach anyone who isn’t in the room. Yet when a session is over and my clients leave, I frequently go right on coaching them in my head. Recently, I discovered a way to turn these hypocritical solo conversations into a self-improvement tool. I find it surprisingly powerful. I’m hoping you will, too.

Mirror, Mirror 

Psychologists call it perseverating: “To repeat or prolong an action, thought, or utterance after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased.” Our subconscious minds cause us to obsess—perseverate—about people who mirror something in ourselves that needs our attention. I often marvel as clients bewail the very things in others that reflect their own actions. For example:

“I can’t believe my kid has been smoking pot—I’m so upset, I’ve had to double my anxiety medication.”

“My boss is incredibly secretive. It’s so unhealthy—she’s creating a culture of concealment. But don’t tell anyone I said so.”

“I wish I could get my sister to stop tearing herself down. I mean, she’s not a total freaking loser like me.”

From the outside, it’s obvious these statements are masterpieces of self-referential thinking. But when we’re the ones perseverating, we don’t realize we’re looking at human mirrors. So I devised the following exercise, which I call Epistles of Perseveration. It can help puncture denial and make the changes your subconscious mind knows are most important for you, right now.

Step One: Choose A Negative Perseveration Person (NPP)

Think of a person who’s been on your mind, someone whose misdeeds really chap your hide, and who could benefit—but plenty!—from your awesome insight. Get a pencil and paper and prepare to perseverate in print.

Step Two: Unleash Your Inner Bitch

I first tried this on a day when my mind was a storm of advice for an acquaintance I’ll call Glinda. Since trying to confine my inner judgmental bitch wasn’t working, I decided to let her burn off some energy on paper. At the top of a notebook page, I wrote, “Dear Glinda, here is what I really think about you in my lowest moments.” Then I scrawled out all the things I’d been trying not to think.

“You’re so two-faced!” I wrote. “You fawn over people until their backs are turned, and then you criticize and undermine them. You’re sneaky and manipulative and insincere. It makes me sick!” Writing this down felt horribly liberating. I could practically hear the hormones gushing from my adrenal glands as I scribbled.

Now it’s your turn. Write a letter to your negative perseveration person—not to send, but to capture the harsh thoughts howling through the darkest caverns of your mind. Enjoy this step; most people do. The next one’s kind of a buzzkill.

Step Three: Change the Name to Stop Protecting the Guilty

Once you’ve fully expressed your thoughts to your NPP, cross out his or her name at the top of your letter. Write in your own. Now read the letter as if it’s written to you—and instead of defending yourself, absorb it the way you’d want your NPP to: thoughtfully, openly, without resistance.

In the case of my rant at Glinda, my hypocrisy was obvious. I hadn’t told the woman I thought she was vilely duplicitous—except when she wasn’t there. In her presence, I was polite. In short, I was being friendly to her face, then attacking her (if only in my mind) behind her back. I was being, in my own words, “sneaky and manipulative and insincere.”

As soon as I realized all that good advice was for me, my perseveration about Glinda turned into a humbling effort to be more honest and consistent in my relationships, with Glinda and everyone else. I almost stopped thinking about her—except as a teacher I could thank for helping me see my own problematic behavior.

When you read your NPP letter, it may be obvious you deserve the very feedback your inner bitch is handing out. If not, look more deeply. For example, if your NPP is a bully but you’re a mild-mannered sort, notice where you’ve allowed yourself to be intimidated; cringing is half the bullying dance, and you may have been dancing it all along. Or if your NPP is fanatically controlling and you’re generally relaxed, notice that you’re trying to control this person’s controlling-ness. If your NPP wastes money and you’re frugal, see where you’ve squandered currencies other than money, such as time or attention (for example, by perseverating).

The wonderful thing about recognizing your own worst traits in your NPP is that your letter will be rich in good advice. By perseverating, you’ve explored all sorts of ways in which your target—that would be you—can do better. In fact, the bitchier you’ve let yourself be, the clearer the instructions.

Step Four: Choose A Positive-Perseveration Person (PPP)

Taking your own negative advice is strong medicine, but for some people the second half of this exercise is even harder to assimilate. Please persist through these last three steps, though, or you’ll miss half the messages from your human mirrors.

For this step, choose a positive-perseveration person—someone you think about in a grateful, admiring, even envious way. Often these people will crop up in your solo conversations, but instead of ranting, you’ll find yourself listening, repeatedly remembering something they said or did.

Not long after composing my letter to Glinda, I visited a dying friend I’ll call Sue. Sue didn’t want to talk; her esophagus was blocked, and although she was receiving fluids via an IV drip, her mouth and throat were terribly dry. I sat beside Sue for half an hour before noticing that my mind was repeating part of a poem from a collection called Thirst, by Mary Oliver: “Don’t worry, sooner or later I’ll be home. / Red-cheeked from the roused wind, / I’ll stand in the doorway / stamping my boots and slapping my hands, / my shoulders / covered with stars.”

