The way out of a trap is to study the trap itself, learn how it was built. You do this taking the thing apart piece by piece. The trap can’t trap you if it has been taken to pieces. The result is freedom.
— from Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Detachment is a familiar yet difficult concept for me. I have a tendency to cut and run rather than stick around and coexist with people who want things from me that I don’t feel comfortable giving.
In a way, this is the whole theme of my blog. I want to cut and run from Texas.
Granted, I have good reasons for wanting to move, and the laws are wrong to keep me here. Talking about and dissecting the political and social realities of divorce is important.
Nevertheless, the extreme stress of the last two months has made me realize that I also need to work on myself, or I am going to become seriously ill.
A Little Background Might Be Useful
I was raised in what Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert Pressman call a “narcissistic family system,” which means I was called upon to meet the needs and solve the problems of the adults in my household from a very young age.
In the families Pressman and Pressman-Donaldson describe, parents can be psychologically normal. My mother, however, has strong traits of borderline personality disorder, an exhausting condition characterized by emotional volatility and underlying self-hatred. Borderlines view their own needs as disgusting weaknesses, and the only way they can cope with being so disgusting is to act out. Sometimes they self-harm. But they also have a tendency to project their perceived flaws on to others.
My mother dealt with her unmet needs through projection. By putting me down, criticizing me, and sometimes violently assaulting me, she was able to cope with her negative feelings and vent her rage. My father, a non-confrontational and passive character, let her do it because it made his life easier. “It’s just how your mother is,” he would tell me.
I made my peace with my parents a long time ago. My mother is better — far less volatile. I have no problem setting limits with her and intervening when she crosses a boundary. I am also able to see her good qualities, of which there are many. In middle age, I am learning to love her again.
Why Childhood Experiences Matter
Unfortunately, it took my disastrous marriage to Duane for me to recognize how much I have internalized these childhood patterns. A few ingrained habits have made my life post-divorce very difficult, namely
- a tendency always to see the other side and discount my own perspective.
- a feeling that no one will help.
- a desire to run away rather than confronting situations I can’t control.
The fact that Duane is a narcissist compounds the situation, but it’s also understandable.
My first long-term partner was an addict. I am drawn to men like that, who hide themselves, because it seems like the perfect antidote to my mother’s invasiveness. But then I find myself repeating the pattern of being valued only when I meet their needs.
- The addict was happy when I let him get drunk or high without complaining.
- Duane was happy when I believed everything he said and was sexually compliant.
I knew that the addict was not going to give me the life I wanted, so breaking up with him and moving out was inevitable. We are still on friendly terms.
But narcissists pretend to be exactly what you want. They are hoping you will be the thing that completes them. The relationship seems perfectly harmonious, and if you challenge that image, the narcissist will undermine your credibility. Once you have seen beneath the mask, the undermining never stops; you have to get away to be completely free of it.
Or You Can Learn Detachment Through Mindfulness
Mindfulness is the act of observing an experience without judgment. The goal is to look at things the way we did when we were children, without the complex of feelings and prior experiences we bring to each experience. Stripping events and human interactions from our preconceptions should then lead to a new and greater understanding.
For instance, if you are suffering because your head aches, mindfulness encourages you to look at the suffering directly and sit with it. Face it head on. Accept that it is there and separate the pain from your attempts to distract or distance yourself from the pain. This may not alleviate the headache completely, but it will free you from the tension of having to control or avoid the situation, which can bring some relief.
I hope that training myself to become more mindful will be a powerful tool to back up my conscious efforts to avoid reactions that will trigger my ex.
I accept his behavior, but I want to learn to accept my own responses to it. Because while I have learned to minimize conflict and get the best practical outcome under the circumstances, I feel just as trapped and hopeless when I avoid reactivity as I did when I would yell and scream at Duane for lying to me.
I still feel that I am a bad person for having needs that differ from Duane’s. Being mindful of the feelings behind that is the main thing I gain more perspective on.
With that understanding, I hope, will come detachment.
My First Session with the Cushion
I found a cushion of the recommended thickness (three inches when compressed), and sat on it with my hands on my lap and my spine aligned properly. My dog, whose life is an eternal meditation, jumped on the bed nearby and looked at me expectantly.
I closed my eyes.
I focused on the rims of my nostrils as I breathed in and out.
Unwanted thoughts continued to sneak in; just being aware of them was all I accomplished with this first session. I developed pain in my stomach and gave up after a fleeting attempt to view the pain without judgment. Only ten minutes had elapsed.
In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana says that meditation “reduces your tension, fear and worry. Restlessness recedes and passion moderates. Things begin to fall into place, and your life becomes a glide instead of a struggle.”
He also cautions that the process may take years.
I have a long way to go.