ERP 360: How being “Difficult” Can Assist Growth & Development In Relationship — An Interview With Tonya Lester

By Posted in - Podcast February 21st, 2023 0 Comments

Being difficult in relationships is a topic that is often misunderstood and shunned as the term “difficult” is usually associated with negativity, but what if it could be a catalyst for growth and development in our relationships? 

In this episode, we’ll challenge the common notion that smooth sailing is the ideal in relationships, and instead, explore how speaking up, having honest conversations, and being vulnerable can lead to deeper emotional intimacy and stronger relationships. Join us as we dive into the power of being “difficult” and how it can assist in the growth and development of our relationships.

Tonya Lester is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, private psychotherapist, Psychology Today contributor and author. For over 16 years, Tonya has taught couples and individuals how to manage their minds and emotions, develop relationships that are mutually respectful and supportive and approach decision-making and communication with clarity and courage. She believes in starting where you are, experimenting with new ways of being and focusing all of your attention on what you can do now, as opposed to fixating on what is currently out of reach.

In this Episode

04:55 Understanding how unspoken resentment impacts long-term relationships.

8:35 What is good about being difficult?

14:13 How to navigate difficult conversations in relationships.

20:18 Tonya encourages co-creation and mindfulness in relationships.

25:34 Communicating effectively in relationships and overcoming gender roles and expectations.

28:57 Honesty, vulnerability, and setting boundaries in relationships.

34:13 Overcoming gendered paradigms in relationships through assertiveness.

39:46 Three key elements to navigating difficult conversations in relationships.

45:40 Finding the middle ground between shame and grandiosity.

51:27 Tonya’s vision for society: Building a world of collaborators.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Identify and acknowledge areas where you feel uncomfortable or apprehensive about communicating with your partner.
  • Plan a time and place where you can have a calm and safe conversation with your partner about the difficult truths you want to express.
  • Reframe communication of difficult truths as a positive thing that can deepen the emotional intimacy in the relationship.
  • Create a safe space for communication by setting ground rules, such as no interrupting or belittling each other, and choosing a partner who is open to negotiation and respectful dialogue.
  • Observe and acknowledge your own tendencies and personality traits, and make an effort to share space and accommodate your partner’s needs.
  • Practice being honest and vulnerable in your relationships, even if it means having uncomfortable conversations and risking hurting someone’s feelings.
  • Reflect on your values and worthiness, challenge any negative self-talk, and work on core vulnerabilities. Seek therapy or counseling if necessary.
  • Evaluate how you value yourself, your strengths, and your values, and make an effort to live in service of those values.

Mentioned

Are you the Good Kind of Difficult? (*quiz)

Relationship Map To Happy, Lasting Love

Connect with Tonya Lester

Websites: tonyalester.com

TikTok: tiktok.com/@tonyalesterlcsw

Instagram: instagram.com/tonyalesterpsychotherapy

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Tonya, thank you for joining us today.

Thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it.

Yes, and I’m looking forward to this conversation with you and your topic. You just shared with me, you have a book that will be coming out with the title Be Difficult, and we’re going to talk about what this means as it relates to relationship. Before I even get to know what you’re sharing, I just want to say, I feel like I’ve had a journey with this myself, as I look at my younger years, and we get to talk about I imagine some of what you’ll be sharing. I feel like it’s been a development for me, and still is to be honest. As a woman, and that kind of cultural West that I’ve been brought up with and all the messages around that. 

For people that are just now meeting you and maybe aren’t already acquainted, are you open to sharing what got you interested in serving people with this specific area as it relates to relationship?

Sure. So I’m a psychotherapist who was working a lot with anxiety. I’ve always worked with couples since the beginning of my career, and was noticing that I kept running into couples who had been married for quite a long time. They were coming into the therapy room, and I kept hearing the same story, which was essentially that one person — this is a little gendered, so I’ll just say this right off the bat — but oftentimes, the woman in a heterosexual couple would have been wanting to come to therapy, would be wanting to make some changes, and over the years, would have subtly told her husband that this is something that she was interested in. Maybe they’d work a little bit, but not go to therapy, and then things would settle back into the status quo. Then slowly, her resentment would be building over the years. Then finally, maybe something would happen that brought them into therapy. 

