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Carson won't hit me back

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

The problem: In this case, to ‘hit [someone] back’ simply meaning ‘reply’ to them. Carson came to me distressed because messages from family and friends were piling up on his phone, and for some reason unknown to Carson, he found answering them too aversive. Unanswered messages became progressively more concerned and even angry in nature, so why couldn’t Carson simply bring himself to say something?

More than that, his affliction began to affect work. Emails from clients and messages from colleagues moved him ever further from ‘Inbox Zero’ with no sign of reprieve from Carson. Questions abound from Carson during the training session. How on earth could it have come to this? Why couldn’t he simply eke out a simple message?

Tracing the structure: Through a variety of introspective techniques, including Focusing, it came to light that the emotional impact of leaving messages unanswered related to Carson’s general disposition toward relationships. Not replying was Carsen effectively shutting down in the face of an acute reaction to perceived social obligation or expectation being placed upon him. In Carson’s mind, the social world is everything. It is through competently navigating relationships that Carson is able to receive opportunities, resources, love and value.

Within Carson’s ‘implicit worldview,’ or a set of concepts not often derived from explicit thought, delays in answering messages were bad for his relationships, but not catastrophic. As we homed in on his belief set, it became clear that he believed the true deathblow to his relationships to be a poor representation of himself. As in, if he embarrassed himself, showed particular types of vulnerability, or acted brashly.

Carson’s model of how others assess him, including those closest to him, are heavily anchored in the present day, which implies that the next encounter is always key to get right in order to keep the relationship in good standing. Represent himself poorly in one exchange, and people immediately begin revising down how much they value Carson.They might even be quick to abandon him, he thought.

This unreflective relationship to his social life dramatically raises the stakes of each interaction. If Carson representing himself poorly in a single interaction could be the beginning of a runaway downward spiral, then he’d better make damn sure he did everything in his power to make things work smoothly. As it turned out, Carson believed being anything other than cheerful, friendly and good-natured – the best version of himself – could ruin the relationships he held so dear. Is it any wonder why Carson put off answering messages until he could present himself better? And because nobody feels good all the time, or necessarily in the mood to answer messages when feeling good, there was little head space for replies.

Solution Options

Option 1: Deconstruct inaccurate mental heuristics around maintaining relationships – Carson is so intent on presenting himself in the best way possible precisely because he doesn’t have a very nuanced understanding of how others come to view him. For one thing, his approach is heavily templated, appearing to apply more or less the same to all people and all types of relationships. A parent may have more patience for you than a fleeting lover, for example. In addition, different relationships require a different type of presence and set of actions in order to maintain. Some friendships, even very emotionally close friendships, require little contact. Some may require more specific and involved roles.

Option 2: Experiment with being vulnerable with others – An implicit assumption for Carson is that his relationships would be damaged if he were to show a less flattering side of his personality. As the smash success of Brene Brown’s writings on fear and vulnerability can attest, it is possible that for at least some of Carsen’s relationships, showing another side of himself could actually enrich the relationship. Some of Carsen’s closest may relish the chance to deepen ties along new dimensions.

Option 3: Get a more calibrated read on what others might want – downstream from Option 1, it’s important to realize that not everybody wants the same thing with Carsen. A significant other might actually resent a lack of personal sharing and vulnerability. Another friend may not care at all about getting messages answered, but wants Carsen to pay a visit next time he is in town. A work colleague may not need a full answer immediately, but wants confirmation that he received the message.

Option 4: Where does Carsen’s self-valuation originate? Perhaps an overreliance on external validation makes stumbling or slight damage to his relationships feel like a direct reflection of his worth. If Carsen is more comfortable with himself and confident in what he brings to relationships, is feelings of worth may not hinge so much on the momentary perceptions of others.

What worked?

The shallower solutions (Options 1 & 3) gave Carsen room to breath and allowed him to reframe the situation such that he was unblocked from answering messages. Furthermore, after Carsen gave more thought to what others individually wanted from him in a relationship, he was able to prioritize when and how much of his emotional and intellectual bandwidth to spend on whom.

The vulnerability experiments (Option 2) were more like reminders that Carsen had gone there with some of his relationships, and that he could feel comfortable not always presenting the best side of himself on any given day. He did continue to push at the self-imposed limits of how vulnerable he could be in certain relationships, and was surprised by what he found, good or bad. As for Option 4, the deepest of the potential solutions, Carsen was resolved to spend more time introspecting on this and wants to enlist the help of a therapist.

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