Heartbreak, Loss, and Fraud
Arturo was a forty-two year old Italian man, who had moved from Sicily to the United States in search of a better life. Initially, he thought that he had found his dream. She was thirty-five years old, told him that she loved her family, and had a job lined up for him, but it was all a farce. She took the money Arturo had saved. He found himself jobless, womanless, lonely, and afraid. He had come in to see me because of paranoia, generalized anxiety, and recurring nightmares in which he was chased by a non-descript dinosaur. The docs on call thought that he might be Schizophrenic given his symptoms, but a quick analysis revealed some acute PTSD symptoms following the thievery and manipulation that he had suffered.
“Are all American woman like this?” he asked. I just sat and listened. “They look so beautiful, and seem so smart on television, but in real life they are scary. I don’t think I can handle this.” After some brief psychoeducation about the effects of being scammed and abandoned without supports in a foreign land, Arturo began to relax a little bit, no longer fearing that American women were “hoodwinkers.”
Arturo’s heartbeat was quickened, his chest tight, and his breathing labored given all of this anxiety, so we did some biofeedback breathing to help regulate his system. I had him place his hand on his heart as a self-compassion addition to this process. Within a couple minutes, Arturo was feeling more relaxed, and his face started to return to what I assumed was its normal color. After a brief risk assessment, I asked Arturo to tell me his story.
Intimidating Family History of Love and Perfection
Arturo was born to two loving parents, whose courtship sounded like a romantic comedy. They fought bitterly as children. Arturo’s father liked to stay at home with his mother, and learned how to cook. Arturo’s mom would go to building sites with her father, and learned all about construction. As children, they had a hard time appreciating each other’s unique skill sets. As well-adjusted adults, they grew to appreciate what each person had to offer. They were married fifty years, when Arturo’s mother died. The week before she passed she made Arturo promise to find a wife. She knew he had struggled to find love in their small town, so she suggested he go to America where there were many more available women.
Arturo had not only been losing sleep because he was afraid that another stranger might steal his money, but because he believed that he had failed to grant his mother’s dying wish. We sat in some silence to honor this heavy feeling, and to honor his mother’s passing. When the moment had passed, I asked Arturo two questions: What three things do you value most? And how good are you at being kind to yourself, when you feel you have failed?
He had a hard time answering both questions. To the first question, he answered: love, family, and then drew a blank. To the second question, he said that he had never thought about it, but after some reflection noted that he was not very good at it. His father was a tailor. He was a perfectionist, who felt that his work had to be deadly accurate and flawless. He had communicated these values to Arturo, and it became clear that Arturo was highly critical, and impatient with himself.
Using Self-Compassion to Develop Core Values and Kindness
We agreed to work on developing core values, so that Arturo would have a better idea of what he was searching for in work and love. We agreed to work even harder to help him develop self-compassion. The beginning of this process was quite difficult for Arturo, and we would stop often to pause and normalize his impatience and self-criticism. We noted how these traits had emerged from his earlier modeling, and how much it head helped him cope thus far. It helped him to know that he came by it naturally rather than intentionally.
Arturo loved the story of Pinocchio, so when he struggled to give himself self-compassion, we would summon Pinocchio (Arturo would imagine him in his mind). Pinocchio would say, “Arturo, I know you are suffering, but you come by it naturally. Breath, and let your body tell you what hurts. Soften around the pain. Name it, and let it pass. Then, do something really kind for yourself.”
A month went by before Arturo was able to use his own voice to call upon self-compassion, but slowly but surely he found success in doing so. The longer he stuck with using self-compassion for difficult feelings, the more epiphanies he would get about what he liked and what he did not like. After weeks of success with this process, I asked him if he were stuck on a desert island, and was allowed one job and one romantic partner, what are three things he could not live without.
For the partner, he said that she would have to be kind, compassionate, and love to eat Italian food. He was a great cook, who took pleasure in communicating his love for others by cooking. With respect to the job, he said that it would need to allow him to use his hands, to give back in some way to the greater community (he grew an appreciation for this work in therapy), and to have ample opportunities to learn.
It took a month, but he developed the courage to go to massage school. After months of watching romantic movies and thinking about his mother, he met the woman he would eventually marry on his very first day. She was a Cuban immigrant, who lost her husband to cancer 5 years ago. They bonded over their lost family members and their love for cooking. Arturo said she was a natural at massage, but that it took him some time to learn. He knew she would be the woman he would marry, when he failed an exam, and she hugged him and promised him that he would do better next time. Arturo’s father flew over for the wedding, and several months later came to live with Arturo, his new wife, and his ten-year-old stepson.
Using Self-Compassion For Our Own Heartbreak and Tough Familiar Standards
None of us are immune to heartbreak. In fact, if there is one thing that I can guarantee it is that it is likely that someone will break your heart at some point during your life. If you manage to avoid this, you are either unbelievably lucky or you are doing it wrong. Often, heartbreak is the universe’s check on our willingness to settle for a relationship that is not a match for our core values or meaningful goals. If we have neither, then we are even more susceptible to failed relationships. If you do not know that a car takes gas, you will probably run out of gas. It is not a knock on your character. There are just some things that we have to learn along the way.
The reason we do not have great self-compassion, core values, or meaningful goals from the start is that we may never have had the example of how to get these things from our parents. People who have them normally have parents that did a great job modeling these characteristics, and supporting their growth. Another good reason is that we are often so busy having to fight to get by (ie; bills, debts, housing problems, family issues) that we are not able to take the time to work on them.
If you are already stressed, take some time to do some biofeedback breathing to ground your current state of anxiety. Your goal is to allow for 6 seconds of a natural in-breath, and then 6 seconds of a slow out breath (imagine you are breathing out through a straw). Do this for five or ten minutes until you begin to feel better. Do not try to feel better or change your feelings. That will make things worse.
Use some basic Mindfulness. Notice your feelings, and watch them pass out of your experience. Once you have begun to feel better, notice the parts of your body that are tense, and see if you can soften around them. Notice the feeling or thought associated with this tension. Name it. Make room for it. Allow it to pass, and bring kindness to your experience. Do not skip the last step. We only continue to pursue things that are rewarding. Reward is key!
Over time, notice what your core values might be. Use the desert island analogy or imagine yourself very sick. From this perspective, think about 3 things you need in a job or in your life and 3 things you need in a partner that you cannot live without. Begin to set short-term goals, and do one small action that moves you towards that goal every day. Make a dream board – a board with pictures or lists of these goals- if that helps remind you in the morning and at night. Most importantly, be patient. As Arturo would say, you cannot rush good Stromboli.
365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 95. In The Books.