Welcome back to our series called “Why we stay stuck.” It’s an exploration of the barriers to being mentally healthy. There is a great deal of literature out there/ We’ve covered what our brains do and how we think. Now to talk about the interpersonal level ie how we interact with other and the impact it has on our ability to change.
At the interpersonal level, mental disorders arise because of maladaptive interpersonal behaviors1. In therapy terms, the face we present to the world is called an affect. It reflects our mood, what we think of a situation, and what we think about the other person. When a person is treated poorly or does not have her emotional needs met over a period of time, she will develop the negative affective constellation, namely anger, sadness and shame.
Anger is part of the first affective constellation1. It is a defense, meaning it protects the person from painful feelings and other damages to the sense of self. As part of an affective constellation, anger is tied to sadness and shame. Emotional needs not being met or damage to the send of self produces sadness and anger protects against that hurt. However, shame arises when a person’s sense of self has been damaged so severely, she starts to believe their is something intrinsically wrong with her.Shame is critical to understand because it is a rejection of the self. It is all encompassing and totally pervasive.
The negative affective constellation drives behaviors that may initially serve to protect a person emotionally, but ultimately prove to be counterproductive in interpersonal relationships1. Behaviors driven by anger, sadness and shame tend to be damaging to others or allow for more damage to the sense of self. We’ve all seen it happen. Maybe you’ve stayed in an abusive relationship because you believe you deserve it. He only says those mean things because they are true, right? Or maybe, you’ve gotten in a fight with a friend because you hurt her feelings, even though it wasn’t what you mean to do. Her anger is protecting her but it’s hurting the relationships.
We get trapped in a cycle of unhealthy interpersonal relationships as actions that protect the self actually alienate others. It’s similar to the cycle we saw at the cognitive level. We seem to play out the same things over and over in our thoughts and our relationships, making change that much more difficult and staying stuck seem that much more likely.
1Teyber, E. (2006). Interpersonal process in therapy: An integrative approach (5th Edition). Belmont: Brooks/Cole.