A Counterintuitive Approach to Ease A Burning Heart

7 minute read

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“You marry your unfinished business,” she said with a nonchalant shrug.

She delivered this news with such a matter-of-fact-ness that the only natural response was to jump up and call her out on her bullshit. But since this was probably not the best way to kick-off our third couples therapy session, I held back and closed my eyes. As my frustration grew, I was instantly reminded of a coping strategy my sister used when we were kids.

See, my sister used to do the classic older child move of taking out all of her grievances of the injustices of the world on me. You know, like the fact that she had curly hair and I had naturally straight hair or that Bon Jovi was in fact, never going to roll up our driveway in a white stretch limo and whisk her away to the magical land that was New Jersey. That is, until one day everything changed. When what would usually set her off in a red-eyed tailspin having sprouted horns and daggers for nails, she just sat there and closed her eyes. Having just learned my best defense moves form Mr. Miyagi, I was everready and slightly disappointed that I wasn’t able to impress her with my secretly practiced “crane kick”.

“What’re you doing?” I threw her a sideways glance; not falling for it.

She kept her eyes closed for a few more minutes and then took a deep breath. Her eyes popped open, she sighed, smiled, and said, “I just imagined beating the crap out of you and now I feel great.” She hopped up and was on her way.

Wait a second! What??

Thirty years later, on the therapist’s couch, I realized she was onto something.

“You marry your unfinished business,” just lingered in the air.

I dropped my head back and let out a long drawn-out snort, which is my obnoxious, smug way to disagree. And, yes, I snorted at our therapist. Because, seriously? This is about me?! C’mon. Can’t I just keep blaming him for his shit and then it will all work out? He’ll just understand and change and we’ll live happily ever after? Cue: the shiny, brass flagged horns.

I would like to say that in a whoosh of sudden clarity I realized that if it’s about me then it’s about him too. It’s about us each taking care of our own baggage best we can.

I would like to say that.

What actually flew through my mind was, “Ah-ha! It’s your fault too! You have to take care of your shit too. See?”

The irony of it all is that we were being proactive with even deciding to go to therapy in the first place. We had our fair share of hearing about affairs and divorces and we thought – okay, fine – I thought that we could be proactive. Screw having therapy be a last resort. Let’s nip it in the bud now. We’re doing pretty good. Sure, a second kid put a little kink in our groove but we’re still in solid shape. Yes, I am well aware of letting sleeping dogs lie. Hindsight.

Then for a serious flip of perspective, I shared this story with my sister and her first response was, “I so don’t see it like that. Your unfinished business is the good stuff. It’s the stuff that he brings out in you that allows you to be a better person and vice versa.” Usually, this would warm my heart and make me feel hope. At this moment in time, I closed my eyes and imagined beating the crap out of my sister. That response was too airy-fairy and bluebirds hovering and merrily chirping overhead. I wanted someone to commiserate with my misery.

Usually, the ever glass half-full thinker, at this moment I wanted to dwell in the half-empty glass, suck it down, and then clink it on the bar for another. Screw the high road. I wanted to fly down the low road and take it fast and furious; down curves and bends and crooked side streets, until I ended up under the bridge with rusted garbage cans shooting flames and toothless humans smiling with buzzed despair.

I hung out there for awhile until two pieces of learned insight snapped me back:

1. Stop fighting for your shortcomings or misery or weaknesses.
Or anything that makes you feel that playing it small is strength or turns you into an instant replay “Yeah, but…”er. Just stop. Stop it. Eh – nope. Stop.

This quickly morphed into insight number two:

2. What you believe; you perceive.
Ugh. Okay. I know. I know. I need to do some solid mental shifting. Pronto.

So, I took my sister’s vantage point and I ran with it. I chose to focus on all of the things that I love about my husband. All of the moments my heart is filled with heat from warmth and light and not overheated from burn and anger. It sounded so counterintuitive that, at first, I resisted with every ounce of my being.

Because isn’t being tough and not backing down until you win the answer? Isn’t this what we learn is strength? The thoughts running through my head were wild horses, Isn’t this letting him off the hook? How is he going to be held accountable? Aren’t I going to look weak? Isn’t this just denial of the problem? Hold the phone – I have to admit I’m wrong?? This is total bullshit. But, I stuck with it. Yes, nevertheless, I persisted and lo and behold, it actually worked. As I chose to focus on the positives in our relationship and in him, we took a turn for the better. And then, I tested my luck and tried out this strategy with other prickly people in my world and, I’ll be damned, it still worked.

“The world tries to tell us that positivity has less power than aggression and antagonism – that’s not true. Light is the truth. And the truth will set us free.”

– Ava Duvernay, Director of the upcoming film adapation , A Wrinkle in Time

Now, believe me, I definitely still have knee-jerk moments where I find myself jumping on a ten-speed and flying under the bridge like an overgrown bratty teenager. But more and more, I flip a u-ey and come back to the top of the deck where the air is cleaner, the view is brighter, and my heart beats stronger.

Is it a surprise that what I learned the most is the hardest lesson of all?

It’s never about someone else. It’s always about what those feelings reflect back to me about me. Where do I need to ease up on myself? Where do I need to take myself more seriously? I am learning to be okay with being selfish without apology and set boundaries without vocalizing them beforehand. I aim for good enough trumping perfection and disappointment being the ointment for the shackle burns of people pleasing. (If you are a recovering people pleaser you know that the severity of that prior statement is straight up truth!)

And, you know what?
The earth did not crack in half.
The sky did not fall.
The beat still goes on.


Heartburn (1986. Director: Mike Nichols. Writer: Nora Ephron) A food writer pregnant with her second baby finds out her husband is having an affair.
Heartburn  Movie Trivia:

Debut cinema movie of Mamie Gummer, Kevin Spacey, and Tony Shalhoub.

The main reason Jack Nicholson agreed to appear in this movie, was because he wanted to work with Meryl Streep.

Dustin Hoffman turned down the role of Mark Forman. He had previously worked with Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).

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