But at the beginning of therapy, essentially, the wife would say: “You know, actually, I’m done. I’ve worked so hard at this, and I’ve really hung in there, and I just don’t want to collaborate anymore. I’m really unhappy, I don’t think things can change, and I’m finished.” Then the husband was flabbergasted, and really had thought that they were going to come in to do some work, with a total unawareness of really how far gone she was and how much had happened between the two of them that now felt insurmountable to her. He would have been really participating in a very different marriage than she felt like she had been participating in. So what I saw in this was oftentimes, the woman would have been very reluctant to really share how bad things had gotten for her. So I would hear a lot in these sessions: “I don’t feel important. I’ve stopped telling him things. I don’t feel like he even really knows me. I feel very lonely in this marriage.” And we don’t want to feel lonely in our marriages. Why partner up, to feel isolated? 

So what I was hearing over and over again, is that the reason that there wasn’t more action taken earlier is that the wife didn’t want to nag, didn’t want to make demands, didn’t want to ask for change, didn’t want to be difficult. So I would say why not, what’s so bad about being difficult? Particularly, when now the relationship is going to be very hard to repair at this point. So what I really saw in my work with couples — with individuals, and then to be totally honest, myself in my own relationship, not just my marriage, but in all my relationships — a real tendency to over-accommodate, over-accommodate, over-accommodate, and then have a lot of resentment. But almost not even know how to have the language to speak up. So to try and talk myself into accepting things I wasn’t happy with, or talk myself out of my own feelings, which we know never works. I saw that the advice that I was giving to clients was actually stuff I really wanted to hear, that I needed to hear for myself. 

So I started organizing around this idea of being honest, being seen, allowing yourself to be seen in your relationships, and being courageous, and being difficult. While I do a lot of couples’ counseling, this really applies to all the different relationships. I had someone say to me, “I don’t care who’s mad at me, as long as it’s not my mother, like I’m willing to let anyone else down.” Or people who get too codependent or enmeshed with their adult children, and are terrified to speak up for themselves. There’s a lot in the book about work environments where, of course, we feel very nervous about asserting ourselves in any way, and then unable to lean into even healthy conflict. So the book is really about speaking out, saying hard things to the person who needs to hear them, and trusting that either those relationships will be strengthened, or they weren’t viable long-term in the first place. So kind of taking some risk there.

Right. To your last point there, that if we have — I love the term, I think I caught it from Gay and Katie Hendricks — the Sweaty 10-minute Conversation, it’s so helpful. Because these exist, and it’s part of negotiating relationship. If we’re going to deepen in intimacy, it requires negotiating conflict. That requires some level of honesty and coming to the table with what is uncomfortable and difficult to speak about. So what you’re saying is, if we don’t challenge our relationships, if we don’t approach the table or come to the table, then perhaps we’re not even entirely sure what that relationship, the substance of it. That we’re just accommodating; we actually haven’t tested it, and therefore, we don’t have that information around how someone’s going to respond to us or show up with us.

That’s right, 100%. Ironically, it’s those people-pleasing, or over-accommodation, or perfectionist tendencies of not wanting to make a mistake, and so wanting to go along with whatever the expectations are. We then don’t allow the other person an avenue to really know us, which is what emotional intimacy is. Like, we want to be seen in our relationships. It’s like, we’re cutting off the oxygen to ourselves, and then having a lot of resentment at our partner. These are always co-created. It always happens in tandem; no one is at fault completely, one way or another. But we do have the responsibility to do our part and to have the relationships we want to have. A big part of that is having — I hadn’t heard that term, I love that — Sweaty 10-minute Conversation, and being clear about what we have to say, and then being able to tolerate. I’m sure your work as well, so much of it is getting acclimated to tolerating being uncomfortable in these hard conversations. Because if you wait till you’re comfortable, it will never happen. That’s a lie. It will always feel uncomfortable, and the only thing that will get us over that hump is practice and creating relationships where there’s an expectation of honesty and forthrightness. But that is going to take a lot of 10-minute Sweaty Conversations.

Precisely, in my own experience, it’s been iterations, oftentimes. It’s not even one-and-done. It’s this progressive development, and what I’m hearing you speak to, if we can create a climate within the relationship, that that’s welcomed, because we know the results or what we’re in service of. That perhaps, it does ask us to take risks and is not comfortable. I mean, I am sure you get this, and in my work, it’s such a common thing for people to describe if I’m working with the individual, it’s never a good time. It’s like, “Oh, it’s already kind of a hard moment. I don’t want to add more to the plate. Or we’re having such a great time, I don’t want to rock the boat. There’s so many precious and cherished moments.” Then you have a couple that’s like, “We don’t talk about this in between sessions, this is our time to talk.” But then you have a certain amount of time in a week if we’re lucky, or every other week, and that’s a lot to ask to get everything covered in just that one session. So this climate, that this is part of what we’re welcoming in the interest of our growth and being in service of this deeper level of intimacy. It’s a paradigm shift.

