The Power of Confusion

Patient complains that I'm not educating anymore, that all the good stuff is in the archives, 2006. He doesn't say it in a critical way, he says it in a just saying way. He says it so nice, I hear it..

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.

The Story:

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: NoLet'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.

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?
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.
"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.


tuesday@11 said…
Good stuff. Please thank your patient,real or not, who complained nicely.
Anonymous said…
I really like this post, too, for a variety of reasons. Very helpful. You touched on something I've wondered about. It seems as if people tend to say that they learn so much more about themselves, about life, from negative experiences. And to be sure, negative experiences can provide opportunities for learning, if one can be open to that potential. But I've wondered for a long time why it is that people seem to dismiss the value of learning things through positive experiences. It's almost as if there is a blindness to the things we learn through positive experiences, like they don't really count, if something was learned, but didn't hurt in the process.
jss said…
Two things:
1) Do I have to be educated every waking moment of my life?
2) Perhaps we need to expand our definition of 'education'.

I for one think your readership has been educated quite nicely about the author of this blog in recent months and I have enjoyed all of your posts. Even the un-educated ones.
porcini66 said…
I look at education in a couple of different ways. One is direct - like your post today. It's clear, there's a problem, a discussion and a potential solution thrown in for good measure (which I will incorporate into my own lexicon, tyvm...). On the other side, though, is the INDIRECT education that you share every time you post. That, to me, is so much more important!

I don't think that I've ever read a post from you that I haven't picked up some tidbit, some "a-ha" moment, some way of now being able to explain how I feel, think, act, etc as a result of your offering clarity. Not to say that I am just stealing your thoughts. No! Just that when you share, it gives me some perspective to compare to, or perhaps a new paradigm from which to observe.

Upshot? Keep doing what YOU want to do with this blog. It's up to us as readers to learn, not learn, absorb, empathize, share, feel, understand, etc. We share in the responsibility for our reactions/responses, in my opinion. :)

As always, thanks for writing.
Margo said…
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.

Yikes. This hit home. Can the art be taught? Maybe a whole post on the topic?
Jacqueline said…
I echo what Porcini said... I have yet to read a post of yours and come away without a) learning something new b) reflecting on something about my life, and c) enjoy the dialogue you presented. Yes you have many readers who enjoy and follow your blog, but this is also for you. Write what you feel is important and what you feel is worthy of posting about. Whether or not "formal" education has been discussed is irrelevant. At the end of the day, people will keep coming back and following you because they're interested in what your discussing, and the way in which you deliver the topic at hand.

Just keep on keeping on ;)
moviedoc said…
Yes, Margo, it can be taught!
Reminds me of a film I saw long ago: Husband says something hurtful to wife. Wife replies, in a tone that suggests she feels badly for him that he has had to resort to that, "Don't be cruel."

If you hurt, say ouch. It may mean you agree with the criticism. Don't.
therapydoc said…
Thanks all, I'll carry on. After all, you're going to want to hear the story about forgetting to mail the letter, The one that had to be post-marked on the 21st. Lot's of potential critical communication right there!
onelongjourney said…
Nice post -

Opening your mouth to begin the communication is the hardest part. I'll have to go back through the post and figure this one out. :)

Ella said…
Because this is VERY hard to do in real life, I practice this type of thing in therapy.
I can do the long version with the therapist. But, in real life, it's a big step to just tell the other person "Wow, that really hurt my feelings, so maybe you did not mean it that way?"
Setting the boundaries, so you keep the words from hurting you, it's a big change.

Also, from your blog I am learning how to spell various Yiddish words I've been saying since elementary school (ex: I thought it was schlub).
Lily said…
Confrontation is the hardest thing for me. I'd rather people think I was a horrible person than talk to them about their misgivings.

Your ability to take fiction and make it seem so plausible and USABLE is wonderful. It's why I love reading this blog. Thank you!
tuesday@11 said…
Wow! Just put this blog to work with someone in my life and it worked beautifully!I had a choice, continue to be resentful towards this person or find a positive way to address the issue. It feels good not to be filled with resentment! Thanks TD!
Annie said…
Therapydoc-been away from blogging for a while but glad to come back to such an interesting post. I am glad it was not confusing. 30 years of being a therapist to now be on disability with bipolar leaves me missing the clients but welcoming the peace of mind. I can be that therapist again while I read your posts. Thanks. Annie
Dr. Deb said…
Enactments are the stuff great therapy is made of. The downside is how it scrapes and bruises us.
Anonymous said…
Hi, TherapyDoc -

I love how you take something so serious, so heavy, and put the perfect amount of humor in it so that it becomes palatable.

Well done!

- Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)
Anonymous said…
Excellent post. Psychology has always fascinated me. Glad I found my way over here!
abroadermark said…
Therapydoc, if I have a question that has nothing to do with this post (but does have to do with therapy) could I ask it here? And would you consider answering it? You never know - it might end up providing you with a topic for your next post. ;)
therapydoc said…
Ask away. I'm too not depressed to write another post (for now).
abroadermark said…
Okay, let's talk about the ethical considerations involved in the case of a therapist becoming friends with a former client. Then let's talk about what should happen if a therapist and his/her existing client (who is just about ready to leave therapy) have a relationship that seems to be moving beyond a professional/therapeutic one (or has the potential to, anyway) to one of friendship. Would it be okay (ethically speaking) for a therapist to have that sort of relationship? If not, please explain to me why.

