Going ‘Meta’ means looking for more accurate explanations as to what makes us or someone else behave, think, or relate in certain problematic ways. This is in contrast to making assumptions about these things based on our own idiosyncratic experience. When we’re feeling uncomfortable or anxious, e.g., “my wife seems more into her partner at the law firm than she is to me,” we often look to our old explanations/narratives, even though these explanations are tainted by our particular historical experiences (this is Gerald who experienced a mother who regularly criticized and derogated his father). This can produce conflict since other people’s motives and intentions are then seen incorrectly. To meta-perceive, we must develop the flexibility (and to let go of the need to be right) to be willing to challenge our older, set beliefs. This willingness to let go of familiar viewpoints, though uncomfortable at first, can be freeing because it gives us more wiggle room in working through differences.
For those not yet familiar with meta-communications, read “Meta-conversations” on this blog. A few more examples follow:
Telling the person with whom you’re beginning a relationship the following is ‘meta’: “I can get pretty scared when someone gets close too quickly – but I really like you and want to keep moving this forward, so can we talk sometimes about our pace, how we text and call and stuff like that going forward?”
Arthur and his wife just gave birth; he wants to discuss the tension between them but he feels he shouldn’t; Maura says this should be a harmonious period.
But it’s not. Despite the happy, smiling families on Facebook extolling the wonders of having a child (which is certainly also true), Arthur is feeling:
– left out of this hermetically sealed bond that Maura seems to have with the baby,
-emotionally confused and thus sexually turned off (to which she’s responding angrily that it must be because of her ‘fat’ body),
-constantly misunderstood by her – and he’s experiencing exhaustion and emotional numbing.
She takes on the moral imperative of chastising him if he spends too much time at work, exercising, etc. If he tries to continue acting as if it’s all good, the rifts will expand and each will begin resenting the other.
But Arthur is familiar with meta-conversation, and so we ‘behavior rehearse’ how he’ll approach Maura. Kindly and humanely he’ll tell her that he’s been discussing this in therapy so that he can manage to talk about it lovingly but assertively:
-that he’d like her to avoid shadow boxing – deciding unilaterally what he’s thinking – mostly due to her own anxieties and cognitive distortions. (see post on “Shadow Boxing”) Maura intellectually understands that going to the gym is an important part of managing his depression, but because she has not dealt with her own biases and insecurities, she can only see his time at the gym as the same as her father’s constant absence from home, which, in this case, she inaccurately attributes to extramarital affairs and consistent problems between them.
-that it’s better for them to give up some illusion of how they should feel for how they do feel – which will actually bring them closer by learning to discuss their shared frustrations during this first year post birth.
-that he’d feel more sexual if they could talk openly about their wants/needs for intimacy and sexuality right now, rather than to have to feel he’s being tested as to whether he’s ‘willing’ to have sex with her ‘imperfect’ body’ (i.e., her own anxieties).
-that he’s quite attracted to her fuller body; but that it’s her self-degrading feelings that have turned him off.
-that he’d like to do some things together in which they’re not solely discussing the baby.
And so on….
They manage well and this early period continues with its bumps and worries, but with far more openness and connection. Arthur’s ability to recognize what’s happening in their constant fighting comes from his having learned to meta-perceive what Maura herself may be struggling with.
Meta-perceiving is a process by which you look at the other’s attitudes and actions through a more reality-based lens as opposed to imposing your own skewed perceptions of the situation, i.e., the opposite of what Maura was doing. As well, it involves querying the other as to whether our perceptions of their feelings/thoughts/behavior are accurate, or, ”am I getting it?”
Stephanie and Paolo, yet again, had three pretty terrific days together. He’d whisked her out of the city to a music venue in Philadelphia, did an arduous task for her while she was at work and held her tightly for two hours during the concert. Sure enough, two days later – as was typical for him after serious closeness – he started talking about how his life was too busy and wasn’t sure he could ‘do this.’ Normally Stephanie (who’s highly confident) would respond, “Well, you know that I’m only willing to be in a relationship where our levels of wanting each other are pretty balanced, so, hey you’ve gotta ‘do you’… and let me know what you decide”. She’d do it in a supercilious tone, knowing he couldn’t handle real look-at-yourself conversation. And, typically, Paolo would return to the relationship more forcefully than before. This time, though, she revealed her hurt over this pattern of his – and told him that, much as she so enjoyed this relationship, loved their sex and their talking, if he couldn’t put words and dialogue to his discomfort every time he’s scared (rather than pulling away), she didn’t feel willing or able to keep holding on – though she did hope he’d think it through.
Coming to perceive her own needs on a meta level – being really clear and honest with herself – she understood she needed to take this risk; and also understood that his inability to have a fuller relationship was not about her inadequacy. And when he never spoke to her again, her friends said that she should’ve played along, doing what she’d always done, knowing he’d come back. But Stephanie recognized that the only way she’d grow and develop deeper relationships was to do this very thing. She was sad that he couldn’t have talked it through but knew even more clearly that this was who he was and that he certainly wouldn’t change in the near term. While Stephanie experienced acute loss in that moment, her ability to move past this pain for deeper growth was much more valuable in the long-term.
What she’d ‘meta-perceived’ in their time together were the following, and it made it even more clear why he might never get through this:
-Paolo was a man who had two siblings die at early ages – and couldn’t stand feeling responsible for another’s pain. So rather than hear what she was saying – to recognize that Stephanie was truly robust and could work through whatever need he had to pull away (if he could talk about it) – he couldn’t get past the feelings of responsibility her hurt engendered in him.
-In fact, his aversion to significant others expressing sadness about how he treated them was so great that he (performatively) called himself a sociopath – to demonstrate how very much others’ feelings didn’t matter to him (given the guilt he feels over his siblings’ deaths). Of added significance, when Stephanie spoke of his vulnerability – which was truly observable – he’d get annoyed and adamantly tell her he didn’t feel such things, because ‘that’s just weak’.
-Lastly, he preferred fighting and making up, as in past relationships – which Stephanie had moved way beyond doing.
Meta conversations are powerfully useful – and can often change the trajectory of a relationship by bypassing often skewed historical narratives and the learned coping strategies. As well, and critically important, meta-perceiving who the other truly is – and how our own behavior and attitudes are affecting the other – offer us the very means to connect during times we’d be more likely to antagonize, blame, or incorrectly attribute wrongdoing where it doesn’t exist.