Mixed Signals

what to do about them?

Little Pink Lies

You know Freud’s idea of “reaction formation”? That’s when a person is so appalled by their true feelings, they try to cover them up by acting in a totally opposite way. Then of course when you’re with that person you get mixed signals.

A reaction formation is an unconscious defense mechanism — that is, we don’t know we’re doing it. But we also sometimes deliberately act in ways that are the opposite of how we feel, like when we’re trying to be polite even though angry.

I told my therapist the other day, half jokingly, “I hate kindness!” I meant that I prefer honesty to the sorts of white lies that are told in order not to hurt my feelings. Most people though, I found out by losing a few close friends, prefer compliments, even if they’re only a cover for other, not so charitable, feelings.

I don’t understand that. Why wouldn’t you want to know? I want to know all of it. Everything you feel and think about me — I’m interested! It’s very hard to get an accurate read from anybody. The first time I lost a friend… well it started when we went to a class on Radical Honesty — how to tell the truth to people you love (and hate). I loved that class, and she hated it, but she agreed to try a session with me where we would confess some of our mixed feelings towards each other. As it turned out, she really couldn’t handle it at all. She decided she would never talk to me again after that.

I was shocked. She was one of my best friends at the time. I thought we had agreed not to take personally anything that was said. I thought we had agreed to interpret whatever the other person said about us, not as criticism, but as a projection. But she couldn’t hold onto that idea— she felt viciously attacked.

Afterwards, even though I could rationalize that I had done everything right, I began to view myself as toxic. This wasn’t a new view of myself, it was a very old view, newly conscious. So I suppose I have my ex-friend to thank for that awakening. It was in childhood that I began to believe that if anyone knew what I really thought, what I was really like, how I really felt, the things I did in secret — they would no longer love me. As I think about it now, it seems this happened around the time I was being molested by a neighbor, which I have written about elsewhere. I constructed a completely false public self in reaction to the perception that my real self was unlovable. But until my friend recoiled from me as though I was toxic, I didn’t recognize that underneath the presentable false self I grew up identified with, lived a more authentic self I had denied.

So was my real self a MONSTER, I wondered? After the workshop and the loss of my friend, I read Hesse’s Steppenwolf and was relieved to find out that other people might have the same worry. But even though the protagonist seemed to resolve his inner conflict, reading the novel did not resolve mine. I continued to take little stabs at being more authentic, sometimes without a total blowup, but I lost more friends along the way, and alienated other people who didn’t ditch me entirely but backed away.

Trying to figure out what to do about the gulf between my real self full of unmanageable feelings, and my socially acceptable and empty “front person,” I read lots of books: The Dance of Anger, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, Non-Violent Communication, On Becoming a Person, and many more. I tried to refine the way I communicated — use “I messages,” weed out barbs and subtle attacks, practice reflective listening — a long, ongoing process.

Not only was I afraid of blurting out something that would push away someone I care about, I was also sure that others were harboring similar feelings about me that they weren’t saying and wouldn’t admit to, thus preventing real closeness with anyone.

When I finally got around to reading the text of A Course in Miracles, I came upon some ideas that helped me make sense of my confusion. Chapter 12, titled The Holy Spirit’s Curriculum, begins like this:

Understand that you do not respond to anything directly, but to your interpretation of it. Your interpretation thus becomes the justification for the response. That is why analyzing the motives of others is hazardous to you. If you decide that someone is really trying to attack you or desert you or enslave you, you will respond as if he had actually done so, having made his error real to you. To interpret error is to give it power, and having done this you will overlook truth.

The analysis of ego motivation is very complicated, very obscuring, and never without your own ego involvement. The whole process represents a clear-cut attempt to demonstrate your own ability to understand what you perceive. This is shown by the fact that you react to your interpretations as if they were correct. You may then control your reactions behaviorally, but not emotionally.

These words moved the dial. There it was, the story of my life: controlling my reactions behaviorally, but not emotionally. I hated some people but tried to be nice because I wanted to be seen as a good person. I loved other people and hoped they loved me, but worried that they were only being nice because they felt sorry for me, or wanted to get something.

The solution the Course presented was not admitting to each other all of our worst thoughts and feelings. The section goes on:

There is but one interpretation of motivation that makes any sense. And because it is the Holy Spirit’s judgment it requires no effort at all on your part. Every loving thought is true. Everything else is an appeal for healing and help, regardless of the form it takes.

As I turned this over in my mind and applied it to myself, I realized that the last sentence was true. Even when I was at my worst, all I really ever wanted and needed was help. As my life wore on, I had gotten more and more desperate because I didn’t know where to GET such help. Especially because it seemed that admitting my actual feelings to anyone else immediately alienated them. But if all my toxicity, as I and others perceived it, was really an attempt to get help, then maybe I wasn’t a monster after all.

