Thursday, August 16, 2007

You're not the boss of me: Playing defense

Not the Boss of Me
is the theme song of a television show, Malcomb in the Middle. The show is about kids and the song is performed by They Might Be Giants. Here are some lyrics:
Yes, no, maybe
I don't know
Can you repeat the question?

You're not the boss of me now
You're not the boss of me now
You're not the boss of me now, and you're not so big.
I was riding my bike to work when another biker cut me off on the street and said, "When you turn the corner you should really be sure to look to see that nobody's coming. Just be careful, okay?"

Excuse me?

It was the When you . . . something. . . you should . . . something. . . that got me. It wouldn't get to everyone, but it got to me.

What, like I didn't look? Here's some 20-something kid telling me to look. HE was going too fast on his bike, obviously. Like I need his advice on how to ride a bike?

I'm not going to bore you with the details. It turns out that although I had looked for cars I hadn't looked for bicycles. He came up on me fast, but he had the right of way.

And all he said was, Just be careful, okay?

Outside of my blog I don't tell patients much about me. I don't even tell new patients about the blog any more to tell you the truth (the anonymity feels so good). But there are times when a therapist has a personal life example that packs that perfect punch.

So here's a story I've told over in therapy a hundred times. More or less.

My father is a wonderful guy and he did a great job as a parent and we did what he said we had to do. He said, Shovel snow? We shoveled snow. He said Weed the garden? We weeded the garden until there wasn't a weed in the yard. That sort of thing. In my house you didn't say, When this t.v. show is over I'll get to it. You did it immediately.

Encouraging assertiveness wasn't exactly his bag. He was old school, as many of the people who are still vertical in his age group tend to be. He and my mom have a traditional marriage to this day, except my father does a lot more cooking and quite a bit of work around the house.

When I think back on it I'm sure he really did leave room for us to ask questions about why we had to do certain things his way when he wanted, but we didn't feel comfortable doing that. And to his credit, at every age we were given plenty of room to explore our world, to become independent, confident people.

Anyway, like I said, what he said ruled. My mother didn't usually contradict, although she softened things up. If you've read my posts on structural family therapy then you know that parents should rule. And yet there are different kingdoms, different countries.

Being the boss of your kids can have interesting consequences. We think it better to encourage the kind of dialog that encourages a kid to do the right thing for himself, not for his parents. A kid who isn't bossed tends to be less sensitive to criticism.

It works like this. If you take orders you feel small. If you feel small you feel powerless. If you feel powerless you feel vulnerable. If you feel vulnerable you feel defensive. If you feel defensive you reflexively assert your boundaries at some point, set your limits. You're less open to even innocuous suggestions

as in When you. . .something. . .you should. . .something.

So the story goes that when FD and I had been married about a week the telephone rang. He said, "Get the phone."

Not Would you get the phone, please? Or even, Can you get the phone?

Get the phone.

I think I said the following, loudly. I remember it word for word.


And I probably said a few more things, but I can't remember them.

Well okay then, he probably replied.

I'm not a yeller, either, but I felt like I'd been hit from behind, attacked. And all he said was, Get the phone.

And I got all defensive. And I knew why. Then today, this kid cuts me off, and in a very sweet, concerned way tells me, Be more careful, and I get all weird like that again.

But I didn't go off on him. I followed him to the light and I asked him to explain to me what happened, and he did and I apologized.

Scary, isn't it? That more than thirty years later, a simple suggestion can still trigger a person like that?

Off the defense,



Anonymous said...

I had to laugh at you reacting to your husband saying "get the phone."

I think it was just before we married that my husband said "Don't tell me what to do."
My response was "Fine, and you don't tell me what to do."

So we have spent almost 47 years not telling each other what to do. We have made an exception when driving we can tell each other "STOP!"

I am a retired Social Worker with a MSSW from U of Wisconsin.

therapydoc said...

Aenodia, Thanks for that one. So cute. Driving is a WHOLE post, FOR SURE.

I think for years I've WANTED him to tell me what to do just to extinguish that knee jerk defensive reaction, but he just won't.

Sigh. Sometimes you just can't win.

Anonymous said...

Yep, grew up with a similar father. And resulting similar sensitivities. I totally get it. And I'm raising my daughter with options. You put into perfect words why.

therapydoc said...

It's one of the common colds, I think.

Mike said...


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therapydoc said...

So I did that. Dat was fun.

Jack Steiner said...

This is why I carry a broomstick on my bike. Any time another cyclist cuts me off I just insert the stick in their spokes.

It is a wonderful release and very therapeutic.

Ok, I haven't actually done it, but I have considered doing so.

therapydoc said...

Thanks for the support, Jack.

Guilty Secret said...

Wow, I really recognised myself in this. I am so insistent on 'please' it gets silly! The other day my boyfriend responded 'I said "would you turn the TV off", isn't that enough? We need 'please' as well?' And I thought: ok, let's give the 'don't tell me what to do' line a rest. It is hard, though!

catherine (fairchild) calhoun said...

your post flashed be back to childhood. i, like comment above, give my kids more options, too many at times, but i hated the being so bossed as a kid and no one bosses me so much now (except the kids, sometimes, can't win for losing as they say :)

dianeclancy said...

Very very true this stuff! I don't like being told what to do either .. but I am now learning to say that rather than adjust and try to keep things going well for everyone ...

At least I am doing it now *sigh*

~ Diane Clancy

therapydoc said...

