So back to work. Do I have to remind you that I make up people? The patient below doesn't exist, so if you think it's you, it's not.
A woman who has been passive all her life determines to make a change. No more Mrs. Nice Guy. She wants to level the playing field when her husband's family criticizes her. She wants to err on the side of aggression, and wants me to teach her how to criticize, to insult back.
I'm thinking: No. Let's not. It would work, would make her one of them. But it's not who she is; she's better than that. Why regress?
The joke is that her spouse has married her because she is really, really nice. She never hurts anyone's feelings. Before she opens her mouth she thinks, "Is this going to hurt someone's feelings? Am I going to be disrespecting this person?"
I know, unbelievable. But there really people like this. If you find some of these, don't let them go. Hang on for dear life.
Anyway, he marries her because she's so nice, and he's very happy. But she discovers that his family is very difficult, very different from hers, very quick to criticize. She has married the white sheep, a nonjudgmental, easy-going person, but they judge people, especially her and how she looks, expect her to be perfect, at least to look perfect, to be like them. And they carp on her when she's not.
Perfect, in this family, means every hair in place, dressed to the nines, make-up. Some people dress up to go to the grocery store, others wear sweats. Our friend falls somewhere in the middle. She asks me,
Should I have to put on heels to visit a sister-in-law in the middle of the day? Is this normal?I'm thinking: No.
But maybe, yes. Maybe she should. Maybe if she does this, dresses up like them, looks like they want her to look, they'll feel more of a connection to her. The subtext, the unconscious text, is that when we conform, when we follow the herd, the other sheep assume we admire them, that we're not judging them, irony of ironies, so their unconscious anxiety is mollified. That's why like attracts like. So fake it 'til you make it, baby. Join the club.
Those of you with self-esteem are thinking: No. Let's not and say we did. (This is a sarcastic remark, passed down to me by my older brother, very useful, although in general I frown when it comes to sarcasm).
And you are correct. No matter how hard we try, we'll come up short with a person who wants us to come up short. Sometimes I think the world is binary. There are only two kinds of people* -- those who communicate in a sensitive fashion, and those who don't.
Many would say we learn more from those who are not esteeming, who are insensitive. We hear a negative message and think, "Wow, I really am a zjihlub! (Yiddish, two syllables, je, as in the French je, and lub, rhymes with tub Means slob). I should change!"
Except most of us are just hurt when someone insults us, so we don't change. We get angry and resistant and depressed, immature. We're regressed when it comes to criticism. We feel like we did when we were little and our parents shamed us for things like playing with our food. It is an art delivering a message that fosters emotional growth, personality change, and still doesn't hurt feelings in the process. It is why parenting is so hard.
But back to our story; better would be to assert: When the sister-in-law frowns, turn on the baffle, that confused look. Act as if you seriously don't get it but want to understand. If you use the following script, first emphasize that you don't want to be interrupted.
The long version, for the short, skip the first paragraph:
I notice you always make a point of making nasty remarks when I'm not wearing nice clothes. In your family, seems to me, people can take it, the nasty remarks, it just bounces off of you, and you seem to enjoy jumping on one another, or on anyone who isn't dressed up. You'll even laugh about total strangers if they don't meet your approval.This should stimulate dialogue that you can steer to the topic of criticism in the family. It can be a really decent, intimate dialogue. Often about child abuse. Don't back down if they shrug and say, "Don't know." Someone knows. Someone's got some psychological saichel. (Rhymes with Rachel, but a soft-gutteral ch, means smarts). After the dialogue you predict the future.
But you need to know that when you say something negative about how I look, it hurts my feelings. I wasn't raised to be judgmental. So I take it as this huge put-down, a comment about how I look. Could you try not to do this? Just don't comment about how I look and I won't go home feeling badly.
And why do you do it, anyway? Why is it so important for everyone in this family to have to look fabulous all the time? I don't know how you all pull it off, always gorgeous. I don't understand why it's so important. Seriously, what's the deal? Where's this come from? How do I get to be like you? How did you all get so fashion conscious?
"Okay, so when I come over here in pajamas, you are not going to say anything, right? But I'll try not to come over in pajamas if it's a disrespect to you. I'll wear sweats."Then you label the process. When it happens again, the criticism, you say,
"See? You're doing it again. I thought the new deal we have it that it's okay that I be the zjilub, and you be the gorgeous one.Works every time.
*Binary thinking is shallow, black-white thinking, and virtually nothing is black and white. That's what the bell curve is all about, normality, the normal curve. To be exceptional, extraordinary, abnormal, one's score on a certain trait must be in the tails, must be rare. But you can be anywhere, totally normal, and still not know what's flying when it comes to relationships.