Have you ever taken an emotional risk – by setting a new boundary, making yourself more visible in the world, trying out a new form of creativity, etc… – and then felt immediately WORSE afterwards, rather than better, even if the actual event went the way you wanted it to?
As a committed life-adventurer, I have taken many such risks, and for years it would baffle me as to why this would happen… why, after a great accomplishment, would I sometimes feel weird, out-of-sorts, or even depressed afterwards.
In 2006, Arleah Shechtman introduced me to a concept called The Contrast Place. This predictable response to emotional risks not only made perfect sense, but it also gave me confidence keep taking risks. I’ve shared The Contrast Place with many clients and friends over the years, and they really have appreciated it.
Here is an excerpt about The Contrast Place from her book, Love in the Present Tense. Shared with permission.
Shame is too deeply rooted in our psyches and our culture to disappear overnight. In risking self-assertion, you are risking shame. You can’t navigate around it. Instead, you’ve got to go through it— experiencing the shame and discovering that you can survive it. When we take an emotional risk, the backlash of shame follows a predictable pattern. Here’s what you’re in for:
1. Your first reaction is likely to be implosion. Ever seen a film of a building being demolished by explosives? It collapses in on itself. That’s how you feel. The courage that led you to assert yourself in the first place seems to have blown itself to dust, and you’re left feeling like a heap of rubble. Even in the absence of a negative response from the other person, this inward state feels like a bad result.
2. Since you’ve gotten this bad inner result, it must be that you’ve done something wrong. You reproach and blame yourself. You begin to doubt whatever it is that you were asserting. You feel tempted to take it back, or at least water it down.
3. You get a vague sense of impending doom and feel as if something terrible has happened or is about to happen. This sense of doom may not be consciously connected with the risk you have just taken. The catastrophe that you imagine might not have anything to do with your partner’s real or imagined response. You might instead worry that you forgot to unplug the iron, fear that an oncoming car is going to hit you, or that one of your children is in danger. All you know is that something’s not right with your world.
4. The final stage is retreat. Until you know the outcome of the risk that you have taken, you are unable to take any further risks. During this period, you become more cautious than usual.
How the other person actually responds has no bearing on this sequence of emotions. It goes on in your own head irrespective of your partner’s response. It is a familiar— a feeling from the past that comes over you regardless of how things are going in the present. We have even worse news. No matter how your partner responds, you’re likely to feel bad when the actual outcome becomes clear. If he responds negatively, then you feel confirmed in the belief that you never should have taken the risk in the first place. If he responds positively (a more likely outcome than you probably imagine), then you may be thrown into a “contrast place.” All of your life you’ve been thinking that you couldn’t get away with the risk you’ve just taken, and now you discover that you can.
While thrilling, this discovery also opens up regret over all of the times that you’ve avoided risk in the past or taken a risk and suffered for it. When we take an emotional risk, we are parting company with our familiar. The familiar self feels abandoned by this new self that we are becoming, and the new self feels— well, unfamiliar. We feel a bit unsteady, a bit out of control. We don’t even know what we are going to do next, much less what our partner is going to do. In short, we can pretty much guarantee that you’re going to feel awful as soon as you begin to assert yourself in unaccustomed ways.
With such a grim prognosis, you may be wondering why on earth anyone would want to do it. Happily, the long-term results are a great deal more favorable than the short-term discomfort that we are predicting. In letting your partner know where your boundaries are, you are extending an invitation to full partnership and deeper intimacy. Your partner isn’t an idiot. She can perceive this, even if your self-assertion is initially disconcerting. Recall how Dave responded to Greta’s refusal to come to bed on demand. Stating her boundaries enabled him to experience his own. He felt more secure with her and more attracted to her. Recall how crazy Colleen got when Sebastian refused to state his own limits and how relieved she was to find a new partner who demanded that she behave more responsibly.
If worse comes to worst, your partner will indeed reject you. This is far less likely than you imagine, but it can happen. If it does—well, the good news is that we’re not attending your funeral. Adults do not die when they are rejected or abandoned. When your worst fear comes to pass, it stops being your worst fear. Ultimately, you have nothing to lose but your own timidity.
Having said all this, we do have one piece of practical advice to impart. We recommend that you start small. Don’t set yourself up for failure by demanding drastic, sudden changes. Stacy would have pretty much guaranteed a negative outcome if she’d suddenly announced to Bernard that he’d better hire a housekeeper because she was joining the Peace Corps and moving to Ecuador. But he probably could have taken it in stride if she’d said, “I’m going to be taking a class at the community college two nights a week. Let me show you how to operate the microwave.”
We’d also like to point out that you don’t necessarily have to begin with your partner . If you have been avoiding self-assertion in your marriage , then you probably avoid it in other relationships as well. You can begin taking emotional risks in relationships that you have less fear of losing. If, as an adult, you still have difficulty standing up to one of your parents, that’s an excellent place to start.
Shechtman, Morrie; Shechtman, Arleah (2003-12-01). Love in the Present Tense: How to Have a High Intimacy, Low Maintenance Marriage (Kindle Locations 1049-1088). Bull Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.