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‘Becoming Real’ about love, work and your body

This week’s series "Becoming Real" by "Today" contributor Dr. Gail Saltz is based on her new book of the same name. Read an excerpt. Also, sign up for a chat with Dr. Saltz.

There is something deep inside of us, says “Today” show contributor Dr. Gail Saltz, that invisibly governs and directs our lives. It's our own deeply imbedded story and it has the ability to shape almost everything we do.

As children, says Dr. Saltz, we create these stories out of necessity to explain who we are and how the world operates. These are myths that help us understand difficult events.

When we reach adulthood, these stories no longer keep us safe. Instead, they can hold us back and trap us in repetitive, destructive behavior, such as always dating the "wrong" person, sabotaging yourself at work or feeling bad about your body.

It’s this process and the techniques you can use to confront it and improve your ability to deal with the ups and downs of life – that is the subject of Dr. Saltz’s just-released book, “Becoming Real.” The book is the basis of a three-part “Today” show series starting today with a segment examining relationships. On Tuesday, Dr. Saltz talks about the world of work before concluding on Wednesday with a discussion of body image.

Here is an excerpt:

The Power of What We Don’t Know
Sydney is a long-legged, striking woman in her early thirties. She has beautiful brown hair, cut so it swings when she talks with great animation — which is most of the time. She is upbeat and charming and has an infectious laugh. She’s curious and sweet and clearly wants to set everyone at ease. These skills have served her well in what has become a very successful marketing career. On top of all that, Sydney has tons of girlfriends and is engaged to a man who is clearly crazy about her.

So, why is she on the brink of blowing everything up? As her wedding day draws near, she’s become distant, cold, and angry at her fiancé, Brian. He keeps asking her if something’s wrong, but Sydney denies there’s a problem, insisting everything is okay. But he feels like the woman he fell in love with has been replaced by this volatile, erratic stranger who is pushing him away as hard as she can. Now, he’s beginning to have real doubts about their future.

Sydney knows something’s really wrong and she comes to my office to find out what to do. Clearly upset, she tells me she’s tried being her normal self. But her usually accommodating manner is increasingly overrun by an engulfing rage that seems to erupt for no apparent reason. When I ask her if this behavior has occurred before, at first she says no but then remembers that the same inexplicable anger ended her first serious relationship with her college sweetheart.

“I was out of control then, and now I feel the same thing happening,” she says, anxiously twisting her hands. “Why can’t I just get a grip? I’m a basket case. What’s the matter with me?”

Not only does Sydney feel completely miserable, but she also blames herself for not being able to control her actions. Sydney is convinced her emotional turmoil means there is something wrong with her. Like most people who walk through my door, she views being happy as a sort of report card: If she feels good, then she’s doing life “right”; if she’s in pain, then she’s failing.

Sydney’s pain is anything but failure, however. In fact, I tell her that it’s the very thing that’s going to free her from some very old, untrue messages she’s been giving herself for years. These messages are part of an old story — one that has silently and invisibly instructed her for most of her life.

Sydney looks at me doubtfully when I tell her that the turmoil she’s in is an important signal, and if she can just try to welcome it instead of pushing it away, it will be very useful to her. This doesn’t make sense to her. Like most of us, she’s been taught to avoid unpleasant feelings. Our culture is extremely pain averse, and we don’t look at pain as a necessary part of life. There is no such thing as a deep emotional attachment in which we don’t feel pain or anxiety at one point or another. It’s part of living. It’s part of loving. Remove these emotions and you remove the intimacy. Yet we aren’t raised to believe that living life fully means experiencing emotional messiness and anxiety and fear. We only see these feelings as something to be gotten rid of. Since we are never told about the value of pain, we, being human, simply look for ways to avoid or eliminate it.

Yet as we will see, difficult emotions enrich our lives in ways that we can’t imagine. The path to getting what we want out of life runs right through all these messy, painful feelings. Trying to avoid them actually leads us astray. Feeling anger or rage or hate or frustration doesn’t make us abnormal or sick or wrong or broken, it makes us real.

The Stories of Our Lives
We come into adulthood, like Sydney, believing certain things about ourselves. We recognize our characters, our behaviors, and ourselves. These are our personalities and identities. But what if I were to tell you that large parts of these personalities were based on fictions? You would dismiss me out of hand, probably. What a ridiculous notion! But take a look at the following list and ask yourself if you’ve ever experienced any of these things:

  • You can’t stop repeating behavior you absolutely don’t want or intend.
  • Your body breaks down or you often feel exhausted even when rested.
  • Your anger becomes uncontrollable and larger than the situation warrants.
  • You repeatedly date or marry the wrong person.
  • You aren’t happy with anything in your life and you feel unfulfilled.
  • Your relationships have become embattled.
  • You keep thinking that if you could just change something about yourself — make more money, lose weight, stop drinking — it would solve your problems.
  • You believe that if you find that right someone, everything in your life will be complete.
  • You believe that if you make a mistake, you will pay a steep price.
  • You are always struggling against feeling down or empty even though on paper your life looks great.

