Friday, November 17, 2006

d/dx [ self(x) ] = 0

The basis of my therapy is learning to become more differentiated. Differentiation of self is a term that Dr. Murray Bowen used to describe a balance between individuality and togetherness. A lack of differentiation is referred to as fusion. When you're fused, your emotional state is tightly coupled to the emotional state of others.

I first learned about this notion through David Schnarch's book Passionate Marriage. The focus of Schnarch's book is on how differentiation preserves the emotional bond and sexual dimension of marriage. But the significance of differentiation, or lack thereof, reaches far beyond the bedroom. I was reminded of this in a very powerful way through some events that took place during the first week of November.

My family of origin, especially on my father's side, is highly fused. How badly? So bad that there is a high degree of emotional cutoff. It's something that has been handed down through the generations.

My paternal grandfather was the oldest of 10 siblings, and he maintained contact with only a few of them because the others had done things he didn't approve of. For a few years after my mom and dad divorced, he refused to sit in the same room as my mother because she had left my dad.

When my dad decided to marry a woman 13 years younger than he, both my grandparents cut off communication with him. It wasn't until a family emergency four years later that broke the ice.

The tradition carries on, with my brother having little to do with our father for reasons my brother has never really explained.

A conflict over the resolution of my late grandmother's estate a couple years ago put a huge rift between my aunt and my father. My aunt was verbally abusive toward my father because he would not accept her desire to change the terms of the will. With my wife and I present, my aunt derided my father's post stroke disabilities, saying he only had half a brain working.

My aunt has a history of reptilian behavior in the past, saying things like that to her own mother when her mother's dementia had caused her to get confused.

It suffices to say that since the "half a brain" incident, I haven't made much of an effort to visit my aunt. She's been at a couple of family functions that were hosted by my brother. The first one, I avoided her entirely. At the second, I was civil, but I didn't act like everything was peachy keen.

Set the mental TiVO to the morning of Thursday the 9th. I'm talking to my mother, and she asks whether we have made any plans for Thanksgiving. For the past five Thanksgivings, we have stayed home and served a meal to ourselves and my wife's best friend's family. A couple days earlier, my wife had said that no definite plans had been made. I made the mistake of telling my mother that we didn't have any plans.

A couple hours later that morning, I get an e-mail from my aunt asking us to come to Thanksgiving at her new house. She wants to serve a big meal. This is quite the 180 from previous years, where she's gone out of her way to tell everyone that she's not doing anything for the Thanksgiving holiday.

That few bytes opened up a big can of anxiety in me, and I realized that the fusion was in play. I was paralyzed, not wanting to respond because I didn't want to look bad. The fearful thought process was that my mom and my sister-in-law would be mad at me for refusing to make nice. On the other hand, I also wondered if saying "no" wasn't a fused action in itself since it would reinforce what might be an emotional cutoff of my own.

I sagged emotionally. I brought it up with my therapist earlier this week. I self confronted. I realized that putting off a reply was a form of emotional cutoff. Declining an invitation was not. In the end, I had to make a decision that was true to myself. I lost respect for my aunt because of her hurtful nature. It would be a violation of my integrity to pretend nothing was wrong.

I needed to let go of worrying what my mom and sister-in-law would think. The paralysis was the wounded, childlike part of me fearing emotional cutoff from others... a form of abandonment. To paraphrase something I learned from Glover's No More Mr. Nice Guy, in the mind of a child, abandonment = death.

In order to recover from this, I needed to realize that the grown up, non-wounded, part of me could take care of myself. I didn't need to withdraw into a catatonic state of self pity. I didn't need to lean on my wife emotionally as I had done in the past. I could handle it. I finally broke through the anxiety and sent my aunt a brief e-mail reply declining the invitation.

When reliance on the reflected sense of self is a reflex, one requires a revolution to reverse course.

The second fusion lesson came to me in the form of a job application. Some management craziness at work, which led to the "Feeling Weak" posting a couple weeks ago, motivated me to put my name in for a few more job openings.

I got a call back from a recruiter who claimed to have a good working relationship with the HR director at a software development company in town. She said that they would need me to take a programming examination before they would consider me for the interview. I agreed to take the test, which she said should take about an hour.

It was an online test provided by a third party testing service. Registration for the test was initiated by a hyperlink in an e-mail message. When I went to the site, the instructions page informed me that the test was to be 180+ questions long, a mixture of psychological evaluation, problem solving skills, reading skills, and programming knownledge in both C++ and SQL. It took almost three hours to complete the test.

I got a call back from the recruiter saying that I had done really well on the programming section, but she apologized for having given me the wrong test. She said that the test they had intended to give me was a programming only test that had over 40 C++ questions instead of the 12 that was in the larger test. Moreover, the larger test report did not reveal the questions that I answered incorrectly. The more focused exam would.

I said that I would take the other test, and I asked if she could send me the score the test I had just taken. She said she would send me the complete results. I scored 73rd percentile on the C++ portion, 57th percentile on the programmer/analyst aptitude, 82nd percentile on the math problem solving, and 98th percentile on written English. The big disappointment was "attitude personality factors", where I registered a 20% match, according to the report.

I remember that the attitude personality questions really rubbed me the wrong way. Each question was phrased as a statement with which you indicated level of agreement on a five-point scale. Many of the statements seemed to be worded unflatteringly. "I think it's okay to break rules." "I'm usually current on the gossip at the office." "I wait until the right time to get even with someone." Some of them were so vague as to be void of meaning. "I think that it's better to place more importance on the profession than the employer."

I read what the report said about me. It said I probably preferred solitary, repetitive work. I probably just did enough to get by. I wasn't assertive. I could be rude and impatient with others. I wasn't creative or flexible. The picture that it painted really got to me. I expressed my disappointment to my wife, who said that maybe it was a blessing because it would give me an idea of what I needed to work on. I just wanted to crawl under a rock.

After a day or so, I was able to digest what I had read. I took the hit, challenging the assumptions that were driving my emotional state. I realized that while I can be introverted, passive, and stubborn, I was not the caricature in that profile. It was me looking at a reflected sense of self with one of those fun house mirrors, and shrieking at its grotesqueness.

I knew from the past that I could interview well. I could come up with new ideas and had done so over the years. I was learning to be more assertive. I was also learning to modulate my anxiety, the big thing holding me back a lot of times. I shared this with my therapist on Monday as well, and she gave me some perspective on how those tests arrive at their scores.

I also went back to the testing service's website and found an FAQ that is pretty amusing in retrospect (emphasis mine):
Should I show the applicant their results?

This is your choice. Generally, however, results are not shown to the candidate unless the candidate can benefit from them. For example, it may be appropriate to share unsatisfactory skills test results with a candidate to enable them to learn the necessary skill and improve their ability to score well in the future. Personality assessment and employment behavior survey result, on the other hand, may only make the candidate angry because they do not understand the relevance to the job, or they do not agree with the result.
I guess I'm not the only one.

Instead of using the low score as an excuse to fall apart, I took stock in the progress I have made over the past few months. I realize that learning to stand on my own by self confronting, self validating, and self soothing, helps me to heal and differentiate.
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