‘Tis the season.
Of, among other things, wishful thinking.
One example: the myth of the Big Happy Family.
The idea that two disparate sets of individuals joined by marriage — i.e., by accident — are supposed to love, like, or even tolerate each other.
That because it’s a holiday and they’re technically “family” they should be able to enjoy the day together and that nothing else should matter. Not hidden conflicts, old wounds, personality clashes, political differences, substance abuse or mental disorders.
It’s this myth that persuades us to arrange gatherings of people who’d otherwise never spend five seconds together. To bring them together and then add stress and alcohol and small children and physical disorder and expect everything to come off swimmingly.
I know many people who approach these gatherings with dread, and survive only with multiple emotional wounds. Then the day after they crawl into my office to lick their wounds and debrief.
If we get to talk about it before it actually happens, I tell them this:
“Just be aware you’re walking into a setup.
“A setup for compulsive controlling of all sorts.
“A setup for denial, unrealistic expectations, people-pleasing, loss of self, emotional inauthenticity, hurt feelings and disappointment.
“In short, a CodependencyFest.
“Yes, some families can pull off this sort of thing with minimal damage.
“And some can’t, no matter how hard or how persistently they try.
“You need to ask yourself one question, and answer honestly:
“To which sort do you belong?”
Men’s group. Six members. All husbands.
Not for long, though.
One’s divorcing, one’s halfway out the door, and one’s reaching for the doorknob.
They have one thing in common: wives unwilling to forgive them.
Each has screwed up majorly. Each has hurt his wife. Their sins include infidelity, insensitivity, irresponsibility, self-involvement, emotional unavailability and financial malfeasance.
And now all three are paying for their sins by daily reminders from those wives of how awful they are and how much damage they’ve done.
(Well, not all three. The guy who’s divorcing couldn’t stand it and moved out.)
A surprisingly common marital dynamic.
Fifty years ago psychiatrist Eric Berne described it in his brilliant Games People Play.
He called this game “Now I’ve Got You, You Son of a Bitch.”
What’s going on unconsciously, Berne argued, is not an interaction between two adults but a running battle between an Angry Parent and a Guilty Child, who keep having the same conversation over and over:
Parent: I’ve been watching you, hoping you’d make a slip.
Child: You caught me this time.
Parent: Yes, and I’m going to let you feel the full force of my fury.*
The payoffs for playing NIGYSOB also tend to be unconscious. Often the angry partner is angry about other things (childhood abuse, say) and delighted to have someone on whom to vent her accumulated rage. The guilty partner tends to have chronically low self-esteem (usually their parents were narcissistic, abusive or unavailable) and plays the game in hopes of someday, somehow winning redemption.
Bottom line: Where NIGYSOB is played, what you have is less a marriage than a hostage situation.
It’s bad for both hostage and hostage-taker, since it prevents both from healing old wounds and escaping old roles and feelings.
And it’s awful for the marriage.
Since, without forgiveness, healthy relationship is impossible.
*Games people play: The psychology of human relationships by Eric Berne, MD (Dell 1964).
Women’s group. Six members.
One has been discussing problems her grown children face. Which leads into reviewing her failures as a parent. Which makes her cry.
The others listen and nod sadly.
After a minute I say, “Question for the group. Is there such a thing as an unguilty mother?”
They look at me, startled. Then at each other.
“I doubt it,” I say. “Every child deserves perfect parenting. No child ever gets it. And every mother knows this and feels bad about it. So feelings of inadequacy and failure and guilt are built into being a mother.”
“Always?” one asks.
“Maybe not,” I concede. “Occasionally I meet a parent unaware of his or her inadequacies. But they’re usually narcissists, and they usually scare the crap out of me.”
The crying mother sniffles.
“I can’t help feeling guilty,” she says. “When they hurt it feels like my fault.”
Right, Mom. You, me, and most every parent I know.
Perfect parenting is not just impossible, it’s unnecessary.