All these — and more — are symptoms that you are living according to stories created so early in your life that you have no knowledge of them. You don’t know they’re calling the shots in your life and making you ill, dissatisfied, or prone to magical thinking. These fictions came out of a deep need that everyone has to stay attached to people they love even when those people hurt us, or disappointed us, put us down or abandoned us. These stories are the most human and natural things in the world. As children, we made them up to explain why the people we loved acted in ways that seemed painful to us. The stories made us feel safe even when the grown-ups in our lives didn’t. They provided order; they kept us sane. They stopped us from being utterly overwhelmed by emotions and events in our lives. And the stories stay with us if they aren’t exposed and updated. They don’t change; they don’t update. Sometimes they keep us feeling safe and loved, but more often, they start to break down in adulthood and cause us to act in the ways listed above. That’s the one big problem with stories — they aren’t real.

Sydney experienced quite a few of the symptoms listed above — out-of-character behavior, a repeated pattern, anger out of proportion to any situation—which told me she had a story that was breaking apart. In Sydney’s case, most of her story was pretty unconscious. It didn’t take long, though, for me to see what her story was. Deep inside, Sydney felt that she was insufficient as a woman. She was highly dependent emotionally on what she felt she could never have — the love of a man who would leave her because she wasn’t “enough.” This story created a whole personality: Sydney became a real people pleaser who excelled at figuring out what would make the people around her happy. She focused on satisfying their needs so they wouldn’t look too deeply into hers. That skill became her principal connection to them. It also formed the core of her self-image, fueled her career, and was the currency of her relationships.

Yet when it counted most, her story backfired on her. Her compensatory personality (the one that instructed her not to show anyone how needy she was) allowed her to create only an incomplete relationship with Brian. She chose only selected parts of herself to show him. But she’s done her job too well, and Brian’s fallen in love with that person. He’s gotten too close and now is in danger of seeing past her facade to her real shortcomings. Sydney’s biggest unconscious fear is about to be realized: that a man will see how bad she is and then he’ll leave her. Unconsciously, Sydney starts creating distance by freezing Brian out, picking on him, yelling at him for the slightest infraction. But her breakdown isn’t working. Sydney’s suffering a double loss at the moment: Not only is her fiancé about to take a walk but also her sense of self — the one the story created — is taking a real beating.

Sydney’s completely unaware that all this is going on inside her. Right now, she’s just having a hard time seeing in her reflection the nice, generous, and care-taking person she always thought herself to be. What she sees is an angry, unpredictable, and moody woman. “Why would anyone want to be with such a shrew?” she asks. “I don’t blame him one bit if he leaves. I am really horrible. I’m just as much a bitch as my mother.”

Little does Sydney realize that she has just “outed” her story. It’s taken getting to a place of tremendous fear and pain for her story to crumble and reveal the vulnerable child who created it in the first place. Sydney was eleven when her father left her mother for another woman. For several years before that, she got used to hearing her mother arguing with her father in the late evenings when they thought Sydney and her younger sister were sleeping. “No wonder he left,” Sydney remembers thinking when she would see her mother’s blotchy and swollen face in the morning.

Unconsciously, Sydney reacted to her father’s abandonment by creating an explanation. Not only was her mother a screaming shrew (and thus, all women who yelled risked abandonment) but also Sydney herself was not lovable enough to hold on to him either. She was insufficient as a “woman” to keep her father at home. Too ugly. Too demanding. Too needy. Her new story told her that if she was going to avoid becoming her mother and having her mother’s fate, she had to be an easy-going, submissive, and pleasing woman. It made sense when Sydney was a kid and well into her twenties. Indeed, the story served a good purpose for a very long time. It preserved her father as a good parent whose love she badly wanted. She needed to do that because he was gone. He was the absent parent. Sydney needed to hold on to his being a “good” parent who certainly would have loved her had she been good enough. Meanwhile, her mother had to accept the role of the witch in her daughter’s mind because she stayed and was the present parent. Sydney could feel safe blaming her mother because her mother didn’t abandon her.

This complex and inaccurate explanation placed the blame for her father’s departure firmly on Sydney and her mother where, in her fantasies, she could have some control over it (after all, if she caused it, couldn’t she cure it?). The story formed the foundation of her personality as a sensitive, accommodating woman. And it worked for a long time — until Brian came along. And then it didn’t.

