- “How do I know when I am angry?”
- “What events/people/places/things make me angry?”
- “How do I react when I’m angry?”
- “How does my angry reaction affect others?”
Answering these questions takes a while. It is likely you can rattle off several things that make you angry. You might even be able to identify several signs that you exhibit when you are angry (e.g., clenched fists, etc.). These quick answers are only the beginning, however; the low hanging fruit. You will want to continually ask yourself these questions for a period of time before you can be satisfied that you are fully knowledgeable about your personal anger.
Recognizing Physiological Signs of Anger
The first step in effective anger management is to learn how to recognize when you are angry. Some angry people see their emotions as a black or white state—they are either raging mad or they are calm. In reality, anger is not black and white, but rather quite gray. Anger occurs on a continuum between rage and calm where most of the time people experience some gradation of anger between these two extremes.
The same people who tend to see anger in terms of extremes sometimes have difficulty recognizing when they are experiencing intermediate anger states. Luckily, most people experience a number of physical, emotional and behavioral cues that they can use to let them know when they are becoming upset.
Some physical signs of anger include:
- clenching your jaws or grinding your teeth
- stomach ache
- increased and rapid heart rate
- sweating, especially your palms
- feeling hot in the neck/face
- shaking or trembling
Emotionally you may feel:
- like you want to get away from the situation
- sad or depressed
- like striking out verbally or physically
Also, you may notice that you are:
- rubbing your head
- cupping your fist with your other hand
- getting sarcastic
- losing your sense of humor
- acting in an abusive or abrasive manner
- craving a drink, a smoke or other substances that relax you
- raising your voice
- beginning to yell, scream, or cry
Last year, a friend of mine sent a shipment of green rubber flooring, at great impractical expense, to a villa in the south of France because she was worried that over the summer holiday her toddler would fall on the stone floor. Generations of French children may have made their way safely to adulthood, walking and falling and playing and dreaming on these very same stone floors, but that did not deter her in her determination to be safe. This was, I think, an extreme articulation of our generation’s common fantasy: that we can control and perfect our children’s environment. And lurking somewhere behind this strange and hopeless desire to create a perfect environment lies the even stranger and more hopeless idea of creating the perfect child.
Of course, for most of us, this perfect, safe, perpetually educational environment is unobtainable; an ineffable dream we can browse through in Dwell, or some other beautiful magazine, with the starkly perfect Oeuf toddler bed, the spotless nursery. Most of us do not raise our children amidst a sea of lovely and instructive wooden toys and soft cushiony rubber floors and healthy organic snacks, but the ideal exists and exerts its dubious influence.
This fantasy of control begins long before the child is born, though every now and then a sane bulletin lands amidst our fashionable perfectionism, a real-world corrective to our over-arching anxieties. I remember reading with some astonishment, while I was pregnant, a quiet, unsensational article about how one study showed that crack babies turned out to be doing as well as non-crack babies. Here we are feeling guilty about goat’s cheese on a salad, or three sips of wine, and all the while these ladies, lighting crack pipes, are producing intelligent and healthy offspring. While it’s true that no one seemed to be wholeheartedly recommending that pregnant women everywhere take up crack for relaxation, the fundamental irony does appear to illustrate a basic point: which is that children, even in utero, are infinitely more adaptable and hardy and mysterious than we imagine.
And yet the current imagination continues to run to control, toward new frontiers and horizons of it. A recent book generating interest in the US is called Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. It takes up questions such as whether eating more fish will raise the intelligence of your child, or what exact level of stress is beneficial to the unborn child. (Too much stress is bad, but too little stress, it turns out, is not good either. One doctor reports that she has pregnant women with blissfully tranquil lives asking her what they can do to add a little healthy stress to the placid uterine environment.)
Then, just last month came the well-publicised British study that suggested that a little drinking during pregnancy is healthy, and that children whose parents drank a little bit were in fact, if anything, slightly more intelligent than children whose mothers refrained entirely. One might think this new evidence would challenge the absolutism of our attitudes about drinking and pregnancy, the near-religious zeal with which we approach the subject, but it’s equally possible that it won’t actually have much effect. Our righteousness and morally charged suspicion that drinking even the tiniest bit will harm an unborn child runs deeper than rational discussion or science; we are primed for guilt and sacrifice, for the obsessive monitoring of the environment, for rampant moralism and reproach, even before the baby is born.
One of my friends asked me, very sensibly, “Is it worth even the smallest risk?” about a glass of wine late in my pregnancy, and of course the answer has to be no. What kind of Lady Macbeth would place her own fleeting desire for a glass of wine above her child’s health, or ability to get into an excellent college? However, the question itself betrays its own assumptions: our exaggerated vision of risk and sensitivity to the impossible idea of control may also be damaging to a child.
If you drink a little, the popular logic goes, your child might be a little dumber. He won’t be damaged per se, but he’ll be a little dumber. Behind this calculation is the mystical idea of engineering the perfect child. But perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is, even if we can engineer him, will he grow up to be unbearable?
You know the child I am talking about: precious, wide-eyed, over-cared-for, fussy, in a beautiful sweater, or a carefully hipsterish T-shirt. Have we done him a favor by protecting him from everything, from dirt and dust and violence and sugar and boredom and egg whites and mean children who steal his plastic dinosaurs, from, in short, the everyday banging-up of the universe? The wooden toys that tastefully surround him, the all-sacrificing, well-meaning parents, with a library of books on how to make him turn out correctly— is all of it actually harming or denaturing him?
Someone I know tells me that in the mornings, while making breakfast, packing lunches and laying out clothes, she organises an art project for her children. An art project! This sounds impossibly idyllic – imaginative, engaged, laudable. And yet, is it just the slightest bit mad as well? Will the world, with its long lines in the passport office and traffic jams, be able to live up to quite this standard of exquisite stimulation? And can you force or programme your child to be creative?
The bookshelves offer bright assistance: Amazing Minds: The Science of Nurturing Your Child’s Developing Mind with Games, Activities and More; Raising Your Spirited Child: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Is More Intense, Sensitive, Perceptive, Persistent, Energetic; Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Kids (Without Going Nuts with Worry). These books, and the myriad others like them, hold out the promise of a healthy, civilised venture, where every obstacle, every bedtime, every tantrum, is something to be mastered like an exam at school.
Can we, for a moment, flash back to the benign neglect of the 1970s and ’80s? I can remember my parents having parties, wild children running around until dark, catching fireflies. If these children helped themselves to three slices of cake, or ingested the second-hand smoke from cigarettes, or carried cocktails to adults who were ever so slightly slurring their words, they were not noticed; they were loved, just not monitored. And, as I remember it, those warm summer nights of not being focused on were liberating. In the long sticky hours of boredom, in the lonely, unsupervised, unstructured time, something blooms; it was in those margins that we became ourselves.
And then, of course, it sometimes turns out that the perfect environment is not perfect. Take for example, the fastidiousness a certain segment of modern parents enthusiastically cultivates. The New York Times recently ran an article called “Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good for You“, which addressed itself sotto voce to parents who insist that everyone who enters their house takes off their shoes, who obsessively wash hands, or don’t allow their children on the subway and carry around little bottles of disinfectant. Apparently, there is, from a sensible scientific point of view, such a thing as being too clean; children, it turns out, need to be exposed to a little dirt to develop immunities, and it seems that the smudged, filthy child happily chewing on a stick in the playground is healthier than his immaculate, prodigiously wiped-down counterpart. I like this story because there may be no better metaphor for the conundrum of over-protection, the protection that doesn’t protect.
Homework offers parents another fertile opportunity to be involved, i.e. immersed. I can recall my own mother vaguely calling upstairs “Have you done your homework?” but I cannot recall her rolling up her sleeves to work side by side with me cutting out pictures of rice paddies for a project about Vietnam, or monitoring how many pages of Wuthering Heights I had read. One mother told me about how her 7-year-old, at one of New York’s top private schools, received an essay assignment asking how his “life experience” reflected Robert Frost’s line in “The Road Not Taken”: “I took the one less traveled by.” And, of course, that would be a question calling out for the parent writing it herself, since the 7-year-old’s “life experience” had not yet thrown up all that many roads.