And then let's talk about the "Rules" that govern such things as therapist/previous client friendship. Are they really so cut and dried, so black and white, as to not take into consideration the particulars of the individual situation?

So, Therapydoc, those are (some of) the things I want to know about. Will you write me my very own post in reply? :D
tuesday@11 said…
Hi TD, remember your post "Walking on Sunshine"? Hope you are listening to happy songs. Take care.
Mark said…
This is an interesting dialogue and I could see how it could work and possibly build bridges in the relationship. I also see how it could serve to simply suppress what the insulting person is thinking and not change their thought process. The other alternative would be for the "nice" lady to learn to understand that when people say hurtful things it is usually about them and not about her. I think it is important to understand and appreciate where other people are in their journey and to understand that the hurtful things they may say are on them and not on her. Send love and be who you desire to be would be the way that I would choose to go. If the dialogue does not work there is not much of an option.
tuesday@11 said…
Remember your 'Walking on Sunshine" post? Hope you are listening to happy songs.Take care.
Great post. If I wasn't hungry from the fast, I'd say something more intelligent than, "I love how you spelled zhilub."
therapydoc said…
Okay, I’ll try to summarize what I learned from what everyone’s said.

a) Learning from negative experiences isn’t nearly as fun as learning from positive experiences . But whatchagonnado?

b) The best learning is probably not by personal experience, if it’s a negative experience. Better to learn from listening to other people’s stories. Probably why we have mouths that make words.

c) For sure, I try to teach stuff in each post.

d) Not criticizing is a heckofa lot harder than it should be.

e) But for some of us, opening our mouths to assert feels virtually impossible, so any squeak will do, in my opinion, even if it’s a little negative. At some point, who cares?

f) Yiddish is good. All of us should speak this. We could express a lot more anger and nobody would know.

g) In short, therapists shouldn’t have personal relationships with clients/patients until the professional relationship has ended for a full two years. There are a couple of posts on the blog already,

like this



h) And basically, the song Walking on Sunshine does just make me happy. Thanks all.

i) and I'm not depressed :)
abroadermark said…
Thank you, Therapydoc.
blogbehave said…
I bet a lot of people can relate to the critical in-law scenerio. And yes, assertive wins over aggressive, or at least it's the safer bet. If you start out aggressive it's hard to back up from that.
you are welcome- love your blog... and one of those really nice people you are talking about!! ha ha interesting post!
Anonymous said…
"I-messages" are far less useful when dealing with abusive personalities, unfortunately.

With an abusive person - alone or in throngs - what you get when you provide an I-message is, predictably, more abuse.

Giving a nondefensive, nonaggressive I-message and receiving an abusive, defensive, or otherwise invalidating response is disappointing, but it can be very helpful information.

My own experience has taught me that most adults, if decent, tend to behave decently most of the time, without the need for reminders or major interventions.

Adults who consistently behave in hurtful ways, on the other hand... and aren't suffering from TBI, undiagnosed/untreated major illness, massive unsupported life stress, or serious cognitive/processing deficits...

These people are telling you something important about themselves; the most productive (silent) response to them may be Shakespeare's, in As You Like It:

"I do desire we may be better strangers."

Some people just are not very nice. What is nice, though, is that it's not our job to fix them.
what an excellent post! you really wove nicely between modeling language, vocabulary *and* pronunciation lessons, and got to the heart of up-keeping being a solid person as well as the relationship.

i really took to heart the connection you made between how we react to criticism as adults and the way we felt when shamed as children. as a mom of 3 little ones, this was an excellent, albeit gentle, reminder.

found you through haveil havelim-- so glad that i did! :)
There are also people who come to therapy facing unusual or extraordinary life events. These people enter therapy to get help dealing with problems that can be overwhelming or even devastating. Depending on their goals and the issues they are facing, therapy can last for a long period of time.
Erin Merryn said…
You could write a good book about your experience as a therapist...ever thought about that?
therapydoc said…
Thanks Erin, maybe I will.
Syd said…
And trying the I statements with an alcoholic may often result in the "hot potato" of blame being tossed into my lap. I do say things like "I felt hurt by what was said" and will sometime get tossed back at me, "well, your actions provoked me" or "feelings aren't facts", etc. Alcoholics are far harder to deal with than "normal" folks. Much more dodgy and like the disease: cunning, baffling, and powerful.
Texan99 said…
I have zero tolerance for someone complaining about how I look, even if they manage to say it tactfully. It's all I can do to muster the effort to look presentable when I feel it's a duty I owe to the social situation. The whole thing makes me tired. I'm much more comfortable with people who just look the way they look and don't worry about it.

On the other hand, it's entertaining to see people in movies decked out to the nines, like Grace Kelly, impossibly elegant and beautiful.
Sarah G said…
Last paragraph would = sarcastic in my family and would spur a free-for-all... even if we were wearing Versace instead of our sweatpants and bright red shorts with lime-colored tops.