On Valentine’s Day someone brings a box of filled chocolates to group, and we pass it around while we’re talking.
When it reaches Jane she sits with the box on her lap, frowning.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Oh,” she says, “I’m always afraid I’ll get coconut.”
“I hate coconut. So I’m trying not to find one.”
“Here’s a thought,” I say. “If you get coconut, spit it out, and take another piece.”
She stares like I’ve just spoken Klingon.
Then she looks to the woman sitting next to her.
“Sure,” the woman smiles.
“Why not?” the next woman shrugs.
The next woman is Marion, who is looking at me with her mouth open.
“I’m sixty-six years old,” she says slowly. “And I never knew you could do that.”
There are, it has been said, two types of people: inner-directed and outer-directed.
Inner-directed people base their decisions on messages they receive from inside them, on their own thoughts and feelings, wishes and dreams, desires and preferences.
Outer-directed people base their decisions on messages they receive from outside — rules and instructions, orders and demands, the opinions and expectations of others.
Jane and Marion are outer-directed people. Someone somewhere taught them waste not/want not, or don’t be greedy, or if you take two chocolates what will people think?, so they ended up convinced they must eat what they pick whether or not they want to.
I know many people like this.
Some became lawyers because Dad was a lawyer. Some vote Republican because their parents did. Some stay in bad jobs or bad marriages or bad relationships because they fear someone will judge them if they don’t.
Most raise kids who will grow up to do the same thing.
My job with outer-directed people is to turn them into inner-directed people.
Because we’re given just one life.
And it’s dumb to live somebody else’s idea of what that life should look like.
And it’s dumb to eat coconut when you hate coconut.
And because Patrick Dennis was right when he wrote, “Life is a banquet, and most poor bastards are starving to death.”
“My biggest fear is that people will think I’m needy,” she tells me.
“Why?” I ask.
“My mother’s needy,” she says. “And her neediness drives people away.”
“Including me,” she says grimly. “And I feel guilty about it.”
“How are you defining needy?” I ask. “As different from just having needs?”
“I think so. It’s like needing too much. The needs are too big.”
“Excessive? Inappropriate? Annoying?”
“Something like that.”
“Okay,” I say. “I think I know what you mean. But I define needy differently.”
“To me the difference between having needs and being needy is that a needy person imposes them on others.”
“Yes. Needs are normal and inevitable. We all have needs, often unmet needs, and we each have to figure out how to get them met. But a needy person is one who tries to get others to meet their needs, and they do it in a manipulative way.”
She sniffs angrily. “Sounds familiar.”
“Mom uses guilt. She’ll sigh, or look sad, or make a comment about lonely she is since Dad died, or how her life didn’t turn out the way she expected. And I’ll feel bad, and start trying to cheer her up or offer to take her shopping or cook her dinner.”
“And end up hating her.”
“Well, it’s not her needs that make you hate her,” I say. “It’s the manipulation.”
“The problem with needy people is that they never learned how to get their needs met like grownups. That’s why they impose them on others. They’re like kids looking for parenting. Behind the manipulation is a kid’s demand: Take care of me.“
“That’s how it feels, like a demand.”
“Right. And that’s why you’re angry. She’s not saying, I’m lonely, could you keep me company? or I’m sad, can I tell you about it? and giving you a choice. She’s controlling you into giving her company or attention or sympathy. And nobody likes to be controlled.”
“That’s right,” she says grimly.
“So if you don’t want people to see you as needy, practice handling needs like a grownup. Practice asking directly for what you need. How often do you do that?”
“Never. I’m scared people will say No.”
“Sure. But then you have to decide which scares you more, to hear No or be thought needy.”
She is quiet for a long moment.
“What are you thinking about?” I ask finally.
“Two things,” she says. “One, I really don’t want to be like my mother.
“And two, I need to pee. Mind if I go to the bathroom?”
Recently on Facebook (where lately I’m spending way, way too much time) I came across this poster:
The picture of Buddha caught my attention, but what held it was the text, with which I found myself disagreeing.
So I wrote back,
The poster’s author replied,
And I replied to her reply as follows:
I don’t usually argue with Buddhists on Facebook. I did this time because I think what I called the perennial problem is worth paying attention to.
We humans are caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock is our need for each other, and the hard place is the difficulty of getting along.
Relationships are inherently difficult because they demand we do two things simultaneously that just don’t go together: attach to each other, and stay free.
How the hell do I manage that?
That’s the question behind the most common problems clients bring to therapy — anxiety, depression, addiction, loneliness, feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
Most of them are struggling, in some way and at some level, with getting their needs met in relationships without getting lost.
And many of them misunderstand the problem.
They think their relationship problems are their fault.
Women are especially prone to taking blame when a relationship fails. “How did I screw that one up?” they often ask me. Men, by contrast, are more often to say something like, “Boy, was that bitch crazy.”
(Yes, I’m overgeneralizing. I know guilty men and blaming women too. But in my experience the reverse is true more often than not.)
So the inherent difficulty of relationship is worth noting if only to reduce the number of times we blame others or ourselves.
The fact is, most relationships fail not because we’re lousy at them, but because relationship itself is hard.
So if you’re struggling with yours, please remember that.
Remember that most of us don’t set out to hurt or frustrate or disappoint each other.
We just do the best we can — often, without terribly healthy models — to solve a problem that’s difficult at best, and sometimes damned near unsolvable.
In the end there’s only one reason anyone goes to therapy:
Plan A has broken down.
Plan A is my label for everything we learn as children about life, and how to live it; feelings, and what to do with them; relationships, and how to handle them.
We each have a Plan A.
And we all pretty much learn it in the same place and in the same way.
The place is our family, and the way is unconsciously.
Nobody sits us down at the kitchen table and says, “Listen up. Here’s how you do Life.” No, they just do Life themselves, and we watch and listen and soak it all up like little sponges. Which explains why our Plan A tends to look so much like that of our family members.
And it works okay for a while. Especially while we’re still living in the family. We’re all following the same unwritten, unspoken rule book.
But Plan A always breaks down.
Eventually we move beyond the family into the larger world, filled with new people and new challenges. And we discover that what worked at home doesn’t always work out there.
At which point we have, in theory at least, a choice.
We can tell ourselves, “Oh, I see. I guess I need a Plan B.”
Or we can tell ourselves, “I must be doing it wrong. I better try harder at implementing Plan A.”
Guess which we choose?
Right. Plan A.
Always Plan A.
Two reasons for this. First, we may not even know there’s such a thing as Plan B. Childhood trained us to see Plan A as normal. (Why would anyone do Life in any other way?)
Second, even when we suspect there are other options, we cling to Plan A because it’s familiar. We already know how to do it. We can do it in our sleep.
And change is scary.
So we keep following Plan A even despite mounting evidence that it no longer works.
And that’s when we begin to develop symptoms — anxiety, depression, addictions, communication problems, bad relationships.
Those symptoms are what drive us into therapy.
Seeking, whether we know it not, a Plan B.