One of the more troubling aspects of our new ethos of control is that it contains a vision of right-minded child rearing that is in its own enlightened way as exclusive and conformist as anything in the 1950s. Anyone who does not control their children’s environment according to current fashions and science, who, say, bribes their child with M&Ms or feeds their baby non-organic milk or has a party that lasts until 2 a.m., is behaving in a wild and reckless manner that somehow challenges the status quo. The less trivial problem is this: The rigorous ideal of the perfect environment doesn’t allow for true difference, for the child raised by a grandparent, or a single mother, or divorced parents; its vision is definitely of two parents taking turns carrying the designer baby sling. Mandatory 24-hour improvement and enrichment, have, in other words, their oppressive side.
A quick perusal of a random calendar for a random Saturday for a random member of this generation’s finest parents will reveal shuttling to gymnastics class and birthday parties and soccer, and Feeling Art and Expressing Yourself Through Theater—entire days vanishing into the scheduled and rigorous happiness of the child, entire days passing without the promise or hope or expectation of even one uninterrupted adult conversation. (Those who fall a little short can only aspire to this condition of energetic and industrious parenting.)
One sometimes sees these exhausted, devoted, slightly drab parents, piling out of the car, and thinks, is all of this high-level watching and steering and analysing really making anyone happier? One wonders if family life is somehow overweighted in the children’s direction—which is not to say that we should love them less, but that the concept of adulthood has somehow transmogrified into parenthood. What one wonders, more specifically, is whether this intense, admirable focus is good for the child? Is there something reassuring in parental selfishness, in the idea that your parents have busy, mysterious lives of their own, in which they sometimes do things that are not entirely dedicated to your entertainment or improvement?
I also can’t help but wonder if all of the effort poured into creating the perfect child, like the haute bourgeois attention to stylish food, is a way of deflecting and rechannelling adult disappointment. Are these parents, so virtuously exhausted, so child-drained at the end of one of these busy days, compensating for something they have given up? Something missing in their marriage? Some romantic disappointment? Some compromise of career or adventure? One can’t help but wonder, in other words, what Tolstoy or Flaubert would make of our current parenting style.
The effort to control is prolonged, too, later and later into the child’s life. Colleges in the US have begun to give parents explicit instructions about when it is time to leave after dropping students off at school, because otherwise they won’t. Even at college, even with 17- and 18-year-olds, these parents are lingering, involved, invested, tinkering; they want to stay, in other words, and control more.
Built into this model of the perfectible child is, of course, an inevitable failure. You can’t control everything, the universe offers up rogue moments that will make your child unhappy or sick or broken-hearted, there will be faithless friends and failed auditions and bad teachers. The one true terrifying fact of bringing an innocent baby into the fallen world is that no matter how much rubber flooring you ship to the villa in the south of France, you can’t protect her from being hurt.
This may sound more bombastic than I mean to be. All I am suggesting is that it might be time to stand back, pour a drink, and let the children torment, or bore or injure each other a little. It might be time to dabble in the laissez faire; to let the imagination run to art instead of art projects; to let the imperfect universe and its imperfect children be themselves.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
How Are Good Intentions Mischief?
Children want to be helpful and productive. That is how they learn and grow. Many parents and parental stand-ins insist on keeping their young people in a state of discouraging uselessness with good intentions. This is no more than self-serving mischief which we define as anything that doesn’t need to be done. Mischief doesn’t make sense to us. It doesn’t even make sense to the mischief maker. Mischief isn’t sensible or rational. It is non-rational. It arises out of purposes that lie below the level of conscious awareness. We can cope with our well intentioned mischief makers when we know what these hidden purposes are:
“Here, let me help you with that puzzle. “(Subtext: See what a good parent I am everybody?”) ( This is Goal 1: Attention and Service for the purpose of self-validation which will not succeed.)
(Better: “Here’s a new puzzle. Let’s see if we can put it together, you and me.”)
“Give me those scissors. You’ll poke your eyes out!” (Subtext: It’s my job to prevent bad things from happening.”) (Goal 2: Power and Control, for the purpose of preventing disaster perfectly in the future.)
(Better: “Be careful. Don’t hurt yourself.”)
“I told you not to try riding your bike by yourself! I’m going to punish you for disobeying me! I’ll teach you to listen next time” (Subtext: I am teaching the child the difference between right and wrong for his own good.”) (Goal 3: Revenge. Relieving the pain of our anger at someone else’s expense.)
(Better: “It makes me angry when you don’t do what I tell you. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. What can we do about it?” “Put it in the shed till tomorrow?” “O.K..”)
“Forget about it. It’s too hard. We’ll do it some other time” (Subtext: What’s the use of trying. We’ll only fail again.”) (Goal 4: Withdrawal in Helplessness and Discouragement. We succeed in setting an example of discouragement for our child to see and follow.)
(Better: “It’s hard isn’t it. Do the best you can and let me know if you get stuck.”)
This is how we shape the child’s attitudes and behaviors. This is how our good intentions replace the child’s native self-respect and confidence with self-doubt. This is how we eliminate the possibility of positive, productive behavior and leave only the option of making destructive mischief. The irony is that we do it all with the best of intentions.
To top off the irony, we say to our adult child, again with the best of intentions, “Why are you such a lazy bum? Look at you. You should be ashamed of yourself! After all I’ve done for you!”
We still don’t get it, do we. And if we don’t get it, how can we expect our child, our student, our employee, our client to get it?
The antidote to all of these mischiefs and counter-mischiefs is positive behavior which arises out of a context of self-respect. We teach self-respect by setting an example of it ourselves. If we do not have it, we cannot set an example of it for others people to see and follow. We can demonstrate our self-respect by replacing our good intentions with real intentions. Children can feel the difference. Real intentions make their lives happy and productive. They will carry our example of self-respect into the future and pass it on to the next generation. If we do not set the example, they cannot carry it on.
Why Do We Need To Know About Good Intentions?
If we do not understand the destructive effects that these seemingly beneficent intentions have on our relationships at home and at work, we cannot begin to counter their negative effects.
A. The Individual Parent Has Good Intentions.
1. We have just seen how “good intentions” can have a deleterious effect on young children. Parents cannot see the effects of their good intentions on that child because they are deceived by the camouflage of their self-serving concerns. But this is how parents rob their children of their native self-respect and replace it with self-doubt and self-contempt.
2. Parental good intentions have the effect of replacing the child’s healthy, appropriate attitudes with their exact opposites. The child grows up with negative attitudes towards himself, his loved ones, society, his employer and his community.
3. It is the context of self-contempt that predisposes the child to behave negatively and destructively. His negative behavior brings about punishment and other negative consequences which confirm him in his self-contempt. He carries his predisposition to behave negatively into adulthood where he inflicts his abusive tendencies on the people around him if he thinks he can get away with it.
4. In extreme cases of self-contempt, the individual’s behavior has the hidden purpose of bringing about the pain, unhappiness and destruction that worthless people such as himself “deserve.”
B. People In Positions Of Authority And Responsibility Have Good Intentions.
It isn’t only parents. Teachers, counselors, administrators, politicians, police and so on have good intentions for the people they control. Their misintentions turn out to make things worse instead of better. It is as if they were standing in loco parentis on their fellow human beings, as if they knew what was best for everyone by virtue of their superior station in life. There is no basis for this assumption.
In extreme cases, unstable politicians and religious leaders set their followers on a high-sounding but destructive path that has little or no relation to the demands of living in the real world.
C. Good Intentions Make Us Angry.
The good intentions of others make us angry. We don’t know what to do with our anger because these people seem so beneficent. We are reluctant to displease them because of the seeming kindness in their hearts. We need to see that this is not kindness, but rather self-serving, over-compensatory, inappropriate behavior on their part as a our first step to countering it effectively. For instance, we can say, “I know you mean well, that you want the best for me, but I prefer to do it this way. Or, we can say, “No thanks, I’ll be fine.”
D. Good Intentions Can Make Us Violent.
Some people, who do not respect themselves to begin with, are vulnerable to becoming super angry. They are angry at being controlled by well-intentioned but unself-respecting superiors; they resent the well intentioned rules and regulations imposed on them for their own good, as if they were too stupid to make independent judgements on their own. They become super angry when they perceive an injustice in the “wrongness” of a public policy with which they disagree. These controls are often imposed by someone who meant well but had a self-serving power and control agenda below the surface.
The person who becomes violent often has the good intention to right these wrongs by taking up arms against them. We may disagree with his tactics, but we “see his point.” But his point can never be made by using good intentions instead of mature, difficult thought processes. That is how problems are solved in the real world. That is a real intention.
