This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… the other kind. I’m not sure what to call it yet. Last week I wrote about my difficulty in speaking hope.
There was another divide I believe prevented my ex from hearing my hope. Sure, I didn’t speak hope often enough. But even when I did, there was often something in between us that filtered what I said and did before it got to his heart. That thing was the story he was telling himself about our interactions.
My ex was in grad school for most of our marriage. I remember once when I was frustrated by how long it was taking him to finish, he told me, “But I’m doing this because YOU WANTED ME TO.”
Now, I never once dreamed up a scheme for him to go to grad school. I have no recollection of wanting him to get a PhD. Or, rather, I wanted it because it was his dream. But it was never something I would have dreamed of asking for myself or for us.
They are strangely strong, the stories we tell ourselves about what people think. As a deeply spiritual person, it makes sense to me that these stories originate from an entity the Bible calls the Father of Lies and the Accuser. If there is someone out to destroy our souls, what better way to do it than by whispering lies into our minds about ourselves and each other:
“You are not enough and this person knows it.”
“You’ll never be enough until you can [fill in the blank: Lose more weight. Keep your house clean.]”
We are really adept at repeating those lies to ourselves ad nauseum until they become part of our identity. I never really recognized my own negative self-talk until my life hit the skids during my divorce. I mean, as a good, supposedly self-aware citizen of the 21st century, I was aware of the concept. But I didn’t recognize it in myself. One day I began to notice that I told myself stories about things people would think of me that almost never became reality. “Better sweep up the dust bunnies or your dinner guests will notice and have a bad time because they won’t be able to think about anything else.” Or, “Everyone is noticing that stupid thing you do at work and thinking about it all day.”
I kept track once and I had a thought like that every seven minutes on average. That’s nearly ten times an hour, every waking hour of the day. And of course 99% of these thoughts never amounted to anything. But that 1% is a bitch. It’s enough to make me feel like the other 99% is right. “I was SO RIGHT when I suspected Joann would hate my hair. And that’s just the one time she happened to SAY something. I bet she’s thinking it all the friggin time. And I bet Jim-Bob and Matilda are too.” Suddenly, being right 1% of the time makes this self- talk essential to my survival. I learn to lean on it to anticipate bad things people might say and protect myself from them.
If I see my negative self-talk as a worthwhile protective instinct, I’m bound to use it to protect myself in the relationships closest to me. And it’s in my closest relationships where I are more likely to have it reinforced by the occasional snippy comment or “constructive criticism”. If I’ve already talked myself into believing people think I’m worthless, any negative comment can send me reeling.
I’ve heard that it takes seven positive interactions to make up for one negative one. And it’s no wonder. Most of us are working overtime to convince ourselves that we’re not enough. We’re operating at a deficit before our loved ones even open their mouths.
I never asked my ex to go to grad school. But the facts of what I actually wanted don’t matter that much. He told himself a story that I wanted him to go to grad school, and he heard everything I said on the subject through that filter. Every complaint, every criticism, anything I did that touched on this sore spot for him was augmented by this idea that he was only trying to do what I wanted him to do. There’s a gap, and then there’s the inadequacy-whispering ghost who lives there, telling us lies about ourselves, lies about our loved ones, amping up our insecurities until they’re the only thing we hear.
It’s amazing how quickly this inadequacy-whispering ghost travels from person to person. Nothing trips feelings of inadequacy like feelings of inadequacy being directed at you (or even blamed on you). If I see a loved one hurting, I immediately blame myself: Was it something I did? Something I said? And if they’re up in my face telling me it was, that seals the deal. The only thing that will get me spun up faster than suspecting I’m not enough is someone TELLING me I’m not. I don’t know about you, but this is the source of the majority of the arguments I’ve had with friends and loved ones. It’s not about the toilet paper roll facing the wrong way, it’s not about whether you called when I wanted you to, it’s about what it MEANS about how you feel about me. I start voicing that, the person I care about says those things don’t really MEAN what I think they do…And around we go.
The lying ghost in the gap is adept at pitting us against each other when our fight is not against one another but against the lies he is telling us. (Ephesians 6:12)
Was it fair to me that my ex thought I was the reason he was in grad school? Not at all. And I put most of my energy into arguing with him about how unfair it was. But his belief in it was a fact I needed to face when I related to him. And it’s that belief that I butt up against over and over in my relationships with other people. I can focus on the unfairness of the story they are telling themselves, or I can help re-narrate the story. Constrained love insists on my right to be understood (which is a real thing. And valid.) I believe unconstrained love can set that aside and fight the ghost in the gap alongside the person I care about. Which do you think is easier in the moment? Which do you think is more powerful? And ultimately, which do you think most effectively paves the way for me to be truly and deeply heard, anyway?
It is NOT WRONG to insist on what you know to be true, to defend yourself. In some cases people’s self-deceit is so strong that you cannot come alongside and help them re-narrate the story. There is a time for digging in your heels. But that is a final battle time, when you’ve realized that the person is so lost to the ghost in the gap that you cannot pull them back. It is not the the starting point, and it cannot be the day-to-day operation of relationships. Day in and day out we are built to fight the ghost together, side by side.