It’s a paradigm shift, and I really encourage couples to really view it as a positive thing. Certainly, if your partner is coming to you wanting to share something that’s upsetting, it’s so easy to be defensive, and that’s going to so predictably drive them away. So oftentimes, I’ll coach people to say things, if I’m seeing someone individually, like, “Look, I’m working with my therapist, and being more honest and forthright with you. Because I love you, and I want to have a deep emotional intimacy. This is going to be hard for me, and I think some of the stuff I’m going to say is going to be hard to hear. But I’m doing this for the health of our relationship, and I hope you can do the same with me.” When I have certain structures to try and create more safety in how the communication goes. But I think a big thing is just framing it, like, “The truth is, if I no longer am trying to talk to you, or I don’t care about talking, or there are no more tears, that’s maybe too late.” Like, you shouldn’t want to get to that point. If you’re not nervous before the conversations, it’s because the stakes have gotten so low for you that you know that the relationship is already pretty far gone actually.

Agreed. Tonya, thank you for giving some language and some template to this. I know there’s many versions to give structure. But the setup, the delivery, when you talk about the person on the receiving end likely being defensive, sometimes our best attempt isn’t maybe skillful, or it’s the You. Sometimes what happens in long-term relationship is we’re attempting to change norms, and we’re changing the rules a little bit, which isn’t usually easy to do. When we think about establishing a garden, if it’s already overgrown and then we’re having to pull weeds, versus like a fresh amended soil and we just plant, it’s very different. 

It’s very different. But that is so inevitable. Even when the soil is fresh, we’re coming with our own baggage and our own expectations, and the cultural influence. I don’t know if we ever truly have a fresh plot of land. Then, throughout a relationship, we enter different phases, depending on how long we’ve been together, depending if we’re caring for children or our parents, or where we are, if we’re really full bore into a career or not. So having to renegotiate one’s relationship is totally inevitable. My advice, if there truly is a plot of land, to people just getting together, is make sure you’re picking someone you can negotiate with. Life is one problem-solving exercise after another. So are you with someone you can partner with and say hard things? But that aside, I think if people love each other and people want things to work, I think we can actually adjust. We can make more adjustments than we imagine, and so can our partners. If you want it to work, it can work. 

“I have an image I use all the time with relationships, that it feels like one person is like granite, and the other person is like water, and the other person is always meant to go around. That’s not a healthy relationship, and we need to be able to ask granite to shift.”

People who are in the position of “It’s going to be one way,” you have to make room for your partner. But I have a lot of faith in people’s ability to make things better if they want to.

I do, too. I’m just smiling because I’m so in appreciation with you holding the line and just the point around working together and normalizing that, speaking to some of the difficulties. You’re just saying, look, it is something always to be negotiated. Life, circumstances, difficulties, there’s so much today, it’s almost a fallacy to think that there’s some fresh place that we get. I think that’s part of the misnomer or the myths around some of these hard conversations, even in me as I’m describing these things. So thank you for just really making that clear. 

Now as we turn towards just some of what we’re combating, you’re naming anxiety, you’re naming perfectionism, you’re naming some gender pieces, likely speaking to the feminine experience, but also, I know a lot of men in that nice guy syndrome who get into this people-pleasing. So even as we’re talking about heterosexual or how somebody identifies with the masculine or feminine in a binary way, that this is something all people probably have, and there’s some things that are co-joining here that make this difficult in relationship. Is that right? 

100%, so much of this does feel gendered from a cultural point of view. But absolutely, it’s certainly not absolute. In every type of relationship, I think that this can rear its head, of one person being over-accommodating, where the partner is almost encouraged sometimes to be very self-focused. There might be a natural tendency for that, and then the whole relationship grows around these two stances, regardless of gender. Then gradually, a lot of resentment will grow every time. This isn’t to say that one partner was bad. It’s just to say that we need to be flexible, and we need to look at like, who needs the attention, who needs the support? Ideally, we can move back and forth through those roles, fairly comfortably. It just so happens that still even in 2023, there are different expectations for female-identifying and male-identifying. I think that male-identifying people suffer because of not being allowed their whole breadth of emotional experience, and them not being able to be vulnerable and ask for things and to need maybe more care, or that emotional intimacy that I’m talking about. It’s better for everybody if we’re all just people doing the best we can, working flexibly with each other, and having an open heart and a lot of love. So what we’re trying to do here is normalize healthy conflict in all relationships, and just to move the ball forward in all relationships, and really look at that we get to show up as individuals and give and take.