E. We Need To Repair Our Own Damage.
We all had parents! To the extent that our parents weren’t perfect, they made mistakes, too. Their good intentions for us contributed to our present self-doubts, inappropriate roles and negative attitudes. It is our responsibility to identify these carryovers from our imperfect childhoods and bring them into alignment with the demands of the real world. We cannot be as effective in our capacities as counsellors, teachers, parents or spouses until we repair the damage that was done to us. We need to repair the damage in the right way. Too many of us try to repair it with techniques that make things worse instead of better, such as indulging in addictive behaviors, withdrawing from life, escaping into negative excitement and so on.
F. We Have Good Intentions For Ourselves.
Most of these self-destructive techniques are no more than good intentions that we have for ourselves. We bring about our own misfortune when we operate out of mindless attitudes from the past instead of our adult, considered judgment in the present. We must get out of our own way if we wish to live happy, productive lives.
How Do We Get Out Of Our Own Way?
How can we replace our inept good intentions with real intentions for ourselves and our fellow human beings? By doing our Homework. We can catch ourselves in the act of inflicting a self-serving good intention on someone and choose not to. We can catch ourselves:
• Wanting to be liked by pleasing in ways that are inappropriate to the situation.
• Wanting to be more responsible than reality requires us to be.
• Wanting to prevent disasters in the future as if we knew what was going to happen, as if the worst case scenario was the only possible outcome and that it had to be prevented at all costs. We cannot predict the future out of attitudes that formed in childhood.
• Wanting to prove that we are not inadequate by doing more than the situation requires us to do “just to be on the safe side.”
• Wanting to prevent the humiliating exposure of our inadequacy to cope by withdrawing from reality.
• Wanting to get our own way by controlling others for their own good.
• Wanting to ensure a perfect outcome.
These “wants” are all silent good intentions that we have for ourselves. We want our way.
Specifically, we can catch ourselves wanting to give someone what we are sure is good advice: “This is what I would do” or “This is what you should do.” We do not give advice. We find out what is preventing the individual from taking appropriate action in his own behalf. We want to find out
• What is he afraid will happen if he takes appropriate action?
• What attitude is he operating out of and how can it be replaced with a more
• What is his operating attitude towards success? If he doesn’t deserve to succeed, he will find a way to fail and sabotage our good advice. He will then blame us for the negative outcome and he will be right. We have fallen into his dependency trap.
Instead of giving well-intentioned advice, we identify and remove these impediments to action. We reveal to people that they are not powerless and dependent anymore. They have the power of choice; they have adult judgment; their judgment can be trusted now. It is good enough. They have the courage to take appropriate risks. For example, we reveal that they have the option of doing what pleases them. They may not even know what pleases them. That possibility has not occurred to them heretofore. Their Homework, then, is not to take our good advice, but to find out for themselves what it would please them to do and then do it, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
After they have done it, for example, treat themselves to a nice breakfast in a restaurant for a change, we can debrief their Homework. We can ask them how they felt after they did it. We can ask if they felt relief, control, accomplishment, success, identity, maturity, appropriate responsibility, security, independence, liberation, trust in their judgment, equality, courage, living in the present and belonging. These are all components of self-respect which is the antidote to the self-doubt from their childhood. We can even ask, “Was that a good intention that you had for yourself?” They may say, “Yes,” but it wasn’t. It was a real intention to do what the situation required them to do. They earned the right to enjoy this treat after all their hard work. If it were mere self-indulgence, they would not have experienced all these components of self-respect. Having succeeded once, they are in a better position to do it again. That feeling is called confidence. We did not give them this confidence. They earned it. They gave it to themselves.
Another problem unself-respecting people have is that they are unable to express their appropriate needs and wants. Their impediments to accomplishing this task include:
• “I want to avoid displeasing.”
• “I want to avoid looking selfish or inconsiderate.”
• “I want to avoid appearing weak and dependent.”
• “I won’t get it anyway so why bother?”
• “I don’t deserve to get it.”
• “I’d feel guilty if I got it and then have to give it back in the end.”
• “I want to avoid feeling obligated to return the favor.”
• “I’m afraid I won’t ask for it in the right way, that is, perfectly.”
• “There’s no guarantee I’ll get it. I’m afraid to take the risk of failing. I will take my failure personally. It would hurt too much. It hurts less to just do without.”
All of these are negative attitudes and these are all consistent with self-contempt. These are all counter-productive good intentions to avoid the painful disaster that unself-respecting people predict for themselves. This person’s Homework would cut through all of these negative considerations and just ask. That is a real intention. Reality requires that we secure the cooperation of our fellow human beings in a context of mutual respect. But reaching out to someone after all these years is scary. It takes courage, and some of us are willing to take anything but a risk. As adults, people have the power of choice to do it or not. They are in control of the time and place. Asking is not a sign of weakness or dependency at all. It is a matter of interdependence between two equal, imperfect human beings. After they succeed in getting what they want, they will experience all the components of self-respect. It will come easier next time. They are prepared to enter into appropriate give and take relationships with their friends and coworkers. This is called positive cooperation as opposed to negative cooperation which is mutually destructive mischief.
If the answer to their request is no, the individual is prepared for the problem of taking “rejection” personally. Their antidote is the knowledge that self-respect is not conditional upon getting what one wants. This is not a reflection on ones worth as a person. One is a worthwhile human being in spite of ones faults and imperfections, whether the answer is yes or no. We would have preferred a positive response, but we are worthwhile either way. If the negative response makes us angry, we can express our legitimate anger like a civilized human being, “It makes me angry when you won’t lend me a hand when I need you.” This is not self-pity, or a threat of revenge. It is telling the truth about ourselves even when that truth is displeasing. This demonstration of self-respect is often the first step in the creation of an atmosphere of mutual respect in which it is possible for people to give and take as equal members of the human race.
These concepts remain intellectual and theoretical until the individual works up the courage to make a break with his or her unhappy past. These new ideas become incorporated into the newly forming personality in the moment that the individual gets out of his or her own way and does what reality requires them to do. Then these concepts become real.
In doing an appropriate Homework, we heal the heart/mind connection that was broken in childhood. We feel integrated into a new whole that did not exist before. We can do it again. Like anything else, it gets easier with practice.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
All of us know someone who is never pleased. No matter how hard we try to make things pleasant, the individual can find some imperfection to dwell on and spoil our best efforts. It is as though he were allergic to being pleased. Hypercritical individuals cannot be happy with material or social success. A happy event, such as a wedding or birthday is an ordeal for them. They see to it that it becomes an ordeal for everyone within earshot:
“What’s the big deal? You’d think no one ever got married before!”
“You call this a party? When my Uncle Steve turned sixty he had fourteen-piece band, and an 8 course meal, an open bar with top shelf liquor, a magician, hotel rooms and limos for all the guests. Now, that’s a party.”
We call this person a crab or a sourpuss, as if such labels solved the problem. Labels do not shed any light on the subject; we understand nothing. Labels only make the rest of the problem that much harder to trace. These people are angry at life for not being better than it is. Until life is better than it is, they reserve the right to “complain about the service” at the top of their voice. They refuse to accept it as it is. They cannot and will not be happy with it until it lives up to their fictitious expectations. The consequence of this house rule is that they can never be happy. This rule, in fact, requires them to be angry at anyone who has the audacity to try to make them happy. Such efforts are doomed in advance to fail, and these individuals will hold the would-be pleaser in contempt for trying.
The hypercritical individual feels threatened by happiness. True happiness would undermine the basis of his existence. It would prove to him that his attitudes and convictions about life have been wrong. He would rather be miserable and confirm his mistaken childhood attitudes than risk the loss of the only lifestyle he has known. He is the prisoner of his crabbiness.
These mistaken attitudes and expectations are absurd; they are also tragic. They effectively prevent the sufferer and his loved ones from enjoying the happiness that they work so long and hard to get. It is equally absurd to “fight” these attitudes without understanding the lifestyle that they serve and perpetuate.
Case Study: The World Isn’t Good Enough for Me”
Client: “My girlfriend said something to me the other day that got me thinking. She said, ‘You know, you’re awfully bitchy lately.’”
Therapist: “And was she right?”
Client: “Yes, she really was. My mother was bitchy all the time, and now I can see that I’m just like her. It’s like I can’t stop myself.”
