From Me to We: When Perspective is Key

Sashi Gerzon-Rose, MA, LPC

PACT Level 1 

In Japanese, the phrase sottaku doji means “simultaneously pecking from inside and outside.” Zen Buddhism uses this as a metaphor for the relationship between teacher and student; the student is pecking from the inside, and the teacher from the outside at the shell of the student’s limited understanding and ability to perceive the true nature of reality. 

With a deep bow to the wisdom of that lineage, I suggest we borrow this image to better understand the process of change and transformation in general. Does change occur from the outside in, using external behaviors to alter one’s internal state? Or, does it originate from the inside out, changing one’s mindset to support choosing new behaviors?

Just as in the pecking metaphor, the short answer is both; we need upgraded, more effective behaviors as well as internal meaning-making shifts. And, particularly in the case of successfully shifting relational patterns, perspective leads the way.

Let’s examine this hypothesis more closely through the example of a real-life couple.

Kate and Simon, a couple I’d been seeing for about a month, are arguing about who is doing more of the household chores. (Research shows that statistically, each partner tends to think they are doing 60 percent of the household work. You don’t need to be a mathematician to know there’s something wrong with that equation). 

As they recount a recent fight they’d gotten into, Kate shrugs and says, “I knew that I shouldn’t have raised my voice like that — I was watching myself do it in the moment, but I couldn’t stop myself. No, it’s not even that. It’s not that I couldn’t, it’s that I didn’t want to.” 

Why wouldn’t Kate want to show up for the fight the way she knew she “should” — the way she knew would practically help the relationship’s success for resolution? Why would she choose to punish her partner rather than play fair? 

It’s simple. Kate was under stress and, in that moment, old ways of perceiving were guiding her experience. On a fundamental level she was experiencing herself as separate and under attack by her partner, rather than in a temporary squabble with someone who was on her team. Because of this perception of separateness and threat, her defense system kicked in and she responded accordingly. 

Enter the Adult Brain

Let’s examine this a bit further and look through the lenses of biology and attachment theory.

We know that when the sympathetic nervous system gets activated — aka fight-or-flight — we instantly lose connection to the prefrontal cortex (PFC) — aka the adult brain, the part of the brain responsible for abstract thought, creativity, logic, and reason. When this happens, we get tunnel vision and we prepare for battle. We literally forget that we like the person in front of us — that this person is friend, not foe. Our attention becomes hyper-focused on the moment at hand, and our long-term plans to create and sustain a life with this person go out the window. 

Mindfulness (curious, non-judgmental present-moment awareness) has been shown to strengthen the connection between the limbic system (where fight-or-flight gets activated) and the PFC, which means we have a better chance of staying conscious and not getting hijacked during moments of high activation — but being mindful won’t mean anything if we are not on board with why we are doing it. 

Back to Kate. Based on her response, it sounds like her PFC was, in fact, online. She had the awareness that she was about to yell, she just couldn’t convince herself not to. Restraining ourselves, by the way, means giving up the immediate dopamine hit of gratification in the moment for the delayed gratification that comes only if and when resolution has occurred.

Enter Perspective 

Attachment theory suggests that our earliest experiences in relationship form an internal schema or blueprint that becomes the basis for all other relationships throughout our lives. It creates a filter (perspective) through which we see, feel, expect, and know love to be, on the most unconscious, basic level — a level so basic that we cannot conceive of it feeling any other way.

Imagine for a moment that you grew up in a family system where your parents were fundamentally kind, loving, and consistent. Your feelings, thoughts, and input were valued. Through big gestures of protection as well as small repeated moments, you learned that the world around you was generally safe, people were mostly loving and reasonable, and you mattered as a part of a larger ecosystem. Your blueprint for relationship would be one of care, mutuality, and earned trust. 

As an adult, you’d be more likely to approach adult relationships from a ground of security and connection, where the tendency would be to relate to your partner in a way that recognized you two were on the same team.

Now imagine you grew up in an environment that was sometimes kind and sometimes cruel. Love was something you had to earn by being good, and if you messed up, it would be withdrawn. Sometimes you felt safe and sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes someone was there to help you and sometimes there was no one. Sometimes you experienced your boundaries invaded and coped as best you could. 

Your blueprint for relationship would be more complicated; there’d be a fundamental desire for connection but also a simultaneous push against it because you would know it to be both supportive and threatening.

You’d be more likely to show up for adult relationships with an unconscious bias toward separateness or from a fundamental experience of others as a potential threat, particularly in moments of stress and conflict.

If the second example resonates more than the first as your lived experience, fear not. 

Enter Pecking 

When we come from insecure attachment as a result of how we grew up, the baseline is, essentially, that relationships (both romantic and platonic) are often anxiety-producing. Because our system is so organized around scanning for threat, we often forget the practical gifts of having someone on our team. Loss and pain are unavoidable parts of life; parents will die, bodies inevitably age, jobs are temporary. In addition to having fun and loving a partner, it’s a practical gift to have someone to navigate the sometime treacherous terrain of reality with. 

When we act as if we can pick and choose the moments we are kind to our partners and the moments we throw them under the bus, we are kidding ourselves. When we undermine our partners, we undermine the relationship and, by proxy, ourselves. When the relationship thrives, we thrive. When the relationship is destabilized, we get destabilized. 


Enter Care

Simply put: when one’s felt experience is being an integral part of something bigger, care for that system naturally arises. When care arises, behaviors that are kind, compassionate, and responsive to the whole organically occur. 

If your right hand gets infected, your whole body is impacted. Knowing this as an experiential truth is very different than knowing it as a concept; and the more we practice it, the more ingrained it becomes for us. 

How do we implement this knowledge? By reminding ourselves of it every day, especially when it’s hard. The next time your partner does something that irritates you, remind yourself that how you respond to them impacts you. The next time you are serving dessert, practice giving them the prettiest piece of the pie, because when you feed them, you feed the relationship, which includes you. And the next time you feel scared or alone, try going to them for support, because you don’t have to figure it out all alone; that’s what you’ve earned. Peck away at the old paradigm of looking out for number one and move toward a warmer climate of interconnectedness. 

My Zen teacher once said something I’ll never forget: “We usually come from a ground of separateness, and so we marvel when we experience unity. What if it was the opposite; what if we came from a perspective of connection, so that when it arose, we could marvel at difference?”

So we peck every day in small moments and larger ones, to break through the shell of separateness and into a greater sense of self; one that includes our relationship and our partner, so that we may rest in the security of connection and marvel at the experience of separation and difference when it arises.


50% Complete

Two Step

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.