Monthly Archives: March 2017
We do so wish to believe in a logical universe.
~ Margaret Atwood
Annie is crying on my sofa. We’re talking about her marriage to an emotionally abusive man.
She looks at me through her tears and asks, “What did I do to deserve this?”
Not a rhetorical question. She wants an answer.
Aha, I said to myself. There speaks the Just World Hypothesis.
I ask if she’s heard of it.
“The what?” she says.
“The Just World Hypothesis,” I say. “Most people believe in some form of it.”
The Just World Hypothesis (or Theory, or Fallacy) amounts to the belief that the universe is arranged so that people get what they deserve.
Good things happen to good people, in other words, and bad things happen to bad.
Most people believe this, even if they’re not aware of it.
Which explains why people tend to feel guilty when bad things happen to them.
It’s common among religious people, raised on the idea of sin. But belief in God is no prerequisite to belief in a Just World. I once worked with an atheist who argued endlessly against the existence of God but never doubted, when confronting personal misfortune, that he himself had somehow caused it.
Why do we cling to this bias?
Control. Or the illusion thereof.
“Because it’s far too frightening for many to accept that bad things can happen to good people — and therefore that they themselves have no control over whether bad things might happen to them someday — they will instead search for ways to differentiate themselves from victims of ill fortune,” writes Renée Grinnell. “For example, outsiders might deride people whose houses were destroyed by a tornado, blaming them for choosing to live in a disaster-prone area or for not building a stronger house.”
Belief in a Just World also leads to even more pernicious misinterpretations, like blaming the victim.
Afterwards, they said that the 22-year-old woman was bound to attract attention. She was wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear. At knife-point, she was kidnapped from a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot by a Georgia drifter and raped twice. But a jury showed little sympathy for the victim. The accused rapist was acquitted. “We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed,” said the jury foreman. (From “The Just World Theory” by Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez.)
The type of blaming I see most often is self-blame, where clients actually impede their own recovery by taking unrealistic and unfair responsibility for bad things that happen to them.
Abuse victims do this a lot, as do people who grew up in alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional families, those prone to unpredictability and emotional turmoil and to blaming kids for things that weren’t their fault. This leaves them feeling vulnerable, vaguely guilty, and too quick to blame themselves.
Annie grew up in such a home.
I explain all this to her.
“So you don’t believe in a just world?” she asks me.
“I believe in justice,” I say. “But the Just World Hypothesis is bullshit. Look around you. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Shit happens.”
“Shit happens,” she repeats.
“All the time,” I say. “And we have to find some way to make peace with it. With the world as it is. It’s not a just world. It’s just the world, as is. Unpredictable, messy, and mostly beyond our control.”
She’s stopped crying. She wipes her eyes.
“Shit happens,” she said. “Interesting idea.”
New client this week.
As always, I ask what she wants out of therapy.
“I just want to be happy” she says.
I smile encouragingly.
Inside I groan.
Good luck with that, I think.
Most people aren’t happy, and they don’t even know why.
So here’s a brief guide.
If you’re unhappy, it’s probably because:
1. You misdefine happiness.
You think it comes from getting what you want. Actually, happiness is about getting what you need.
2. You don’t know what you need.
You’ve been trained to chase the wrong stuff — like success or money or possessions or status or the approval of others — and that’s where you spend all your time and energy.
3. In chasing the wrong stuff, you hide who you are.
For example, you bury your feelings, instead of listening to them for information about your real needs.
4. You think instead of feel.
That leaves you unconsciously dominated by monkeymind, which swings ceaselessly from thought to thought to thought, and dwells in the past and future instead of here and now. Happiness can be found only in the here and now.
5. You try to control reality.
And whenever we fight reality, guess what wins?
6. You never see how controlling you are.
Look at it this way:
From moment to moment, each of us carries in our heads a picture of the reality we want. And we’re constantly comparing that picture to the reality we have. Every we do to bring those pictures closer together — whether we do it in public or in the privacy of our most secret thoughts — is what I mean by controlling.
See it yet?
Add this, then:
Discomfort of any sort — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, everything from agony to an itch — amounts to a signal that the two pictures don’t match.
And we respond to that signal automatically.
So wherever there’s discomfort there’s controlling.
And we all know how uncomfortable life can be.
Controlling, in short, is as reflexive and inevitable a response as slapping a mosquito that’s biting you.
See it now?*
*From Monkeytraps: Why everybody tries to control everything and how we can stop (Lioncrest, 2015). Available at Amazon.com.
She’s a college professor, 43, divorced once, reporting one broken engagement and a long string of unhappy relationships with men.
“What’s unhappy about them?” I ask.
“I work really hard at putting them first and making them happy, and they don’t return the favor.”
“They never show the same level of caring and concern. I’m always deferring. Always asking what they want for dinner, which movie they want to watch, where they want to go on vacation. And then we end up always doing what they want to do, and I feel, I don’t know, neglected.”
“And hurt and resentful.”
I ask where she got her idea of how to do relationship.
“From my parents. Mom always put Dad first, and Dad always put Mom first, and they got along wonderfully.”
“I see,” I say. “Any siblings?”