Therapist: “Can you be more specific? What did you say that was so bitchy?”
Client: “For instance, I went into the bakery and the lady behind the counter said, “Gee, it’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Without even thinking, I said, “I like it a little cooler. It’s too warm for me.” When I got out of there, it hit me. I realized that it was bitchy of me to complain about the weather, she was just trying to be friendly, and I shot her down. I’ve been doing that all my life without knowing it. I’m just like my mother, and I don’t know how to stop.”
Therapist: “Bitchiness doesn’t sound like much of a problem at first, but it can be very serious. It can keep you from enjoying life. It can keep you from having gratifying relationships. People don’t want to associate with someone who complains all the time. So we wind up all alone, and then bitch about how badly we are treated.”
Client: “And we don’t realize that we have brought it on ourselves. It’s true. I don’t like people who complain to me, but I’m doing the same thing as they are. How can I stop?”
Therapist: “As I said, your problem is serious, and it is very complex. It has many facets. Each one has to be identified and replaced with more realistic and appropriate convictions. One facet of your problem is that, like most daughters, you are an ‘obedient child.’ You are obeying the unhappy example that your mother set before you. As much as you would like to rebel against her, you continue to follow in her footsteps. You must give yourself permission to ‘disobey’ your mother and resist the temptation to complain.”
Client: “That’s hard to do.”
Therapist: “I know it is, but grownups do what is difficult. It is worth the effort. But there’s more. When someone tries to be friendly and make you happy, you feel compelled to shoot her down. It is though you don’t deserve the friendship or the happiness.”
Client: “That’s because I feel worthless, isn’t it?”
Therapist: “That’s right. In addition, you feel inadequate to cope with the tasks and responsibilities of adult friendship. You have to nip it in the bud so that your supposed inadequacies won’t be revealed later on.”
Client: “That’s my fear of failure, and my insecurity coming out. Is there more?”
Therapist: “We’ve only just begun. Another facet is your conviction that happiness is only temporary and ends in disaster later on.”
Client: “Now that’s my allergy to happiness. All that from bitching?”
Therapist: “The next facet is the confirmation of your prophecies of disaster. When you drive people away from you with your bitching, you can say, ‘I told you so. I knew they wouldn’t stick around for long.’ It gives you something else to bitch about.’ “
Client: “Well, isn’t it true?”
“If you work at it hard enough, you can make it come true. But, there is one last facet of your bitching that we have to understand before we can stop it. From what you tell me about your mother, I get the impression that she thought the world wasn’t good enough for her.”
Client: “That’s true. She didn’t like anything. She never had anything good to say. But why is that so serious?”
Therapist: “It becomes very serious when an individual appoints herself to stand in judgment on the world and find it wanting. Not only does the world fail to live up to her high standards and expectations, but it is her responsibility to point out the world’s deficiencies at every opportunity.”
Client: “That becomes a full-time job.”
Therapist: “It’s a very heavy, unfulfilling responsibility, but one that she could not put down.”
Client: “Why couldn’t she?”
Therapist: “Because nobody ever told her that she could. And because she used this phony, self-appointed, super-responsibility to exempt herself from the more mundane tasks of life at which there was a chance that she might fail.”
Client: “Such as.”
Therapist: “Such as being an adequate mother to her daughter.”
Therapist: “A third reason was that she did not know what would replace this supercritical lifestyle if she were to give it up. It was the only role she had, and it was better than nothing. Fourth, she used this behavior to overcompensate for her own feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy to cope with the real responsibilities of the adult world.”
Client: “How so?”
Therapist: “She appointed herself to the role of judging the world and its people and condemning them for their failure to live up to her high expectations. She was setting herself above her fellow human beings. This phony superiority was her way of relieving the pain of her underlying convictions of inferiority and worthlessness.”
Client: “That’s right. Who was she to criticize everybody else? She was no better than the neighbors that she ran down all the time. I can see that I have been behaving the same way, and for the same reasons. How can I stop it now? What is my Homework?”
Therapist: “Your Homework is to catch yourself behaving as if the world weren’t good enough for you and cut it out. Instead, I want you to decide that the world is good enough for you after all, which it is.”
Client: “I can see how absurd it is for me not to accept the world as it is. Who am I to complain that the world isn’t good enough for me.”
This mistaken conviction perpetuates our self-contempt. If we have contempt for the world we live in, it world rubs off on us. We are no better than the world no matter how badly we try to elevate ourselves above our fellow members of the human race. The antidote to this attitude is that the world is good enough as it is. It can always be better; it will never be perfect, but it is good enough for us in the meantime.
Client: “I can see complaining and criticizing isn’t the way to make the world a better place anyway. It only turns people off and makes things worse.”
Therapist: “Your mother’s ambition to teach the world the error of its way comes under the heading of ‘good intentions.’ She deceived herself into thinking that she knew what would make things better when the truth was that she knew nothing of the kind. Her good intentions were, as usual, self-indulgent and counterproductive. She was trying to make herself feel superior with her self-appointed role as judge and jury. She only made things worse with her continual carping.”
Client: “I guess there’s no such thing as constructive bitching.”
Therapist: “It’s a contradiction in terms. Can you catch yourself about to say something that you imagine will improve the hell out of someone and decide not to?”
Client: “It’s so tempting.”
Therapist: “Can you resist the temptation? You do not have to build yourself up by tearing the world down. The world is good enough as it is, and so are you.”
Holly did her Homework. She caught herself about to criticize her mother for being so critical! This would have been madness compounded. She chose to do the unexpected. She did not fight and she did not give in to her mother’s absurd terms. She took the third course, to live on her own valid terms. She said, “It must be awful for you, Ma.” It was not said sarcastically, it was the truth. Life is awful for people who cannot even have the hope of happiness because of their inappropriate attitudes. Mother’s tone of voice changed, it softened, she came down from her fictitious perch and began to talk like an equal member of the human race. They had a civil conversation for the first time in Holly’s memory.
Therapist: “How did you feel after you said that to your mother? Did you feel guilty, out of control?”
Client: “No. I felt great, like I had just made something happen on my own terms.”
Therapist: “Is that called accomplishment? Success?”
Therapist: “Can you do it again?”
Client: “Yes, I can.”
Therapist: “What’s that feeling called?”
Therapist: “Who gave you that confidence?”
Client: “I did.”
Therapist: “That’s a feeling of identity, maturity. What happened to your dependency? Were you rebelling?”
Client: “No. I was just equal.”
Therapist: “Did you feel independent?”
Client: “Yes, I wasn’t dependent on her any more. I wasn’t trying to make her into a mommy any more. I don’t need a mommy, I need a grown up member of the human race that I can cooperate with as one woman to another. No more games, no more mischief.”
Therapist: “How has she been since?”
Client: “It’s been holding. She’s been treating me like a regular person ever since I disengaged from her mischief. And she doesn’t even know what I did.”
Therapist: “And we’re not going to tell her.”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The simple fact is that for many while there are children in the home, the marriage relationship often seems to be thrown to the background. The schedule revolves around feedings, changing, bedtime, bath time, homework, and on it goes. It is inevitable that just when you think the kids are asleep, and you make a move with your spouse, the baby starts crying or your other child ends up standing at the foot of the bed. Passion wanes. Time for adventure disappears. It is, however, possible to capture time with your spouse before passion fades. Here are a few ideas:
1. Establish a schedule. This is not only great for the kids and their development; it also helps create time for each other. This could be done as simply as scheduling a weekly dinner or lunch date. A coffee break together. Or a regular sexual encounter together (scheduling this does not lessen the passion and heat despite the lack of spontaneity; you can be spontaneous during the encounter). By having something scheduled, you create room for anticipation.
2. Utilize babysitters or family members. There are many very capable teenagers out there interested in earning a little bit of money while you take your spouse out for the evening. The beauty of this option is the kids get someone new to play and interact with, while you get a break together. Be sure to plan out the evening away in order to ensure you don’t return home until after the kids are in bed asleep. That way, if the date has gone well, there will be the possibility of being invited in for an uninterrupted “nightcap.” To create a greater flow towards the end of the date, look for a babysitter that either drives or can get to and from your home easily. An even better option is to utilize family members that live nearby. It is amazing to me the number of couples I have met that have not had their kids stay over night with family members or friends. Not only do you and your spouse benefit from this time, your kids do as well. They experience an expanded range of people who love and care for them. This can set a foundation for greater self-confidence and growth as they develop. It also begins to create a village mindset in the raising of your children. The best thing about the family option is the likelihood that the kids would be out of the house the whole night.
