Category Archives: control

Three commandments

In group, and she looks exhausted, pinched and pale. 

She’s talking about how hard she’s been working, and all the people she worries about and takes care of. 

And I’m getting angry.

“I have feedback,” I tell her. 

She looks surprised.  Feedback is a statement of personal feelings, and I don’t usually give those.

“Here goes,” I say.  “When you (A) talk about all these people you care about and take care of,  I (B) get mad, because (C) you’re breaking my Three Commandments.” 

She looks puzzled.

“I know,” I say.  “I didn’t know I had Three Commandments either.  But apparently I do, because I find myself mad at you for breaking them.”

She smiles.  “What are they?”

“What I usually talk about,” I say.  “And everything we work on in group:

1. You must respect your feelings.

2. You must listen to your body.

3. You must collect relationships that feed you, not deplete you.”

“Yes,” she sighs. “Sounds familiar.”

“She’s breaking all three, right?” another member asks.

“I think so.  She certainly looks like someone who is.”

“What do I look like?” she asks.

“Like someone to whom self-care is an alien concept.  Who’s so caught up in trying to control people, places and things that she’s running on empty.  And doesn’t realize it.  And needs people who love her to tell her to stop.”

“Stop,” says another member.

“Please,” says another.

She smiles sadly.  “I’m not sure I know how.”

“That’s okay,” I say.  “We’ll help.  The most important thing now is wanting to stop.

“Everyone who comes into therapy needs to learn these commandments,” I say.  “It’s hard at first, because most of us were trained to believe exactly the opposite: Disrespect your feelings, ignore your body, and Lose yourself in relationships.

“But those who learn them, and can obey them at least some of the time, always end up feeling better.”

“Always?” she asks.

“Always,” I say.  “It’s as close to a guarantee as you’ll get in therapy.”

 

 


This will be awful.

“I have a job interview,” she tells me.

“That’s good,” I say.

“I’m scared shitless.”

“That’s not.”

She’s never had a job interview that didn’t make her sick beforehand.  The interviews themselves go fine.  But the days and hours leading up to them are torture.

“I imagine everything that could go wrong, every mistake I could make, every question I can’t answer.  I imagine the person will think I’m stupid or unattractive or unqualified.  I play it over and over and over in my head.  I usually can’t sleep the night before, and I go in there looking like death on a cracker.”

“But the interview usually goes okay?”

“It does,” she sighs.

“Okay,” I say.  “I think I can help.  When’s the interview?

“Friday.”

“Good.  Today’s Monday.  Go buy yourself a small notebook and carry it with you.  I want you to listen to yourself, catch yourself projecting, and write each projection down.”

“What’s projecting again?” she frowns.

“Inventing scary stories,” I say.  “There are two types.  One produces stories about the future — I’m going to screw up the interview, I’m going to get fired, My blind date will be a disaster, and so on.  I call that fortunetelling.”

“That’s what I’m doing now.”

“Correct.  The other type involves stories about the contents of other people’s heads — She’s mad at me, He thinks I’m fat, They’re laughing at me behind my back, Nobody will think I’m qualified for this job — that sort of thingI call that mindreading.”

“I do that all the time too,” she muses.

“I know you do,” I say.  “And there are two things to remember about projections.

“First, they feel absolutely real, the way a nightmare does.  You just know bad things are happening or going to happen, right?”

“Absolutely.”

“Second, they rarely come true.  That’s because projections grow out of anxiety — our very worst fears — not any accurate reading of reality.  For example, despite how you feel before interviewing, you usually end up getting the job, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Yes.  The thing is, when our worst fears don’t come true, we don’t learn our lesson.  We don’t stop and think Wow, I just scared myself unnecessarily.  We just roll on to the next projection.

“That’s where the notebook comes in.  Between now and Friday you’ll list every negative projection, every moment of fortunetelling or mindreading, however small or silly.  And at the end of each day you’ll look at your list and see how many of your awful projections came true.”

“I think I know what I’ll find,” she smiles sheepishly.

“Me too.  Do it anyway.”

*

I got an email from her today.