I began to believe that this must be true of every single person on earth, murderers, rapists, corrupt politicians, passive aggressive church elders, everyone, trying in crooked ways to get help.

So then I went around for a while preaching my new understanding, and trying to “help” other people. Took me quite a few more years to realize that this was obnoxious and I was still way off base.

The whole recipe is in this chapter of A Course in Miracles, I just missed some ingredients.

Only appreciation is an appropriate response to your brother. Gratitude is due him for both his loving thoughts and his appeals for help, for both are capable of bringing love into your awareness if you perceive them truly.

Big if.

Do not attempt to “help” a brother in your way, for you cannot help yourself. But hear his call for the Help of God, and you will recognize your own need for the Father.

Aha! So I was thinking that I needed to help this other person who was being a jerk (aka, calling for help) — that is, I needed to get the other person to change. It finally dawned on me that if I am seeing another person as a jerk, I am the one who needs help. Because that’s my perception, and my perception is what’s causing me to get upset with him, not his words or actions.

Your interpretations of your brother’s needs are your interpretation of yours. By giving help you are asking for it, and if you perceive but one need in yourself you will be healed.

I need help! That’s IT! No matter what form the problem takes, the solution is to recognize that I need help. Not help with “the problem” that seems to be outside of me in the world, or in this other person, but with my perception of the problem.

Everything seemed like it should be pretty simple after that, because if the source of every problem I perceive is not in another person, whom I then have to try to change, or figure out how to actively “help” (as I misunderstood the idea), then I really only have to deal with myself.

Haha, fooled again. Not so simple. Sometimes I simply didn’t want help, I just wanted to be mad at someone else. Blaming someone is so much more relaxing. Oh, she’s such a jerk. I can just distance myself from her and my life will be peaceful. But again no, it turns out that I truly want to be upset. Chase away one troublesome person and I’ll find someone else to be mad at. I don’t actually want peace, I discovered. I enjoy conflict. Or something in me does. Isn’t that strange?

Psychotherapy is a way I have chosen to explore my love of conflict. I think of it as the slow way. A Course in Miracles asks me to make leaps of faith I’m not always ready to make. In therapy I can chip away at my resistance to happiness and to intimacy. I keep a little journal where I write down what happens in that hour each week. I opened the journal recently to a page from a few years ago. “I’m either on a pedestal or in the dog house,” my therapist observed. “There’s no middle ground.”

Just last week I got angry with her yet again, and there she went, straight to the dog house. Are we making progress? I thought about quitting. I thought about telling her off. Her therapeutic mask drives me nuts sometimes. Does she ever say what she really thinks, or is she just saying what she thinks will fix me? I want to rip that mask off, find out what’s real! And then I thought about trying to remember what A Course in Miracles tells me to do when someone is being a jerk. What was that again?

Letting all your preconceived notions go is not necessary. All that is necessary is to entertain some doubt about the reality of your version of what your problems are. ACIM Lesson 79

I was standing in the bathroom on Sunday, thinking how lovely it would be to just tell her off, really let her have it, full force. I’m paying her after all, so she has to take whatever I dish out, right? It’s all in the name of healing. Then a voice in my head asked coyly, “And what would THAT gain you?”

I laughed.

I laughed because I realized that I don’t actually want to defeat my therapist, or alienate her — I need her! When I get mad I completely forget that I love her. I laughed because I recognized the voice — often funny, always friendly, the voice the Course refers to as the Holy Spirit. I don’t like to use Christian terms much, no sense alienating anyone — it’s just psychology to me, the voice of sanity, something we all have access to in our own minds. If we leave a little opening, if we remember there might be something we are forgetting, it will speak.

Big if.

But this time I succeeded. Good thing there’s a week between therapy appointments. After I discovered that I did not actually want to chew my therapist out, I thought ok — I’ll just let it go. We’ll talk about something else next week. But then I wondered, what am I going to therapy for if I have to just stuff it? I really did want to air out my perceptions of her.

At that moment my therapist floated to a location in my mind somewhere between the doghouse and the pedestal —into what you could call a neutral middle ground. I realized I really can say what I am upset about. I don’t have to hold it back for fear of alienating her. She’s trained to hear this stuff without getting defensive. But I don’t have to blast her with it either. I can be curious instead of accusatory. Occasionally she gets her feelings hurt. Sometimes she gets defensive. She’s also a human being, it turns out. And I’m terrified of losing her, except when I get mad and want to be rid of her.

But I think next week we will have a good conversation, and no one will be abandoned, and no one will get their head blown off.



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Sarah Mohan

Sarah Mohan

I’m probably just making it up