Absolutely. Again, you’re speaking to some personality pieces. I can say right here right now that I tend to be a little bit more assertive verbally and can express more than my husband, and if it were just left to our personality, I might occupy more space. But if we’re really being cognizant about sharing, it does require me to slow down or being in a little bit more stillness and curiosity to give a little bit more room. Not to enable, it sounds like I’m giving him power. But there is this sense of attention to how is the relationship supporting both. Because as you’re describing, in the longevity, if it just naturally starts to take shape and one person is getting more of their preferences and needs met, then the relationship starts to really be an expression of more of one than the other. So we really want to be mindful of that co-creative and that it’s working for both.

Yeah, and be generous about it. Because I didn’t hear what you’re saying about just making space for your husband, that isn’t giving power. It’s understanding that he might have a different style, and that you want to know what’s going on for him. If you were married to a version of yourself, it would be different. But you’re not, because you’re two different people, and making room for both is absolutely vital. 

Just to share, on the other side of that, my husband has work he’s extremely passionate about. As do I, but I’m not talking about clients with my husband obviously. So we spent a lot of time talking about his work, which is fine up to a point. But what I realized was happening was that we were talking about his work all the time, and then I was feeling resentful, and I kind of a little bit just had had enough of it essentially. But then, caught myself that he will say to me, “How are you?” I’ll be like, “Fine, how are you, what happened at work?” So I will ask all these questions that led to him taking up all the air to talk about what he wants to talk about. It’s like, he cares how I am, he’s not trying to be a jerk. But if I ask questions, he’s going to have stuff to say about it, because he cares deeply about what we’re talking about. So I really had to train myself to say, “How am I? Let’s see.” Really take the space to say how I am and to share what happened in the day, or say something that I want to talk about one of our kids. So it’s a funny thing. It was like I was saying, I don’t want to talk about his work all the time, and then I was immediately directing the whole conversation towards his work, though.

Yeah. You’re like, “Here’s the ball. Go ahead, take it.”

Right, instead of challenging myself. I’m used to asking questions. So to really be like, what is going on with me, what is happening inside here? It was something I had to get better at, and we had to shift. We’ve been married more than 20 years, and this is in the last few years. So sometimes, these things, these patterns can be entrenched, and they can still be changed. 

Absolutely. I’m smiling too, because I’m like, I so feel you! I’m very verbal, but when it comes to psych, you don’t talk about your work. Especially if I’ve been in the session mode, I’m in that more locked in and attentive to another, rather than this reciprocal give-and-take. So it can take some switching gears, and so I appreciate the dynamic. 

I want to just come back to one thing that you mentioned about when we are influenced by the genderizing or whatever that informs our tendency to people-please or be perfectionistic, that actually, nobody wins. That even if it feels like the person that is feeling resentful or not getting as much space, that it’s not a win for anyone. As this story in the example, where the wife gets to a certain place, and she’s like, I’m done! Like, how painful that is for her husband, like, I didn’t get a shot.

Yes, it’s heartbreaking. I’m sure you’ve had those sessions where you sit in a room and everyone is just brokenhearted, and it’s so sad. Hopefully, sometimes we can bring it back from the brink. But it’s not just about having the hard conversations, it’s having the hard conversations with the person who needs to hear it. 

“I think we are all guilty of having a lot of intense conversations in our head, with our caricature of who our partner is and how they might respond, and that is a terrible way to have dialogue in a relationship. So we want to give each other a chance to be the person that we need. Like, we want to give the relationship a chance, and that comes from sharing.”

I see that in all sorts of ways. That we don’t want the conflict, and so we try and do something that will cut it off at the pass, which often is secrecy; not outright lying, but omission or avoidance. All that does is it creates more distance. All that does is kind of dead-end the relationship, and I think that it’s very, very hard not to do that. We do want to stay comfortable. We do not want to ruin a nice time. But that is absolutely 100% sometimes what needs to happen.

Exactly. I think that’s why people like yourself, that are giving a lot of fresh air and room to express this, and even giving language to it, is so important. Because as you’re even describing, in session, an example where they’re getting to this place, and it’s maybe too far gone or on the brink, the wife in your scenario may even have felt like she made attempts and the signal was sent, and he didn’t either get it. It’s like, was she having the conversations, how did that actually play out? 

