Sunday, June 20, 2010

If You Comply When Everyone Around You Wants You to Be Oppositional, Which Have You Done?

In my post of April 17, 2010, The Language of Love, I discussed the idea from my book, Deciphering Motivation in Psychotherapy, that there are hidden aspects of language created by its inherent ambiguity. Any sentence in any language can have at least two different meanings.

Linguists refer to the way language is used to affect the behavior of other people as the pragmatics of language. In today's post I will give three examples of how language also reflects a basic split in human nature between what is called the persona or false self and what really transpires in the human mind.

We all keep many of our thoughts to ourselves in various contexts, because we must always negotiate the social order of which we are a part. In each situation, we must all decide: Do we say and do things because we really want to say and do those things? Or do we say and do what the groups to which we belong want, need, and/or expect us to do or say?

The false self is that image we project to the people around us, which may or may not be an honest reflection of what we really feel and believe. For example, we may be furious with someone yet act with nothing but sweetness and light around them - because we fear how they may react if we expressed our anger.

In no other situation is this phenomenon more pronounced that in our relationships with our families of origin. We are all biological inclined, although not predestined, to act out roles or scripts which help our families to function. However, sometimes, for reasons I will not elaborate on here, the family becomes confused or ambivalent about what they expect from us, putting us in a bit of a bind.

A simple yet deadly example of this occurred in the case of a woman of East Indian descent who was born and grew up in the US shortly after her parents emigrated here. As she got older, because of her English language skills and familiarity with American culture, her parents expected her to be the front person whenever they had to deal with the larger culture. She became quite Americanized, but in reality had one foot in each culture. She made the mistake of falling in love with an Anglo American. Her parents expected her to marry the man that they had, by their tradition of arranged marriages, picked out for her. She ended up committing suicide because she saw no way out of this dilemma.

If indeed we are willing to sacrifice our own personal inclinations in order to play our part in our family’s functioning, how do we explain all of the people who seem to be acting in direct opposition to what the family says they want? Could it be that people are oppositional only because that’s what they think their family needs them to be?
I say yes. With many patients who complain about other family members’ behavior, I find that there are some heavy duty mixed signals going on. They may, for example, leave money around knowing that their children will steal it.

Some parents make demands of their children over and over but never stop their children from disobeying. In fact, they may smile as they tell stories about how their children (and by children I also mean adult offspring) are so terrible. They may seem to have a compulsive need to keep repeating the same demands of them over and over, as if their children did not hear them the first 500 times they made the demands.

That brings us to the first common example of ambiguous language: the oppositional teenager who yells back, “Why do I have to listen to this?!?” when repeatedly lectured about what to do. Since kids like this rarely obey the instructions, a seemingly more appropriate response would be, “I heard you the first time, and I’m not going to do that.” After all, most people would reason, the kid does not have to listen to the lectures – all he or she would have to do to stop the demands would be to do what he or she was told to do!

Well, maybe and maybe not. Teens who go ahead and finally do what they are told are often then told that they are not doing whatever they were told correctly. They feel that no matter what they do, they will never be able to please their parents. I believe the correct translation of “Why do I have to listen to this?” in such a situation is actually, “Why do you have this compulsive need to keep telling me over and over again what to do? I will be oppositional so you can continue to indulge yourself!”

A somewhat similar statement came from a rather sexually promiscuous woman who told me, in the context of describing this behavior, “I am always afraid of disappointing my father.” The average person who heard this might come to the conclusion that this woman was deluding herself. Surely the father must be disappointed in her behavior, so how can she say that she is afraid of disappointing him?

Well, once again, maybe not. If it is true that the woman is not deluding herself, then the correct understanding of her statement in context would have to be, “My father would be disappointed if I were not promiscuous." Maybe the father was secretly angry at women who withheld sex, while usually pretending to adhere to his family’s belief that sexually open women are all sluts.

My third and last example came from a mother who screamed at her adult daughter with a disapproving look and tone of voice, “I just can’t believe you talk to your boss that way!” I believed that the look and tone of voice actually reflected the mother’s false self, not her real feelings. In fact, I saw evidence that her mother actually admired the daughter’s assertiveness! If we look at just her words apart from tone and body language, we can see that her statement actually contains no value judgment at all. It merely expresses surprise about the daughter’s behavior.

The tone and body language accompanying a statement are often reflective of a false self, while the words themselves can reveal clues to a person’s true feelings.

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