3. Secret signals or code words. It is often difficult to have conversations that may lead to deeper more intimate connections when you are interrupted every five minutes by one kid tattling on the other or needing something from you for their homework or wardrobe. This can be overcome by creating another language or codes to use with each other. This language or code should be based on whatever you would be saying to each other if given the opportunity. If this type of language is not part of your normal dialogue, then it would need to be created all together. It could be as simple as lighting a candle that is centrally located in the home as a signal one of the parties is interested in an encounter. Whether the encounter is sexual or emotional is up to you. Or it could be as complex as learning a second language. How great of a motivation would it be if you were trying to woo your spouse in another language? And if your kids begin to understand the language, they would only discover more about the love and desire you have for your spouse. There are far worse things they probably already know about you.
4. Be a lover to your kid’s other parent. As your kids grow older, there is nothing wrong with informing them of your plans to be alone with your spouse. You don’t have to give all the details, but claim the time you want to spend with your spouse and let the kids know they are not invited to join or interrupt. When your spouse and the marriage are a priority, the kids benefit. In fact, research is now showing that when the marriage is the focus rather than the kids, it is better for the family. I have always believed that the best thing you can do for your kids is to love your spouse. Let them also appropriately see you love them as well. Hold hands, talk, hug, kiss, sit by each other, and cuddle in front of your kids. They may be jealous that they aren’t getting the attention, but in time, they’ll be glad you paved the way for their relationships.
Kids in the home present some obstacles to passion in marriage, but they aren’t the only reason passion wanes. By overcoming the hurdles of kids, you are faced with what else may be going on in the marriage. The kids can provide a buffer for a stale marriage. If that’s the case, more work will need to be done individually and relationally to address the other concerns. Marriage is work. But the things in life that require work are more valuable and more worth it.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
While driving down the highway in the fast lane, the person in front of you appears to have no idea what the fast lane means. After running all over town with the kids, you arrive home. They know they have rooms yet insist that the entire house is their closet and drop things wherever they please. It’s your birthday and your best friend gets you just what you needed, nothing. It seems that in these instances, the first reaction is to take things personally. As if what was done was intentional, a personal attack.
As odd as it sounds, we often think that there are many forces against us and we are innocent bystanders. I don’t agree. While there are some truly random events, much of what happens is our own doing. How we feel and react to the things going on around us will largely determine what happens to us. In the preceding examples, what makes us think that the things that happen to us are directed at us? Instead of reacting with a “How dare you!” we often react with a “How dare you do this to me!” The truth of the matter is that each person is really more concerned about themselves than they are others. It’s survival of the fittest. The person driving slow in front of me in traffic is more concerned about having a wide open lane ahead of them than they are with me getting past.
A lot of our life is spent worrying about what others may think or feel about us. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, we wouldn’t worry near as much about what others thought about us if we knew how seldom they did. When we are emotionally reactive to things in life, we give up our power to choose. If we take things personally, whether intended personally or not, our reaction intensifies. All of the sudden we have to defend ourselves, though many times a response is not warranted. Instead it would be better if we could learn the art of self-soothing. To be able to calm ourselves in the midst of emotional reactions opens a whole new range of responses.
We all have this ability. We are born with it. Just the other day, my 2 year old was climbing up on a toy in the house for the first time. As I watched her, she had a moment of pause just before she stood up tall and proud. In that moment of pause, she gathered herself and found the internal courage to stand. We do the same thing just before we honestly speak our mind, or address an issue with our spouse or kids. Self-soothing can be enhanced and used in all situations. And doing so gives you much more power over life’s circumstances.
To put this another way; you teach people how to treat you. If you feel that many people treat you wrong or take advantage of you, it only happens because you let them. Learning how to self-sooth, then stand up will produce a different outcome. This in turn will change the way others treat you. If you demand respect, trust, love, honor, comfort, or whatever, accept nothing less. Whenever you receive less than you expect, rather than taking it personally and reacting as such, calm yourself and address the issue. Either put yourself in their shoes and see it from their perspective or stand up and be honest, or both. If this honesty comes from both your mind and heart, it carries much more weight than just emotional reactivity.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Ashley was 19. She had been away at college her freshman and sophomore years when her life unraveled again. In high school, she had struggled for several years with escalating depression, drinking, and marijuana use, and the painful feeling that her mother was ashamed of her. Her parents did not recognize the seriousness of the situation until she began to scratch and then cut her arms with sharp objects, at which point her mom got scared and sought help. During senior year of high school, her mom forced her into treatment, and with intensive individual, family and group therapies she become sober and psychologically stable.
Before leaving for college, Ashley was much better. She felt strong, proud of herself, and grateful to her parents for the ways they changed and learned to support her. Ashley even seemed to rise above her past – becoming an informal spokesperson for treatment and sobriety and seeking out ways to help friends and others in trouble.
At college Ashley initially participated in the support system set up for her, but then her attendance at therapy became sporadic. She became absorbed with campus life and seemed to revel in her independence. Ashley told her parents she felt “fine,” and announced that she no longer needed any anti-depressants and had gone off them.
Towards the end of first semester, Ashley tried to avoid her parents’ calls. When they did speak, she was short with them, refusing to talk about school or therapy. When Ashley came home during winter break, she spent much of her time sleeping and staying in her room on Facebook. Though having agreed and intended to get a job, she became too anxious to follow through the process. When her grades arrived, she could no longer hide that she had failed a course and was on probation. Ashley felt ashamed but promised her parents she would do better next term and go to her therapy appointments.
Unfortunately, the same cycle occurred the following year, culminating in a mounting emotional crisis towards the end of spring semester which she attempted to hide from her parents. When they questioned her over the phone about how she was doing she told them she didn’t not want to talk about it and wanted space. Her parents complied and backed off. When she was home over the summer, however, the signs that she was sinking became harder for her parents to ignore. (The warning signs of her depression included poor grades/failure at school, avoidance, inertia, withdrawal, staying in bed too much, weight gain, lack of motivation, irritability, depressed mood.) Though her words stated otherwise, Ashley had again fallen into the danger zone.
Ashley’s mom, Laura, was a successful surgeon. She struggled with tremendous guilt over her role in her daughter’s emotional problems and failure to heed warning signs that Ashley was in trouble until things were so bad that Ashley started cutting herself.
Laura recognized that, due to her own upbringing, she had been unable to be available emotionally to Ashley and, on top of that, was perpetually disappointed with her. She came to understand that she had tried to mold her daughter into someone more conventional and ambitious, pressuring Ashley to be more like her, thereby giving her the message that she was not good enough.
Ashley’s dad, Tom, was an easygoing guy who generally aimed to please. He loved Ashley very much and gave her whatever she wanted, but did not comprehend what was going on with her psychologically. Tom did not like conflict and feared Ashley’s anger. When she went to college and pulled away, he worried that if they upset her, they could lose her and she might no longer want to come home or no longer want a relationship with them.
Ashley’s mom made remarkable progress in her own therapy during Ashley’s senior year of high school, propelled by motivation and willingness to be honest with herself. This progress was noticeable and quite important to Ashley. By taking explicit responsibility for her own mistakes as a mom, learning to accept and appreciate her daughter as she was, and acting as a supportive presence and guide, Laura played an important role in her daughter’s recovery and helped mend their relationship. Before Ashley went off to college Laura felt good about herself as a mom for the first time, and her relationship with her daughter became more solid than ever.
Once Ashley went off to school, however, Laura began to feel pushed away and their relationship changed. She sacrificed so much to help her and it now seemed to have been wasted effort. As she became aware of Ashley’s failures at school, she wondered whether her daughter was just a slacker, capable of doing better but manipulating the situation to get away with whatever she could. Feeling angry, defeated, and unappreciated, Laura commented that being a mom was a thankless and hopeless job. She wanted to give up and, pulling away in anger, she decided she would stand back and not do anything.
