The Least Common Denominator
going to tell you a story and I promise you will not like it. You won’t like
one or more of the characters and you for sure won’t like what I have to say
about it. I guess I can’t be sure (funny sentence no matter how accurate) but I
thought you would want to be prepared. And, as always, I ask you to put on
your thinking, contemplating, and wait-before-reacting cap because using your
usual template for how you think about these kinds of situations will result in
your usual “solution” or reaction. I am interested in shifting the paradigm
here because I know there is a better way to do this problem.
I have had the privilege of treating one particular patient for over a decade. She is a marvel in progress and one of the kindest, purest souls you will ever meet. Her integrity and moral compass surpass those of any other person I have ever known. She is loyal like her dogs whom she loves with all of her heart and soul. If I needed a kidney, she would be first in line to see if she were a match. Actually, she would be first in line for anyone who needed something because it is woven into her DNA to care for others. Her blessing and curse, of course. All these years of working together allow for some latitude in our relationship—from both sides. This is a story about something happening in her family that has the potential to ruin lives. So, as you read, know that the facts are fourth generation by the time they get to you, and you know how the game telephone works. As hard as it is to believe that a simple sentence can’t make it around a dinner table intact, it can’t. “Derek asked Ashley to the prom” will end up “Ashley is having Derek’s brother’s baby” in ten short steps. With that in mind, let’s dive in.
The cast of characters: Let’s call my patient Lydia. She is in her mid-sixties, retired, married for over thirty years, and no children. Smart, educated, East Coast dweller, civic-minded, and a weekend warrior athlete all of her life because she was pre-Title IX. She has a sister who lives in the middle of the country, making visits periodic at best. Her sister has children and her children have children, making Lydia a great aunt—in every sense of the words. Being an aunt has been one of the greatest joys in her life and she loves her nieces and great nieces. Fiercely protective and loyal, Lydia would take a bullet for anyone in her family and would easily say she would fire one if necessary, although I have a hard time believing the latter. Her sister, let’s call her Susan, has also been married most of her life and her children and grandchildren all live in close proximity to each other but half way across the country from Lydia. Susan’s daughter has three daughters and is in the middle of a divorce. Let’s name that family Carol and Mike, with three daughters named Marsha (9), Jan (6), and Cindy (4).
The story: Lydia told me a while ago that Carol and Mike were getting a divorce. I don’t remember anything sticking out from the descriptions other than regret and sadness, you know, normal reactions to divorce. Marriage is a tough gig these days, or has it always been? Either way, it barely raises an eyebrow or ruffles a feather to hear that a couple is splitting up. The routine is clear and the new roles easily defined: Dad moves out and gets the kids on weekends and maybe a few days during the week at times. Kids get shuffled about, expenses double, pain magnifies, and stress presses down on them all, sometimes relentlessly. This is a story of stress, like most stories of divorce, however, there might just be another way to look at it.
At some point during our session, Lydia began to talk about Carol and Mike and the energy and volume in her voice escalated. The upset was palpable and caught me off guard a bit as she had been rather even-keeled for the entire first half of our session. The details are not great so as you read, just watch as your brain will try to fill in the gaps and add your own “telephone” version to the story. You will feel a need to compare something from your past experience or experience of someone you know to this situation. You will feel a strong need to punish someone and to align with one side here, enforcing and reinforcing how right everyone is on this one side of the story…and how wrong the others are.
The details: It sounds like it started with Cindy wetting the bed and not acting “right” since the split. Makes sense, a four-year-old little girl having a negative reaction to her parents’ divorce and the complete disruption of her life and schedule. But then Jan started to complain about daddy after her mom innocently picked her up and Jan belted out, “Don’t choke me!” Marsha confirmed that daddy has been not acting the same and put Jan’s crying face in a pillow to get her to be quiet. Pulse check: Just watch where your mind has gone and how quickly. Be a witness to your reaction. How many gaps have you filled and with what? Are you angry? Incensed? Or sad? Take note, for self-awareness is the key to all things emotional. Lydia was understandably irate. She described a conversation with her sister where she said she wanted to do all kinds of violent physical punishments to Mike. They both jumped in and the conversation ended in tears and clenched fists when her sister had originally called for some support. A normal reaction on Lydia’s part, for sure. How could she NOT get upset and want to maim a man that might be hurting her great nieces? They called him “sick” and abusive and a bastard. But is that support?
