Monthly Archives: May 2016
In group. Liz, usually relaxed and friendly, looks like a truck just hit her.
She’s learned that her eldest son has developed a drinking problem.
To the daughter of an alcoholic father and survivor of an alcoholic marriage this comes as devastating news.
“It’s always been my worst fear,” she says numbly. “I feel like I can never be happy again.”
The other members try to reassure her, but you can tell they’ve no idea what to say.
There’s a Zen story I want to tell her. But I’m tired tonight, and though I remember the point of the story I can’t for the life of me remember the details. So instead I ask a question.
“Is this a good thing or a bad thing?”
She looks startled.
“My son’s addiction?”
“It’s a terrible thing,” she says.
“Are you sure?” I ask.
She stares blankly.
“Would it surprise you to hear,” I go on, “that when I was training as an alcoholism counselor I attended AA meetings where people stood up and thanked God for their addiction?”
“Yes, that’s how I felt. Took me a while to understand. I finally realized they were grateful because their addiction taught them stuff they needed to learn, important stuff they would never have learned otherwise. You know, how some people say their heart attack taught them how to live healthier lives?”
“So as terrible as their addiction was, it was also a good thing in disguise. You might try thinking in this way about what’s happening with your son. Maybe, in a weird way, this will teach him something he needs to learn. Maybe it will be a good thing in disguise.”
She looks relieved.
“Maybe,” she says.
Which is ironic. Because that happens to be the title of the Zen story that I wanted to tell her.
There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
The fourth box
In session. He’s 54, pale, worried.
His doctor just told him he has an ulcer.
“It’s stress-related,” he tells me. “Doc says I need to learn stress management.”
“Okay,” I say.
“So.” He pauses. “What the hell is stress management?”
We both laugh.
“Well,” I say, “stress is how the body reacts to a demand. And there are better and worse ways to react. Stress management is about letting go of worse ways and learning better ones.”
“Like worry. Worrying is a common reaction to stress, but not very effective. Solves nothing, eats up lots of time and energy, can even make you sick emotionally or physically. You worry much?”
“Sure,” he frowns.
“Okay,” I say. “I did too. One reason was I couldn’t distinguish important stuff from unimportant.”
“That’s me,” he says. “Everything feels like an goddamned emergency.”
“Right. Then I learned to prioritize. I used the three-box trick.”
“I made a list of everything I worried about. Then I broke that list into three smaller lists, which I put into three imaginary boxes. I labeled the boxes Must Do Now, Should Do Soon and Can Do Later. It made things a lot more manageable.”
“Okay,” he says, “that makes sense. But some things can’t be put into boxes.”
“What are you thinking of?”
“Problems I can’t solve and can’t let go of.”
“Like how the economy is hurting my business. And my dad’s skin cancer. And how my wife and daughter can’t stop fighting.”
“Oh,” I say. “For that you need the fourth box.”
“What’s the fourth box?”
“It’s labeled Can’t Do Shit. It’s for all the stuff you can’t control, like the economy and acts of God and other people’s relationships. It’s my favorite box.”
“Because putting stuff in it helps reduce my stress more than anything else.”
“Really? Doesn’t it make you feel helpless?”
“The opposite of helpless, actually.”
“Because when there’s nothing I can do, there’s nothing I have to do. So when I put something in that box, I can let go of it. It stops being a problem, stops being a demand. And when I redefine it that way, I get back the time and energy it’s been costing me.” I smile. “And I feel a little bit stronger.”
Angela has a stress-ridden adolescent son who throws up every morning before school. She worries about his anxiety and perfectionism, but is afraid to stop pressuring him about grades because “he’ll think it’s okay to not set goals or try hard.”
Betty has an alcoholic husband who stays out late and lies to her. She hates this, but resists my suggestion she visit Al-Anon or join a support group because “he might find out and get angry.”
Carl is married to a narcissistic woman who ignores his feelings and dismisses his preferences. Unhappy for years, he refuses to stand up to her because he hates conflict, and “a leopard doesn’t change its spots, so why bother?”
