Author Archives: Steve Hauptman

Just the world.

 

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.”

 


A brief guide to unhappiness

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. 

 

 


Codependent suicide

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.”

“How so?’

“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.”

“Exactly.”

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?”

“One sister.”

“How is she with relationships?”

“Divorced twice,” she frowns.

“Okay.  Well, I think I see your problem.”

“Tell me.”

“You’ve been operating on a false assumption.  You assumed that what your parents were modeling was a healthy relationship.”

“It wasn’t?”

“Nope.  It may have worked for them.  It doesn’t for most people.”

“Why not?”

“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 resentful?”

“Yes, sure.”

“And what did you do with those feelings?”

“I tried harder.  Gave even more.”

“In hopes your partner would reciprocate.”

“Right.”

“Did it work?”

“I wouldn’t be here if it had,” she says.

“So eventually you’d give up trying and end the relationship.”

She nods.

“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?”

“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.”


 


Bad daughters

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.

She nods.

“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?” 

Everyone nods.

“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.”


 

 

 


All the way up

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“Can you give me a time frame for growing up?” she asks.

“Like how long it takes to get there?” I say.

“Right.”

“No,” I say.  “Because I’m not sure there’s a There there.”

“You don’t think people grow up?”

“Sure,” I say.  “Just not all the way.”

“Explain.” 

“Okay,” I say.  “I think there’s always a Kid part inside, and the Kid always needs parenting.   I think most of us spend our lives trying to get others to parent us — to understand, accept, support, protect and love us unconditionally.  I think we do it automatically and unconsciously and often manipulatively.  And I think that’s what keeps us feeling like kids inside. 

“On the other hand, when we accept responsibility for the Kid and learn to parent it adequately we grow up inside.  That’s probably as grownup as anybody gets. 

“Unfortunately. lots of people think growing up means you killing the Kid off.”

“I do,” she nods.  “I think of grownup as being totally self-sufficient.”

“And I think that’s a kind of emotional perfectionism.  It’s unrealistic and counterproductive and cruel.” 

“Cruel how?”

“In the way all pefectionism is,” I say.   “It’s self-abuse disguised as self-improvement.”


Love vs. need

"Give or take," Louise Bourgeois, 2002

Louise Bourgeois, “Give or take” (2002)

She is crying over a breakup. 

“I love him so much,” she sobs.

I try to look sympathetic.

Inside I’m thinking No, you don’t.

Why?

Because (a) she’s the one who ended the relationship.

And (b) she did so because he kept frustrating and disappointing her.

And (c) she has a long history of frustrating and disappointing relationships. 

And (d) I’ve known many people like her, people who confuse love with need.

It’s a common confusion.

Love and need are both intense emotional experiences that can overwhelm and consume.

Both feel like a matter of life or death.

Both reveal something essential about you.

But there are important differences too:

~ One feels like fullness, the other like emptiness.

~ One creates calm, the other anxiety.

~ One tolerates boundaries, the other keeps crossing them.

~ One expresses itself by giving, the other by demanding.

~ One expands a person’s perspective, the other shrinks it to that of a hungry child.

How does this confusion get started?  The three most common ways are:

~ You are raised by parents who don’t know the difference themselves.  “I love you,” they tell you, but the message behind it is Meet my expectations.  Make me happy.

~ You grow up in a family that can’t tolerate separateness or integrity.  Be what we need you to be, is the message, or we’ll reject you.

~ You are so emotionally hungry that anyone who feeds you emotionally feels like a sort of savior.

All of which Erich Fromm was probably thinking when he said,

Immature loves says, “I love you because I need you.”  Mature love says, “I need you because I love you.”

 


Coconut

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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.”

“So?”

“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.

Why?

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.”

 

 

 


Needs and neediness

sad-face-mine“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 you?”

“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.” 

“How?”

“To me the difference between having needs and being needy is that a needy person imposes them on others.”

 “Imposes.”

“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.”

“How?”

“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.”

“Oh yes.”

“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?”

   

 

 

 

 


The perennial problem

Recently on Facebook (where lately I’m spending way, way too much time) I came across this poster:

2-9-17-how-to-win-at-life

The picture of Buddha caught my attention, but what held it was the text, with which I found myself disagreeing.

So I wrote back,

1-if-only

 The poster’s author replied,

2-it-truly

And I replied to her reply as follows:

3-unfortunately

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.

The End.

 

 

 


Plan A

2-6-17-winceIn 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.

 

~ From Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop by Steve Hauptman (Lioncreast 2015).  Available on Amazon.


Attention.

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When you accept your self.

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When you fight your self.

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Growth.

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Rebel.

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