Laura took it personally when she felt her daughter pull away, becoming consumed by an emotional reaction which obstructed perspective on what was really happening. For all of us, executive functions go “off line” when we are triggered into dysregulated emotional states and over-reaction. When this happens, our capacity to respond flexibly, think clearly, and react with good judgment is compromised. When the part of our brain that allows for reflection is deactivated by intense emotion (often originating from unprocessed experiences from our own childhood), instead of being thoughtful about how to respond to children’s needs, we are driven to react automatically and reflexively, as Laura did in her hurt and anger.
When a child’s distress is not taken seriously, and responded to appropriately by the parent, it can fuel an increasingly dangerous situation in which the child feels unconsciously compelled to continue “upping the ante” until the parent shows that they feel something empathically on the child’s behalf. Laura’s failure to recognize Ashley’s state of mind and step in to help led to her daughter’s continued escalation and deterioration, just like in high school when Ashley’s experience of not being “seen” in her pain perpetuated her self-destructiveness. During family therapy in high school, Ashley told her mom that she had felt out of control and driven to cut herself to produce physical evidence of her suffering – desperately hoping her mom would “get it.”
Another problem here was that when Laura was able to step back from her anger, she felt scared and helpless in the face of her daughter’s fragility. She feared that if she took action to set limits, Ashley would be forced to face the truth about her own limitations and might then want to kill herself. The truth was that Ashley was, of course, already aware – at least unconsciously – of her limitations and forced to be alone in it. She needed her parents or someone to step in and take charge.
Attempting to shield children from what they know intuitively to be true usually backfires, impeding the possibility of growth and causing them to feel shame, confusion, and aloneness. Projecting her own anxiety onto Ashley and colluding in a family-wide denial, Laura in effect reinforced Ashley’s sense of shame – and left her feeling unseen again.
Having the courage to face children’s limitations with them and offer help lends courage, builds coping skills, and is reassuring. Despite fears to the contrary, shame is actually decreased when parents are not afraid to face their children (in an non-judgmental way), and do not feel compelled to pretend or hide what is really going on.
What Ashley wished and protested she could do – and even intended to do – did not match her capacities. She demonstrated that she was unable to function in an environment with unlimited freedom and limited structure. She required a setting where help and supervision were built in, where she could not get lost and hide, and fall so hard. And, most of all, she needed her parents to recognize this and not be afraid make hard decisions with her.
Ultimately, Laura phoned her daughter’s therapist who was able to help make explicit what the realistic choices were for Ashley and her family. When presented with limited options for what she could do going forward, Ashley not only seemed relieved but, interestingly, selected the plan with the most structured and contained environment, (a therapeutic residential environment combined with college). This choice was telling and startled her parents – who been too caught up in their own emotions to recognize that, behind Ashley’s protests and demands for independence, was a cry for help and limits. As in this example, setting limits involves using adult judgment to protect children, based on what they can safely handle. Limits and consequences are often confused with punishment, but limits are not “reactive” or delivered out of anger, and differ from punishment in that there is no intent to retaliate and “teach a lesson” or cause the child suffering.
Not long after Ashley was accepted and decided to go to this program, she returned home to get ready. Three days prior to her planned departure, however, Ashley began desperately pleading with her mother that she changed her mind and really did not think this was the right plan for her. She no longer wanted to go. Laura could feel tension from her anger building inside her and a voice in her head saying, “Oh my God, not again – I want to run away.” However, having worked on understanding what happened between her and Ashley leading up to then, Laura was able to step back from this reaction. She was prepared and determined not to make the same mistake this time. However tempting it was, she knew it would be a bad idea to insist or close in on any decision with Ashley in this conversation – as she would have in the past out of anger and her own need for reassurance.
Laura calmed herself by reminding herself that things would be better if she could truly listen and not retreat, be reactive, punitive, or authoritarian. With this approach, Laura learned that her daughter was scared about the road ahead, and worried that she would lose all her friends. Laura was able to be empathic, while holding a calm, confident, but unspoken resolve about what her daughter needed, in effect, creating a sense of security for her Ashley.
At the end of the conversation, Laura matter-of-factly asked Ashley if she wanted to do some packing for the program together and Ashley nodded in agreement. She thought to herself, “Hmm – clearly she still actually intends to go”. To Laura’s surprise, even though she had not given in to Ashley’s begging, her daughter experienced her as supportive and protective, and eventually calmed and settled down.
Afterwards, Laura invited Ashley to go out for a walk. Ashley complained that she was still in her sweats and was “too fat and ugly” to go out. Laura responded by putting on her sweats too and showing up unobtrusively at the entranceway to Ashley’s room. Ashley looked up at her mom and the two of them headed towards the front door for their walk, quietly in step with one another.
Tips for Parents
• Respond thoughtfully and collaboratively with your teen to signs of trouble including: behavior changes, withdrawal, unhappiness, inertia, self-harm, repetitive cycles of academic or other failure, drug/alcohol abuse, shame/hiding. Seek consultation.
• Listen to teen’s behavior, not just their words. Understand behavior as a communication to you – and think about what the message might be. Try the following: If your teen’s behavior told a story, what would the title be? In this case, for example, the title of Ashley’s story might be, “I’m too ashamed to admit it but I’m out of control. Help!”
• Recognize that often through no fault of their own, teens’ best intentions may not carry over into their actions.
• Notice your own state of mind. Be honest with yourself and your teen about whether you are reacting out of your own needs, fears, anger, helplessness.
• Recognize that anxiety and worry about teens’ reactions (for example, whether they will be mad at you),should not be the primary determinant of what to do, or the gauge of whether you are doing the right thing,
• Differentiate between letting your teen have autonomy and reacting (in kind ) to their pulling away.
• Recognize when your teen is unable to make good decisions – and step in.
• Remember the power you have to affect your teen, even if privately you feel powerless or not needed.
• Recognize that, though they will say otherwise (and that’s ok), teens feel protected by limits. No one likes feeling out of control without anyone strong enough to help them.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
There are many events ripe for unearthing family dramas, often featuring a popular story line about competing loyalties. Though there are variations on the plot, the focus here will be on this dynamic as it plays out with men and boys and their mothers. Many men, caught up in powerful family dynamics from childhood, are plagued this time of year with having to choose between their mothers or their wives, as practical decisions regarding shared holiday time take on added meaning and consequences.
Holidays typically recreate old family dynamics as adult children reunite with parents, creating pressure from the original family system to replay the same patterns as before. This pressure invites conflict as new boundaries, competing with earlier ones, are tested and challenged. How the scene unfolds, and the outcome, depends on the level of differentiation achieved by the man from his mother, and the security of the boundaries he has established around his marriage and new family.
Loyalty binds are part of a common dysfunctional family dynamic which occurs when mothers use their sons to make up for previous loss, and lack of connection with -or anger at- their husbands. In such families, mothers often have a history of unresolved trauma, loss, or insecure attachments with their own mothers. This leads to a parallel and compensatory style of attachment with their sons, whereby instead of the mother tuning in to the child’s emotional states, the reverse occurs, requiring the child to adapt to the mother’s needs,
“Good enough mothering” involves a delicate dance of noticing and attuning to the child’s own rhythm, and adjusting one’s own rhythm to be in sync with the child’s need for closeness or distance, stimulation or retreat. Healthy attachment requires mothers to be secure enough to allow their children to safely differentiate from them without pulling them back in with the threat of anger, withdrawal, and/or guilt. Unresolved issues from the mother’s own childhood, particularly around separation and loss, can impede her capacity to allow the child’s needs and rhythms — not their own — to guide attachment.
As the child becomes an adult, a mother with this anxious, insecure attachment style may refuse to let go, secretly needing to remain the primary love attachment. This may not become apparent until her son finds a romantic love partner and devotes himself to her, allowing a competitor to enter the scene. The situation is then often enacted in full drama around family events and holidays when the mother’s explicit demands, and [unspoken] expectation of “loyalty” (e.g. exclusive love) from her son, conflicts with his role as a husband.
Jason’s mom required a possessive, symbiotic union with her son to guard against experiencing buried feelings of loss and abandonment. Losing her hold over Jason as he shifted his loyalties to his wife was the ultimate threat to her sense of security and control. When Jason married Kelley, the split he felt as a boy when he had to choose between his mom and dad – was recreated between his mother and his wife. This split became most apparent during their first holiday season together, when Jason’s mom made him feel guilty about how he divided his time, accusing him of abandoning her, and directing hate and blame towards Kelley
Jason’s parents divorced when he was a very young boy. Growing up, when he was at his dad’s, his mom called him frequently, asking him if he was ok – even when he was happy – and reassuring him that he had other people (her family) who loved him. She communicated to him in a variety of explicit and implicit ways her hurt and betrayal over his dad, which made Jason feel responsible for taking care of her.