And I say to myself, once you let that go (the please) you can do it too, just say, Get the phone.

But I can't do that without a Please, and really see the point of Please, you know, when it's me delivering the request, since I'm more comfortable being polite.

But at least I can let go of it if someone else makes a request without a Please.

So this is progress.

therapydoc said...

Can't win for losing, but it's not a contest, right?

frumhouse said...

Thanks for this reminder about triggers. Yeah, parent triggers are big ones. Most of the time you don't even realize why a simple comment from an innocent bystander gets you so ticked off. I guess that why you are a good therapist! :)

therapydoc said...

FH, people are always talking about criticism in therapy, so I've been waiting for just the right time to introduce the subject. This was it. But boy, I'm not finished.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this story. Interesting how are emotional reflexes tend to stay with us. The good news is that you have established an awareness of this emotional reflex and are now doing something about it.

Enemy of the Republic said...

I have a friend who LOVES the phrase You're not the boss of me. I usually answer: never said I was. I guess those control issues never die.

frumhouse said...

therapydoc - keep these posts coming! I have been trying to research the "why I need everyone to like me syndrome." Why is it so crushing to many of us if someone disapproves of something we say, do, or just plain doesn't like us? Is it a symptom of low self-esteem to want people to like you and to see yourself through other's eyes? If they approve, you feel good about yourself. If they disapprove, you feel bad. Why can critisism hurt so much?

Ok....I will await your future posts for some answers!

therapydoc said...

Okay, okay. It's pretty interesting stuff, isn't it? And if there's one almost universal, it's that people do seem to need approval and they HATE criticism (most of us).

So this is why I'm forever saying, "Don't yell at me." (even when no one's yelling, you know?)

Patricia Singleton said...

What a great article. I can so relate to everything that you said. I had a dad who was a DICTATOR. I did the all capital letters to make a point. He ruled our house with a too firm hand and my mom allowed it. When I left home, I promised myself that no one would ever tell me what to do again. So what did I do, when I got married, I became the dictator for the first 10 years of our marriage. One day, I woke up and realized what I was doing and worked on stopping over the next few years. Today if I start to control, I catch myself and see what is making me so fearful. It has been a long process of beginning to feel safe. My husband is not as intense as I am. He is as stubborn just in a quieter way. He still gets what he wants when he wants it. We have been married for 35 years next week so we must be doing some things right.

therapydoc said...

Patricia, Sometimes a family needs a boss. Maybe you were a GOOD boss.

Patricia Singleton said...

Therapydoc, thanks for your words, but I don't think dictators ever make good bosses. Not in my experience anyway. I subscribed to your blog last night and am looking forward to reading more of your articles. We seem to be running in the same carnivals lately.

So, what IS in a heart? said...

"I think it was just before we married that my husband said "Don't tell me what to do."
My response was "Fine, and you don't tell me what to do.""

HEEE! I like that one. Best way to gauge a relationship too.

"Therapydoc, thanks for your words, but I don't think dictators ever make good bosses. Not in my experience anyway."

Nor in mine. In fact, not in most people's unless they're similar or exceptionally submissive or the constant approval seeker. Military would be an exception.

One of my biggest fears is ending up in a relationship with a "DICTATOR". I think it's a fate worse than death, but I'd never want to become what I hated because it only increases self-loathing no matter how much it's denied. The "DICTATOR" still has power over you, and he wins because you became him.

I don't like being told what to do either(I used to be VERY rebellious as a teen, and still can be), but it seems that most people resent being "told what to do", it's just a question of sensitivity or security of self levels. The more insecure you are, the more sensitive you are to it, it seems, and you end up getting upset over things that aren't such a big deal.

Anonymous said...


I have this issue now, but not stemming from childhood.
Here is my dysfuntion trail, as a child, neither of my parents bossed. They were divorced when I was 2.
My mom was 19 with no education and was beautiful (and wild, scarey combo) and my dad criticized her for everything.
I grew up without a lot of structure or acceptance.
So when I got married, I wanted it.
I needed to know someone cared about anything I did, so I let him be my dad.
Of course, that's unhealthy for both of us for countless reasons...
Last year, I found out he was having an affair...(shocker with such a stable wife, right?)
Terrible thing... but it forced me to crumble or stand...
I did both but
luckily standing was second...
Now, I don't allow him or anyone to "question" my methods in anything...
I went from needy and weak to defensive and independent.
I am working on a balance but honestly, it a daily walk and a lifetime journey!
But I am growing... just thought it was funny that I picked up later in life instead of as a child... guess my forming years were a little delayed.

Thanks for your insight!

therapydoc said...

TAMI, Delayed, regressed, doesn't matter. If you live long enough it all shakes out in the end. Thanks for reading and taking my nonsense seriously.

Anonymous said...

I think that the more education you have the harder it is for people to listen to what others have to say. I have to hold my breath at times when I am in crowds beause I know the answer, but feel it is not my place to say anything to people. As a fellow therapist, I have learned there is a time a place for all comments to people.

therapydoc said...

So true. Thanks Jennifer.

Wait. What? said...

Ya know you really have this way of making me feel like a part of the human race. I mean, the same and not so different or strange from anyone else...

Triggers. Ugh


therapydoc said...

The next post i write will probably be about losing the bpss. Thanks for the title, and it's always wonderful to hear from you.

What's Going to Be with Our Kids?