I have a number of formerly good friends who no longer speak to me. These are people I sincerely like, people whom I feel genuinely tender and caring towards, people I’d love to pick up and continue the friendship with. Only they refuse to speak to me. They don’t call; they don’t write. They don’t return calls and they don’t return emails. Usually, the breech comes about as a result of something I’ve said or done; the resulting Spontaneous Relationship Abortion often catches me completely off guard.
I don’t really blame these former friends for cutting off contact. It’s not like I’ve never stopped responding to someone’s desire for continued contact with me. Much like a spontaneous pregnancy abortion though, I feel great sadness when it happens; and I’ve given a lot of thought to why it happens.
Turning Ghosts into Ancestors
One notion I’ve come up with is that many of these relationship abortions are failed attempts to turn ghosts into ancestors. This is a phrase that Buddhist psychiatrist, Mark Epstein attributes to the great developmental theorist D. W. Winnicott. He’s essentially suggesting that the people from our past by whose actions we’ve suffered trauma (most often our parents, but not always), live in us as ghosts (whether we realize it or not). They remain in that unsteady state until the memories of whatever violations they perpetrated have been fully surfaced and integrated. Friendships (not to mention: marriages and committed partnerships) too often unconsciously serve the surfacing function. But we have few means and methods in our culture that allow us to feed and skillfully work with these hungry ghosts and turn them back into friends, or at least ancestors who no longer reactively hijack our nervous system with what they say and do.
Life is Like a Box of Dukkha
In Buddhism the First Noble Truth speaks of Dukkha, the changing nature of reality. Our inability to warmly embrace shifting reality underlies much suffering in the world. A somewhat different translation of that term dukkha holds special meaning for me: “difficult to face.” Those things that are difficult to face – causing us to turn away from them – often lie at the root of great suffering. Our own and the rest of the world’s.
People who upset us – me, in the case of friends who’ve broken off contact; or ghosts who haven’t become ancestors – fall into that category. We are difficult to face. We make you feel uncomfortable and trigger the desire to turn away. What to do? (One thing NOT to do is try to resolve emotional issues through email. It’s almost guaranteed to make things worse. Email is not robust enough to convey the bulk of emotional expression that social neuroscience knows gets expressed through body language, voice tone and facial expression – not to mention, the intention of the heart).
When I look closely at whether or not repairing ruptured relationships matters, everything I know about brain science and good health, suggests to me that it does. Ruptures in blood vessels, body organs, neural network connections are all adverse experiences with significant downside. Turning away from and ignoring a ruptured spleen or appendix has clear-cut negative consequences. I suspect doing the same with “whole organ-systems” showing up in our lives initially as human friends, has similar consequences, although perhaps not so readily apparent. At a minimum turning away serves to perpetuate the illusion of separation.
Practice Makes Possible
One possibility is to learn practices that can work to help us skillfully manage emotionally hijacked states. We know these states arise primarily from the body releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones were originally designed to save our lives in a time when wildness lived all around us. When friends trigger that nervous system response, the brain immediately associates those friends with the discomfort we feel, even though the seeds of that discomfort may have been planted long ago. Those are the seeds of self-protection and give rise to the need to safeguard my vulnerability: experience has taught me that many people who abort relationships mistake vulnerability for weakness and often unconsciously go on the attack in its presence. Until those “friends'” brain networks mature in their wisdom and impulse control circuitry, I’m happy to be spared their friendship.
Essentially then, my work seems to be to spend time intimately learning when and how my body generates stress hormones, and then develop me-specific ways of managing them. Part of this learning involves observing how my body reacts to surfacing threat-memories, and how it responds to attack when I feel vulnerable. As I do, it’s possible to practice remembering, “It’s not me; it’s my brain (and my body).” And since so much of the brain’s resources are designed and dedicated to physical body movement, a long walk or a short run can usually re-balance my system.
But each of us is unique in the way we react to and recover from stress-inducing apparitions from our past. Recovery time can also depend on the nature and duration of the stress, along with other things in my life that might be hassling me. If my stress levels are already high, it won’t take much to make me “jump the hump” and displace my anger or frustration onto the nearest warm body. Not usually great for sustaining friendships. Unless, of course, my friends recognize, “It’s not Mark; it’s his brain” and have sufficient desire, awareness and resolve to re-establish the heart connection.