"The Holidays Bring Out the Worst in Me"
The Counselor's TurnMoving On
"Quarrels over seemingly mundane issues often mask more serious, unexplored problems, and this was the case for Kim and Steve," said the counselor. "Neither realized that the holidays dredged up profound issues of self-esteem and confidence that prevented Kim from communicating and being close to her husband. Yet the more she anticipated holiday stress, the more anxious and distant she became. As she pulled away, Steve was left feeling rejected. My goal was to help Kim connect to those childhood emotions so she could move past them -- and to show Steve how he could help her to do that.
"Kim's insecurities were exacerbated any time she felt judged, and in the swirl of holiday activities, she constantly felt she wasn't measuring up. To protect herself, she 'checked out,' by leaving the room or losing herself in her music, just as she had done as a little girl. Her bout with bulimia had served a similar purpose: By eating, Kim numbed herself to her true feelings. By purging, she gained some sense of control over her anxieties, albeit a false, destructive one.
"When they first met, Kim had been away from her family for several years. During this time, she not only had boosted her confidence by getting her bulimia under control, but she had also been able to repress many of her feelings of worthlessness, which was why Steve was so baffled by her recent behavior. However, it's not uncommon for negative emotions to bubble to the surface once an individual is involved in a happy relationship. Paradoxically, the good relationship becomes a safe place to release pent-up feelings that haven't been effectively sorted out.
"But Kim had never learned to express her feelings and really understand what she was feeling when she was feeling it. One exercise that helped Kim was writing 'feeling letters' to important people in her past. In a feeling letter -- which is meant for your eyes only -- you express your anger, sadness, fear, or regret. Then, you write a 'response letter' to yourself, detailing the apology you would like to hear from the person who hurt you. This process frees you to think differently about yourself. Writing a letter to her mother was a turning point for Kim. Over the next few weeks, Kim's negative feelings about herself slowly dissipated.
"We also worked on ways Kim could express her emotions better. Instead of silently disappearing, or announcing, 'I won't make the Christmas cookies,' I suggested that she learn to say, 'I wish some of the baking and cooking could be done by other people.' This simple change states her point and opens the way for problem solving.
"Although Steve had a happy childhood, his divorce left him feeling that he had let his children down. Holidays reminded him of that failure, and he placed an inordinate importance on ritual and ceremony. Unwittingly, he put pressure on his wife to create storybook memories for his family. As understanding as Steve was, he tended to minimize Kim's feelings and believe that the way he felt was the way she should feel. In counseling, he admitted he hated confrontation with his kids because he couldn't bear for them to be mad at him.
"Steve was trying to be a good husband, but he wasn't listening in the way that she needed him to. 'Listening is an art,' I explained. 'It takes practice. When you tell Kim, "You're making too big a deal about Eric's comment," or "You shouldn't feel that everyone's judging the way you set the table for Christmas dinner," you undercut her. They may not be your feelings; they may not make sense to you, but you have to respect them.' What's more, I suggested that he speak not only to Justine, but also to Eric. 'A person like that may not change his behavior, but it's important for Kim to know that you tried.'
"Steve went on to have several conversations with Justine and Eric about treating Kim with kindness and respect, and now vows to stand up and defend her anytime Eric makes a snide comment. He has also begun to visit with his daughter while Kim is at work, so that her time with Eric is limited.