My first response was to mention that sometimes the accounting of a young mind is not that reliable. Agreed, said Lydia, however, Mike admits to the things the daughters describe. He says he is having a hard time, as a matter of fact, he has been saying that for a while. He could afford only a studio apartment in addition to the house, so the girls all sleep in his bed/room and he sleeps on the couch. He has historically been a guy that was clear of his absolute need for eight hours of sleep and has been complaining excessively about not getting enough sleep and not being able to do this on his own. Therapists are engaged for all three children and the shared custody has been altered but not stopped. Again, some of the details are fuzzy so watch how much “story” and commentary you have added unwillingly. People need to have a full picture of things and so we reach into the easily accessible vault of history, cinema, or life to paint this one how we want. Sounds evil but it is a bit of human design, both physically and psychologically to fill in the gaps. Some of you instantly wondered or worried about sexual abuse of these kids even though there was no indication or intimation of such. Perhaps there is some history or experience in your mind sending you there. No shame in that, again, the important part is having the awareness of where your mind went. See, this is a story and I made it clear from the outset it is a story. It happens to be true, but it doesn’t matter if it is or isn’t. What matters is you watching, witnessing, and pausing as your mind does its thing and adds what it wants and subtracts what it doesn’t. Without looking back, how many of you remember the mention that Mike said he had been struggling for a while? If you didn’t, it is a natural edit but still an emotional edit. Are you already on Team Carol? That might have preempted your natural edit of anything giving Mike some humanity or explanation for his behavior.
One of the things that stuck out very strongly for me was the way Lydia was describing her new feelings and attitudes towards Mike. A part of her family for over a decade, she had always been accepting and loving towards her niece’s husband, even though he wasn’t perfect. Now, however, he was the devil and she was pissed. Because it is hard to find her so unloving, I listened closely and was taken by the strength of her condemnation. Completely justified in her anger, for some reason it bothered me and so I listened to that. Words are power and have their own energy, but you have to listen closely to feel that (I know, mixed metaphor but intentionally so). I pointed out that calling him “sick” was labeling him and making him wrong. She argued. He was wrong. She argued hard, expectedly, and said he needs help and she was just trying to point that out. But she wasn’t just pointing out the obvious fact that he needs help from the standpoint of her commitment to his mental health…she was using this term to express her frustration and anger, lash out at him, and masking it in a term that could be used for good or bad. Every single one of us has done this, so just deal with it that you have, too. Anger causes us to do and say unkind things (remember this point later). I asked her how she felt about people who are called “sick”? Unable to create distance from it yet, she said they need help. No. Calling someone “sick” is a negative label and a derogatory, inflammatory comment, especially when directed at mental health. We call Ted Bundy and Charles Manson “sick” so using that on a family member leaves little future with them. Gently, I pointed her back to one of her less-than-strong moments in her own mental health history and asked if she would have embraced being called “sick” in that moment when she needed some help? A long pause, an audibly deep breath, and a concession, “No, I wouldn’t have.”
“Who do you think needs the most help in this situation?” I asked. Uncertain, she guessed Cindy. She needs help, yes, but Mike needs the most help. Pulse check: WHAT? How could you say that? You just lost me, Jenny! He is the perpetrator!!! He needs to be punished! What he did, how he behaved, how he is managing himself and his care of his children is terrible and must be corrected, but he needs help to do any of those things. What if anytime we saw someone struggling, we looked for how to help them be better instead of condemning them to be bad? He is going to be a part of this family until the day he dies (and even after that) so why wouldn’t helping him be the first thought? His daughters are going to love him always, no matter what. They may lose respect or communication or relationship with him, but under all of that, they will still love him, so losing relationship with him only creates internal conflict. As young children, they have a tremendous capacity to heal and recover from this. And so does he. What if, instead of vilifying him, the family rallied around him and helped him out? If he needs help in order to be better and is even saying he needs help, why aren’t we helping him? Why have we decided it is easier to make him a monster, vote him off the island, label and tarnish him for life, and give him no option for who he can be ever again? How do you think he feels about how he is behaving and what he has done? No one feels good about hurting their child, ever, no matter how “sick” they might be. And most likely, he is not sick. He is over-stressed and under-resourced and failed to (1) communicate about that (probably because he had zero awareness of it), (2) be honest about his capacity to care for three young girls at once, and (3) had no access to new resources or skills to help him manage this new level of stress. When a human being is over stressed, overwhelmed, over-tired, and under resourced, our bodies kick into a survival kind of mode and because the energetic resources are directed towards surviving, behavior modification is limited. If you have ever acted irrationally (no, not me), think back to what kind of mental, emotional, and especially physical state you were in at that time. You were most likely physically tired or even exhausted. You were spent, past the point, hands up in the air because you gave up, and then, when you were at your lowest, bam, something inciting happened. What did you do? Most likely, it was something you are not proud of. But does that make you a bad person? Dan Ariely is an expert on deception and lying and says that people judge others by their behavior and judge themselves by their intention. So, “I didn’t mean to” works when you say it to yourself but not so much when your over-faced, spun-out, desperate nephew says it.
