Working With Rigid Pursuers

Oh, Pursuers! I could spend every single supervision session on how to work with Pursuers. They are such a challenge for me, even though I am one. There is something about us kids that become perfectionistic and responsible, who learn how to stay safe by being really good at things, and who rarely mess up in life, that makes us so convicted that we’re justified in our behaviors. We’re great at many things but we are not so great at seeing how we contribute to the cycle. And when Pursuers comes from childhood trauma, and didn't get their needs met, I think it can create more rigidity in their cycle. I've had some more rigid pursuers lately, and they are the toughest of the tough for me. 

I try to remind myself, sometimes hourly, that Pursuers don’t really soften until Stage 2. But we have to help them soften a little, and do Step 2 in Stage 1 successfully, and that requires a little movement and self-awareness from them. And since I haven’t done much Stage 2 work, I really don’t have the lived experience of them softening to help me trust the process. They do eventually soften, right?

Here’s my current process with rigid Pursuers:

  • REALLY REALLY validating the secondary emotion – “That would be so difficult to feel like you don’t think she cares that you’re hurting,” “It would be so confusing and frustrating to feel like no matter how many times you talk, you don’t think she really understands you.”
  • Gently looking at Step 2 and seeing their action tendency. “What do you do next?” (this is where they might start the jack hammer interrogation of their partner who is slowly being nailed into the floor, but in EFT language, we might phrase this as “repeatedly ask questions?” or “explain what you need over and over?”)
  • Slowly, slowly touch the primary emotion, and link it back to the cycle. “Ohh, so deep down, inside, you’re feeling this panic in this moment that she might leave you, but on the outside you express this intense frustration, and then that’s when you start asking questions over and over?”
  • Help them hear from the Withdrawer what it’s like for them when they do the repeated questions or stern demands.

What I see is that the Pursuer can do all these steps, but like a rubber band comes quickly back to his/her stance. They can fixate on their partner’s behavior, and so come back to, “yeah, that’s how it happens, and so she/he needs to change this x.y.z behavior because I feel bad about it!” And they don’t seem to see their action step as problematic, simply as justified, based on their partner’s actions. I would expect this in the first 5 or 6 sessions, but after 6 months it’s really tough to see some not connect with their action step as being part of what negatively fuels the cycle. This is where I put my head in my hands and start sinking into some despair. And think I am the woooooorrrst therapist ever. Surely everyone else is easily melting their rigid Pursuers into puddles of warmth like a blow dryer on an icicle. 

If the Pursuer doesn’t ever own that their action tendency is problematic, can we really do a fruitful Step 3, or does it just make it seem like I’m validating their action tendency? If a Pursuer doesn’t see their action step as negatively contributing to the cycle, then I’m afraid they won’t experience the impact of Step 3.

What I might say summarizing the cycle after Step 3:

“Oh, so am I getting all this right? You get panicky in that moment that you might lose your partner, and that’s when you come in and repeatedly ask questions. That makes so much sense, it's really anxiety provoking in that moment to not be able to reach them. And when you do that, it’s so tough for your partner, they feel so overwhelmed, they start to shut down. So this is the cycle, then, the more you ask questions, and ramp up, the more she gets overwhelmed, and shuts down?”

What I’m afraid they might hear if they haven't really done Step 2:

“It’s totally ok that you’re repeatedly asking questions because you’re feeling panicky and frustrated. Your partner should get that and not shut down on you. They should change all their behaviors so you feel comfortable.”

Here my mind goes down two paths, and I’m trying hard to stay on the optimistic, patient path.

Stuck Path

I see the rigid Pursuer as have a neon sign flashing over and over in his/her mind that says, “I’m Right!” and that nothing I say or do, or their partner says, will soften them into seeing that while their feelings are understandable, their action tendency is unhelpful to their cycle. I want to give up, and go home and drink a big glass of wine. I fantasize about becoming an executive assistant to someone appreciative.  

Optimistic Path Forward

I feel like the piece I’m missing is to come in and process the rubber band moment. The moment when they say, “I hear what she’s saying, that I can get overwhelming for her, BUT I’m hurting and I’m needing and she is at fault.” Right now, I reflect their dual feelings (I hear her, but I still need x.y.z). I feel like this is not getting us anywhere, it seems to lose the thread of what we’re doing in the room and all the attention gets sucked back into the Pursuer.

I think it might be fruitful to instead try reflecting the pull away from partner’s vulnerable need. This might sound like:

“Can we slow down for a minute? You briefly acknowledged your partner’s experience, but then quickly moved to your experience. Can we go back? What is it like to hear your partner’s experience of your repeated questions in this cycle?”

And hold them to that space of hearing their partner’s experience. And then ask them, “What is it like to hear that in this cycle, that’s how your partner can feel at times?” 

My goal would not be to guilt or shame them, but I'm worried I sound like that. My goal would be to hold them more firmly to the process in the room so the Withdrawer’s feelings and experience don’t continue to get lost in the wind.

What have you guys found, other than validating the secondary emotions, that help the tougher Pursuers own their action tendencies? What helps you trust in the process that they will eventually soften?