“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)