Friday, August 26, 2011

Ve Have Vays of Making You Talk, Part IV: Fatalism

In Part I of this post, I discussed why family members hate to discuss their chronic repetitive ongoing interpersonal difficulties with each other (metacommunication), and the problems that usually ensue whenever they try.
I discussed the most common avoidance strategy - merely changing the subject (#1) - and suggested effective countermoves to keep a constructive conversation on track. In Part II, I discussed strategies #2 and #3, nitpicking and accusations of overgeneralizing respectively. In Part III, I discussed strategy #4, blame shifting.  Now I move on to strategy #5.

To review once again, the goal of metacommunication is effective and empathic problem solving. In this post, I will discuss an avoidance strategy called fatalism, and describe appropriate counter-strategies to get past it.

As with all counter-strategies, maintaining empathy for the Other and persistence are key.

Strategy #5: Fatalism

Fatalism is a doctrine that advances the idea that almost all events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them. It is commonly used to refer to an attitude of helplessness and resignation in the face of some ongoing events which are thought to be unalterable, or in the face of some future event or events which are thought to be inevitable.

In metacommunication, fatalism is most commonly invoked in order to resist and discourage further attempts at solving family problems whenever somebody tries. When one family member wants to bring up a highly emotionally salient past event that has led to unresolved feelings, for example, a second family member protests, "Why are you bringing this up again? You cannot change the past."

Well of course you cannot change the past.  At least not as far as we know, anyway.  The past seems to be rather fixed, does it not? No one denies that. Perhaps there is an alternate universe out there somewhere, but if so, we have no access to it. 

The fallacy here, however, is the implication that the past is no longer having any effect on the present, nor will it have any continuing effect on the future. It implies that people are not affected by memories in the here and now, and that they do not use past events in order to predict future ones.   It almost seems to be arguing that every moment in the present is entirely independent and disconnected from every previous moment.

Fatalism is unfortunately a significant component of the be­lief systems of many cultural groups that have emigrated to the United States. Many times, patients who attempt to metacommunicate about family problems so that they can be solved are accused of being troublemakers.

Another accusation based on a belief in fatalism is the charge that patients who are known to be in therapy are inappropriately trying to be psychiatrists themselves. "Quit trying to analyze everything!" is a frequent family rallying cry.

Fatalism-implying accusations can, however, be used to pave the way for individual family members to question, rather than perpetuate, established fatalistic family belief sys­tems. Individuals can empathize with fatalistic family members by admitting that they themselves used to think just as the family does.  However, they then go on to add that they now have developed real doubts about those ideas.

Why shouldn't they try to analyze a situation? Understanding a problem is benefi­cial for figuring out a way to solve it.  People in the family may disagree, but only because they feel helpless about changing their future. These feelings of helplessness often stem from past experiences or catastrophes that befell their forefathers.  That anxiety has been passed down from one generation to the next, often with the source of the original anxiety becoming lost. Times have changed for the better, but the family continues to act as if these somewhat ancient horrors are still in operation.

In response to the accusation that they are dwelling on the past, individuals can point out how those past situations are continuing to affect the family's present situation. They can say that they are bringing them up because they want to have better relationships with the family. The old problems are creating distance, and they want to be closer.

In response to the charge that they are being troublemakers and creating dissonance in the family, individuals can reply that the dissonance already exists, and they are trying to reduce it by discussing its causes. They can add that if the bad feelings can be reduced, then the whole family will wind up feeling happier and warmer with one another.

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