Hey Steve.  I bought the notebook and did what you said.  The first two days I filled eight pages.  I had no idea what I was doing to myself.  But on the third day I began to calm down (half a page only), and by Friday I was almost relaxed.  (Almost.)  Anyway, I got the job.  Thanks.  🙂  See you Monday.  

 

 


Hammered.

 x

“I feel like crap,” he tells me.

“Why?”

“I’m a failure.”

“How so?”

“In every way.  My wife says I’m insensitive, so I feel like a bad husband.  My son’s failing Math and my daughter has social anxiety, so I feel like a lousy dad.  I don’t make enough money, so I feel like a bad provider.  I don’t have time or energy to fix what needs fixing around the house, so I feel lazy and irresponsible.  I’m overweight, so I feel like a physical mess.  And you tell me I’m out of touch with my feelings, so I’m even flunking fucking therapy.”

“Wait a minute,” I say.  “Let’s do this right.”

I reach under my chair and bring out my hammer.

It’s an old hand sledge, five pounds of rusted metal.

“Here,” I say, handing it to him.

“What this for?”

“Give yourself a good whack on the knuckles.”

“Are you crazy?  That would break my hand.”

“Probably,” I say.  “But the pain would go away, and the hand would heal in about six weeks.

“What you’re doing to yourself now — calling yourself a failure and collecting evidence to back it up — that causes permanent damage.  And the pain it creates is endless.”

For anyone who find this parable too metaphoric, let’s be clear:

Beating yourself up should not be mistaken for honesty, or courage, or discipline, or high standards, or determination, or toughness, or personal growth.

It is simple self-abuse.

It consumes energy, kills hope, warps awareness and destroys the spirit.

And those who indulge in it rarely grow into the people they are meant to be.

 


The dangling man

For months she has been miserable in a relationship with a man she describes as needy, smothering and manipulative.

“I feel like I’m his mother,” she tells me.

“So end it,” I say.

“I can’t,” she frowns.  “He says if I do he’ll kill himself.”

“You believe him?”

“I’m scared to take the risk,” she shrugs helplessly.  “He cries and begs and I feel like a heartless person.” 

She looks at me.  “Am I?  Heartless?”

I answer by telling her, as best as I can remember it, the story of the dangling man.

A guy’s walking across a bridge one night and hears a faint cry for help.  He looks over the railing and finds a man dangling from a rope. 

“Help me,” the dangling man gasps. 

The guy reaches over and grabs the rope, which comes free in his hands.  Now he’s the only thing keeping the man from falling. 

“Save me,” the man begs. 

The guy tries to pull the man up, but cannot. 

“You’re too heavy,” he says.  “You’ll have to climb.” 

“Don’t let go,” the man begs. 

“Okay, but I can’t hold on forever,” the guy says.  “Start climbing.” 

“Just don’t let go,” the man says again. 

The guy looks around for help, but he is alone on the bridge.  He looks for somewhere to tie off the rope, but finds nothing. 

He feels his hands weakening.

“I’m getting tired,” he tells the man.  “What do you want me to do?”

“Help me,” the man repeats.  “Save me.”

“But I can’t,” the guy says. 

“Just hang on,” the man says.  “If you let go, I die.  I’m your responsibility.”

Time passes.  The guy feels his hands weakening, the strength slowly draining from his body, and the impossibility of his situation.

Finally he takes a deep breath. 

“Listen carefully,” he tells the man, “because I mean what I’m about to say.  I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself.  So I’ll hold on, but only if you start climbing.  I’ll even help by pulling up from my end.  But if you don’t start climbing, I’m going to let go.”

“You can’t mean that,” says the dangling man.  “How could you be so selfish?  How could you live with yourself afterwards?  I need you.  I’m your responsibility.”

“No,” says the guy, “I don’t accept that.  I’m responsible for me, and you’re responsible for you.   I’m willing to help, but the final choice here is yours.”

“Don’t do this to me,” the man begs. 

The guy waits.  Nothing happens.  There is no movement, no change in the rope’s tension. 