Everyone knows someone like this.
Someone who, faced with a particular problem, hangs on to the status quo as if it were a life preserver.
Welcome to the famous Don’t Rock the Boat syndrome.
DRTB is rooted in several pernicious and often unconscious assumptions, like
~ the familiar is safe,
~ the unfamiliar is scary,
~ change is usually for the worst,
~ with attention comes problems,
~ giving up control is dangerous.
It’s common among anxious people, beset by imaginary bears.
It’s also common among people who’ve learned to fear and avoid interpersonal conflict.
Then there are those for whom DRTB is a conscious tactical choice. They decided it provides enough safety, or the illusion of same, to outweigh the emotional stuckness it invariably costs them.
Hey, if DRTB works for you, fine. No problem. Stop reading.
But if it doesn’t — if you’re one of the unhappy stuck ones, sick of complaining about (or suffering silently with) some chronic problem that never seems to change — four suggestions:
(1) Review those unconscious assumptions listed above, and identify which ones you use to justify your choices.
(2) Ask yourself if DRTB has really helped you become a less worried or less anxious person.
(3) Consider replacing Don’t rock the boat with another mantra — something more assertive, like If nothing changes, nothing changes.
(4) Seek out people who will encourage your courage, and support your attempt to risk boat rocking.
Alice explains why she can’t stand up to her husband Joe.
“It’s a fear problem,” she says. “I’m terrified of his anger.”
“What’s Joe do when he gets angry?” I ask.
“Ever hit you?”
“Throw things? Break things?”
“Hurt the kids? Leave you? Threaten you in some other way?”
“No,” she frowns. “Just yells.”
“Okay,” I say. “Yelling’s unpleasant. But why do you think you’re terrified of Joe’s yelling?”
“Oh, my dad yelled,” she says. “All the time. Dad hit us, too.”
“Then I’d say you don’t have a fear problem,” I say. “It’s an anxiety problem.”
“Aren’t they the same thing?”
No, they’re not.
Yes, fear and anxiety feel like the same thing. But one is a reaction to a real danger, and the other is a reaction to danger you imagine.
Say you walk into the woods and a bear rushes out at you. What you feel is fear, because this is a real bear who can really make a meal of you. But say you walk into the woods and see crowds of dark trees and think There could be bears here. This is anxiety.
It’s an important distinction. Because these two reactions reflect different problems which are solved in different ways.
Fear signals a problem out there in the environment, to which the correct response is some version of fight or flight — shoot the bear, or run away from it.
But you can’t shoot imaginary bears, and they’re hard to run away from.
Instead you solve an anxiety problem by examining the reaction itself.
“So now that you think about it,” I say to Alice, “why does Joe’s anger terrify you?”
“It must remind me of dad.”
“Right. And there wasn’t much you could do back then, was there? Couldn’t yell back, hit back, run away?”
“Now is different,” she says. “I’m not helpless now.”
“Right. Have you ever yelled back at Joe?”
“Once,” she nods.
“He stopped yelling.”
“And what happened to your anxiety?”
“It went away,” she smiles.
“I scared off the imaginary bear.”
Grades are bullshit
Yesterday I came across a poster on FaceBook.
Your child’s mental health is more
important than their grades,
I love that poster.
Sounds like common sense, no?
Yet the number of parents who don’t believe it is truly frightening.
I meet such parents all the time. Especially in spring, as the school year grinds towards its exhausting conclusion, and they come to me panicked because Janey or Johnny are at risk of failing something.
And I tell them,
Grades are mostly bullshit.
They don’t measure real knowledge or intelligence or understanding or creativity or anything people really need to be successful.
They don’t measure honesty or courage or kindness or compassion or self-awareness or whether a kid knows the difference between right and wrong or what’s important and what’s not.
More often they measure memory (short-term at that), obedience, conformity, fear of failure, need for approval, or the results of parental coercion.
Thus academic success is not the predictor of success in adult life everyone pretends it is. Einstein, Edison, Newton, Churchill and Steven Speilberg were all lousy students.
