Thursday, October 9, 2014

Jealousy,Compersion, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

I used to entertain the fantasy that I didn't get jealous. My ex-wife was an extremely jealous and paranoid person. It wasn't her fault, she had unresolved issues from the way her father left her mother. But it irritated me, because I had never been unfaithful in my life before I met her, and I found out several years into the marriage that while we were dating the first time (there was a breakup, then we got back together, which led to the marriage) she had been cheating on a previous boyfriend when she saw me, which I was not at all cool with. Eventually I was unfaithful, towards the end of the marriage. One night there was a brief drunken but highly satisfactory and affectionate encounter that led directly to me realizing just precisely how miserable I was in the marriage. A couple of months later, we were separated emotionally as well as physically, since the ex had been attending Cornell for several months when I cheated.

Now, all through my occultist period, I'd known lots of polyamorous people, but my ex was monogamous, and therefore I was. But I figured hell, sounds good to me, read The Ethical Slut, and I was sold. I know now that it was largely a reaction to how miserable I'd been in the marriage, but still, it made perfect logical sense to me. Cheating hurts people, those who've been cheated on, and it hurt me, because even though I had no real regrets about the incident, I still felt a bit guilty. So why the hell not make an agreement to be open?

I've since now gotten some experience dating poly-style, and it is working for me. There's been blunders, and scheduling can be a big pain in the ass, but it works in general. But then jealousy reared its head in a big way, and I wasn't even dating the person in question.

I fell hard for a friend of mine that wasn't interested in me. The unrequited love drove me into the worst period of anxiety and depression that I'd ever felt. I wanted to die, every day. It didn't help the fact that I was in constant contact with her and was a major confidant with the troubles she was having with her current boyfriend at the time. But I couldn't be with her, and hearing about the problems would raise false hope in my mind about the future (false because she still wasn't attracted to me, but anxiety brain tortures you with unattainable fantasies as well as the self-criticism that was making me hate myself). She finally broke up with the previous boyfriend. But if anything happened like a hookup, it would be like getting stabbed in the chest, because it wasn't me.

A few months later, she started seeing her current boyfriend, who is a really awesome guy. But I still wanted to kill him, because it wasn't me. I didn't want to feel bad about it, understand. I love this woman, and I wanted her to be happy no matter what. But my emotions would not let me let go of the fantasy, and so in addition to the unrequited pain itself, I also felt immensely guilty about feeling hurt. This is when the desire to be dead was most acute. I looked death in the face, and I wanted it. Oblivion seemed a much better alternative.

Now, while all this melodrama is going on, I've actually been making a lot of positive changes in my life. It started with the divorce, opening the way to finding satisfaction. Then I quit the job that I hated for one that made me much happier, even taking a paycut. At the same time as I was getting the new job, I moved into a house with 3 good friends who were very supportive. I didn't like living alone at the time, and the new place was much closer to where I worked. The most recent change was getting serious about starting to work out and losing weight, which is in process. I had to take a break from exercise while I healed an injury. But the kicker was starting CBT.

CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, not the BDSM practice that I keep hearing jokes about, cock and ball torture, ;-)  CBT is actually pretty simple in theory. You see, you don't feel bad because of what happens to you. You feel bad because of how you think about what has happened to you. Depression and anxiety put you into a mode of thought where you have developed habits of automatic thoughts that are constantly self-sabotaging you, you tend to always pick the most negative perspective you can about the events in your life, and so you spend your days with distorted perceptions, paranoid that your seeming friends are all actually colloborating in an elaborate ruse that will eventually lead to your humiliation, that all of your seeming successes are just brief, unimportant events that only barely hide the fact that you are a complete failure, fun shit like that.

What you learn to do to with CBT is to identify those automatic thoughts, identify the cognitive errors that are in play (there's a list of 10 major ones), and then respond to them with a rational response. For example, if the automatic thought is "I fucked up at work today, I'm a total loser", the error there is all-or-nothing thinking. The rational response to that would be "nobody's perfect, everyone makes mistakes. There are plenty of times when you have excelled at your job". It sounds simple, but it really works. I am currently depression and anxiety free for the first time in 20 years, and it's as if a giant weight has been lifted off of me. I used this technique to get over all of it in a very quick manner.

As readers of this blog know, I have been doing mindfulness meditation for a few years now. I have not been doing it nearly as regularly as I would have liked to, but I've done it enough to the point where as I'm trying to focus on my breath or sensations from my body, I've gotten minimally competent at noticing thoughts as they arise and letting them pass by as a cloud, rather than grabbing onto them and engaging with them.  As mindfulness goes, I'm still a tyro, but that little bit of skill bootstrapped my engagement with the previously mentioned CBT technique. I basically had to spend no time at all learning how to notice those negative thoughts as they occured, and it was like "A-HA! There you are, you motherfucker!", at which point I could categorize it and come up with a rational response. I found myself not needing to even write them down as recommended in the popular book for CBT, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, a book I highly recommend for anyone feeling miserable, whether you have been diagnosed with anything or not. Also useful is the followup, The Feeling Good Handbook, which has even more tools on a broader range of topics, and lots more exercises. However, there was one other thing that I had to do first, and that brings me back to jealousy.

Another technique CBT is good for, one geared specifically towards phobias, is to expose yourself to the phobia, little by little, until the aversion goes away. What cured me of my jealousy was this, although rather than gradually, I did it at the end of a night that I had spent getting completely intoxicated on various substances, wanting to die, and feeling completely miserable. Finally I said to my brain, "Look, you keep torturing me with the fact that she's with someone else, I give up, show me your worst!", at which point my mind started filling my head with images of the two of them together. But it backfired.

Graphic as those images were, once I gave in to the fear and let it ride, I started to realize that whether I was involved or not, what I was visualizing was two people who had great affection for each other, giving themselves pleasure. I'm not going to say for them that they are in love, that's for them to determine, but what I was seeing was loving, at any rate. Then I remembered that the whole source of this pain was that I myself was in love with my friend. Sure, it wasn't being returned in a physical way, but she has helped me through numerous rough patches with compassion, affection, true sympathy, as I have done for her. If I really loved her, how in the fuck did it make sense for me to feel shitty that she was receiving love?

And almost like a shot, all the pain, jealousy, and agony was gone. It took seconds from the realization to the point where I no longer wanted to die. I was shocked by the rapidity of it. I had achieved compersion.

Compersion, for those who don't know, is a term bandied about a lot in poly circles. It means "a feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship." It's often called the opposite of jealousy. Before this, my poly explorations were interesting, but I hadn't really felt strongly enough about anyone to feel jealousy about their other relationships, even if at certain points I had convinced myself that I might be falling in love. Now, I got it. I truly understand what it's like to love someone genuinely, without any selfish intent. I won't say that I won't ever feel jealous again, but it's gone now, along with the rest of the misery.

So anyway, I'm great now. As mentioned, better than I've felt in 20 years. Where I am now is living in the present moment. I'm spending time with several extremely attractive women that I'm becoming good friends with. I'm interested in them romantically, but all of the neediness and desperation that's haunted me for years is gone. I'm just taking things as they come. If something develops, great, if not, no problem. I have no expectations, no fantasies about the future, and absolutely no sense of entitlement. And that goes triple for the friend I love. If it's at all possible, I think I love her even more now. But now it's unconditional. I am happy when she is happy, no matter whether that involves me or not.

Que sera sera.

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