“I accept your choice,” he says, and frees his hands.

_______________________________
* Adapted from Friedman’s Fables by Edwin H. Friedman (New York: Guilford Press, 1990).

 

A cold shower

 

I tell my friend about my broken water heater and how for a week I’ve been bathing in the sink. 

“Why don’t you take a cold shower?” he asks. 

I smile, thinking

Because I’m not batshit crazy.

Later, though, when I recall the conversation, I realize that a more honest answer to his suggestion would have been

Because I’m a big fat baby

As I age I notice I get more and more attached to comfort.  It becomes harder to exercise, harder to diet, harder to skip meals or sit down on a cold toilet seat. 

Sure, I still slip occasionally into workaholic overdrive (like ten-hour writing sessions).  But mostly I seek out the easy way, the path of least resistance. 

After five decades of chronic guilt and codependent self-criticism, I kind of like this way of doing life.

And I kind of don’t. 

The reason I don’t is that I have a theory about why we do things that sees a craving for comfort as problematic.  The theory holds that we’re all addicted to control, that this addiction causes most (maybe all) of our emotional problems, and that all our controlling is driven by wanting to control how we feel. 

Which means, in practice, that the less discomfort I am able to tolerate, the more compulsively controlling I become.

I’m writing a book about this now.  It’s about how we hate discomfort, how in avoiding it we walk into emotional traps, and how one way to escape is to develop more tolerance for discomfort, which I call an emotional shock absorber .

Since life is full of discomforts, a life without this shock absorber would be essentially unlivable.  You’d be horribly vulnerable to everything from an empty belly to a full bladder, from traffic jams to heat waves to crying babies — never mind big stuff like abuse, illness, disability, unemployment or loss of a loved one.  You’d simply go mad.*

This vulnerability is what I don’t like about my craving for comfort.

So I decide to take a cold shower. 

*

I approach it in stages.

Stage 1:  Like any good codependent, I start by seeking support for my decision. 

I pray to the Great God Google.

Are cold showers healthy? I type.

God answers my prayer with a cluster of articles, one of which informs me that there are multiple health benefits to cold showers —  strengthened circulation, immunity, metabolism, breathing and mood.  Who knew?

But this is what sells me: 

Big goals require discomfort to achieve.  The difference between making a good impression, standing your ground, and being successful could be altered by getting used to discomfort….

Conditioning your brain to accept, survive, and embrace discomfort is one of the practices that can greatly impact the rest of your life.  It isn’t about the cold water.  It’s about the discomfort associated with cold showers, which you can overcome every day towards greater goal in life.*

Thanks, God.

Stage 2:  I meditate.  Well, it’s not really meditating, because all I can think about is the shower I plan.  I picture it in my mind: undressing, crouching in the tub with my hand on the faucet, turning the faucet, the water hitting my back, counting one two three before shutting off the tap.  I picture this over and over, hoping to fan my tiny ember of courage into a flame.

Finally I’m ready.  I go to the bathroom, trying hard to think of nothing at all.

I follow the procedure I rehearsed.  I strip, crouch, turn, wait. 

Holy Mother of Christ Jesus.  

*

Afterwards I feel wonderful.  Not just strangely proud of myself (though there’s that) but physically exhilarated, as if the cold water triggered some chemical change in my body, some delicious flood of endorphines or dopamine or something.

It feels almost spiritual.

(Thanks, God.)

I go to work and babble happily to my therapy group about my cold shower.  They look at me oddly. 

I don’t care.  I feel childlike, giggly. 

Happy.

PS:

That was three days ago. 

I’ve showered coldly each day since then. 

I can count up to ten now.

______________________

* Monkeytraps in Everyday Life: 51 Ways We Self-Sabotage, due in 2017.

 ** “7 reasons to take colder showers and 1 that really matters,” by Mansal Denton, writing for The Hacked Mind (http://www.thehackedmind.com/7-reasons-to-take-cold-showers-and-1-that-really-matters/)


Lawyers

 
The greatest stumbling block in true communication is the tendency to play lawyer. 
~ Muriel Schiffman
 

Last week I talked to two lawyers.