So try not to stress over Janey’s D in Social Studies or Johnny’s F in Math.
Don’t get angry, and don’t get scared.
Give your kid a hug. Make them feel loved and accepted just as they are, and that you have faith that they will grow just as they need to.
That’s what they need from you.
Not lectures. Not warnings. Not dire predictions.
They’ll get plenty of those elsewhere.
From you they need a sense of how unique and valuable they are.
And that school is just school.
And that grades are mostly bullshit.
Just what we do
This is the second of two posts about covert controlling. (You can read the first post here.)
3. It’s Just What I Do
Dennis keeps logging onto his wife’s computer to view porn. “And she keeps asking you not to,” I say. “Right.” “And she can always tell when you’ve done it.” “Always.” “And afterwards you two always have huge arguments.” “Yes,” he says sadly. “So why…” “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I’m an idiot. I don’t know why I do it. It’s just what I do.”
Ellie just lunched with two friends, and she’s seething. “I hate them. They only talk to each other. Me they totally ignore. It’s like I’m not there. If I try to break into the conversation they look at me like I’m some annoying little sister. It’s always like this. I get so upset I have to go to the bathroom to cry.” This lunch, she adds, is a monthly ritual that’s been going for years. “Years?” I ask. “Why keep going? Why not just avoid them?” She shrugs helplessly. “They’d be angry,” she says. “But you don’t like them.” “Not much,” she admits. “But I can’t say no. It’s just what I…”
Frank’s wife makes all decisions for the both of them. “Everything from dinner to where to vacation to when to have sex,” he tells me. “Don’t you guys ever discuss things?” I ask. “Not really,” he says. “She tells me what she wants, then says, ‘Okay?'” “And you agree.” “Yeah.” “Ever disagree?” “Once or twice, when we were first married.” “What happened?” “She’s better at arguing than me. She gets loud, and I get nervous. So I give in. It’s easier.” “Is it really?” He sighs. “Maybe not,” he concedes. “But we’re married eight years now. Agreeing has become a habit. It’s just….”
Welcome to It’s Just What I Do.
This form of covert controlling shows up in my office every day. And each time it does I’m reminded of what Fritz Perls said about therapy clients:
“Very few people go into therapy to be cured, but rather to improve their neurosis.”
Still, It’s Just What I Do used to puzzle the hell out of me. Because I assumed that any repeated behavior must have some payoff attached to it. And I couldn’t figure out what the payoff was here.
Then I began to study the idea of control.
And I realized the payoff is all about Plan A.
4. Plan A
I’ve written about Plan A here before. It’s my label for everything we learn as kids about life and how to cope with it.
We each have a Plan A. We learn it mainly as kids, mainly from our parents, and mainly unconsciously. No one sits us down and says, “Now listen up. Here’s how you do life.” Instead we watch and listen to the grownups around us and absorb what they do like little sponges.
Plan A becomes our psychological default position, the place to which we revert under stress. As a coping method it may not work all that well. But it has one enormous advantage over any other plan: it’s utterly familiar.
And therein lies the payoff: the illusion of control.
Familiarity is enormously reassuring. We don’t have to analyze anything, learn new behaviors, anticipate new outcomes. Reverting to Plan A means knowing just what to do and just what will come of it.
The fact is, most of the time, most of us prefer a familiar pain to an unpredictable adventure.
Which explains why Dennis, terrified of losing his marriage, provokes the same fight again and again. And why Ellie, afflicted with chronic low self-esteem, lunches with people she hates rather than risking their disapproval. And why Frank, in treatment for crippling anxiety, tries to reduce his stress by agreeing with his wife about everything.
On some level each of them has decided they’re not ready for Plan B. Not ready for the emotional stretch, the stress of learning, the shock of fresh feelings, the unpredictability of something new.
So they cling to the familiar.
We all do. We’re anxious creatures, we humans. And our anxiety makes us resist change.
So we cling to the familiar like a child clings to a teddy bear. And chase control even what we chase is illusory.
