Psychological health does not mean that you always experience positive emotion and maintain intimacy with your relationship partners. Nor does it mean does that you don’t get into emotional pain. What it does mean is that you can step in and out of these emotional states when you need to. You might even do it with ease with enough practice.
It’s a dance, you step in and you step out. You let it flow.
Here is what I mean.
Do you know anyone who always confronts issues head on? Maybe you have a partner who wants to talk about every issue, never walking way, never backing down. Or maybe you know someone who always avoids confict, who shuts down right way, or just plain gets up and leaves. Now, there is nothing wrong with either of these approaches and each has its place in the right context. What is wrong is when one approach is applied rigidly across contexts even when there are times when it obviously doesn’t work or actually causes harm.
In interacting with each other, it can work much to remember the dance concept. You move in, you make a point, and you move out. And then the other person gets a turn… back and forth like a waltz. I like to use martial arts to show how this works. I study martial arts and I have always been intense and aggressive when it comes to sparring… in other words, I am usually the attacker… the person moving forward toward the other person and throwing the first kick or punch. That has definite advantages in terms of setting the pace and scoring the first shots. It also has its disadvantages, because I often absorb some good hits on my way in and closing the distance. When my cohort and I were less experienced that worked well because the hits I took were worth the price. As everyone advanced in their skill, however, those hits became too much to take and I had to change my style.
As I get older, I have learned to use fineness and move in and out more fluidly from an exchange, whether it is academic debate with a colleague, a spirited discussion with my wife, or a business negotiation. Sometimes you score the best points when you stand back and let the other person come at you.
The point I am making here is that if you have an anxious/preoccupied attachment style or an avoidant/dismissing style, when things get heated you are likely to apply your preferred method of interacting too rigidly. It will work much better for you to mix it up. If you are preoccupied, take a step back and focus on letting things go sometimes and just telling yourself that you don’t care (i.e., act dismissing). If you are dismissing, focus on moving forward and staying engaged. Try to be a little more anxious and let yourself worry about what the other person thinks. And, don’t worry…you may get hit, but it won’t hurt too bad!
If you engage this way during more testy interactions, you probably engage this way when you are feeling warm and intimate as well. Preoccupied people, for example, tend to believe that intimacy is something that should always be present; that if there is a feeling of detachment (even very slight) or warm feelings are not being shared, that it somehow means there is something wrong with the relationship. But, no one can sustain close connection forever. It is too intense. Just look at baby’s interacting with their mothers in laboratory experiments. If the parent is too intense and to engaging, the baby will play along and enjoy it for a while but then will turn away and disengage to take a break. Adults need these breaks too. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong. It’s just the natural cycle of relationships. Of course, if you are dismissing and stay disengaged too long, your partner may simply conclude that you don’t care and leave. So, it also is only natural to come back in to the intimate space after you have been distant for a short time. It flows in and it flows out.
This concept of “ebb and flow” also applies to the healthy personality when it comes to emotional states. I often tell the people who I work with that sadness is not depression. Depression is sadness along with all of the mental, emotional, and behavioral gymnastics we engage in to try to get out of feeling sad. It’s usually a lot quicker process if you can just fully feel the sadness in the first place. Then it can heal and resolve. The problem is that before the healing happens, many people worry that they will get stuck in the sad place and not be able to get out of it. The trick is to be able to step into the sad space (which feels to many people like deep seeded grief) allow yourself to be there for a while, fully present with your feelings, and then to be able step out of it and go to dinner or to work. You can let the sadness ebb and flow. If you believe it won’t last forever, that it will ebb and flow, you won’t be scared by the sadness and you won’t develop a secondary anxiety response to sit on top of your depression.
In treating more serious issues, psychologists often use the same principle. If someone is being treated for PTSD, that person is not going to forget what happened to them. They will, however, in the course of successful treatment, be able to step in and out of the darkness until they realize that it cannot hurt them anymore.
And, please don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t just apply to negative emotional states. Some people believe that they should always be happy and always have a smile on their face. What can happen, however, is that more painful feelings and situations that may evoke them are avoided. Hence, this happy person can end up being quite superficial and shallow without great depth or a range of emotional expression.
The point to all of this is that healthy personalities are relatively fluid. They do not get locked into rigid or set ways of being, emotionally or in relationships. Relationships and emotional states, like life and the natural world, always ebb and flow.
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