“How is she with relationships?”
“Divorced twice,” she frowns.
“Okay. Well, I think I see your problem.”
“You’ve been operating on a false assumption. You assumed that what your parents were modeling was a healthy relationship.”
“Nope. It may have worked for them. It doesn’t for most people.”
“It’s based on what I call a codependent suicide pact. An unspoken agreement that sounds something like, You take responsibility for my happiness, and I’ll take responsibility for your happiness, and that way we’ll both end up happy.”
“Right,” she nods. “What’s wrong with that?”
“It doesn’t work. It sets up both partners for frustration and disappointment and resentment and compulsive controlling. Isn’t that what happened with you?”
She thinks. “Well, I was certainly frustrated and disappointed a lot of the time.”
“And what did you do with those feelings?”
“I tried harder. Gave even more.”
“In hopes your partner would reciprocate.”
“Did it work?”
“I wouldn’t be here if it had,” she says.
“So eventually you’d give up trying and end the relationship.”
“Why you think trying didn’t work?”
“They just didn’t care as much as I did.”
“Maybe,” I say. “Or maybe they sensed you were trying to manipulate them into new behavior. And people don’t like being manipulated.”
“But I was being nice to them,” she says. “I was giving them what they wanted.”
“Yes,” I say, “on the surface. But your giving was tactical. It was designed to change their behavior, right?”
“So maybe they sensed your hidden agenda. Think about it. Has anyone ever done that to you? Smothered you with flattery or favors you knew were meant to get you to do something they wanted you to do?”
“Sure. Mom does that all the time. Honey, you’re so good at math, it would be wonderful if you helped me with my checkbook. That sort of thing.”
“And how does it make you feel?”
“Uncomfortable. Angry,” she says thoughtfully.
I let her sit with it for a moment.
“So that’s what I do to boyfriends,” she muses. She looks at me. “But why do you call it codependent suicide?”
“It’s a way of losing yourself in relationships. Hiding the real you, how you feel, what you want.”
“But don’t all relationships require that? Doesn’t everyone have to compromise?”
“Sure,” I say. “But by choice, not coercion. Out of love, not fear.
“Codependents are people who secretly believe they’re not okay as they are, and have to conceal who they are to get others to love them.
“So they’re constantly scared, and hiding, and consciously or unconsciously manipulating their partners.
“And it never works. Because even when they get others to like them, it’s not the real them that gets liked.
“So they end up feeling not validated or accepted or loved, but like hostages.
“They lose themselves and get nothing in return.
“And that’s why I call it suicide.”
In group. All women.
Alison: “Mom’s sick again, and she wants me to visit her, and I feel guilty because I don’t want to. I feel like a bad daughter.”
Her mom is a active alcoholic who is often ill and lives five states away.
“And a good daughter would want to,” I say.
“I see.” I turn to the group.
“Any other bad daughters here?”
Barbara nods. “I feel guilty because I’ve given up trying to repair our relationship. All my mother does, ever, is complain. Most of the time I can’t even stand to make eye contact with her.”
Cathy says, “I feel guilty because I don’t know how to be with my dad. We can’t even have a normal conversation. He barely speaks to me, and I have no idea what to say.”
Denise says, “I feel guilty because my dad sent a message through my cousin that he wants to talk to me. I don’t want to.”
I feel the group stiffen a little. Her father abused her emotionally and physically throughout her childhood, and is the main reason she’s in therapy.
“So,” I say, “to summarize: If you were good daughters you would…
(to Alison) “put your job and family aside to go be with your sick mother, and”
(to Barbara) “listen patiently to your mother’s endless complaints, and”
(to Cathy) “just know how to talk with your nonverbal, emotionally unavailable father, and”
(to Denise) “reconnect with the dad who abused you for sixteen years?”
I look around the room. “Is that right?”
They stare back at me glumly.
“So notice two things,” I say.
“First, your idea of what a good daughter would feel and do is at best unrealistic, at worst inhuman. You know this because when you hear each other describe this imaginary person your reaction is something like Whaaaat? Am I right?”
“Second, you’re overlooking the main reason you all feel like bad daughters:
“Your parent is unhappy.
“Kids who grow up in dysfunctional families tend to feel responsible for their parents. If mom or dad fight, or drink, or get depressed or anxious, or just have a bad day, the kid feels like she’s supposed to fix it somehow.
“Part of this is normal in all families. Parents set the emotional tone. You’ve heard the saying, When mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy? Kids like mama happy just because it makes life more pleasant for everyone.
“But in other families the problem runs deeper. In a those families the boundaries between family members get blurred, and kids can’t tell where they end and others begin. And they grow up feeling responsible for the happiness of other people.”
“But isn’t that how it should be?” asks Allison.
“No. In a healthy relationship, I take responsibility for my happiness, and you take responsibility for yours. We’re connected, we love each other, we support each other, but we’re responsible for ourselves.
“That goes for family too. And if we choose to stay connected it’s not because of guilt or obligation or coercion, but because it makes us happier than being apart.”
“That’s not what my parents taught me,” say Barbara.
“Mine either,” says Cathy.
“Mine either,” says Denise. “But I wish to hell they had.”