Universal Rules: One thing at a time
Let's get straight to the point – hyperactivity, like inactivity, is designed for one purpose – to avoid change. While I could make this case in every area from house cleaning to rocket science, in relationships, I often hear, "There are so many things wrong that I don't know where to start."
One client presented the following list:
his wife was angry all the time
his wife fought with their 21-year-old daughter
his wife fought with friends and neighbours
his wife tried to control his thoughts and actions
he has serious physical complaints of the g/i variety
they live on a disability pension
I think there were a few more re. the client's relationship with the daughter – curfew, cleanliness, etc.
The client concluded, "See why I'm sick all the time? How can I possibly deal with all of that?"
Now, believe it or not, it's not unusual for clients to come to therapy expecting the therapist to agree with their self-diagnosis of helplessness. Usually it's a fleeting thing. Occasionally it's all the client wants. In these cases, the client has been whining to friends for years, and hearing endless varieties of "You poor thing! What a mess! I've never known anyone with problems like yours!" After a while, the "odd praise" isn't enough and the client wants to hear it from a professional.
I, however, am not very good at telling people they are hard-done-by. Surprised?
But back to the client with the list. I made a Bodywork observation – "gastrointestinal problems are often the result of holding on to your problems, as opposed to dealing with them." (I actually used the word sh** for problems, as that's what a lot of g/i problems are about. Oh. If you are wondering why I don't spell out "swear words," some of you at home and most of you at work have your e-mail sent through spam filters. Last week, a spam filter bounced Into the Centre for se**al content --because of my illustration about the woman's libido.)
The client looked confused. Confusion is another good tool to stay stuck. I said, "On the surface it looks like the majority of your problems are caused by your wife, right?" He agreed.
Me: "I'll bet you've spent years trying to get her to change each and every specific behaviour you upset yourself over."
Him: "Yes! Years! And she refuses to change. Wait a minute! Behaviours I upset myself over???"
Me: "Well, who did you think was upsetting you? How come you think it's your job to sort out your wife?"
Him: "Well, someone has to do it. I mean, she yells at the neighbours and fights with our daughter!"
Me: "What does your daughter do?"
Him: "She laughs and walks away, or she fights back and walks away. But surely my wife must be damaging her."
Me: "Does your daughter appear damaged? Are your neighbours damaged?"
Him: "No, they just don't have much to do with her."
Me: On the other hand, you seem to be damaging yourself over his behaviour, and doing a good job of it."
I think you get the point. While I'm sure some of you will think I'm being unnecessarily harsh toward my client and somehow letting the wife off the hook, I'd say:
the wife isn't in counselling, so it's pretty hard to "fix" her (and, of course, only she can fix herself. If she is stubbornly into blaming everyone else for her misery, she will stay stuck.)
you can't ever fix another person
my client needs to understand that he doesn't have a ton of problems, but rather has one. He lacks self-responsibility.
The neat thing about this story is that the client "got it" in one session. We've just had our fifth session over 10 weeks. He is still dealing with his relationship in a new way. When his wife gets angry, he walks away, saying, "When you calm down, if you want to talk about it, I'll listen." When she says, "Why did your daughter stay out all night?" my client says, "I haven't a clue. All I could give you is my opinion. If you're curious, go ask her." In short, my client has realized one important thing: all he ever can be responsible for is his own behaviour. So, he's dealing directly with his own emotions and is refusing to get caught in the drama of others.
As an aside, last week he walked away from a mother / daughter verbal battle. He wondered if I was off the mark in my suggestion that he walk away, as they were yelling so loudly and rudely at each other. Surely he should have gotten into it too. 45 minutes later he walked into the den. Mother and daughter were curled up on the couch together, watching TV.
Long illustration, short wrap up. Take a look at how you "complex-ify" your life. Notice how easy it is to create a long list of complaints about a situation. Notice the difference between, "My partner and I don't seem to communicate well," and a long list of seemingly unrelated irritants. Look to simplify your list by finding the common themes.
If there are still several things on your list, put them in order of seriousness or priority and deal with #1, and only #1. Recognize that we cannot deal with several, a few or even two issues at the same time. Drop your habit of fighting by dragging in "the list" of past sins. Stick to one thing, and take it to a logical stopping point before picking up the next thing.
You now know how to actually accomplish something.