The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once famously argued that kids don’t need perfect parenting — just parenting that’s “good enough.” Winnicott wrote,
The good-enough mother starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.
Catch that last line?
The mother’s imperfection is what helps her child adapt to reality.
So relax if you’re not perfect. You can’t be, and you don’t have to be. And it would probably be bad for your kids if you were.
Personally I take comfort in how one of my supervisors once defined good-enough parenting.
“The sign of successful parenting,” he said, “is that your kids can pay for their own therapy.”
A man loses his foot in an accident. Forced to hobble and use a crutch, he finds himself the object of unexpected attention and sympathy. Then his doctor fits him with a prosthetic foot. The hobbling ends. The crutch becomes unnecessary. The attention and sympathy dwindle away. So he takes an axe and cuts off his other foot.
I see it all the time.
In the husband who complains daily about his unhappy marriage but puts off getting a divorce.
Or the wife who rages about how her husband avoids or ignores her but won’t examine how her behavior pushes him to do so.
Or the teacher who bemoans the bullies who abuse her at work but refuses either to learn how to assert herself or to change jobs.
Or the son so scared his alcoholic parents will reject him if he stops drinking that he clings to his addiction in self-defense.
Welcome to the world of secondary gain.
Secondary gain refers to an emotional or psychological benefit that comes from having a problem or illness.
The gain may be attention, acceptance, sympathy, safety, familiarity, resistance to change, distraction from responsibility, avoidance of intimacy, or denial of other problems.
Seeking such gains is not faking or manipulation.
It’s often unconscious.
It can be seen as an attempt to meet legitimate needs in an unhealthy way
It’s also a monkeytrap: a situation that encourages you to hold on when it would be healthier to let go.
Suspect you might be monkeytrapped in this way?
Try asking yourself one question about your persistent symptom or problem:
If I were to fix this, what would I lose?
One classic symptom of control addiction is enabling.
Enabling is anything you do to solve a problem that ends up making the problem worse.
Like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
Or scratching a rash left by poison ivy.
Or trying to get an alcoholic to stop drinking by hiding their booze or nagging them to enter treatment.
Or trying to improve communication with your kids by forcing them to talk to you.
Or trying to improve your marriage by reminding your spouse how disappointing and inadequate he/she is.
The forms it takes are infinite.
What they all have in common, though — and what makes them so difficult to stop — is that they gratify a short-term need.
The need to do something.
We hate feeling helpless. We hate facing the fact that some problems we simply cannot solve.
So we cling to the illusion of control.
Maybe this time it will work, we tell ourselves.
Or Maybe if I try it this way.
Or This is too important. I can’t do nothing.
Pass the gasoline.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
~ Ascribed to Sigmund Freud
.Sometimes a banana is just a banana.
And sometimes it isn’t.
Sometimes what we hang onto or try to control is important to us for its own sake.
And sometimes we hang on to it because it represents something else.
We’re often unaware of doing the latter.
We don’t see that we crave approval from the boss because we never got it from mom and dad.
We don’t understand that we feel compelled to keep our house in perfect order because where we grew up felt emotionally chaotic.
We don’t realize that we apologize constantly and compulsively because childhood taught us to fear criticism and rejection.
So much controlling happens unconsciously. Often we’ve no idea what we’re doing, much less why.
But if we want to recover from our addiction to control, we need to start getting more conscious.
A codependent in recovery tells me that once, in utter frustration over how his life was going, he fired his Higher Power.
“Wow,” I reply. “I guess that makes you the Higher Power.” I reach over to shake his hand. “Been wanting to meet you.”
But there’s a serious truth buried here.
“The fundamental and first message of Alcoholics Anonymous to its members,” writes Ernest Kurtz, “is that they are not infinite, not absolute, not God. Every alcoholic’s problem has first been claiming God-like powers, especially that of control.”*
All addicts seek control to an unhealthy degree. That’s why the First Step urges them to confront their lack of control (“Admitted we were powerless…”). Can’t heal addiction otherwise.
