Acting Out in Relationships

Change, as we all know, is a very scary concept for people. Frequently, the things we want to change (i.e. our misery, anger, commitment to troublesome patterns, etc.) serve a purpose for us. These character traits help define who we are, how we show up in the world, and what roles we have in different social situations. While they can also cause us distress, their removal from our lives threatens us at a very deep level. We get comfortable in the life we have built around our quirks and patterns, and we hesitate to consider how vastly our lives might have to adjust to substantial changes in how we view the world. When we find ourselves in these states of hopelessness, with no direction, and feeling lost or stuck in life we can very easily act some of these underlying feelings out in our relationships with others, which only causes us more distress.

Because people are integrated wholes (meaning every aspect of our lives are somehow connected to who we are) it is frequently the lesser known areas of one’s life that contribute to the most distressing symptoms. For example, one may initially come to therapy to work on their anger, but soon learn that it is the hurt behind the anger that they are long overdue to address. Furthermore, it is often the very things we need to change that go ignored because of the seemingly insurmountable challenge it would be to do so. We somehow convince ourselves that there is nothing that can be done or that we have limited options for whatever reason. When this happens, the issues that we so desperately need to work on changing don’t actually get ignored or go away. They stay right there and even find a way to spread in our relationships with others. In this way, we have an uncanny ability to act out our issues with other people in both clear and insidious ways.

For example, people who have a historically tumultuous relationship with their families can want kids of their own to prove to themselves and their parents that they are capable, worthwhile, and good people. Alternatively, those who come from a dysfunctional family can adamantly refuse to have children because of the toxic associations they have to the very idea of family.  However, this can also happen in much more nuanced and challenging ways.

Because these issues get acted out with others, they inevitably make things messier, more complicated, and seemingly never ending. The more we ignore our inner struggles or refuse to believe there is anything we can do, the more stuck we become. We may even start subscribing to behaviors that we may later regret and have tremendous implications in the lives of others. Changes is intimidating, but the alternative is even scarier.

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