One was an actual attorney, the other an amateur.

Both struggle with relationships for the same reason:

They want it their way, and they’re pretty determined.

The first (actual) lawyer tells me she’s mad at her new boyfriend because he adopted a puppy without consulting her.  “I’m a cat person,” she explains.  “He knows this.  And if we end up living together I’m going to be very unhappy.”

The second (amateur) lawyer tells me everything’s been going great with his girlfriend of six months: they like the same food and music, they laugh a lot together, and the sex is terrific.  “Still, there are red flags,” he frowns.  “She’s bad with money.  She spends too much time on Facebook.  And I don’t like her mother.”

I asked each of them two questions. 

“Have you talked to your partner about this stuff?” is the first.

Both answer No.  They’re upset, but neither wants to rock the boat.

“How do you feel when you’re with this person?” is the second question.

Both smile and answer, “Happy.”

“Okay,” I say to them.  “I hear three problems here. 

“The first is a boundary problem.  Yours are fuzzy.  You’re not clear on what is your business and what isn’t.

“The second is a communication problem.  You need to share your feelings with your partner.  Not as a complaint or a demand, but as information.  They need to know what you like and don’t like, what pushes your buttons.  How can you communicate and reach agreement with someone who doesn’t know what’s going on inside you?

“The biggest problem, though, is a control problem.  You’re looking for a level of control you can’t have. 

“I understand why.  You’ve been hurt in past relationships.  You don’t want to get hurt again.

“But you can’t indemnify yourself against hurt or disappointment or frustration with some sort of emotional contract.  You can’t list your demands and expect your partner to sign the dotted line.  That’s unrealistic and frankly, disrespectful.  How’d you feel if someone made you sign such a contract?”

“Anyway, it’s just bad for relationships.  A relationship is a living thing.  We can’t control it; we have to care for it, the way you care for a flower.  You water it with attention, you feed it with communication and patience, and you let it grow in its own way and at its own pace.

“Trying to edit it according to your expectations is like cutting it and putting it in a vase.

“Sure, a cut flower is pretty.  But you know what happens to it.”

 


 


The three curses

He’s twenty-six, and every night after work he goes home and locks himself in his room. 

“It’s the only place I feel safe,” he tells me. 

“How long have you felt this way?” I ask.

“Since I was little.  Dad would drink and start yelling, and mom would yell back, and one of them would kick something or throw a plate, and I’d go to my room and shut the door and try not to hear it.”

“Scary,” I say.

“Sure.  But I’m a man now, and dad’s dead six years, and mom and I get along fine.  And I’m still hiding out.  What the hell is wrong with me?”

“You’re cursed,” I say.

“Cursed?” he says.  “Like by…”

“A witch?” I say.  “No, not like that.  Your curse is a false belief you absorbed in childhood, and have carried unconsciously ever since.”

“False belief.”

“Yes.  There are three main curses.  Kids tend to grow up believing that…

The world is a dangerous place, or 

People are not to be trusted, or 

There’s something wrong with me.

He frowns.  “I believe all three.  What causes it?”

“Childhood experience,” I say.  “Grow up in a family like yours, where you never feel safe, it’s pretty hard to believe the world outside is any safer.  So the whole world comes to feel dangerous.

“And if your parents are violent or unpredictable or abusive, if they reject or criticize or abandon you — and these are the people who are supposed to love and protect you — well, how do you trust anyone after that?  So all people come to feel untrustworthy.”

“Finally, if your family treats you badly — or even if bad things happen that have nothing to do with you, like divorce or money problems or someone dying — you tend to conclude that the bad stuff was your fault, that there’s something wrong with you.”

“But why?”   

“Because that’s how kids think.  Bad stuff makes them feel helpless, and helplessness is terrifying.  So they convince themselves they caused the bad stuff.  They trade helpless for guilty.  And they usually grow up to be adults with what’s called free-floating guilt.  Whenever anything bad happens in their vicinity they feel somehow responsible.”

“That sounds like me too,” he says glumly.  He is quiet.  Then he looks at me.