So recovery starts with a surrender. And that’s no less true of control addicts — a.k.a. codependents — most of whom have spent years trying to control the uncontrollable.
It’s why I suggest everyone get into the habit, when stressed, of asking themselves three questions:
What am I trying to control here?
Have I had any success controlling this before?
And if not,
What can I do instead?
Many benefits flow from this sort of self-questioning.
And one is that, the more often you employ it, the clearer it becomes that you’re not God.
*Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous by Ernest Kurtz (Hazelden Press, 1979).
She’s an emotional bonsai, bent out of shape by painful childhood experiences, angry and anxious to the point where those chronic feelings threaten her current relationships.
Yet when I suggest we address this in therapy she says, “But that’s not fair. None of that was my fault. Why should I have to get therapy for what they did?”
She’s right. In a fair world, the abusers would bear the responsibility for abuse, not the victims.
But we don’t live in a fair world.
We live in a world of cause and effect.
And in that world it’s essential to distinguish what we can control from what we can’t.
Or, put another way, between blame and responsibility.
Say you come into my home and toss a lit cigarette onto my sofa. The sofa blazes up.
That fire’s not my fault.
But do I say, “Hey, I didn’t cause that” and watch it burn?
No. Unless I want to end up sofaless, I take responsibility for extinguishing it.
Surviving your shitty childhood is no different.
I became a therapist for the wrong reason.
Not to help people, but to get helped.
Not to give, but to take.
I didn’t like myself much, and thought if I solved people’s problems they’d be grateful and like or love me in return.
I was sort of an emotional pickpocket.
Bad reason, as I said, to become a shrink.
But not an unusual one.
For years I’ve met people in the helping professions — doctors, nurses, teachers, therapists, even lawyers and cops — who were similarly motivated.
It’s not necessarily fatal. The lucky ones discover it in time and take steps to get their emotional needs met in healthier ways.
If they can do that they can become true professionals — adults able to defer their own needs to the service of others.
The unlucky ones never discover the real motive behind their career choice. Or they do, and then can’t decide what to do about it.
And so keep picking pockets.
Taking while pretending to be giving.
Which can become the opposite of helping.
She has an elephantine memory.
She remembers everything, especially painful stuff.
She can describe every frustration, disappointment and betrayal that wounded her in the last twenty years.
She can (and does) recite conversations — especially hurtful ones — from a decade ago.
Listening to her I sometimes feel like we’re crawling together through an endless field of weeds.
The technical term for this is perseveration: the tendency of certain memories to persist even when they’ve stopped being relevant.
Bad habit, perseverating.
Because where you put your attention is what grows.
Keep your attention on painful memories, and you fill your life with pain.
Keep your attention on stuff you cannot change (like the past), and you fill your mind with helplessness.
Sometime you need to find a way to stand up and see beyond the weed field.
She feels unloved, she tells me.
It’s an old problem. She’s felt unloved since she was a child.
Her solution is to demand love from her husband.
Daily, sometimes hourly, she demands he give her more attention, acceptance, approval and affection.
It’s not working, though. And she doesn’t understand why.
What she doesn’t understand is that love is a gift, or it isn’t love.
That it can be received, but not demanded.
Given, but not coerced.
That when love is coerced, it becomes something else.
It becomes a lie.
I’ve just told her that I think she’s clinically depressed.
“Don’t label me,” she says.
“I’m not. I’m diagnosing you,” I say.
“It’s the same thing.”
No, it’s not.
We label people. We diagnose problems.
Labels are judgments, inaccurate and hurtful because they tend to oversimplify and stigmatize.
A diagnosis, though, is an explanation. It explicates something that needs correction or repair.
And when it’s accurate, it points us in the right direction.
Discarding diagnosis because we confuse it with labeling is like ignoring the road map we need to get where we want to go.