The Story’s CostThe old adage “Nothing in life is free” extends to the human psyche — Sydney has paid dearly for her fiction. It may have helped her avoid pain, but it also precluded any chance of real intimacy or real connection. How could she ever have the kind of give-and-take that is part of any good marriage? She couldn’t. She would be too transparent. As long as her story tells her “you are not enough,” her choices and her actions will be limited to those behaviors that distract everyone away from the insufficient woman she fears she is.

Sydney’s story has robbed her of a relationship with her mother and left both women lonely and sad. Because she’s blamed her mother for her father’s departure all these years, she’s been quick to dismiss her mother as a mean and bitter woman. Perhaps she is. But Sydney doesn’t know that as a fact — she’s never allowed herself to get close enough to find out. If she did and saw a loving and caring woman, the whole story on which she’d built her personality would crumble and Sydney couldn’t take that risk.

Our stories cost us. They cost us in intimacy and in curiosity and in creativity. They demand that we stay within their safe boundaries — or else we will pay the ultimate price of rejection and abandonment. The stakes are always that high. We will see later on how essential these stories are to preserving our childhood selves, but if we don’t break out of them in adulthood, they will constrict our choices and our lives.

Sydney’s anguish leads her to the moment of choice — pay the price, lose Brian and keep the story, or lose the story and take the journey to becoming real.

Becoming RealBecoming real begins when our stories start to collapse. When our orderly worlds become erratic, when we begin to see patterns of behavior we don’t want in our lives, we are forced to see beyond the fiction. Becoming real isn’t the same as being happy or free from pain. Becoming real is a wonderful state of richness and personal power that dwarfs anything else. Becoming real happens when we accept ourselves in our totality — the good, the bad, and the ugly, the strengths and the weaknesses. Becoming real doesn’t happen overnight, nor is it possible without some effort, but when it happens, we experience a freedom unimagined. When we become real, we are able to have the exquisite connection to our lives and loved ones that can only come when we choose to stop pursuing the pain-avoidance filters that also keep out life’s pleasure, meaning, and joy.

Yet, people come into my office every day wishing to feel better. They don’t know that the real answer to their pain doesn’t lie in being happy — that’s not enough. We can be happy for a short period and change nothing. The answer to their desire is to listen to the painful feelings and have those emotions guide them to a richer, more wondrous place. But change is difficult and often doesn’t feel good along the way. This is because real human connection involves pain. There is no way around it. Investing ourselves in our relationships means that at some point we will hurt. We will lose the affection of someone we love. We will disappoint and be disappointed. We will have conflict and betrayal. If we allow these fears to dominate us, we will keep our distance from close relationships or won’t make intimate friends. We won’t try to find mates — or we will, but we’ll keep picking people with whom a relationship is destined to fail. We’ll find ways to put distance between ourselves and our loved ones in order not to suffer. We’ll find ourselves endlessly repeating unwanted behaviors that are the sources of the pain we feel.

The same holds true for our careers. If we are going to put ourselves out there and go for the satisfactions of true achievements, we are going to fail sometimes. We are not always going to live up to our potential; we are not always going to meet our expectations or those of others. There will sometimes be humiliation, frustration, and anger. There has to be. So if we are really, really terrified of feeling like failures, we’ll pull back and not invest ourselves. We’ll settle for that job that is less than we could achieve because it is a way of avoiding pain at all costs. But we will also have to forfeit the joy and confidence that come with having worked hard at something and having succeeded. We will have to live with that sinking sense of not ever having tested ourselves to see how much we could accomplish in our lives.

When we are real — and Sydney is going to have to become real if she wants a shot at that happiness she seeks — we start to see that ambivalent feelings are natural, normal, and unavoidable parts of life. We understand that loving means risking being hurt, disappointed, or angry. If Sydney is willing to change her goal from “feeling better” to understanding what lies beneath these huge feelings, she’s going to get the ultimate payoff — she’ll get the great satisfaction and power of being who she really is instead of who she fears she isn’t. Being truly real doesn’t mean she won’t have pain or conflict in her marriage, but it does mean she will have the power to make decisions about how she’ll respond to these feelings and not be ruled by them. She’ll stop flying off the handle at the slightest provocation, and she won’t have to live her life terrified of being left.

The only way for Sydney to enjoy this powerful way of living — the only way for all of us — is not to turn away from painful or negative emotions but to embrace them and understand them. They lead to the unconscious mind and to the stories it creates that keep us from being real. It is only by understanding the unconscious — that fantastic spinner of tales — that we are able to make the deep and meaningful changes that result in rich, real lives.

From “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back” by Gail Saltz, M.D. Copyright ©2004 by Gail Saltz Klein. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” For more information, you can visit her Web site, Her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” is now available.

PLEASE NOTE: This information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2004 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.