“So I’m fucked?” he asks.

“No,” I say.  “All this is pretty common.   Most of my clients are cursed.  Actually, so are most of the people I know.   Me too.”

“Yes?” he smiles.  “What do you do about about it?”

“Well, I went to therapy, and my therapist taught me to trust her, and that helped break the can’t-trust-anybody curse.  And she helped me to see how the bad stuff that happened to me was mostly beyond my control, and that helped with the something-wrong-with-me curse.  And the first curse…”

“Dangerous world?”

“Right.  That one I’m still working on.”

“How?”

“Oh, mainly by taking risks — new places, new people, stuff I’m scared to do — and finding out that almost everything I’m scared of is imaginary.”

“That sounds hard,” he says.

“Sometimes,” I agree.  “Still better than living cursed.”



Seven kinds of personal power

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If you love an addict, or live with one, or depend on one in some way, you are probably in, as the old saying goes, nine kinds of pain.

And I’m guessing that, whether or not you realize it, the very worst of these pains comes from being confused about the difference between power and control.

No, they’re not the same.

In some ways they are opposites.

One difference: power is possible, but control is usually an illusion.

Another: seeking power can set you free, while seeking control can make you crazy.

Let me explain.

Control, as I define it, means the ability to dictate reality. To make reality what we want it to be.  To get life itself — people, places and things — to meet our expectations.

Power, on the other hand, means being able to get your needs met. To take care of yourself. To not just survive, but to heal, and grow, and be happy.

Here’s an example of the difference:

Imagine your rich uncle dies and leaves you control of his multinational corporation. So you wake up one morning the CEO of Big Bux, Inc. You go to your new job. You sit behind a huge desk. Four secretaries line up to do your bidding. You have tons of control. You can hire and fire people, buy things and sell things, build plants or close them, approve product lines and advertising campaigns, manage investments, bribe congressmen, you name it.

How do you feel?

If you’re anything like me, you feel crippled by anxiety. Bewildered and overwhelmed by your new responsibilities. Disoriented. Panicked.
Anything but in control.

Interesting, no?

There are two other interesting differences between control and power.

~ Control looks outward, mainly at other people, places and things. Power looks inward, to your own feelings and needs. So control-seeking pulls you away from yourself, away from self-awareness and self-care.

~ Control operates paradoxically. The paradox goes like this: The more control you need, the less in control you feel. Which means if you depend on getting control to feel safe and happy, you don’t feel safe or happy most of the time. Chasing control is a lot like chasing a train you can never catch. Power, though — rooted in healthy, intelligent self-care — is a real possibility.

Want to become more powerful? Here are seven ways to do it:

(1) Detach.

Let go of what you can’t control anyway. That may be a situation, or a person, or that person’s behavior. If it’s a person you love, you can detach with love, as they say in Al-Anon. Detaching doesn’t mean you stop caring. It just means you acknowledge your limitations. And when you do that, an enormous relief often follows.

(2) Refocus.

Start by shifting your focus from outside — people, places and things — to inside — your own needs, thoughts and feelings. Happiness is an inside job, and most of the answers you need are there.

(3) Take care of yourself.

Stop overcontrolling yourself, and learn to listen to your body instead. Hungry? Eat. Tired? Sit. Rest. Maybe take a nap. (Naps are great.) Lonely? Seek out safe people. (More on this below.) Angry? Scream (into a pillow, maybe, so you don’t scare the neighbors). Sad? Let yourself cry. It’s how the body naturally relieves tension, and it helps.

(4) Educate yourself.

You’re not crazy; your pain means something. Your job is to find out what it’s trying to tell you. Education can take many forms, from Googling alcoholic family or codependency to reading self-help books (start with Janet Woititz’s Adult Children of Alcoholics or Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More), or listening to tapes (try the library), or talking to a friend, or attending a self-help meeting, or finding yourself a good therapist. After his first Al-Anon meeting one of my clients told me, “It was like a light coming on in a dark room, and suddenly I could see all the furniture I’ve been tripping over.” Hey, why live in the dark if you don’t have to?