“The most interesting thing about the control-mad people is that they always end up being controlled,” wrote Perls. “So the control-mad person is the first one to lose his freedom. Instead of being in control, he has to strain and push all the time.”
It’s just what we do.
Silent Farting, Stuff/Stuff/Blow and other forms of covert controlling
Most controlling behavior is covert — hidden or disguised.
The reason is obvious.
Nobody likes a controller. So nobody wants to be seen as “controlling.”
At the same time, most of us can’t stop ourselves from controlling.
So as a result most controlling behavior is buried beneath a careful attempt to control other people’s reactions to the controller’s attempts to control stuff.
Maybe some examples will help.
1. Silent Farting
“I just know when something’s up with him,” Ben’s wife tells me. “It’s hard to say how. I just know. Something about the way he walks into a room, or turns the pages of his newspaper, or stirs his coffee. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even look at me. But I know a storm’s coming. It’s like I can smell it.”
This is Silent Farting.
It’s a way for people uncomfortable with expressing anger directly express it indirectly — under the radar, so to speak. They just sort of exude it, like a bad smell. The targets of their anger don’t always understand what’s happening, but like Ben’s wife, they can usually tell they’re been farted at.
Silent Farters tend to be people who in a previous life were punished for expressing anger out loud. Or grew up with abusive or chronically angry parents, which scared them into deciding that angry was not something they ever want to be.
How is Silent Farting a controlling behavior? In three senses.
The Farter overcontrols an unwanted feeling, instead of expressing it in an open and healthy way.
The Farter, by exuding anger instead of expressing it, also tries to control the reactions of others to that feeling.
Finally, Silent Farting can be a form of coercion, an attempt to intimidate by hinting at the storm that’s brewing inside. Ben’s farting has made his wife hypersensitive to his moods, and I suspect Ben likes it that way.
Halfway through our session Jan suddenly blurts, “You know, I’m about ready to walk out of here.”
She is crying. I’m surprised. She seemed fine a moment ago.
“Why?” I ask.
“You make me feel like shit. You sit there and imply that my relationships are inadequate and then you pressure me to do something I don’t want to do. I’ve had enough.”
Another surprise. Two weeks ago I raised the subject of group therapy, and since then referred occasionally to ways in which a supportive group might be of help.
I know the idea of group makes her uneasy, so I don’t really expect her to join. But I did think she was curious. Until now she’s responded to what I say with interested nods.
“How long have you been feeling this way?” I ask
“Since you first mentioned group,” she replies.
“Why didn’t you say so sooner?”
“I didn’t want to be rude. But now I’m fed up.”
This is Stuff/Stuff/Blow.
The Stuff/Stuff/Blower habitually conceals her anger from others, letting the pressure build until she can’t hide it anymore. Then, baboom.
The explosion usually embarrasses her, so afterwards she resumes stuffing and stuffing until the next inevitable blow.
Like Farters, most Blowers concluded early in life that expressing anger openly was somehow unsafe or unattractive. Now they bury theirs as long as they possibly can.
Unfortunately, anger is unavoidable for human beings. So for the Blower periodic explosions become unavoidable too.
It is not unusual for these explosions to be preceded by silent farting. But not all Farters are Blowers, and not all Blowers are Farters.
Personally, I’d rather work with a Blower than a Farter. Farters who never explode tend to be more scared of anger — theirs and everyone else’s — and so take longer to learn that, like most feelings, anger expressed is much safer than anger than stored up.
(To be continued.)
There is a term some therapists like to use:
It means the ability to say
This is who I am,
This is what I think,
This is what I feel,
This is what I want
without fear of judgment, punishment or rejection.
Essentially it refers to a person’s ability to feel and function like a self-supporting adult.
To the extent someone lacks this ability, he or she will tend to feel, inside, like a powerless child.
And to the extent either partner lacks this ability, relationships will tend to slip into what we call codependency.
Codependent relationships are characterized by anxiety, buried resentments, emotional disconnection, dishonest communication and compulsive controlling.
All common symptoms, unfortunately.
For which the only reliable cure is ego strength.