Jason coped by developing a pattern of emotional detachment and blunting his feelings with both parents, so as not to let on that he was having too good a time with either. He experienced muted enjoyment with his dad in particular, often acting as if he were less excited than he was, especially when his mom phoned him, which was often. He felt particularly protective of his mom – the “abandoned one, ” often hiding the nature of his relationship with his dad, though it was secretly vital to him, and feeling guilty for leaving her alone. Jason’s father, in turn, took his son’s blunted reactions at face value, worrying that Jason did not like him or enjoy their time together, often pulling back in reaction or becoming angry.
Jason was in the dark about how he felt because both parents imposed their own feelings onto him. No one helped him understand what was happening or gave him a safe space to experience his own natural reactions, which went underground. Without help articulating their own and other’s states of mind through words and emotional resonance, children do not develop a “sense” of themselves. This self-awareness or inner wisdom is needed to guide us, allowing us to gauge what it happening in our relationships, and make decisions that are true to ourselves.
In place of authentic experience, Jason developed an adaptation to relationships in which he was detached and “other directed”. His reactions were driven by fear and dread of his mom’s unhappiness. When she was angry or hurt, through a process of “projective identification,” he took on her feelings as if they were his own, experiencing the weight of her depression, and the related feelings of guilt and badness she projected onto him.
Projective identification is an unconscious psychological process occurring in relationships whereby one person’s disowned feelings are put into the other. The recipient identifies with these projected feelings as if they were his own and both enter into a shared delusional cycle. In this case, Jason experienced his mom’s rageful accusations of abandonment as an emotional truth, feeling depressed, guilt-ridden and mad at himself for not looking out for her.
Using guilt, as Jason’s mom did, to control others in relationships disregards boundaries and disrespects the other person’s autonomy. This approach to relationships replaces mutuality and negotiation with greed and emotional blackmail, presuming a lack of faith that others would give of their own free will. It is typically an unconscious process whereby the guilt-tripper feels self-righteous, entitled, and innocent of any misdeed. Emotional manipulation through guilt can be costly – breeding resentment, limiting authentic engagement, and hijacking initiative and genuine desire.
In cases such as Jason’s, the lack of differentiation between mother and son is so complete and unconscious that the man may be unaware of the source of his resentment, easily displacing it onto his wife, usually a safer target than mother. This pattern leads to unintended collusion with the mother, causing the marriage to become divided until the man “owns” his unexpressed conflict with his mom, and recognizes that she is the source of his anger. An absence of anger towards his mother, or the inability to come forward with it is likely a sign of re-experiencing a once adaptive, but now instinctual, response to danger experienced as a child for any such emotional separation from mother.
Jason needs to see what is really happening in order to disentangle himself from his mother’s projections and find a space to think and feel for himself. Awareness of his internal conflict and anger over the emotional burden and manipulation he has had to bear will allow him the courage to set limits with his mom. Standing up to his mom will reduce his fear and avoidance, creating a space for him to act of his own volition and desire and choose his wife as his primary loyalty and partner in life.
Tips for the woman:
• Stay aligned with your husband
• Communicate feelings and requests clearly, without anger, or acting out
• Don’t demonize or bad-mouth his momRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Samantha’s mom, Jill, was beside herself. While Samantha was away for the summer at a therapeutic camp, she found a collage Samantha had made – hidden in her room. As a piece of artwork it was impressive – complex, creative, colorful and artistic. But the content was macabre, suggesting fascination with drug culture, dark music, piercings and tattoos. By now, she was expecting and hoping for more from her daughter. This was exactly the type of thinking that led her into trouble in the first place. Overwhelmed with anger and disgust, Jill destroyed the collage. She would not be made a fool of and have these images in her house . Samantha had started getting help last year for drug and alcohol abuse and cutting herself – and according to all measures – seemed to have made tremendous progress . Mother was fairly certain that Samantha had been clean and had been doing well, even feeling excited to return home.
Following this discovery, Samantha’s mom confronted her daughter over the phone and told her to be prepared to find her collage gone when she got home. Samantha freaked out and became hysterical, “I always knew you wanted to get rid of me. All you care about is how you appear. Sorry you’re so ashamed of me and couldn’t have a daughter you could brag about. I hope you’re happy. Even David (past drug dealer) cares about me more than you. Maybe I should just go live with him…”
Samantha’s mom was devastated by this comment, and took it as a personal affront. She vacillated between tears and self-righteous anger. She was mortified by Samantha’s behavior and admitted that she was ashamed of her. “I’m at my wit’s end. Nothing ever changes. She had the nerve to make that collage in my house… And now she seems to prefer that drug dealer over her own home and family…”
Both Samantha and her mom felt rejected and abandoned by one another – and hopeless. Jill wanted what was best for her daughter , but on a deeper level was driven by the need for Samantha to behave according to what would make her feel proud as a mother. The more Jill needed her daughter to make her [mom] feel good about herself, the more alone, ignored, and cast aside Samantha felt (and the more likely Samantha’s behavior would be propelled even further away from mother’s values).
The collage was a window into Samantha’s world. This time instead of acting out her feelings – Samantha used restraint. Through artistic expression, she was able to give voice to and channel her feelings without harming herself. This was a psychological achievement and showed real progress. By getting rid of the collage and showing contempt for what was in it Jill unknowingly turned her back on Samantha and communicated to her that she couldn’t stand to see or know what was inside her.
Now Samantha’s inner world (and pain) was driven further into secrecy and shame, and further from help. Though Samantha appeared angry in her comments to her mom, she internalized mother’s view of her – and was left feeling self-loathing, shame, badness, and despair. To her, throwing the collage in the garbage was tantamount to throwing her away with it.
It’s true, Samantha had never been the kind of daughter Jill had wished for and tried to get her to be. Interestingly, Jill experienced disapproval and criticism from her own mom – who had also always wanted a different kind of daughter. Though she was highly accomplished, Jill never felt good enough and never felt her mom was proud of her. No matter what she did she could not make herself into the person her mother wanted. This was how Samantha felt too. The same dynamic was playing out now- here in the next generation, though not immediately recognizable to Jill because the script was different (since Jill would never have dared to be openly hostile or blatantly self-destructive and defiant like Samantha)- and because of a blind spot.
What should mom have done in the first place and what should she do now? How can we tell whether our reactions are coming from our own unresolved issues versus “legitimate”?
Clues that our own issues are rearing their heads:
When our feeling reactions (anger, self-righteousness, shame) are powerful and require immediate release
When we are certain we are “right”
When feeling the need to “teach a lesson”
When taking our children’s behavior personally
When finding ourselves being repetitive or in a repetitive cycle with our children
When finding ourselves lecturing
(For tips on talking to your teen, please also refer to Guidelines for Parents (CALM) in “Prom Primer: Know Your Limits”)
Jill’s hasty over-reaction caused her to miss an opportunity to get to know her daughter, be close to her and help her, which is what they both really wanted. Had Jill not come to rapid judgment and panicked, she might have been able to praise her daughter for expressing her feelings in an artistic way – and been curious with her about about the collage – how it affected her to make it and what it meant to her. The collage could have served as a conversation piece to bond them. It offered a medium (as art, film, literature can do) to talk about the images and feelings in displacement, and what led her ( or the artist) into that world of darkness– potentially providing enough distance to buffer the topics.
