Know Your Inner Process
In the therapy business, we make a distinction between content and process. Content is the surface fact or circumstances of some experience, situation, conflict or discussion. Process is what’s going on within and/or between each of us underneath the fact or facts of the surface situation or conflict.
Let’s say I come home from work, and as I walk in the front-door I’m feeling irritated or activated in some way. This could be from any sort of cause, the cause at this point is not particularly relevant. I feel wound up, and if not ready to act out in some way, I could probably get into that state pretty quickly.
My intimate partner is in the kitchen, he or she calls out a greeting to me. I notice a mess of mail all over our dining table. This sort of thing always annoys me deeply, so now I am ready to fight. I feel angry, although maybe I haven’t fully noticed how angry I am. I blow up at my partner for the mess.
The mail is the content. But my inner process has almost nothing to do with the mail. Not really. My inner process here is directly related to fundamental emotions I am feeling: perhaps I am feeling not-understood, alone, sad, afraid. Some experience I had earlier, before I walked in has me feeling activated, and now the experience of seeing the mail has me feeling angry at my partner, and angry all out of proportion to the fact of some mail on a table. Underneath the anger, there is very likely some feeling and emotion I have about myself, a feeling too painful to face directly, so I unconsciously push it away. But it persists out of my awareness and causes my surface feelings of pain, and perhaps rage. We need to understand this to know how to work productively with our own emotions. Any time I react all out of proportion to circumstances there is almost always some kind of hidden emotional process going on inside me, or between me and whoever I am dealing with.
When I ask clients about their experience in such situations they almost always reach a point of loneliness and sadness within themselves, accompanied by a belief in their own inadequacy, that they are “not enough.” Their inner emotional process is driving their outer behavior. Most fights between intimate partners are driven by these unconscious, but very real emotions. Very often that is why we have a fight about something innocuous and it quickly devolves into a very hurtful exchange. The innocuous content is not the problem. The problem is our own inner experience that we cannot, or will not, address directly.
As I have said to clients more than once “go ahead and have a fight, fight any time you want, there’s nothing inherently wrong with fighting AS LONG AS you know what you’re doing and why!” If content drives the fight and the deeper emotions are hidden, from both myself and my partner, then the fight becomes useless at best, and hurtful for no purpose at worst. How often during some kind of fight with an intimate other might I say "what in hell am I doing? What is going on here? I'm really confused." If I can get to that point, I have now seen a very large signal flag that indicates "pay attention!"
The simplest way to address this kind of thing is embodied in a comment a mentor of mine used frequently in his work with clients. The client would express some anger or frustration over a situation, and he would ask “what is being pulled on IN YOU, that you experience this anger?” Anger is a very useful emotion, it is a sign, a signal, that something is amiss, and our first job is to know our inner process that may be driving our anger, then we have a shot at addressing both our process and the surface content in an effective way.
I should note here that sometimes this process works in reverse. I might feel provoked in some way that would normally result in my feeling angry, but instead, I feel a sense of sadness and depression that is a signal of my anger, anger that, for any number of reasons, I can’t allow myself to feel. In this situation, once my anger has emerged the experience can be quite cathartic and give much relief. However, the fundamental feelings usually, eventually, come into consciousness as well: shame, loneliness, sadness or fear.
Either way, if we stop at anger, we often have nowhere to go. However, anger, active or suppressed, really is a signal that we must pay attention to some inner process. And that emotional process is almost always some variation of feeling inadequate or “less than,” a form of shame, in other words, something that in turn may rest on deeper emotions of loneliness, sadness, and fear.
It is appropriate for a child to react in an outrageous way in the grip of strong unconscious emotions. It is profoundly problematic in adults, but we see adults driven by unconscious emotions all the time anyway. Our work then is to know our inner process, explore that process within, and become fully conscious of our deepest inner-feelings. My clients often describe what happens then: their anger dissipates once they become aware of their deep emotions underneath their anger. Once the anger dissipates, and they are now vulnerable in the awareness of their deepest emotions, they can usually respond much more appropriately and effectively to the immediate content of a situation, as well as to their own inner emotional process.
Taking Care of Ourselves
This is the act of taking care of ourselves. Before we blow up at a partner or family member, or anyone really, we must, as functioning adults, take care of ourselves by becoming fully aware of our inner process. Just keep in mind that most (but not all) intimate partner conflicts are driven by our inner process, not the outer content.
There are numerous other aspects to this self-work, including anger management; projective identification; boundary-setting; working through the body; a partner who is engaging in behaviors that really are intolerable; and much more, some of which I will talk about in future blog posts.