“Self, Other, We.” Part 5: The Vacillator

“Self, Other, We.”
Part 5: The Vacillator

At the end of his day, Steven bounded through the door, excited to see his wife Kathy. He could hardly wait for a big hug and kiss. But upon entering, he suddenly found himself overtaken by a deep dread and disappointment. Kathy’s eyes were fixed upon their newborn who had just awakened from a nap. “Well hello there precious!” Kathy said smiling. A minute later with her eyes still focused on the baby, she said “Hey Steven” over her shoulder.

Instead of celebrating the arrival of their newborn, Steven watched her for another few moments and when he concluded Kathy was “too busy” to turn around and acknowledge him, he let out a sigh and in a disgusted tone said, “I remember when you used to talk to me like that!” Caught off guard, Kathy’s happy mom moment vanished into thin air and her blood ran cold as fear gripped her… yet again.

Self: As with the pleaser, Vacillators are inherently very insecure at their core. Like the pleaser, they have an insatiable desire for accolades and affirmations. But instead of feeling fear like the Pleaser, they feel anger toward the “other person who made me feel this way.” Additionally, because of not being seen (some form of abandonment) early in their lives, they suffer from intense shame which comes from childhood experiences in which they felt personally rejected by their caregiver. While Steven is absolutely convinced Kathy caused him to feel dread and disappointment, the reality is that Kathy only triggered an old theme inside Steven… if I don’t feel seen and adored by you, I feel horrible and you’re to blame. The reality is we all experience the averted gaze of others. To a secure person, its normal and natural and they can easily tolerate others being interested in something else besides them. To the Vacillator, they are immediately dysregulated. Self is not strong enough to stand alone.

Other: Vacillators can be summarized then as:

  1. Having an excessive need for “other” to see and adore them.
  2. Are easily dysregulated by “other’s” response or lack thereof,
  3. Universally believe that “other” is to blame for how they feel.
  4. Are preoccupied with “others” as they are constantly watching, observing and hyper-analyzing every move and gesture to “guess” whether what they’ve seen is friendly or hostile, accepting or rejecting, welcoming, or dismissing. While their conclusions are most often inaccurate, they remain convinced they are right and other is wrong.

We: As we can observe from Steven’s response to Kathy, “we” is either the most exciting wonderful thing in the whole world or it’s the worst. “We” is either all good or all bad. When triggered (a current event pulls up historical pain which magnifies the present situation) the Vacillator’s feelings of rejection and shame are so overwhelming that they are involuntarily overtaken and held hostage by dark and depressing emotions. When this happens, they pull away emotionally and lash out at the other person believing they are responsible in total for their misery and must be punished, corrected, and reprimanded for their behavior.

The backlash is always out of proportion to the incident and the bad mood can last for days as the Vacillator retreats to review and rehearse the hurtful exchange. While their historical attachment wounds are lost on them, they walk through life chronically hurt by others and after being hurt by a person “for the last time” they drop the relationship and move on to a new relationship where there is no history of hurts and they start all over again. Their string of broken relationships is always the fault of others, for their core of shame acts as an invisible shield preventing them from attributing any fault to themselves.

Growth goals: I love Vacillators and have deep empathy for them. We receive letters and e-mails weekly from Vacillators who upon hearing this information feel understood for the first time in their lives. “This explains my life! Thank you!” Here are a few growth goals that will start your journey toward earned secure attachment.

  • Accept the fact that you have a wound and your reactivity is not healthy.
  • Believe that you were not responsible for your attachment injury… others were. But keep in mind that this is not to blame them but rather to explain your reactivity.
  • Decide that you want to become a voting member in your life’s formation and development. When you were little you didn’t have a vote. You weren’t seen! But now as an adult or teen you can begin casting votes and making decisions that will change your destiny. Over time, you can become a different person with healthier and happier relationships.
  • Face and grieve the losses in your childhood. Allow your anger and sadness to be focused in the past rather than upon present relationships.
  • Learn to tell your spouse / friend that you are triggered and ask to be seen, acknowledged, and heard. Asking is hard for Vacillators because it feels second best. “If you loved me, you would just know what I need.” This is a childlike wish that makes asking for things very hard for the Vacillator. Learning to ask for what we want is a key for healthy adult relationships. No friend or spouse is a mind reader.
  • Learn to integrate good and bad to find the healthy middle. When Steven came home, he was interrupting a special moment between two other family members. He must learn to wait his turn, allow love to be given to others, and enjoy the time with Kathy when the baby is asleep and they have time to re-connect.

Reread the Vacillator chapter in our book How We Love and start working through the How We Love Workbook chapters 1-4 and 7.

Blessings on your journey of love,
Milan (for Milan & Kay)


13 Responses to ““Self, Other, We.” Part 5: The Vacillator”

Hello, I was given your book by a counselor and it is helping tremendously. I do have a problem, I am in a relationship with an avoider and I am a vacillator. I feel more in control of myself than ever. Learning to see the emotions under the anger. The problem is with my avoider girlfriend who lists other issues as a problem between us but says that I have shown her what it is to be loved an appreciated by someone, but wants to break up. I have read your book and have given her a copy which she has started reading and identified herself as the avoider. I am trying to talk her into doing the circle but meeting a lot of resistance. Any thoughts?