But more of what I’m feeling right now is, Be Difficult is really making it visible. I will say, even for myself, there’s times with my husband that I’m like, “I’ve said this!” But what I’m kind of circling into is like saying the ugly. So as I mentioned, in my own journey, before I even really heard about where you were at, but the idea of being liked and caring a lot about my relationships and people. I would say, in my young 20s, just being very attentive to relationship and not maybe saying the thing that was hard, doing a lot of work to get to a place of speaking the honest and being committed to saying the honest, but I’d do it in a very diplomatic way. This whole journey around owning and honoring and setting boundaries, and doing it in a way that’s relational. But I still tend, I think on the spectrum, to err a little diplomatic. So even now, at 48, been with my husband for 17 years — we’ve worked these principles, we’re committed to growth — I still will say something, and I’m learning to say the ugly and the vulnerable way. So I’m not attacking him in an ugly way, but I’m saying something that feels just like bleh, and he’s hearing it for the first time.

You’re like, “What? I’ve said this a hundred times!” Yes, that’s absolutely right, and thank you so much for highlighting that. Be Difficult isn’t about saying everything so perfectly, that they will immediately see your point-of-view, and no feelings will be hurt, and everything will be perfect. I think people really tie themselves into knots, around some idea that there is some perfect path through the obstacles where no one will be upset. That is an absolute fantasy, absolutely not! There’s a bunch of tools, one I give clients all the time is just to narrate what’s happening for you. Like, that’s a very good way, not to go on the attack, but also to say the ugly, like you’re saying. Like, “When I heard you say that to your brother, I felt like I was going to start to cry. That hurts so much. It felt like such a betrayal to share that information, and I just need you to know how much that hurt me.” That will hurt to hear. He might be or she might be like, “But I did it, you misheard.” But then you just have to go past that. Then it’s like, “You are not responding to my feelings. You are being defensive, and you’re not responding to my feelings, and I want to share my experience with you.” Then very often, there can be an exhale, and there could be more hopefully of a coming together. 

Then there’s all this, I think, self-help — which I totally love, I wrote a book on self-help — but there can be jargon, I think around responsibility, like you are responsible for your experience. 

“Of course we’re responsible for how we act, we’re responsible for the lives that we create, and how we engage. But we can’t use that to shut ourselves down and not share what’s going on with ourselves.”

I think, to be relational, a word you used earlier, to be relational is to be vulnerable, and to have a life that we’re co-creating with this other person. Sometimes I think it can get a little too far about taking care of your own feelings all the time. Like, okay, but you’re allowed to share your feelings as well, and be seen in the way that we’re talking about.

Right. Well, let’s pivot towards some of what people are combating. Because as I mentioned, for myself, some of the messaging around what it means to be a woman, I know that seems so archaic. I mean, it still exists, and it was inside me, whether or not I like it or not, it was operating in me. I’m just curious what you’re finding. Even what you just mentioned ties really beautifully, with podcasts and books and people wanting to be more skillful, that that can also run the risk of damping down or diluting it so much that we’re actually not necessarily being difficult, in your language. So talk to us about what people typically have to work with here to overcome, or even become conscious about, or come back to and enter into a little bit more of this honesty and authenticity. 

That’s great. I love the word diluting, because I was thinking of that before when talking about “I have said this to him.” 

“Sometimes we’re so careful about saying it, it’s so, so diluted that it isn’t coming across at all. Then we feel like we’ve taken an emotional risk, we’ve made a bid, and it’s been rejected.”

So then we give up, and then this leads to all the problems we’ve been discussing.

Accommodating, being overly-accommodating, I think is something that I do think women are really encouraged to do, to be this kind of cool girl where nothing bothers you. I laugh with clients all the time about this myth. I’m 49. Well, actually I’m 48, I’ll be 49. It’s like, how old am I? I don’t how it was for you around. But I remember in college being said you were low-maintenance. Like, you didn’t want to be a high-maintenance girl, you wanted to be a low-maintenance girl. I totally bought into that as like, “I’m no trouble, I’m low-maintenance.” Now I’m appalled! It’s like, lawn can be low-maintenance, cars can be low-maintenance. People should not be low-maintenance. This idea of “want nothing, need nothing,” the idea that that is the feminine ideal is tragic. I hope that that is changing. I think we see a lot with younger generations feeling much more entitled to ask for what they want, and of course, every older generation complains about younger generations doing that. But I think it’s amazing and great, the sense of assertiveness, I think that often we’re seeing in younger women. But that said, when I sent in my manuscript, I heard from an editor and an agent, because the book is aimed at people around our age, but everyone was saying: “No, this is good for my daughter.” I thought: “Oh, no! Because your daughter is in her 20s, I thought that they were going to do better than we did.” But I think that it runs deep, this idea of making other people happy, and having to fix yourself in order to be sort of acceptable and presentable to the world. I think that these gender paradigms have deep, deep, deep roots. 