None of this is a justification or acceptance of bad behavior, just an explanation in an attempt to increase understanding and move toward healing. Mike did not have a history of hurting his children, so this was not his go-to and surfaced from the stress he was incapable of managing. We are so damn quick to blame, condemn, vilify, and hate, that we are missing countless opportunities for healing and growth. Mike needs help and the best part is, he wants it. If he did NOT want help and insisted he was fine and could parent however he saw fit, then that is a different story with a different decision tree. But he wants help and could completely turn this thing around with the right support. Imagine the family several months from now, after Mike has been getting support and help. Carol has the ability to trust Mike with their daughters and communication has improved beyond where it was when they were married. Three young children were exposed to unfortunate stress and fear, AS WELL AS a way to healing. They saw the power of their communications and learned it is safe to speak out. They saw how hard everyone was willing to work to make everyone better as a unit, a family. They saw their struggling father be willing to admit he needed help and get it. And they saw the powerful support their mother gave everyone, as well as received in her own therapy. This may sound campy and even like a public service message for psychotherapy, but it is not. Help comes in many forms, with therapy being one this family feels comfortable with and empowered by.
Mike’s behavior was not an isolated incident and did not happen “all at once.” It was a slow burn, over a long period of time, and because of the time it took for him to unravel, no one (including himself) noticed it was happening. There are several important takeaways from this story:
- We all have a tipping point or point where demand exceeds capacity, causing us to do and say things we might not do or say if we were full of resources and ability. The solution here is to monitor demands such that you are matching increasing capacity, skill, and ability to meet the demands you take on. This takes self-awareness and support from others.
- We must temper our emotional reactions to other’s behaviors so that we can see clearly enough to look for what might be sourcing them. Very few people are simply bad people. Most people react badly because of something going on that we cannot see and when we look deeper, compassion and solutions become possible. This takes self-awareness and support from others.
- The timelines on both sides of an “inciting incident” are long. Mike admits to always struggling with having enough energy (his need for sleep). In addition, he continuously “complained” about not being able to take care of all three girls alone, for months actually. Unfortunately, this complaint was seen as weakness that he should not have had and so was ignored and left unsupported. With help and support, Mike can develop capacity and learn new skills—including the ability to communicate his struggles more successfully. But this will also take time and so that has to be woven into the future, making the timeline of healing long and creating a need to hang in there. As you might imagine, this takes self-awareness and support from others.
- A common purpose is a powerful element that has great power to keep people connected. Carol and Mike can use their commitment to their children to rally together to survive this and become better people and parents. If that became more important than who was right and who was wrong, helping Mike in this situation becomes a no-brainer.
So, did you not like it? Were you able to put on your thinking cap and see a challenging and emotional situation in a new way? Or, did it just piss you off and now you are done with me? If so, there are two things: one, you read this far so you are working out something, and two, when we react strongly, there is always something of value underneath. Keep looking and working on opening up to this. Changing a thought paradigm takes time…and self-awareness and support. And lastly and most importantly, do you have this kind of situation in your life and maybe, just maybe, have a different way to think and act about it? I applied this support-oriented thinking to a personal situation this week and the result was amazing. Honestly, it was not easier, it still took a ton of work and effort, but the result was different from every other time this issue has come up. There was still discourse and discomfort, but it was as we all worked together to get somewhere new, instead of working against each other to be right and make someone else wrong. Overcoming our human nature is tough work but the very best kind. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.