(5) Get support.

No one gets through life alone. (Even if you could, why would you want to?) Seriously consider checking out a self-help program, like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or CODA. You’re probably scared of that first meeting. That’s okay; everyone is. Go anyway. It won’t kill you, and you can’t know beforehand what you’ll hear. A good meeting can save your life and your sanity.

(6) Listen to feelings.

This is a big one. Living with an addict usually requires hiding your feelings, sometimes even from yourself. But feelings are essential. You need to get them back again. Hang out with people who are trying to reclaim their feelings, and who can keep you company while you’re trying to reclaim yours.

(7) Have faith.

Develop your spiritual life. No, you don’t need a church. You don’t even need to believe in God. You do need to believe in something bigger than you, something you trust even when you don’t understand it. Call it Nature. Call it The Force. Al-Anon calls it Higher Power, but you can call it what you like. I used to reject the idea of God, but I always believed in psychology. Then I heard Scott Peck suggest that it’s not unreasonable to replace the word God with the word unconscious. That permanently reframed the idea of God for me. I realized there was some intelligence inside I could listen for, and which would guide me if I let it. (I might doubt the existence of God, but who can doubt the existence of that voice? That part that Knows Better?) So that gave me something to trust. Hey, we all need some invisible support.


Dog

I’d like to introduce you to my dog.

Please look down.  You’ll find him attached to my ankle.

That’s where he lives, more or less. 

Sometimes he draws blood.  But mostly he just hangs on, drooling and chewing occasionally, slowing my progress through life from a stroll to a worried limp.

Of course this is a metaphorical dog I’m describing.  It represents a part of the human personality we each carry inside us, an internal voice named variously by different psychologies. 

Freudians described it as the punitive superego.  

Others named it the Inner Critic.  

Gestalt therapists call it the Top Dog.

I first read about this guy many years ago, in Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. 

The topdog usually is righteous and authoritarian: he knows best.  He is sometimes right, but always righteous.  The topdog is a bully, and works with “You should” and “You should not.”  The topdog manipulates with demands ands threats of catastrophe, such as, “If you don’t, then — you won’t be loved, you won’t get to heaven, you will die,” and so on. 

I remember reading that and wondering how Fritz had managed to overhear my darkest thoughts.

As a recovering control addict I’ve spent many hours (years, actually) listening to this voice.  

I’ve come to know Dog pretty well. 

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Dog means well.  He really thinks he’s protecting me by pointing out my flaws, reminding me of my failures, and anticipating all the awful judgments others might render.  Expect the worst, that’s his motto.  But his warnings don’t make me feel safer.  What they do is keep me scared shitless.    

Dog’s scared to death.  That’s why he scares me.  Dog himself operates out of pure fear.  (Can you imagine scarier words to live by than expect the worst?)  So every word out of him comes from that defensive position.  Which explains why the more I listen to him, the scareder I get. 

Dog is unpleaseable.  No matter how hard I try, he’s never satisfied.  In fact trying harder seems to only make him stronger.  It took me years to realize that he thrives on attention.  So trying to please Dog is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.  

Dog lies.   He sounds reasonable, since there’s usually some truth in what he says.  But listening to Dog is like looking at myself in a fun house mirror.  By focusing on weakness and failures only he presents a terribly distorted view of me.  And if I mistake it for an accurate one, I’m basically sunk.  

Dog refuses to die.  That’s why I can’t satisfy him.  He exists to warn and to worry.  It’s his reason for being.  Should he ever concede that I’m okay as I am, or that everything will probably work out fine, he’d be killing himself off.

So.  What to do with a dog like this?

Well, it helps me to remember what I’ve learned about him.  That Dog isn’t me, just the scared worried part.  That he’s unappeasable, and that he lies, and that he’ll say or do anything to survive.  

All this gives me some distance from his voice.  It means when he starts growling I can say “Oh, you again.  Shut up,”  instead of taking him too seriously.

And you?  Why should you care about any of this?

Well, check out your own ankle.  


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

woman-silhouette-200

“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.”

 


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