It’s funny. So I have a son and a daughter, and my daughter is 13. Of course, she’s been raised in this household. We’re talking constantly about egalitarian gender roles, but also, the fluidity of gender roles and sexuality. Still, I find often, she really over-accommodates, in ways that my son does not do. It’s like, well, good for him. But I think, once again, somehow, it’s in the water. It’s very tough to root out. I do this work all day where I’m talking to women about “Say what needs to be said!” I work with couples all the time, where I see these beautiful relationships blossom once there’s a lot of honesty and a lot of being really open to the other person’s experience. Yet, I go home and struggle with it myself. So just to say to everybody, I mean, we’re all in it together. I’m a fellow traveler. This stuff, it’s deep, and it takes time. But we can make incremental steps and keep working on our own Be Difficult mantra.

Yeah. I realized, I would love to ask you more before we run out of time with you, what would you like to share? You gave some five marks in the beginning around what being difficult requires. But I also want to just give a little more room for what you’re encouraging. I know we’re not going to do it full justice, but any part that you want to share with us in this conversation that give people something to work with or implement or practice.

Sure. So kind of a starting point is to be clear, both on what your values are and your own sense of worthiness. The idea of being kind of same as, so that there’s not someone superior in the relationship and there’s not someone inferior. That we’re both flawed loving human beings, having a human experience, doing the best we can. That is not what is reflected to us very much in the culture. It can be very much this shame/grandiosity paradigm that we see reflected all the time in a lot of our relationships. So first off, is just to say, to work on, if that’s a core vulnerability, a sense of unlovability or unworthiness, to really start there. Of course, I’m a big proponent of therapy. But also, you can do journaling around this, you can challenge your thoughts when you’re noticing that mean part of you attacking you, you can just think about seeing yourself through the eyes of a friend who loves you and believes in you, and to try and challenge that voice that tells us that we aren’t a worthy person unless we’re over-accommodating and being perfect and paying our way all the time. That’s one piece. 

Another is being pretty clear on what your values are, and this shifts over time. I have a values exercise actually on my website, TonyaLester.com, and there’s a whole section in the book about values. But understanding who you are really does go a long way to not letting your own values go to take on another person’s, which I think does lead to a real imbalance in the relationship, and leads often to someone waking up midlife and going: “These are not my values! This is not the life I want to be living, and I don’t like this at all.” So to have an idea of what those are, and to be sharing them with other people, and making sure that what you care about always has a seat at the table, is very, very important. That is the part I think of as sort of being seen. So you know who you are, you’re seen by yourself, and then you can be seen by other people. 

Then, speaking honestly. I can narrate my experience, and I can own that. I can make requests, not demands. But I can make requests of other people and my partner. There are so many versions of this, but the one that I use all the time is like, “I notice, I imagine, I feel, I need.” So I notice is just what you see, the objective truth that would pass in a court of law. Like, this is actually what happened, everyone would agree on it. I imagine is the story that I’m telling myself about it, which is where all the juice is, of course. Because we’re constantly telling ourselves a story and projecting that on to other people, and they’re doing it with us, and this is just how our brains work. So we want to take responsibility for what we’re projecting and share it. So I imagine. I feel, of course, is what feeling comes up, and I need is your request. That can be a very safe structure for some of these hard conversations. That one person can say it and then the other person can, and you can just sit with it right there for a while; nothing needs to happen. There probably will need to be many conversations, as you said earlier. If it’s important, it’s probably going to evolve, and there will be many, many conversations, not one big one. So that is the honesty piece. 

Then the final thing is to be courageous. Like, it takes courage to put pressure on the system this way, and we’re doing it because we believe in ourselves, we believe in our partner, and we believe in the possibility of a deepened relationship, and that we don’t want to settle for anything different than. So that’s how I think about the three parts of being difficult.

