Being powerless is scary: confronting the delusions of the romance narrative trap


Over the last few weeks a good friend and I have been having this recurring conversation about attachment and intimacy. We have both been struggling with attachment issues arising in different situations. She says needs intimacy but doesn’t know how to pick which situations are worth her energy. She will meet someone and think they have a connection, only to find that person ambivalent, or find herself in the reverse situation, withdrawing from a love interest who has become too needy. Sound familiar? Just more of the ins and outs of the romance narrative trap, right?

We have been going over and over various factors in this conversation, and listing our limited options: look for someone who is…, learn to be single better, etc – when it occurred to me that maybe our biggest problem is that we think we actually have more control (or should have) than we really do. “That’s a scary thought,” my friend replied, “How do you navigate romance if you have no control?”

Really, with these ‘matters of the heart’ we don’t really have much control, do we? We can’t control who we like or how they will respond to us – our control is very limited to small gestures and behavior… It’s kind of like steering an inner-tube down a river. You never know who you will bump into or whether you can stay connected for very long… or what debris you will encounter along the way.

“So is the bottom line that you should just accept the lack of control in romance and let yourself be swept down the river?” – That’s up to you, but given the lack of control, is it not a bit futile to gesticulate wildly at the current? “Very futile.” And we do seem to strain ourselves going over and over our very limited options… but lack of control is so hard to accept that we get caught up in the minutiae all the same.

This was starting to look rather bleak: “What that means is even though I’m putting time and energy (and getting caught up) in situations I maybe shouldn’t, there is no point trying to do anything to change the pattern, as I really don’t have any control over stuff.” Well, you only (mostly) have control over how you react to the powerlessness… which is your pattern. It is hard to face sometimes, especially if you’re someone with slightly neurotic over-thinking tendencies, but while some things can be relatively self-determined, a lot of the time in life things just happen to us and all we really get to choose is how we react.

“Being powerless is scary, people never care enough about me for it to feel okay.” For you to feel safe? “Yeah… seems that the only person in the end who fully cares about my well-being is me.” Well.. we are all the centre of our own universes – so that makes sense – for everyone…

“It would mean that if you want to be looked after by another person you’d have to accept that they won’t always care about you.” They may not – and they will definitely die at some point too. “Another truth!” Yup – it’s the dirty truth about attachment – and why Buddhists say it’s the root of all suffering… which it kind of is… but is also pretty integral to life. “Maybe life shouldn’t be totally without suffering.” Well, if it should be, we’re all doing it wrong – these are all things that are we are better off learning to accept – over and over – acceptance is a practice, not a one-off event. it’s like emotional breathing. “Emotional breathing?” It’s a metaphor. “Oh”…

The anxiety paradox

There’s a lot you should be doing right now, isn’t there? Why are you on Facebook and reading blogs when you have work to do, that thesis to write, the lawn needs mowing, dishes doing, the house is a mess, that exam isn’t going to study for itself,that deadline is looming..?

The dumb thing about stress/anxiety is it’s often counterproductive when it’s supposed to be the opposite. Isn’t your body filling up with all the fight-or-flight chemicals to make you get off your butt and do something? When I was trying to finish my Masters I suffered from so much anxiety that I couldn’t make any progress and my lack of progress gave me more anxiety. It was a vicious self-defeating cycle. Now that I’m onto the PhD I’m trying to break the pattern and not get too wound up – but still get stuff done. It’s a delicate balancing act.

There’s this graph they use in sports psychology to illustrate the way stress helps performance, up to a point, then it drops off sharply. They call it arousal, not stress, but the connotations or arousal are somewhat more sexual than required for this type of thing.

So anyway, why is the body making more stress than is useful? (see, arousal would be awkward here). Well, our bodies didn’t evolve during times of plentiful desk jobs or academic study. We are animals, remember? Stress means: get the fuck out. Escape the harsh climate, defend from predators, run from fire, then relax. Ahh… Aren’t you glad we ran from that fire? Now let’s find some food and have a nap in the sun.

These days the stress is never ending. There is always more to do: bills, chores, projects, deadlines… Deadline is a particularly morbid word, isn’t it? Like mortgage (to the death), we accept these things as a normal part of life. We get used to endless mounting stresses even though, physiologically, our bodies suffer.

Cortisol is a nasty thing when it gets out of control. This stress hormone puts pressure on bodily systems and exacerbates disease. It also makes it even harder to make progress because we are biologically wired to avoid cortisol inducing things – enter the plethora of avoidance strategies you have amassed in your life.

One way of tackling this silly state of affairs is to try to reduce cortisol on a physical level. Here are some suggestions:

1. Drink green tea. Apparently green tea and a bunch of other herbs and food can help.

2. The three cures for everything: Sunshine, exercise and good food seem to be the cure for almost everything.

3. Do relaxing things: I suppose it’s worth investing time in activities that are actually relaxing – go to the hot pools or indulge in scenic walks rather than playing PlayStation or aimless Facebooking.

4. Write a list of easily accomplishable things then tick them off and feel the rewards of accomplishment: your anxiety shrinking.

5. Remember to breathe.  Breathing is important, breathe slowly and deeply – do yogic breathing exercises, meditate, all of that important stuff that people tend to over-look because they’re too busy being busy,

6. Adjust your posture. Posture is important too, if you are hunched over and tense you aren’t doing yourself any favors on the anxiety front. Shoulders back and down. See, isn’t that better? Feel your chest opening up. Give yourself space.