Saturday, January 28, 2017

You Can Do Good Work While You’re Doing Your Own Work

A week ago Saturday, I had breakfast and a nice long chat at Santaneca de la Mission with one of my peers, Marian. We have clashed slightly several times, but have easily discussed each instance and worked through it. Alas, this week at work, I got mad at her yet again and, while part of me dreads having to announce that I feel angry with her, I am increasingly convinced of the value of this kind of effort.

We were lately assigned a reading called “Functional Subgrouping and the Systems-Centered Approach to Group Therapy,” by Susan P. Gantt, from a book called The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Group Psychotherapy, edited by Jeffrey L. Kleinberg. It has proven to be utterly riveting, because it describes many of the things we have been encouraged to do in our interpersonal relations group, and why. I encouraged my peers to read it and one of them reported that he was enraged before he got to the end of the first page: “If these are the rules, why didn’t they give them to us sooner!?”

I consider being easily angered (just like F.) to be one of my two most destructive personality traits, and can report that pretending not to be angry and/or refusing to express it has not resulted in the magical eradication of this tendency. And now that I’m being very explicitly encouraged to know when I’m angry and to say it, I’m starting to feel pretty sure that it is precisely the inability to express anger directly that leads to it bubbling up left and right. When I don’t trust that I can say, “When you did that, I felt angry”—when I don’t trust that I can speak up for myself in an appropriate manner—I feel I am at the mercy of whatever may happen to arise: a chronic victim, who broods over grievances and easily notices additional ones, but doesn’t do anything constructive about them (just like F.). I think being overly self-effacing is the flip side of being overly quick to take offense.

One of our supervisors pointed out that clinical pastoral education is the very rare situation in which we are invited, encouraged and supported to tell seemingly antisocial truths, and that we should take advantage of it. The learnings this affords will be invaluable in our work as chaplains—I am fooling myself if I think that I’m only ever going to get angry with peers and never with any patient in the hospital—and in our personal lives.

I met a patient this week who was horrendously injured by her ex-husband. She is in chronic excruciating pain about which nothing can be done. For reasons pertaining to her children, she declined to prosecute her abuser. I noticed during our conversation that she had a definite and seemingly quite unnecessary apologetic air. I’m thinking that the first time this person disrespected her, she did not say, “That makes me angry. I will not be treated that way, and I will not spend any further time with you.”

F. never laid a hand on me in anger, but I had to notice, with some discomfort, some ways my behavior parallels this patient’s—not being sure I deserve to be treated well, not being comfortable expressing anger, sometimes (though not always) backing down when others are angry, prioritizing what others want over what I want. I knew that F. was not a good person to date before I got involved with him. I knew he was angry. I knew he had substance issues. I was very attracted to him and know I am far from the first person to be unduly influenced by a pleasing face, but I also let his extreme enthusiasm override my own misgivings. Why was I not able to say, “This is not a good idea. I will not do this”?

I think that learning to say, “I am angry about this” is going to be excellent for me personally, whatever work I end up doing, and so I am now almost looking forward to telling Marian next week that I’m annoyed about yet another thing.

The other thing that has caused me severe difficulties in relationships is basically being unable to tolerate intimacy, which manifests as changing my mind all the time about whether I want to be in a given relationship. Often I push people away just when they are expecting a friendly response. I imagine they think of me as being moody, and I am sure it is baffling and hurtful. I’ve known this about myself for a long time and have never really found an effective way to counteract it. When I’ve announced to people up front that I do this, it gets even worse.

Anita lately asked gently, in one of our weekly conversations, “Do you think you push people away before they have a chance to push you away?” I’ve been pondering that. I know that I experience intimacy and connection as a demand of some sort, against which I must vigorously defend. For instance, by barely greeting someone with whom I had a nice breakfast not three days earlier.

But maybe that eventually does come down to fearing not that there’s something wrong with the other person—he or she wants too much!—but that there is something wrong with me. I will not be surprised to discover that at the core of this. Or I may not have the sense that the other person wants too much but that this, that or the other is wrong with her. But what has changed? The other person is just as she always was. It is my mind that changes.

Now, what to do about it? Well! The aforementioned reading talks about “driving” and “restraining” forces. At the end of each interpersonal group, we list what was driving and restraining during the group. For instance, it was driving that such-and-such person shared so honestly about what was going on with her, and the kindness with which this was received was driving. It was restraining that just as we were starting to talk about emotions, another person told a long anecdote about what he had for breakfast. One surprising thing it said in this article was that it is more effective to weaken restraining forces than to try to strengthen driving forces. It said that if group leaders attempt the latter, it is like Sisyphus and the rock; they have to do it over and over. But if restraining forces are identified and weakened, growth bursts forth on its own. Isn’t that interesting?

In all this, have I concluded I’m just too psychologically damaged to be a chaplain? Certainly! But then I remembered Samantha, my supervisor in my very first unit of CPE, saying, “We can do good work while we’re doing our own work.” Everyone has his or her psychological crud. I am profoundly grateful for the chance to examine mine closely with people who are doing the same, under expert guidance.

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