It’s interesting, as I hear you describe, this could keep someone busy to really enter into this in a real connected way to make this conscious. So even the first, as I heard, of looking at leveling the playing field. Yes, we all have unique talents and gifts and strengths. But when we’re talking about value of personhood, it reminds me of Terry Real, he’s really calling out a lot of the competitiveness, and maybe even patriarchal one-up/one-down, and how pervasive it is. So oftentimes, people will go to a social gathering, and it’s so habituated to size up. Like, who’s this, who’s got that, who’s this, based on societal value system of fitness or money or hair, all these things. Like you said, the air that we’re breathing and the water we’re drinking, it’s such a part. So to make conscious, and spend time to really look at how we value ourselves. I think that was the bigger picture you’re trying to really hold space for. That with the age of social media and comparison, how easily one might feel inadequate. That if we’re being held by a loving person, like a best friend, or someone who is so, so dear to us, how they would reflect our value or goodness and our strengths, and how important that is. 

I also heard you talk about values. I remember David Bach, he wrote Smart Couples Finish Rich, and he talked about doing these workshops, and people are able to really be super-clear and conscious about the things they want. But he says, largely, our values don’t change over our lifetime. It’s something we’re pretty convicted around, but oftentimes aren’t super-connected to and aware of. So if we can make decisions and orient our life in service of those values, that we don’t get to a midlife and be like, “I want to throw this all out!”

Yeah, the money piece is interesting, and I have something to say about the worthiness piece as well. But you want to know what values you’re living, look at your bank account and your calendar. This is the evidence. These are our resources, our time and our money; our time is more valuable. If you say your kids are the most important, what does your calendar look like? Or if you say you’re trying to reach some goals, it’s like, check that out. Because there’s data, actually. That doesn’t have to be in our head, but there’s hard data to look at. So do identify the values and make sure that they’re reflected in the way that you’re living. I think there’s a lot of people who are like, “I don’t care about this big house, I want to travel. Or I don’t care about having things be really clean, I want three dogs.” It’s like, we have to know what those are before we can live them. So that is so important. 

I’ve studied with Terry Real, and I love him, and I love his work, and so much of my thinking around shame and grandiosity is based on his work. So I feel like I should have shouted him out earlier, and so happy you brought him up. This idea I learned from Terry, and I love it, that if we have a scale, where grandiosity is at the top, and shame is at the bottom, nobody wants to feel shame; shame feels terrible. It actually feels pretty good to be grandiose, at least in the short-term. Until our partner calls us out on it, and then that feels terrible. But oftentimes, grandiosity is how we’re trying to get rid of the shame. 

“People will bounce back and forth between shame and grandiosity, that’s a very hard personality to work with, because we need to land at this “same as” in order to be able to hear our partner. Like, humble enough to hear, and grounded enough to speak. So we really want to land at that middle ground.”

If you’re grandiose, it’ll be hard for you to hear. If you’re ashamed, it will be hard for you to speak. If we don’t have the worthiness piece, to connect it back around, then we’re always going to be looking for worthiness mirrored to us in others. Think of how people-pleasing we’ll have to be then. Think of how hard it will be to put pressure on the system then. If all of our worth is what is being reflected back to us, then we can’t speak up, because too risky.

Wow, thank you for so much knowledge you are dropping on us here! I love that teaching, thank you for making that so crystal clear. I’ll make sure to just help people have some access to some links, to help towards your work and your book, and I’ll also put Terry on there as well. I also heard you speak about this language and format to help have these honest conversations, that gives some structure to identifying this inner world that can often feel like it’s all colliding and we can’t tease it out. So to have some organization helps us start to deal with it, and I love that. Do you want to respond to that at all?

I think there’s safety in structure. So the “I notice, I imagine, I feel, I need,” I learned actually when I was trying to do group work, I’m not even exactly sure where that comes from. But Terry has the feedback loop, and there’s a lot of different structures that are useful. I think when you’re getting your sea legs with having these conversations, I think it can be useful, if you feel nervous to talk to your partner and say that you’re going to do this. You both can write it down ahead of time, if it feels overwhelming to say something on the fly, and you can read it. I think there’s so much safety in the structure. 

