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Unicorns and Lions

For some time now I’ve thought of myself as a bit of a unicorn, but now I know that I am.

I’ve recently read ‘The Dance of the Lion and the Unicorn’ by Mark Waller, PhD, and it’s been such an eye-opener for me. So much so that I’ve encouraged others to read it, and even bought a second copy to pass around to people.

Written by a marriage and family therapist, it’s a book aimed at providing the reader insights into their relationships, but primarily through insights into themselves. It offers simplicity by categorising people as being either a Lion (L) or a Unicorn(U), and stating that you’re fundamentally one or the other – it’s something you’re born as, not made into.

The most obvious distinction when attempting to identify between L’s and U’s can be seen from initial reaction – do you either approach or withdraw when exposed to external stimulation? L’s have a bias towards activating the Sympathetic Nervous System (which excites and drives the heart to beat faster); U’s, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (which inhibits, slows down the heart). Due of the fundamental differences between L’s and U’s they have differing needs to be satisfied: U’s care about one thing primarily – safety; for L’s – approval.

(Whilst certain traits can be considered as either stereotypically ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ energies, it’s important that note that the L and U temperaments do not track gender – you can equally have a male U and female L as you can female U and male L.)

Our relationships are a reliving of the unmet emotional pain we experienced during the first relationship with our chosen parental figure (typically the one withholding approval for L’s, and the ‘in your face’ one for U’s (eg raging father, emotionally needy mother)). We deal with this pain using defensive behaviour that we learned during that first relationship to ‘protect’ us. For U’s it’s a protection from fear of rejection (which underlies fear of failure and conflict) by using avoidance; for L’s its protection from shame using anger. ‘Fear of rejection’, and ‘feeling rejectable’ are two very different things. One is rooted in fear or lack of safety, the other in shame or lack of value/approval: U’s look at world through a lens of fear; L’s, through shame. Because of these differing lenses, L’s see everything personally - that nobody loves them, nobody cares, and that life is a struggle for recognition and acceptance; whereas for U’s, life it chaotic and overwhelming, and a constant struggle to find peace and safety. For me, reading this was a huge revelation. I realised that most of my actions were driven by a sense of fear (once I really drilled down do it), and I couldn’t remember the last time I had a sense of shame. I’d just assumed that everyone had been viewing the world through a lens of fear as I had - it never occurred to me that shame is what someone else may have been feeling where I’d felt fear. Fear and shame aren’t the root causes though - they’re a response to external stimuli. Actions come from feelings/emotions, which originate from thoughts. But often these thoughts are skewed by our perception, the filter of our past traumas. In a relationship, rather than responding mindfully to something our partner does we react using our defensive behaviours - we bypass our Adult Brain and become slaves to our Child Brain, (subconsciously) seeing it as a repeat of that first relationship, and react how we did as children - (fundamentally) with either avoidance from U’s, or anger from L’s. As children we’re inquisitive and constantly learning from our experiences to develop our Child Brain and give us a template and reference points of how to react to new stimuli. However, as we develop into adults this results in us operating autonomously, in an unconscious state of being (which we inevitably encourage subsequent generations to behave). The implications of this with regards to adult relationships is that once the honeymoon period is over, when the novelty has worn off and you’re no longer actively trying to impress or keep the person interested, the functioning of the relationship is turned over to the Child Brain, and the true nature of the L’s and U’s emerge to battle it out as each subconsciously relives the pain of that first relationship. For example, in a relationship between person A and person B: an action by B causes A to behave defensively, which is perceived by B through their skewed perception of pain and triggers B’s defensive response, fuelling more pain from the distorted perceptions in A, which increases their defensive behaviour. It’s a circle of action and reaction that arises from perception rather than reality.

Every time I feel a reaction to something someone has said or done it’s because it has triggered an existing trauma within me. It’s not necessarily that the action or words were hurtful, or had malicious intent, but my perception and feelings that carry my pain cause me to instinctively behave defensively, as those are the responses I’ve learned to help protect me from feeling that pain from my past.

For L’s the perception is that nobody cares, and the feeling is a form of shame, usually rejection, causing them to feel such things as unloved, unacceptable, uncared for, unappreciated, and disregarded. U’s have the perception of anxiety or fear – ‘here we go again’, ‘walking on eggshells’, ‘nothing I do will work/is good enough’, causing them to feel a ‘threat of conflict/rejection/potential failure to make the other person happy’, resulting in feelings such as pressure, discomfort, emptiness, hollowness, fear, nervousness, sense of dread, and anxiety.

The author lists the main defensive behaviours or patterns exhibited as the: Achiever, Perfectionist, Workaholic, Know-It-All, Self-Reliant One, Caretaker, Pleaser, Worrier, Denier, Entitled One, Pseudo-Intellectual, Critic, ‘I’m Right’ One, Victim, Vigilant One, Passive Pessimist, Complainer, Defeated One.

As long as we live our lives on the autopilot of our Child Brain’s defensive behaviour responses we allow our past pain to colour every moment of our perception of life. Even though subconsciously we know the cost of living this way, most of the time we don’t seem to care, continuing to make the same mistakes, and our unconscious will do whatever it takes to shield us from our pain, including unhealthy, destructive behaviour, and blowing up our life if necessary.

Reading the book it didn’t take me long to realise that I’m a Unicorn. Not just from witnessing my everyday nature, but from taking the time to revisit my past relationships with this new insight and review just what was going on; it didn’t take me long to identify my patterns. For example, in one I definitely existed in a constant state of fear. I was so afraid that she would leave (abandon) me that I adopted the role of the Pleaser, and would try to do anything I could to make her happy, even at the expense of my own happiness (which of course isn’t a healthy place from which to operate, and most likely contributed to my entering a depressive state, as I ended up losing the sense of my own self-worth and identity – I attempted to validate myself through her approval of me, rather than through myself). Suffice to say the relationship eventually failed as I became a version of myself that drove her away as she also succumbed to her pain and defences.

The thing is, none of the above was apparent to me at the time - I had no idea that I was existing in fear, that I was behaving how I was, or that I wasn’t being true to me. With neither of us in a state of mindfulness we weren’t able to identify our own defensive behaviours, let alone each other’s, and look past those to the feelings driving them, and then to the unmet emotional pain that was their origin.

So, am I doomed to endlessly live repeating my habits, or is there a way to break free from this destructive cycle? No I'm not, and yes there is; the answer is to become more mindful. With regards to a framework to work towards this in a relationship the following steps are to be implemented:

  • Validate the other person’s feelings (not giving the other person permission or agreeing with them, but saying you truly understand their pain, how they’re feeling)

  • Accept their defensive behaviour

  • Take responsibility for our reactions and feelings

  • Ask our partner for help with our feelings and emotional needs

By accepting and taking responsibility one can create space for the other person to voluntarily change their behaviour.

To offer an example of how using the mindfulness and knowledge I’ve acquired since reading this book, I’ll detail something that happened recently:

Whilst with someone close to me they acted in a manner I wasn’t expecting, and as a result I became upset and withdrawn. (Sadly I was tired, hungry, and in an unexpected social situation, so the ability to remain in a state of self-awareness left me – it’s still a work in progress.) Luckily, and gratefully, we were both familiar with the ideas of this book and they were able to call me on my defensive behaviour (i.e. validate me). Communicating with me from a place of love, not fear, and because we know each other very well, I felt safe enough, and self-aware (once given time) to notice what I was doing. I was then able to accept my reaction as defensive behaviour, and delve into the feelings that caused it. I was able to confirm with them that what they had done wasn’t bad or wrong, but that it caused me to feel a certain way, which was all about me – I was able to take responsibility for my emotions, understand them as coming from within me and nothing to do with them. After taking some time to process within myself I was able to lean into my fear of withdrawal and actively asked them to help me better understand my emotions by talking about them and where I believed they originated. This isn’t something I’ve ever been able to do before, or been around someone mindful enough to join me on that journey. Whereas before I’d not have understood my behaviour, swallowed my pain in an attempt to avoid fear of rejection, and suffered a long internal (and subsequent external battle) over days, with subsequent similar events compounding until I either exploded or broke-down, I was able to find resolution and peace in a couple of hours, to let it go and move on. Taking the time to do my own work and be introspective, I’ve realised that (unbeknown to me) I’ve lived most of my life trying to be ‘the best’, and to please those around me, and that this has its origins in fear of failure, but ultimately fear of rejection. Being very honest, I think this comes from having a mother who was over-nurturing, and as a U who needs their space, it lead me to withdraw and become avoidant. And this is a pattern I’ve repeated in subsequent relationships - being overly placatable, only then to push the person away or withdraw, retreating to my own safe space.

I think that in every relationship, whether that be romantic, sexual, friendship, familial, etc., that even though the two people by nature are either a L or a U, depending on the interactions, events, and environmental factors that occur, one will eventually lean towards adopting the role of U, and the other L, in that relationship dynamic, whether that’s their nature or not. And because every relationship is different, I feel I can simultaneously be a U in a romantic relationship whilst being a L sexually in that same relationship, a U in a friendship, and a L in a second friendship. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, especially if aware of oneself and what’s going on, as even though I am by nature a U, I know I have the capacity to adopt the L role if the other person is even more U than me in our dynamic. The ability to become aware of my reactions has been the first step. Initially this was retrospectively (i.e. after I’ve reacted defensively), but with practice (which has been happening more regularly now) having the goal to eventually to be able to watch myself in real time as I feel emotional pain in response to external stimuli and (re)act defensively. Once I’m able to acknowledge my behaviour as defensive, I can then begin to witness the pain that underlies it, and accept its existence. The more I ignore it the more power I give it – by accepting it and owning it only then do I become whole and integrated. I can then take a step back and consider whether my perception was skewed or genuine from a more rational viewpoint, and reassess everything from a more mindful place. Even if can’t feel the feeling, studying the defence provides map to where feeling is.

Whilst this is all hugely beneficial and important for existing in a healthy relationship, or even just existing day-to-day healthily, I see this as triage; the real work is taking the time to investigate where these defences originated – looking back into the past and understanding myself better. And this is done through meditation. I believe the ability to withdraw from the distractions of the physical world and sit with myself to be such an important and powerful thing. Without this development of self-observation I’m just a prisoner of my past and bound by my automatic responses. But in a state where the mind is minding the mind I allow myself to not be consumed by fear, but instead to enjoy the experience of life from a more authentic place of compassion and true intimacy.

‘The more we become consciously present to our difficulty in being consciously present, the more present the difficulty becomes’ - James Finley, The Contemplative Heart

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