Though at first Jill was certain and thought it was obvious that destroying the collage was the right thing to do, when she came to understand that the collage was symbolically a part of her daughter- an expression of her pain and struggle – she began to feel saddened by how she reacted and less entrenched in the struggle. She loved her daughter and did not want to hurt her or contribute to her feeling bad about herself. She was surprised to learn that although she and her daughter were different in many ways – a chronic source of disappointment to her -and bone of contention between them, in fact she could see that they may not be so far apart in some ways. Jill saw that her daughter was feeling how she often felt growing up in relation to her own mom. Something clicked inside her and she felt for Samantha in a new way. She understood what it was like to feel ashamed and exposed – as an adult this vulnerability from her past resurfaced in relation to Samantha and when faced with disapproval or judgment by an authority figure whose opinion mattered to her. She felt regret and sadness as she recognized that in an unconscious effort to banish shame inside herself – she was unknowingly passing it onto her daughter. In becoming aware of this process, she was able to talk to Samantha with compassion and take responsibility for her own reactions, rather than blame her, thereby allowing a healing process to begin between them.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
The relationship between David and Janet was never loving and then rapidly deteriorated after Janet accidentally got pregnant with their son Jeremy, now 12. They separated not long after the pregnancy so Jeremy never had the experience of living with his mom and dad. The relationship between Janet and David became so acrimonious that initially it impeded any possibility of joint parenting. Janet was angry and didn’t want to share Jeremy and though initially David engaged in a battle with her around this, David – 24 at the time- eventually gave up and settled for a minimal relationship with Jeremy. When Jeremy was about 5, David resumed his fight for shared legal custody and won. However, after some failed attempts at parent guidance sessions which Janet initially refused, they developed separate relationships with Jeremy in styles which did not overlap.
Though Janet claimed she wanted David to be more involved with their son, she often sabotaged this, failing to share important information about Jeremy with him- as well as giving him the cold shoulder when they were at school or sports events, and at drop-off and pick-up. In addition, she attempted to manage the details of his relationship with Jeremy, for example, insisting on pre-approving how they spent their time. On the surface she appeared mistrustful of David as a dad, though there was no legitimate basis for this. Though she was obviously still resentful towards David, her behavior also seemed indicative of a general possessiveness towards Jeremy.
Jeremy was 12 but very young for his age. He had a somewhat clingy but ambivalent relationship with his mother – who failed to provide structure for Jeremy and at times behaved in a rigid and irrational way. Jeremy used to have tantrums but as he got older, this behavior was largely replaced with becoming sullen, uncommunicative, or passively defiant when he was unhappy or mad. At these times he did not seem to listen and was difficult to reach emotionally. He also seemed to get unexplained stomach aches during times of stress and conflict.
Jeremy seemed to have a good time on the weekends with his dad and easily became attached to dad’s girlfriend of several years, Sonya. They all seemed to have fun together and Jeremy often asked about Sonya when she did not join them. When David had told Janet that Sonya would be spending some time with Jeremy and his dad, she chastised David and said that his time with Jeremy was supposed to be for them alone and that it was inappropriate. Over the last several months, as David explained that Sonya was becoming a central part of his life and that they would soon be engaged and living together, Janet began making a case that Jeremy was unhappy about spending time with David and Sonya, though she refused to elaborate.
Subsequently, in the car prior to a visit with dad Jeremy became sullen, asking his dad if Sonya would be there, stating that he didn’t like Sonya. David was surprised since Jeremy had seemed excited and happy when they were all together, and this had never come up before. David did not know what to make of Jeremy’s feelings and could not get Jeremy to explain himself.
David responded to Jeremy by pointing out that Jeremy seemed to like her when he was with her. Privately, he wondered whether Janet might have told Jeremy that she disapproved of Sonya. Then it occurred to him that maybe Jeremy needed more time alone with him. He quickly suggested that they do something alone – just the two of them – if Jeremy wanted. Jeremy did not respond and was quiet the rest of the trip. He greeted Sonya flatly when they got home and got on the computer to play games. A few hours later David asked Jeremy if he wanted to go out for ice-cream with him. Jeremy ran to find Sonya and asked if she could come too. They all had a good time. Various renditions of this scenario recurred over the next few months.
During this time period, on one occasion David let Janet know that he planned to attend Jeremy’s baseball games and might bring Sonya. When Sonya and David arrived at the field, the two of them and Janet took positions on opposite ends of the stands. Jeremy was on the field at the time and the game had not yet begun. When he saw his dad he excitedly ran over to him and Sonya from the field and started talking breathlessly. Once the game started, Jeremy glanced towards the stands. Shortly thereafter, he stopped playing, complained of a stomach ache, and had to go home.
What is happening here? We can all probably easily recognize this story as a clear case of a child being put in the middle between divorced parents.
But what can be done?
David sought counseling because he felt confused and frustrated, recognizing that this situation was but one of many to come. He felt helpless to have any impact on his son, leading him to feel discouraged and despairing. Jeremy spent so much more time with his mom. David knew it was hopeless to resolve issues with Janet because he had tried and failed so many times. Janet did not seem curious about Jeremy’s experience and was either unwilling or unable to reflect on her own experience and impact on Jeremy.
How can we help David and his son?
In spite of his doubts, David’s relationship with his son is critical and will in and of itself have a significant impact on Jeremy’s development. David’s energy should be positively channeled into developing and enhancing his relationship with his son.
In his worry and confusion, David struggled with whether he was hurting Jeremy by having Sonya join them. He wondered whether he could trust his reading of Jeremy. Was Jeremy having fun when he seemed to be having fun? If he was, then why would Jeremy say that he didn’t like Sonya and act sullen?
How should David handle the situation when Jeremy says this to him? When he took a rational stance and disputed what Jeremy was saying, or took it at face value, neither approach worked and Jeremy would become withdrawn and more sullen.
How can we understand Jeremy’s behavior? Jeremy was confused about his inner experience because he sensed – as all children do- the emotional state of his parents. In this example, he sensed the palpable tension between his mom and dad at the baseball game – tension which was barely tolerable even for David. No one was available to help Jeremy manage his feelings. He -adaptively – developed a stomach ache, in the absence of any other way to articulate or escape the situation.
David accurately perceived that Jeremy seemed to freely enjoy his relationship with Sonya before that relationship took on other meaning for his mom. Whether or not Janet directly stated to Jeremy that she disapproved of Sonya, Jeremy could read his mom’s strong feelings and internalized her emotions and state of mind, blocking his own perceptions and feelings. Jeremy appeared depressed and withdrawn as he unconsciously expressed his mom’s perceptions as if they were his own. This depressive mood did not lift when David willingly offered to spend time alone with him, without Sonya. Jeremy’s sullenness, and its persistence in the face of David’s responsiveness to what Jeremy said he felt, communicated the deeper message below the surface of Jeremy’s words.
Jeremy’s reaction was created by having taken on his mom’s feelings, while disavowing his own, creating a state of constriction, detachment, and lack of vitality. When Jeremy said that he didn’t like Sonya, David could have said to Jeremy in an empathic way, “I know it makes mommy unhappy when you spend time with Sonya and you don’t want her to feel bad. “ (This would only be helpful if said without any unconscious intent to retaliate and blame or judge Janet. Otherwise, it would simply compound Jeremy’s confusion.) When David noticed Jeremy having fun with him and Sonya, David could have brought that to light in the moment… “I see you’re having fun today!” Later, David could have expanded on this and begun to articulate the conflict for Jeremy …”I know it makes mommy unhappy when you spend time with Sonya and you don’t want her to feel bad. But you’re allowed to have fun.. and it’s ok to have your own feelings and opinions – even if they are different from mommy’s or from mine.” Of course, in order for David to be successful in reading his son and helping him consolidate his experience, David needs to be of clear mind, unencumbered by his own feelings towards Janet and any anxieties he might have about how Jeremy feels about Sonya and their relationship.
Jeremy needed his dad’s help to understand what he was experiencing, and not simply take his words at face value or dispute them rationally. Parents cannot rely on their children to explain to them what is really going on. It is the parent who must discern what is happening and impart their interpretation of what the child is experiencing. If his dad could tune in to what Jeremy is struggling with and elucidate it for him, Jeremy would feel immediate relief and clarity. If David repeatedly resonates with and articulates what Jeremy feels, this will strengthen Jeremy’s sense of himself, his ability to read and rely on his feelings and perceptions of others, and bond him to his dad – protecting him from falling into a desolate state of ambiguity and confusion. The more developed these capacities the more resilient Jeremy will be in his relationships, and the more he will be able to protect himself versus have his inner experience hijacked by others.
Children can have qualitatively different attachments with each parent. Research consistently shows that a secure attachment with a parent or other trusted adult can ameliorate the effects of troubled attachments and trauma, creating new experiences and new pathways in the brain. A secure and attuned attachment ignites the development of capacities in the child which are necessary for understanding and relating to others and oneself as well as regulating mood and feelings. Such capacities are created and fostered by parents who are self-aware, able to reflect on their own experiences and state of mind, and clear enough of emotional baggage to be present and thoughtful in how they respond to the child the majority of the time.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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