Couples’ therapy, I think, benefits from the structure. Like, we know we’re going to go into this room and have hard conversations, and there’s a container, and we can brace ourselves a little bit, we know what’s going to happen. I suggest to people all the time that actually, whether they’re in therapy or not, you can create that space. You can sit down on a Sunday with your coffee and say: “Okay, we’re going to talk about hard things, and we’re going to do it in a gentle manner. But we’re going to really say the truth here.” Then we’ll do that for an hour and then we’ll leave, go about our day. In that way also, there’s not the pressure of saying everything immediately, which some people are like, mind doesn’t work that quickly and that feels so overwhelming to do. Or if they feel like because their partner is so lightning quick in an argument, that they feel overwhelmed. We can put structures in place that can address a lot of those fears that so many of us have.

Yes. That’s the thing I was feeling as you were talking, is the ability to slow down and have some regulation as we move through. There’s no reason to approach a hard conversation with this urgency that then often will get us into that dysregulation, or feel as though we’re moving so fast. That we can set it up with some of this, it gives us a little more ground. 

Don’t blurt it out, or have it come out in a way that is terrible. Then you think: “Oh, no, how am I going to walk that back?” Or the whole conversation gets derailed because it came out in this way. 

“It’s like, we can throw a hand grenade, and that will create an honest conversation. Or we can sit down with our coffee, and we can do it this other way.”

Exactly. So to your final point around putting pressure on the system, what I was hearing in that is, what you were referring to, that this has deep roots. As we evolve and grow and do our work, that we not only help raise our interactions with others, whether or not we’re parenting or in intimate relationship, or whomever we’re relating to, we’re actually bringing a vibration that’s evolving hopefully, probably in the way that we’re talking. Does that challenge the system? Talk to us a little bit about what’s this putting pressure on the system.

Yeah. So I’m a relationship therapist, and certainly, that’s my purview. But that said, think of what the world would be like if everybody did this in a responsible way. Think about what it would be like if no one saw anyone as one-up or one-down, that we were all collaborators, and that it was normal to call out injustice and unfair treatment, and that it was expected that people be treated as the worthy beings that we are. How seismic that would be, politically, internationally! Like, what that would be like, that everyone is worthy; deserving of help, deserving of love, deserving of finding their potential and their contribution to the world. So certainly, this is the world I want to live in. 

I have a very, very busy practice. I have two kids. I have a full life, and I wanted to write this book. So one of my girlfriends was like, why are you going to take this on right now? The truth is, this is my contribution to the world that I want to see. That’s it. I think that the fabric of society is loving relationships, in whatever way that that looks. So if we are starting with that at home, and then the circle widens in our social circle, and then our work circle, and then how we look at other people and how we believe we deserve to be treated — same as, not better, not worse — and to get real about a lot of the kind of… I might’ve swore, but I’ll try not to. Well, a lot of the bullshit expectations that we have of both genders, and have a little bit more questioning of that. That’s the world that I want to live in, and to me, it starts with these relationships.

Yeah, me too. I’m like, yes, please! I mean, there’s so many times I’ve had some thought about, whether or not it’s couples’ therapy or family therapy, but that being a part of these bigger global conversations with deciding people making big decisions, with conflicts. I’m like, why don’t we have that, that would be so helpful.

Thank you so much, Tonya. This has been such a treat, and I so appreciate just your willingness to weave together so many things for us to think about, the impact, and then also give us real clear structure for us to work with and implement. How can people find your book, what would you like to share around that?

The book won’t be out until next year, so maybe I can come back. Then my website is TonyaLester.com. I just put a quiz up there that I hope people find valuable, about are you the good kind of difficult? So there’s that, and there’s tons of resources, and my blog is there. I also have a blog on Psychology Today. Lastly, I’ve been doing a tonne of videos on Instagram. So I’ve gotten over my fear of Instagram, and hopefully, I’m creating some valuable content on there. So that’s @TonyaLesterPsychotherapy. 

Okay, great. Well, I’ll make sure to have these links on today’s show notes. Tonya, it sounds like if someone’s interested in being on your list, I imagine, they can take the quiz. Is the quiz giving somebody an assessment tool to work with where they’re falling on this being difficult scale?

Yeah, it is. So we have low-maintenance or impossible, which we don’t want to have. That’s the kind of grandiosity piece. So there’s the assessment, and then we’ll point you in the direction of some resources that I think might be helpful based on where you are.

Great. Then also, being in the loop around when your book is actually going live, and then being acquainted with what you have to offer in the blogs and the videos. I do appreciate your articulation and what you’re bringing to us. I’m sure people will be checking you out and connecting with you. Again, thank you for joining us.

Thank you so much for having me. This has been great. I really appreciate it! Take care.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching