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STEVEN KALAS: We are individuals in consequential relationships

I have found myself reading your columns and gleaning a great deal of information and support from them. This week, though, I find I have some questions and find myself disagreeing with some of your statements. After years and years of therapy, training as a senior peer counselor, and much introspection and self-counseling, I have learned now, in my 70s, that my self-esteem and self-worth are dependent on my attitude and perception. Yes, they are greatly influenced by my past and present associations, and relationships, but how I feel about myself today and my sense of self are entirely dependent on my reactions to the way others treat and respond to me. I am fully in charge of my own responses and can allow myself to rise or fall dependent upon how I allow myself to react to a particular situation. I cannot change these other individuals in my life, but I can change my attitude, perception and reaction to their treatment of me. I look forward to your thoughts on this topic. Thanking you in advance for your response. – E.R., Las Vegas

I was expecting a response like this, and I’m delighted you sent it.

First, a clarification. I didn’t see the physical newspaper version of my July 8 column (in the Las Vegas Review-Journal), but the online version did not contain quotations around my quote from Dr. Stan Tatkin’s book, “Wired for Love.” It would have been easy to assume the quote was mine. And I assume this quote is chiefly what provoked your response. Here it is again in full:

“As partners, each holds the key to the other’s self-esteem and self-worth. Remember, self-esteem and self-worth are developed through our contact with other people. You misunderstand if you think these goods are provided by the self. They’re not; they’re provided by the other. That’s how it works and that’s how it has always worked, starting from infancy (p. 80).”

I suspected Tatkin’s quote, with which I agree wholeheartedly, would provoke the current “social psychology” prejudices of our culture. So, let’s talk.

You say that your self-worth and self-esteem “are dependent” on your attitude and perception. Then, you change that to self-worth and self-esteem being “entirely dependent” on your reactions. Then you say something that, when deeply considered, is shocking, though I know to you it feels merely like self-affirming truth. You say, “I am fully in charge (emphasis mine) of my own responses and can allow myself to rise or fall dependent upon how I allow myself to react to a particular situation.”

Wowsza, E.R.! Do you know that, were this last statement to be the literal truth, you would be the only human being I’ve ever known to have this experience?

Seriously, I could send you back in time to, say, the 101st floor of the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11 and you would be fully in charge of each and every one of your reactions? That would make you either an android or the Living Buddha. Meaning, emotionally invulnerable.

I think I get your larger point, E.R., but can you see that your point is overstated? And you have lots of company in this modern world. I know therapists who share your prejudice, and even teach it as therapy. But for me, taken literally, this is another reflection of individualism run amok. We are never merely individuals. We are individuals in relationships. Those relationships are consequential. Weighty. Formative.

It might seem like I’m mincing words, but this is hugely important. If your point is that healthy adult human beings are ultimately responsible for their reactions to people and that healthy adult human beings can learn, over time, to loosen the negative consequential grip of childhood injustices, and that healthy adult human beings should and do have healthy interpersonal boundaries intolerant of mean, selfish, manipulative people … then I’m right there with you. We agree. I think Tatkin would agree, too.

But …

When couples come to therapy and one complains about the partner’s impatience, disdain, scorn, contempt … or when an individual comes to recall similar memories in childhood at the hands of incompetent parents … or when people come in to describe shameless bullies disguised as co-workers and bosses …

I don’t lean forward and say, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”

Love requires, in one crucial way at least, that we are never “fully in charge” of our reactions, especially our emotional reactions. Tatkin is saying, and aptly so, that to enter a life partnership of marriage means handing each other an excruciating vulnerability: “You have the power to hurt me … to break my heart.” Only from here can intimacy emerge.

Of course, if your life partner gleefully, chronically and unrepentantly continues to break your heart, you are ultimately responsible for leaving or staying. But, as you leave (if you leave), should you say to me, “I’ve also decided not to be hurt and disappointed,” then I would draw one of two conclusions:

1. You’re in the pathos of denial, or

2. You were never emotionally invested in the relationship in the first place.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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