Yes…let her go. One of the most important traits you can look for in a person is the willingness to grow. No one is perfect and each person contributes to relationship difficulties in their own way. If they don’t want to see and work on their part then you are stuck with the avoider traits as they are now for the rest of the relationship. Look for a partner who is willing to grow and see their part.

Hi Kay,
I’m in a 4 year relationship with an avoider. I am in counseling. My couselor consistently ask me: “Eric, what’s in this for you?” I have to muster the courage to accept my role and move on.
When I read the materials, I too was stunned at the clarity and insight you provide. Please pray for me.

Anyone you are in a relationship with will probably have some injury. The question is will they own their part and work on their part. Ownership and taking responsibility for one’s history and it’s impact on the present is a very important trait in yourself and in the person you choose to date. Thanks for writing and I’m praying for you as I close. Blessings k

Hi Kay, what is the best way to approach a vacillator about going to see a counselor? since they concluded that it’s not their fault but it’s all their spouse’s fault. Sincerely, Danny the pleaser

Tell her you are as frustrated by your core pattern as she is but you want both of you to go to counseling so that the therapist can get a clear perspective. Make sure you pick a counselor that specializes in couples and uses attachment theory as a theoretical orientation. WE believe a directive therapist is best that will take charge of of the session otherwise the vacillator can tend to run the session. Pleasers give in easily so be firm and unmovable. Hope this helps. Kay

Hi Milan and Kay,
I am the vacillator in my relationship and my boyfriend is an avoider. We are willing to grow. We have been dating for a year. By that time I met him, he was going with a counselor who gave him your book. My boyfriend gave me a copy of your book as soon as we started dating (which I started to read but didn’t finish just until few weeks ago). Later on, I started to see that counselor one-one sections. We did few couple sections. I am from another country and I planned to visit my family and then return to U.S.A. but for external reasons I needed to stay in my country. That happened three months ago. Because we left things unresolved, we could still “hurt” each other even for Skype. Eventually, our counselor advised us to stop talking and start to work on ourselves. For me all this situation has been so difficult and you are right when you say “I want you but I’m mad at you for making me wait.” I am about to start to work on HWL workbook. I would like to know how can I stop blaming him for what I am feeling?

I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest to leave things unresolved. Long distance relationships are very difficult. Is he ending the relationship? I’m confused.

Hi Kay,
No, he did not break the relationship, neither do I. But we don’t communicate often, we can communicate only by emails (a suggestion of our counselor). Doing the HWL workbook has helped me a lot to understand why I act the way I do. At least, I am starting to see my part of the relationship, my steps in our unhealthy dance. He has mentioned several times that I hit him with my words and aggressive communication, he compared me with a abusive man who hits a women. I can understand now why he says that. I’ve tried to listen to him (once again by emails), I have tried to ask him about his feelings when I am abusive with my words. When I ask him questions such as if he felt those feelings when he was growing up, he gets defensive and says that the problem is not in his past but mine. I know that he had an abusive father but he doesn’t like to talk/feel/think about that. Indeed, one day he said that his childhood was a nightmare. Lately, I’ve realized that “I statements” are very important when communicating feelings and needs instead of “you statements”. As a vacilator in grow, I’ve started to use “I statements”. My boyfriend still uses “you statements” and I am trying to tell him to use “I statements”, there is another battle. He continues blame me for the problems of our relationship even if I have asked for forgiveness and I’ve repented. For now, I will continue working on myself and continure growing.

Hi Key,
I’ve been married for 26 years to an avoider.
How can I motivate him to go to a marriage workshop or a Weekend to Remember weekend, or anything that helps marriage — he says he sees no need for such a thing.
Thank you!

So sorry. Avoiders don’t see a need becasue they were raised in homes that didn’t have any idea of how to give their kids emotional connection. It’s hard to want something you never got and don’t know is missing. Ask him to read the chapter of HWL that is about you. Or read a few sections to him and ask him if that sounds like you. Then read a few sections about the avoider. Hoping you might get a little interest. Keep praying. Kay

This is good but I am still having problems with anxiety to a point that I have acid reflux and I can barely sleep and I am trying so hard to be present for our son but it’s not helping all I do is end up on my phone, in my head, picking my fingers to thoughts, and just sleeping.

You may need some medical help. Anxiety that keeps you from sleeping is too much anxiety to fight on your own. Please see your doctor and ask what options you have to lower the anxiety. Problems with sleeping can indicate low levels of serotonin which is a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps us feel joy. Ruminating can also be an indicator of low serotonin. I love your sweet heart to try and be present for your son. Please get some help. It can make such a difference. Sometimes anxiety runs in families and their may be a biochemical aspect to the anxiety.
Try and do some introspection as to when the anxiety started and what seems to trigger it. Try to stop the ruminating by a healthy distraction…like singing to music. I hope this helps. Blessings, Kay

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