I know this poem because I’m mildly obsessed with Oliver’s work, in a way that definitely counts as perseveration. Phrases from her poems often fill my mind like looped recordings, repeating as tenaciously as my advice to NPPs.

To comfort myself as I sat beside Sue, I began silently reciting other Oliver poems (“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” “And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away / from wherever you are, to look for your soul?”). After a while, though I hadn’t moved or spoken, Sue looked at me, smiled, and whispered, “That feels good.” Then she slowly relaxed and fell asleep.

I took out my notebook, turned to a fresh page, and began to write: “Dear Ms. Oliver, here is what I really think about you in my lowest moments.”

Step Five: Unleash Your Inner Adoring Puppy

I hope you’re following the process here: Choose a PPP—a person you admire and appreciate—and write an absolutely honest letter to him or her. When I do this, I become as worshipful as a rescued pound dog. “Thank you for walking away from busyness to linger in nature,” I wrote to Mary Oliver. “Thank you for finding words to say what silence teaches.” If she’d been there, I would have given her all my chew toys.

Step Six: Again, Change the Name

Once you’ve written to your positive perseveration person, repeat step three: Cross out his or her name and substitute your own. Read your own feedback, absorbing it without resistance, because once again, you were really talking to yourself.

My letter to Mary Oliver stunned me. For years I’ve chastised myself for periodically ignoring e-mails and appointments to disappear into the mountains or the African savanna. But now I saw clearly: My AWOL adventures haven’t been a waste of time! When I travel, I’m hunting and gathering messages that comfort me not only in the hubbub of life but also in the face of death. I’m no Mary Oliver, but something in me has been trying to follow her example.

What does your PPP letter tell you to love within yourself? For which of your attributes are you unconsciously grateful? Whatever you’ve written, now is the time to accept it. Embrace it as you’d want your heroes to embrace your appreciation. You really are that person.

Upon Reflection…

It’s helpful to remember that our subconscious minds continuously seek out human mirrors and hold them up to our conscious awareness. Looking deeply at our own “reflections” expands our awareness of our worst qualities (so we can correct them) and our best (so we can enhance them). Perseveration letters can transform your solitary conversations into powerful dialogues, because the person you’re talking to—you—starts to hear. And when that happens, in small but deeply significant ways, your good advice really does begin to change the world.

Landing in Love: How to Fall into Intimacy Without Resistance

1414578_36595743Psychologists tell us we’re born afraid of just two things. The first is loud noises. Do you recall the second? Most people guess “abandonment” or “starvation,” but neonatal dread was simpler than that: It was the fear of falling. Today we all have a much richer array of consternations, but I’ll bet falling is still on your list. Why give up the prudent concern that brought your whole genetic line into the world clutching anything your tiny fists could grab? Fear of falling is your birthright!

Perhaps that’s why most of us, at least some of the time (and some of us most of the time), are frightened by another deeply primal experience: intimacy. Allowing yourself to become emotionally close is the psychological equivalent of skidding off a cliff; hence the expression “falling in love.” This gauzy phrase usually describes a sexual connection. But love has infinite variations that can swallow the floor from under your feet at any moment. You’re securely installed in a relationship, marching through life, keeping your nasal hairs decently trimmed. Then boom! You hear a song and know that the composer has seen into your soul. Or you wake up, bleary with jet lag, in a city you’ve never seen before and feel you’ve come home. Or the wretched little mess of a kitten you just saved from drowning begins to purr in your arms. Suddenly—too late—you realize that your heart has opened like a trapdoor, and you’re tumbling into a deep, sweet abyss, thinking, ‘God, this is wonderful! God, this is terrible!’

The next time this happens, here’s a nice, dry, scientific fact to dig your toes into: The sensation you’re feeling is probably associated with decreased activity in the brain region that senses our bodies’ location in the physical world. When this zone goes quiet, the boundary between “self” and “not self” disappears. It isn’t just that we feel close to the object of our affection; perceiving ourselves as separate isn’t an option. Some being that was Other now matters to us as much as we matter to ourselves. Yet we have no control over either the love or the beloved.

The horror! The horror!

We focus attention on stories about people, from Othello and Huckleberry Finn to the lusty physicians on Grey’s Anatomy, who trip into versions of intimacy (passion, friendship, parental protectiveness) they can neither escape nor manage. These stories teach us why we both fear and long for intimacy, and why our ways of dealing with it are usually misguided. Two of these methods are so common, they’re worth a warning here.

Bad Idea #1: Guard Your Heart

There’s an old folktale about a giant who removes his own heart, locks it in a series of metal boxes, and buries the whole conglomeration. Thereafter, his enemies can stab or shoot him, but never fatally. Of course, he also loses the benefits of having a heart, such as happiness. The giant sits around like Mrs. Lincoln grimly trying to enjoy the play, until he’s so miserable he digs up his heart and stabs it himself.

This grisly parable reminds us that refusing to love is emotional suicide. Yet many of us fight like giants to guard ourselves from intimacy, boxing up our hearts in steel-hard false beliefs. “I’m unlovable” is one such lockbox. “Everyone wants to exploit me” is another. Then there’s “I shouldn’t feel that” and “I have to follow the rules,” etc. Whatever your own heart-coffins may be, notice that they’re ruining your happiness, not preserving it. As poet Mary Oliver puts it,

Listen, are you breathing just a little,
and calling it a life?…
For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters,
caution and prudence?
Fall in! Fall in!

If you’ve buried your heart to keep it from hurting, you’re hurting. You’re also in dire danger of using Bad Idea #2.

Bad Idea #2: Control Your Beloved

“If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself. If you stop loving me, I’ll kill you.” Some people believe such statements are expressions of true intimacy. Actually, they’re weapons of control, which destroy real connection faster than you can say “restraining order.” Though few of us are this radically controlling, we often use myriad forms of manipulation and coercion. We can say, “Sure, whatever makes you happy,” in a tone that turns this innocuous phrase into a vicious blow. To the extent that we try to make anyone do, feel, or think anything—whether our weapon is people-pleasing, sarcasm, or a machete—we trade intimacy for microterrorism. So, if neither control nor avoidance works, what does?

Good Idea #1: Be Willing

In The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams reveals the secret of flying. Just launch yourself toward the ground, and miss.

“All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt…if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.”

This is the best advice I know for coping with fear of intimacy. Avoidance and control can’t keep our hearts from falling, or cushion the landing. Why not try throwing yourself forward, being willing not to mind that it’s going to hurt? Please note: “Being willing not to mind” isn’t the same as genuinely not minding. You’ll mind the risks of intimacy—count on it. Be willing anyway.

How? Simply allow your feelings—all of them—into full consciousness. Articulate your emotions. Write about them in a journal, tell them to a friend, confess them to your priest, therapist, cab driver. Feel the full extent of your love, your thirst, your passion, without holding back or grasping at anything or anyone (especially not the object of your affection). The next suggestion will show you how.

Good Idea #2: Go “Woo-hoo”

Author Melody Beattie took up skydiving and was scared senseless. Another diver told her, “When you get to the door and jump, say ‘Woo-hoo!’ You can’t have a bad time if you do.”

This phrase works as well when you’re falling emotionally as when you’re falling physically. When fear hits, when you want to grasp or hide, shout “Woo-hoo!” instead. While there is never—not ever—a sure foundation beneath our feet, the willingness to celebrate what we really feel can turn falling into flying. You don’t need an airplane to practice woo-hoo skills. For instance: I’m writing these words at 2:15 in the morning because writing, like other intimate pursuits, often occurs at night. As I type each word, I come to care about how it will be read—about you, there, reading it. Caring is scaring. It makes me want to stop right now, or spend years composing something flawlessly literate. Unfortunately, my deadline was yesterday, and Shakespeare I ain’t, so…woo-hoo!

Now it’s 2:20 a.m. Across the hall, my son, Adam, is dreaming dreams I’ll never quite understand, because his brain is different from mine. Shortly before his birth, I learned that he has Down syndrome, which put mothering him well above skydiving in my Book of Fears. I yelled a lot during Adam’s birth. Twenty-five years later, I’m still yelling “Woo-hoo!” And so far, the only consequence of that particular plunge is love.

Which takes me to my final point.

What I really panic about nowadays isn’t falling; it’s landing. But even that concern is fading because I’ve realized there are only two possible landings for someone who embraces intimacy, and both are beautiful.

The first possibility is that your beloved will love you back. Then you won’t land; you’ll just fall deeper into intimacy, together. This is how bald eagles prepare to mate—by locking talons and free-falling like rocks—which is deeply insane and makes me proud to call the eagle my country’s national bird.

The other possibility is that you’ll throw yourself forward, yell “Woo-hoo!,” and smash into rejection. Will it hurt? Indescribably. But if you still refuse to bury your broken heart, or force someone to “fix” it—if you just experience the crash landing in all its gory glory, you’ll create a miracle.

A Jewish friend told me this story: A man asks his rabbi, “Why does God write the law on our hearts? Why not in our hearts? It’s the inside of my heart that needs God.” The rabbi answered, “God never forces anything into a human heart. He writes the word on our hearts so that when our hearts break, God falls in.” Whatever you hold sacred, you’ll find that an unguarded broken heart is the ideal instrument for absorbing it.

If you fall into intimacy without resistance, despite your alarm, either you will fall into love, which is exquisite, or love will fall into you, which is more exquisite still. Do it enough, and you may just lose your fear of falling. You’ll get better at missing the ground, at keeping a crushed heart open so that love can find all the broken pieces. And the next time you feel that vertiginous sensation of the floor disappearing, even as your reflexes tell you to duck and grab, you’ll hear an even deeper instinct saying, “Fall in! Fall in!” 

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